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Opinions Fri, 26 Oct 2018

KNUST: Cycles of violence

Violence at KNUST. The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology; scenes of protest, brutalized bodies and destroyed property. A nation on its feet in outrage. Media headlines. And now, a closed University, dismissed students, a crisis in leadership – and the question, what next, what now?

I just landed back in Ghana after being away for a few weeks. Catching up on the news, I have been listening and watching the escalating tensions at KNUST that exploded on Monday into peaceful protests that turned violent.

As voices grow heated, there is divided opinion regarding University students vs University administration, management and leadership. This is moment for deeper analysis and discussion.

It offers lessons in leadership and deeper issues facing our nation – and indeed our Continent – through the lens of what happened – and is happening – at KNUST.

There are multiple issues here. There are multiple tragedies too.

I saw images of armed military being deployed after KNUST property was destroyed. Images were circulated of smashed desks, computers and other equipment. I listened to growing anger from some of the public that students would be better served keeping their heads down, focusing on their studies and doing as they are told.

Here’s the challenge

You cannot on the one hand teach students to think, to act, to problem solve as is the call from University education and then require them to practice blind obedience, unquestioned loyalty in the face of alleged violence against their person.

And the student leadership body are alleging Monday’s explosion is the result of long simmering tensions that were ignored and dismissed.

The explosion was neither sudden nor unexpected.

The straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back was the brutality meted out to some students by private security during a vigil over the loss of a student. Images emerged across social media of students bloodied, beaten and dazed, some of whom were hospitalized as a result. There have also been images and headlines of University lecturers caning students.

These disturbing images and acts of brutalization have, according to students, gone unpunished. They allege the University’s leadership has ignored all attempts to engage and act over this violence. The students say that their peaceful protest was met with warning shots fired by private security. The unarmed students were further angered by this response.

They issued a detailed statement laying out their concerns, their allegations of violence and what they describe as the failure of University leadership to adequately respond to ongoing concerns articulated by student research councils and student leadership bodies. They allege that private security beat students with sticks and tasered them.

Sadly, we are a nation who pay more attention and are more outraged by the destruction of property than we are by the brutalization of people’s bodies. It was destroyed property that led to significant action by leadership. It is telling that a delegation from the Ministry of Education – including the Minister of Education himself – will be visiting the University as a result of the violence of destroyed property from Monday’s protest that led to the University’s indefinite closure. We are a society that can beat a person to death over a stolen mobile phone, and do nothing over the raped and abused body of a girl or woman.

According to Mercy Asamani, General Secretary of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) there is an atmosphere of threat to silence students from acting on their own behalf. There are failures of leadership to take seriously concerns articulated by students. There are long standing issues of brutality by private security.

Ms. Asamani spoke of a deeper societal issue; the elder-junior hierarchy. It goes beyond listening to and respecting elders; instead blind obedience is expected, irrespective of the behavior of the elder.

I do not sanction nor excuse the violence committed on campus by students. I do support student activism and fully embrace active, participation and peaceful protest as methods of articulating dissatisfaction and for drawing attention to specific issues. I do condemn the violence committed by private security on the bodies of students. The university leadership’s failure to punish the violence by the security men against the students does become institutionally sanctioned violence. And violence begets violence. That serves no one. It most certainly does not serve higher education.

For the university, there seems to have been a question of inaction by some time. Could the University’s closure have been avoided had a different approach to leadership been taken?

The explosion of tensions has a deeper history.

It stemmed from the call to mix halls, upset over that decision, concerns of safety for young women students and anger regarding the handling of these issues by University management.

Safety for young women in university is a key issue.

From JHS to SHS and beyond, the research demonstrates that girl students in particular, but boys as well, are subject to sexual violence and physical violence from their teachers. Teachers hold a particular authority. They are expected to be obeyed without question. That structure creates safe space for predators and too often silences students suffering from the sexual advances of teachers – who too often go unpunished. And even when caught, too many teachers do not face the full weight of the law for what are essentially criminal actions.

These behaviours teach us all lessons. They demonstrate to teachers that they can essentially get away with sexual violence. They teach students how unsafe spaces of education can be.

Also, there are multiple stakeholders within a University.

University is not free. Students pay fees. As such they are indeed stakeholders in this landscape that provides a service and whose mission is nurturing the minds of students.

If university is a space where students are taught to lead, act, think and problem solve, then it requires a different engagement between Management and Student Leadership. As an adjunct university lecturer, there is a balance between mutual respect and authority.

Creating that balance between University leadership authority and student body leadership is a journey that requires consistent engagement and can be precarious. However, this could become an invitation to reimagine leadership, and not to resort to what we do so well in Ghana; blame in abundance, point accusatory fingers but change little. Leading young adults as if they are JHS students is an unworkable scenario.

It points to deeper issues within the university and it speaks to even deeper ones within our society.

The violence of security personnel is mirrored in other parts of society. Concerns regarding policemen overstepping their boundaries and abusing their power have also made headlines. There was, of course, the police officer who beat a woman customer holding a three-month old child that was caught on video prompting national outrage, the sacking of the officer and charges brought against him.

Abusing power is an emerging and connected theme.

Further, as a nation and a Continent, our dominant population is the youth. How do we on the one hand say that the future of this Continent is in the hands, minds, talent of the youth; and then disregard, disrespect and denigrate that same youth in the ways that they allege when it comes to KNUST?

We currently have a president whose inauguration speech called for engaged citizens, not spectators. Student activism, student leadership are acts of engagement; a leadership watching as students are brutalized are acts of spectators. This is a moment where both can learn this approach fails long-term.

There is a call for the KNUST Vice Chancellor to resign or be dismissed. I hold no position on this issue. My focus is leadership. What lessons can – and must – we learn regarding our leadership approach? What change are we willing to make in order to maximize the university experience as one of training young minds to think, act and lead? University cannot be treated as chew and pour – Ghana’s treatment of JHS and SHS education. That cannot work in a young nation and a Continent populated with millions of young people – especially given a graduate unemployment challenge, where employers consistently complain that students are not market ready, do not know how to problem solve or take initiative.

If the youth are the future, then our leadership approach must reflect that change. Blind obedience is not leadership, it is dictatorship. Property cannot matter more than people.

KNUST is a microcosm of deeper societal issues. A closed university, students out of class, a leadership in fragments. We can choose a fresh approach or we can resort to leadership business as usual.

Let’s dispense with business as usual, let’s be courageous, learn hard lessons, make change. This is leadership.

On Saturday 27th October, 8.30am to 12pm, I will be a Speaker at the annual conference ‘The Big Conversation.’ I will be speaking on Sex, Abuse and Power’ at Silverbird Cinemas, Accra Mall. Additional themes are Ethical Leadership, Intimate Partner Violence and the use of Social Media. It’s organized by The Lady & The Gentleman, with support from The John A. Kufuor Foundation. Entrance rate is GhC50. Open to the Public.

Columnist: Esther A. Armah
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