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25.02.2009 Feature Article

A VICE-CHANCELLOR OR HEADMASTER?

IT is very heartening to read that students of the University for Development Studies (UDS) resumed lectures on Thursday (2/19/09) after boycotting lectures for almost two weeks in solidarity with their suspended Central Students Representative Council (SRC) President, Alphonse Naab and the Secretary of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS), Owusu Aboagye. The decision, as reported, was based on the outcome of a meeting between Tettey-Enyo, (Minster of Education) and a three-member delegation of the general assembly of the SRC in Accra. It is commendable that Tettey-Enyo chose to listen to the students instead of the usual “go to the classroom before I talk to you approach”. The students also reciprocated his good gesture by obeying his advice.

The story is that on November 28, 2008 the Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kaku Sagare Nokoe, suspended the two student leaders from their positions. They were accused of using abusive language in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, granting press interviews at which they allegedly tarnished the image of the University, unauthorized radio interviews, disruption of academic program during SRC week celebration and abuse of office.

Since this report came out there had been various actions on the part of the students to get their two colleagues reinstated. Among them is boycott of lectures followed by a peaceful demonstration through the main streets of Wa holding aloft placards some of which read, “say no to dictatorship”, “Nokoe must go”, “we want a substantive Vice-chancellor” and “we need change for a better UDS”. In a petition presented to David Yakubu, the Regional Security Coordinating Director for submission to the President, the students appealed for intervention in the misunderstanding for sanity to prevail in the various campuses of the UDS to ensure smooth academic work.

UDS students gained the support of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) and University Students' Association of Ghana (USAG) who expressed disappointment in the management of UDS for suspending legitimately elected student leaders. A statement signed by Maxwell Ofosu Boakye, President of USAG, in Kumasi said the management of UDS had no right to suspend the two student leaders since they could only be removed from office by the student body through impeachment or a vote of no confidence. The students believed the action of the Vice-Chancellor is “an encroachment on the right of students and their leadership and needed to be reversed”.

Among the charges leveled against the students the one likely to be worrying is the disruption of academic work. Depending on the nature of the disruption one believes that the VC should have either let go or reprimanded/cautioned the students involved. Action on all the other charges is indicative of a VC who did not know the type of work he is doing, his clientele and the challenges they present. The VC's reaction to the so-called abusive language is nothing other than a bruised ego. As the students stated “the Vice-Chancellor should not forget that a petition is not a love letter and that the supposed abusive words were simply the appropriate adjectives to paint the true picture of the concern raised in the petition”.

It is the reaction of VC Nokoe to the students' letter that make a lot of people rank Professor Alex Kwapong (the first Ghanaian VC of the University of Ghana, Legon) as one of the best VCs Ghana has ever had. Students liked and loved him because he knew how to handle them. The writer remembers one particular incident where students went on a demonstration on campus and proceeded to present a petition to him about the quality of food being served to students. Freddy Blay (first deputy Speaker of parliament -2005-2008) was then the President of SRC. As the students approached, VC Kwapong and his staff lined up in front of the office building. When the students saw him they shouted “Kwapong ee wo sh$#@; hee wo sh$#@”. To the surprise of the students VC Kwapong shouted back: “ Blay ee wo sh$#@, monyinaa mo sh$#@”. By this simple act VC Kwapong reduced a tensed situation into a shouting and fun contest. He just took the paper and asked the students to go. That was it. The students even forgot that they had a problem. On their way back through the sun all they talked about was Kwapong's “cockroach voice”.

What abusive language did VC Nokoe read that was so offensive that he could not let go than the one VC Kwapong heard in the presence of his senior and junior staff? He got it in writing with the students being the only witnesses. He could invite the two leaders for a meeting supposedly to go through the said letter and use the occasion to vent his feelings on them behind closed doors. They would dare not tell anybody. Nobody would know about it and he would not be the subject of negative publicity. As it stands the VC's poor handling of a rather quite incident has exposed him to public ridicule and in the process gained bad press for UDS, the very problem for which he accused the student leaders.

When preparing for my “M.S.L.C. degree” I ran into a problem with the village headteacher. Master Ntim had by-passed Asenso and appointed Gyanea as the School Prefect. All the boys in form four suspected that she got the position through the supply of “Alafia Bitters” to the headteacher. I wrote a letter to the staff that we did not want Gyanea as the Prefect. On receipt of the letter Master Ntim called all the boys into his office and questioned us. One by one they all denied being part of any conspiracy to get rid of Gyanea as the School Prefect. They were asked to go to the classroom and leave me behind. I knew then that I had been betrayed and was in for severe punishment. This was the days of “six big boys come out; lay him on the table”. Master Ntim was one of the proverbial village headteachers who would cane you till you “peed” on yourself. I visited the urinals two times before he would say anything. I started sweating and shivering when he asked some boys to get ten “mfia” (canes) from the nearby bush. Surprisingly, Master Ntim chose to counsel me about my colleagues' betrayal and the challenges of leadership.

Even at that level the headteacher found a simple but effective way to deal with students (teenagers). He knew that the boys had actually taken part in criticizing the position given to Gyanea but for whatever reason they had all denied it. He saw through my letter that I could not just write it without the backing of my colleagues. Since he did not punish me, the boys put a stop to a planned “pawpaw-bombing”.

It is very clear from VC Nokoe's behavior that he did not obtain his first degree from any of the first three premier universities in the country: Legon, Kumasi-Legon or Cape Coast- Legon. If he did he would be conversant with such letters and would have reacted differently. One would like to refer him to President Mills' responses to parliamentarians as he read through his first State of the Nation's address (2/19/09). One could see a display of his background as a Legonite in reaction to the interjections from the Minority (most of who are products from the three universities). He refused to be distracted and joked his way through their interruptions. He knew where they were coming from and where he wanted to be

One would expect a VC to go beyond personal interest, handle university students as adults and treat them that way. It is probably in a high school that a headmaster/principal would relieve a School Prefect of his duties for a supposedly offensive language forming part of a petition listing students' concerns. This is because he had either appointed him/her or had a hand in his/her selection. One is yet to come across a situation of this nature in a university setting. It looks strange and casts doubt about the leadership qualities of VC Nokoe. VC Tagoe of Legon once had to express concern about the leadership of his students when he felt that something was wrong with them. He did not suspend any of them. Legon SRC had to relieve their Public Relations Officer of his post because he used SRC letterhead for his personal business. He broke SRC rule and they dealt with him. In UDS, students present a petition and their leaders are punished for using abusive language. This can only happen in VC Nokoe's institution. The said abusive language could be interpreted as part of the frustrations being faced by the students, blatant exhibition of their immaturity or idealism.

Some years ago Ghanaian students resorted to violent demonstrations to call attention to their grievances putting at risk life and property. These demonstrations most invariable cost some of them their career while some heads of institutions lost their positions. Fortunately for UDS, the students chose to put their grievances into writing and they are in trouble for doing that? What then is left for the students to do? Instead of encouraging them to do the right thing, correcting them where necessary, VC Nokoe became picky and thus directed UDS and for that matter Ghanaian students into the “jungle”. It is hard to believe if Professor Nokoe wanted to use this incident as a bargaining tool for his confirmation into a full status VC of UDS. He would need to pray hard. To me, he shot the ball too wide and missed the goalpost. He could do better.

OPANIN KWABENA MENSAH

Opanin Kwabena Mensah
Opanin Kwabena Mensah, © 2009

This author has authored 37 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: OpaninKwabenaMensah

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