In the Midst of Violent Protest by Students, Outgoing UL President Says he Will Hand Over to Dr. Conteh


By: Josephus Moses Gray

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 13, 2004


Monrovia, Liberia- September 11, 2004- While the massive destruction of billions of dollars worth of properties and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives are still visible in the society as a result of the 14-year civil war in the country, some Liberians are yet to learn to resolve their problems through a peaceful and amicably ways. It seems that the guerilla warfare used as an approach has become the order of the day. This violent approach is very prevalent in the Liberian society nowadays. It now affects various sectors, with students and faculty members being no exception, as was demonstrated in the nation’s highest institution of learning where one would expect things to be different.

In recent time, ex-combatants of the three belligerent groups including the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and the former Government of Liberia under the administration of exiled Liberian President Charles Taylor, have engaged into violence as a means of demanding their benefits for submitting to the on-going disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) exercise in the country.

Even government officials use violence approach to solve their problems - with senior government officials clashing over vehicles and other logistical benefits. One typical example is the action of the Minister of Public works, Mr. Coleman who on 8 September stormed the offices of the General Services Agency (GSA) and held employees of that agency hostage when he order his ministry staffers to block the main entrance of the agency with a Caterpillar "yellow machine" in demand of vehicles for his ministry.

The Capitol Hill main campuses of the University of Liberia which supposed to be the center of knowledge and intellectualism, has now become the new center of violence, thereby bringing into question the intellects of the folks of the institution. When the history of the university is re-written, 10 September 2004 will be in the first chapter of the book, as a day a group of students went on the rampage to stage violence.

The outbreak started at 12:00 noon at the university and caused disruption of normal academic activities, forcing other students and employees to flee the university campus as the situation degenerated to a stage beyond control. The students’ action has attracted massive condemnation from various quarters of the Liberian society, with the public warning them against being used by some unnamed individuals who want their selfish interests to be accomplished - with specific reference to members of the UL faculty Association.

Many persons accused the UL faculty Association of inciting the group of students to stage the violent protest in order to force chairman Bryant to revisit the appointment of Dr. Conteh, President of the university.

During the protest, the leadership of UL faculty Association fled the campus, leaving the students population vulnerable. As the protest went beyond the university, the angry students set up roadblocks and threw stones and other objects at vehicles plying the route in front of the university campus. Owing to the situation, vehicles were forced to stop plying the main route and detour to the Jallah Town back road to the city center.

Other vehicles that attempted to use the route in front of the campus suffered some level of damage while some occupants of the vehicles also sustained injuries in the process in the face of the intense violence situation. The official vehicle of the director of the Liberia National Police (LNP), Col. Chris Massaquoi, windshield was damaged in the process from the stones thrown by the university students.

Several attempts were made by some top officials of the government and private sectors including the Speaker of the first Branch of Government, George Dweh and Liberia soccer ambassador George Oppong Weah for the students to call-off their action and use a peaceful means but the protestors became adamant, as they pressed on with their violence action. In order the put the situation on the campus under control and remove the road blocks, the Nigerian contingent serving under the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was dispatched to the scene - the force succeeded doing exactly that. The UN peacekeepers and police officers used tears gas to disperse the protestors and restore calm on the campus.

The angry students were protesting media report that the transitional government was planning to induct the newly appointed president, Dr. al Hassan Conteh, into office. The UL Faculty Association led by Mr. Pewee Lavela has, from day one, vehemently opposed Dr. Conteh’s appointment - saying that he is an outsider. However, other senior members of the Faculty Association including the Association’s Secretary General, Mr. Dolo, have welcomed the appointment and accused their colleagues who are against the appointment of protecting the Acting President Dr. James Kollie’s interest in an effort to enable him (Kollie) hold on to the office.

During the aftermath of the situation, The Perspective spoke to Dr. Kollie regarding his reaction. Dr. Kollie denounced the violence and warned students and faculty members against politicizing the crisis at the campus.

