A WORD OF ADVICE TO UBSU (UNIVERSITY OF BUEA)
(First published on internet on 27 July 2013)
1. FIRST THINGS FIRST
The court has handed down sentences on the students of the University
of Buea who were awaiting trial for their alleged part in disturbances
that rocked the university recently. Nonetheless, the details of the
sentences are beyond the present piece of dispatch. The purpose of the
epistle is to counsel members of UBSU and offer them advice on where
to go from here; in other words, the way forward. UBSU members reading
this may say there is nothing I am telling them that they do not know
already. No, let them hold their horses, for there is a French saying
that “Abondance de biens ne nuit pas”. I urge them to read through
this piece of writing carefully and reflect seriously on its content.
By the way, what I say here is entirely my own creation, with no input
from anyone else.
2. WHO AM I TO PREACH TO YOU?
I have been a student and a student leader too. I have loved the time
spent at the University of Buea teaching Journalism and Mass
Communication as well as the two general courses, FRENCH 101 and
FRENCH 102. I have been a college principal. When I taught French and
Spanish in a London High School, I was made a Form Tutor, a Head of
Year and Chairman of the school’s Public Relations. At the same
school, I was elected unopposed as the institution’s Staff
Representative. Once when as an international journalist I traveled to
Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) to cover the first-ever Conference of
African Scientists organized by the then OAU and UNESCO, my stay in
Brazzaville coincided with the annual assembly of Cameroonian students
in that country. They invited me as a guest of honour. When I got up
to speak, I dissuaded them from going on a strike they had intended to
use to have their problems solved. That was at the time when our
government was sponsoring thousands of students in foreign
universities. I advised them to contact the ambassador and put their
problems directly to him. They did, and it worked. On another
occasion, when the ENS the lone institution on the Bambili campus and
I was a part time French teacher there, I arrived one day to find that
support staffs were on a sit-in strike. After speaking briefly with
them, I went to the director and asked whether he would allow me to
talk to the workers. He gave me the green light and I spoke with them.
They called off the strike and went back to work. So if I am advising
UBSU, I where I am coming from.
3. A WORD TOO MANY
Shortly after the court ruling of this week, UBSU through the
Camnetwork discussion forum on internet reacted rather prematurely,
rashly and hastily. It used language that was discordant and
uncomfortable. The UBSU message was entitled: “Buea High Court Failed
Justice”. It said inter alia, “a strategic meeting is therefore billed
on Sunday 28th July at the village behind the Buea Mountain”. UBSU
also warns: “We call on UB students wherever they are to prepare.
Since the University Administration has decided to go on this way then
War we declare unto UB….Peace will declare unknown in UB…..the
reactions shall be spontaneous and it shall follow generations upon
generations….It could not come now but it will eventually come”.
This is no doubt a call to arms; or if you prefer, sabre rattling.
This meeting called for Sunday 28th July has already been announced.
But has UBSU applied and obtained authorization to hold it? It calls
on UB students “wherever they are, to prepare”. How? More shocking is
the reprehensible warning: “War we declare unto UB…Peace will declare
unknown in UB”.
Some of these statements can clearly incriminate UBSU. If that happens
then it means that UBSU has shot itself in the foot and sold itself
4. THE GAPING VACUUM
One question that comes to mind is whether UBSU should have taken it
upon itself to react. It was not a jurist speaking on their behalf;
no, it was they themselves. But UBSU forgot that now that the court
has stepped in and even handed down a sentence, the whole matter has
shifted into a higher gear. It is now beyond the university and the
vice chancellor. The statement of UBSU gives the impression that they
are their own lawyers. Why so? When a French top ranking official was
accused of sexual impropriety towards a woman and was insulted and
humiliated, he said nothing but allowed his lawyers to do all the
talking. Why did UBSU choose to go it alone? Why did it choose to be
the lone ranger?
5. THE LAW IS SACROSANCT
UBSU has described the court ruling as a “failure”. By so doing, the
union is questioning and challenging the authority of the law and the
law courts, and by extension, the institutions of the Republic. Some
pleas had been voiced in favour of the release of the detained
students. That did not happen. Instead, the court went ahead and tried
them and has now rendered its verdict. The court’s decision must be
respected. This does not mean that they can not disagree with what the
court says. But there are ways of doing it, one of which is to lodge
an appeal against the decision. That is best done by a lawyer. UBSU
has not looked at that option. The decision taken by the court is
surely one that is likely to be upheld by the authorities: the
Minister, the Prime minister and the president of the Republic. This
is because the law is the law, even if as someone described it, “the
law is an ass”.
