15 January 2019

Liberia: The UL Administration Must Rethink Its Ban On Student Politics

The UL Administration's suspension of student political activity on campuses of the University of Liberia for whatever reasons is, according to observers, more likely than not to engender popular resistance from the student body which could result in a standoff between UL authorities, the Government of Liberia and students of the University of Liberia. This newspaper warns against pursuit of such a policy replete with conflict-inducing potential and must, therefore, be brought to a halt.

The action taken by the UL administration to clamp a lid on student politics at that state-run institution is not anything new in the annals of student politics at the University of Liberia. Several governments in the past have tried it but only with ephemeral success.

This goes back to the reign of Liberia's longest serving President, William V.S. Tubman. This newspaper recalls that during the late sixties the University of Liberia had become a hotbed of political discussions on the future of the country. This newspaper recalls the experience of young Calvin Cole, then newly elected President of the student body.

Cole's remarks critical of Government policies under Tubman during a program at the University of Liberia sparked Tubman's ire and he responded sharply with the expulsion of student Cole from the UL and the banning of political activities on the campus of the University.

Tensions were further heightened by the 1968 treason trial of Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh which was attended daily by students of the UL, some of who, on occasions during the trial, would cheer lawyers defending Fahnbulleh. Government secret agents flooded and swarmed the institution's campus in search of incriminating evidence of foreign indoctrination. Even doors of the institution were taken down and transported to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Security Service(NISS) for physical examination of graffiti with political under or overtones.

In the seventies, then UL President Advertus Hoff placed a ban on students holding hands on campus. This sparked protest demonstrations, which eventually resulted in the quashing of the ban. By the latter part of the same decade, UL students had by then propelled themselves unto the national stage and immersed themselves fully in the national discourse.

But it also came at a price.

During the decade of oppressive military rule, it was again students of the University of Liberia that stood up and challenged dictatorial rule. And they paid a heavy price; they were jailed, tortured, shot at and several lost their lives at the hands of state security forces. Yet they persisted.

Under Charles Taylor's bloody, fascist rule, it was yet again students of the University who stood in the vanguard and challenged his dictatorial rule which on one occasion, prompted his notorious remarks: "if your ma ain't born you good get on the streets" threatening violence against protesting students.

This brief narrative is intended to provide insight to our national leadership on events of the past, which they could use as a guide to action and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

It is against this backdrop that this newspaper calls on the UL administration as well as the UL Board of Trustees, including the Visitor to the University, President George Manneh Weah to rethink its decision placing a ban on student political activity.

The UL Administration should take into account provisions of the Constitution of Liberia which guarantees the right to free association.

Article 17 says: "All persons, at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances and to associate fully with others or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions and other organizations."

Article 15 (a) "Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.

(b) The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent.

(c) In pursuance of this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries.

(d) Access to state owned media shall not be denied because of any disagreement with or dislike of the ideas express. Denial of such access may be challenged in a court of competent jurisdiction.

(e) This freedom may be limited only by judicial action in proceedings grounded in defamation or invasion of the rights of privacy and publicity or in the commercial aspect of expression in deception, false advertising and copyright infringement

An overriding question which arises is, can the ban be legally enforced given its potential to violate the Constitutional provision of Article 17? Further in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and increasing hardships on the Liberian people, how will the Liberian public countenance violent repressive action by state security forces (Police) against students?

Should such a situation develop, will the military stand down and remain passive onlookers unaffected by difficult economic conditions and hardships people of this country are currently experiencing?

Looking back on April 14, 1979 and the chain of developments unleashed in its aftermath, this newspaper is constrained to warn that the UL Administration is treading a dangerous path, a slippery slope replete with unforeseen and unknown consequences. Movement along this path must therefore either stop or be reversed.

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