"I am prepared to leave office as soon as Dr. Conteh takes office", Dr. Kollie noted, but said he will issue a major statement upon leaving office. "We as a people and University family have come a long way in the last two decades. Our conflict situation has been most debilitating. And despite some improvement in the security and political landscape, we are not out of the woods yet. We must therefore thread carefully so that we can continue to preserve our fragile peace, while taking full advantage of the prevailing international goodwill to move forward rapidly from conflict to lasting peace and national reconciliation.

"The situation therefore requires us, who are the "lux in tenebris" of Liberian society, to unite our forces and guide our people through the critical transition period. As custodians of the intellectual endowment and social conscience of our society, the University family must always strive to rise above those petty vices that have, in the last few decades, so thoroughly defaced our once vibrant country. More than ever before, now is the time for us to hold together so that we do not miss an historic opportunity to lead the way in the reconstruction of our University in particular, and the rebuilding of our nation-state in general. In his press statement, the new appointed president said "we must join hands and heads together to get our dear University-- which has had its share of trauma and instability--back on its feet.

"With a long track record of training presidents, judges, medical doctors, agriculturalists, school principals, professors, instructors, army officers, pastors and social workers, the University must now be fully capacitated so that it can chart a new, post-war course of higher education consistent with its mission of providing an opportunity to all who qualify, irrespective of creed, ethnicity, nationality and race."

To the University faculty, he said there is no cause for alarm at the advent of a new administration. "I have heard your concerns, and I have taken note of your apprehensions. I can assure you all that I have no plans to pursue any policy that will be inimical to the interest of any of you. And I say this in the recognition that all of us would need to work together to rebuild our University and raise it to higher heights."

Meanwhile, the director of the Institution of Population Studies formerly the Demographic Unit at the university of Liberia, Associate Professor Geetor S. Saydee said although the institute is not involved in the policy procedures for the appointment of President of the University of Liberia, it wishes to clarify allegation against Dr. Conte. He said that the allegation against Dr. Conteh that includes "Poor Management of the Demographic Unit" is false, incorrect and misleading, adding that an external auditor of the United Nations Country Support Team (CST), from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, evaluated the Project.

According to him, the findings from the evaluation were presented at the tripartite Project Review (TPR), held on 23 March, 1999 at the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, chaired by Dr. Alfred Kulah, Acting Minister at the time. He indicated that the report presented by him (Dr. Geetor S. Saydee), now head of the Institute for Population studies, observed among other things "despite the war and post war situations, LIR/95/PO1 has largely achieved its objectives."

He noted that all of the honoraria for the faculty and staff were paid, including the extended period from October to December 1999, which was supervised by Dr. George S. Saydee, who was appointed as Director. In addition, the status of the project implementation was presented at the Tripartite Project Review on 23 March 1999.

"A project audit was conducted in 1999 according to the project agreement. Based on the recommendation of the review and the audit reports, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) renewed a three-year project in 2000, which ended March 2003, " he added. He further stressed, "it is important to mention that recently, the Institute with financial assistance from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) trained 610 local government staff and traditional leaders in demographic data integration in sustainable development planning from 17 December 2003 to 12 April 2004."

In addition, he said that on July 28, 2004 the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) approved the new project, which will provide training opportunities to young Liberians who will assist in the rehabilitation, reconstruction and sustainable development of the country.

Prior to his appointment, Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh served as a Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and Adjunct Professor at the Geography and Urban Studies Department of Temple University in the United States of America.

His professional experience includes managing university education, developing and managing academic programs in conflict management, demography and development.

He has worked on a number of research projects with crosscutting issues in human security, including conflict prevention, forced migration, refugees and education in emergencies. Recently, he under took a European Commission evaluation mission whose outcome will produce about USD 100 million for Liberia’s reconstruction.

He served as Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Liberia between 1995 and 2000. Prior to and while serving this post, Dr. Conteh, from 1997 to 2000, was also Professor of Demography and Regional Planning, University of Liberia. From 1980 to 1983 he served as Assistant Professor, Demography, Demographic Unit, and Research Director of the Demographic Unit, University of Liberia.

His current research includes issues on University education, population, identity and group dynamics. He is the Editor of the Liberian Studies Journal, which is produced at the University of Pennsylvania, and a past President of the Liberian Studies Association.