6. SOME (UNFORESEEN) CONSEQUENCES
UBSU must thread carefully because further action on their part
henceforth may lead to the disbandment of the Union, as a way of
enabling peace to reign on campus. In extreme cases, the university
may be closed down perhaps for a week, a month, a semester or even a
year. Nigeria is one example where universities have been closed down
due to student unrest. Once that happens, a whole year can be lost and
the authorities may now use methods of (re)enrolment which exclude
unruly or potentially dangerous students. The university may also
permanently exclude some students from the institution. If that
happens, they may find it difficult to enrol elsewhere and may even
find it difficult to leave the country and study abroad. So far, the
minister of higher education has not reacted as such; neither has the
prime minister nor president of the Republic. Once when there was a
student strike at the then lone University of Yaoundé, the Head of
State at the time, Ahmadou Ahidjo openly warned students: “L`ordre
regnera à L`université par tous les moyens!” It was an angry voice,
and so students immediately returned to class. UBSU must realize that
the scenario has changed since their conflict began and consequently
fine-tune their approach.
7. THE PUBLIC IMAGE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF BUEA
News travels fast. UBSU should therefore not undermine the extent to
which their action can damage the university. Repeated striking give
the world the erroneous impression that Cameroon is insecure. Foreign
investors will be discouraged and tourists will go elsewhere. Another
point is that the University of Buea has been earmarked to host one of
the institutions of the Pan African University, created by the African
Union. Continuous unrest can either move it out of the University of
Buea or out of Cameroon totally. So who loses? One question that
should be asked is why it is that the University of Buea has topped
the chart for student strikes and unrest, of all the state
7. THE CHEERING CROWDS
People may have sympathized with UBSU. Some are no doubt still egging
on the union to stay in defiance even of the court of law. That is not
a good thing to do. Firstly, all such people can offer the Union is
talk and nothing but cheap talk. When the union is in trouble, none of
them will step forward to assist. If UBSU is banned, they will not be
the ones to lift the ban. If students are dismissed, they can not
readmit them. If the university is closed won, they will not be able
to reopen it.
This fan club syndrome reminds me of student unrests that took place
in China some years ago. Western media and their politicians cheered
the students and urged them to carry on. However, when the Chinese
government ruthlessly clamped down on them and they capitulated, the
West swallowed its tongue. When America invaded Libya, cheering crowds
stood on roof tops and applauded. When the Iraqi president Saddam
Hussein was executed, the same people rejoiced and some threw parties
in jubilation. But today, many Iraqis regret it because life in the
country has greatly declined, to a level far below that which obtained
at the time of Saddam. UBSU must know that any event that is staged
publicly will always have its share of spectators. But it does not
necessarily mean that the act being performed is right. One head of
state looked at the mammoth crowds that had come out for his
installation ceremony and remarked that he was sure if he was about to
be executed the turn out would be equally high. So, UBSU, do not trust
appearances. Far off hills look green.
8. THE APOTHEOSIS
Every conflict gets to a crescendo. After that the curb begins to
fall. Let us consider the action taken by the court as the crescendo
in this matter and start climbing down. UBSU must not insist on
fighting because it wants to score the winning goal. Besides, it is
difficult to fight the institution or even the republic. A French
aphorism says, rather tellingly, “on ne gagne pas à tous les coups”.
In Baforchu, we say: “if you dig too deeply for a cricket, you may
come up with a snake”.
9. THE CAMEROONIAN STUDENT AS A RACE APART
University Students in our country have it good and sometimes it is
healthy for one to stop and count one’s blessings. Cameroon is one of
the few countries where university fees are so low. Even in Britain,
British students still pay an amount that comparatively makes that
paid in Cameroon look derisory. There has been a lot of talk about the
need for government to loosen its grip on universities. I agree.
However, there is a saying that who pays the piper dictates the tune.
As long as funding universities is still a government activity, it
will be difficult to get it to reduce its role it. If the government
were to withdraw financially and make universities fend for
themselves, would they?
10. THE WAY FORWARD
Now that the saga has reached a point of no return, so to speak, if
UBSU is wise, it should sue for peace. It should take the bull by the
horns, swallow the bitter pill and undertake to restore peace on
campus. If UBSU moves in that direction, the act may displease some
observers and supporters. But in the end, the gesture will have won
the admiration of the world community. That is because it is easier
for the human being to say, “shut up!” than to say “I am sorry”. Two
of the world’s greatest enemies to each other: Israel and Palestine,
have realized the importance of dialogue. Warring factions in
Apartheid South Africa realized it and set up the Peace and
Reconciliation Committee where they each spoke from the heart, shed
tears and forgave each other. Here in Cameroon, both President Paul
Biya and Main Opposition Leader Ni John Fru Ndi have sat down and
talked. One guest on the French national Radio, RFI commented recently
that wars end up with the warring factions sitting down and talking.
The world could in this way learn a big lesson from UBSU. Another
point is that there can not be two masters on the same ship. The Vice
Chancellor is the Head of the university and therefore boss over UBSU.
It is not the other way round.
UBSU, you can do it! Give peace a chance!