Dr. Conteh is also the Interim Chairman of the Liberia Institute for Peace, Democracy and Good Governance. He collaborates with colleagues and institutions on a number of issues, including international dialogue across borders, conflict prevention and education in emergencies.

His academic achievement includes three Masters and a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania, 1987, M.A. (Regional Science) University of Pennsylvania, 1984 M.A. (Demography), United Nations-Cairo Demographic Center, 1980 M.Phil (Demography) Ph.D. (Demography/Regional Science) His Ph.D. specializations include location theory, regional systems and policy analysis, strategies of International development, quantitative methods, development economics, economic-demographic interrelations, African demography, conflict analysis and management.

The Charter of the university provides for a procedural arrangement, which would safeguard any direct appointment to the post while a check and balance process is put into place whereby the UL Board of Trustees holds the final decision to confirm or reject any candidate for the university’s highest office. The Charter was applied, but did not withstand the influence of national politics on the appointment of University Presidents. There have been cases of direct political appointments to the post, as with the late Stephen Yekerson, who was appointed by the late President Doe despite of public outcry.

Few weeks after the resignation of Dr. Roberts in January 2004, the Visitor to the University of Liberia and Chairman of the NTGL, C. Gyude Bryant considering the high profile nature of the post of President of the University, set up a ‘Search Committee’ of trusted and prominent Liberians, of high intellectual caliber, to help his office scout for a suitable nominee for the post.

Those who sat on the committee included Dr. C. William Allen, Minister of Information, Cultural and Tourism as Chairman of the committee, while other members of the committee include Dr. Louise C. York, President of the AME Zion University, Cllr. David A. B. Jallah, Dean of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, UL, Cllr. Sam Clarke, Mr. Pewu Subah, and Madam Ellen George Williams.

In April, the ‘Search Committee’, recognizing the onerous task associated with the assignment delegated them, chose to have the post of President of the University of Liberia advertised for the first time in history. Several local and international newspapers, as well as elsewhere on the Internet, advertised the post for nearly five weeks. In the event, thirteen Liberians both at home and abroad got attracted by the requirements, developed interests and applied for the position. Their applications were screened and five candidates were short-listed for interview by the search committee.

The Committee then employed a rigorous vetting process by which it established its own scoring system. Three candidates emerged from the five and by their descending order of excellence; Dr. Conteh was at the top.

The Committee then forwarded the names of the three candidates to the Chairman of the NTGL and Visitor to the University. Based on merit criteria, Chairman Bryant opted to nominate to the UL Board of Trustees Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, (the only Candidate as per record who scored a cumulative average of "A"), for their approval and subsequent appointment as President of the University of Liberia.

The process to advertise, vet, approve and appoint a candidate for the position took nearly five months. The resources and energy involved were enormous. Besides, the process seems to have recovered the past prestige of UL lost over the last decades, due to direct political interference in the affairs of the University.

Some of the faculty members argued that if Kollie was not selected, another option was to appoint a member of the present faculty, maintaining emphatically that they did not want an "outsider". In the words of one of the faculty members, it is unfair for others to stay on the ground and suffer, and then when "all is well some people come in and reap the benefits".

Accordingly, following several consultations, the UL the Trustees went ahead and confirmed Dr. Conteh, and forwarded his name for subsequent appointment through a formal communication addressed to the Visitor. Before reaching the decision, the Trustees voted in their meeting and at the end of the democratic process, the victory was Dr. Conteh’s. Dr. Kollie being the acting president of the university is a member of the Trustees but does not have voting right, while at the same time he is the vice president for the Leigh Sherman Community College. Madam Theresa Leigh Sherman serves as the chairperson of the UL Trustees, and the president.

Some academicians and scholars who spoke with The Perspective on the crisis at the university of Liberia believe that Dr. Kollie did not take advantage of all the available opportunities that were to win the support of the UL Trustees. A professor at the university explained that Dr. Kollie knowing that he was not the choice for the position but could have lobbied for the support of Madam Sherman.

Chairman Bryant, head of the National Transitional Government of Liberia and Visitor to the University of Liberia has the authority to appoint a President of the University, at least that is what the UL Charter, which is the pre-eminent law at the University, states.