Jobless academic self-immolates after wares confiscated

Jobless academic Imad Al Ghanimi died after dousing himself with petrol and setting himself alight in response to having the goods he intended to sell as an informal trader confiscated by Tunisian police.

The death of mathematics academic Al Ghanimi on 7 July raised the spectre of Tunisia’s revolution of 2011 when the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in the town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, sparked nationwide protests that ultimately led to the overthrow of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and helped to ignite wider Arab uprisings.

The 43-year-old father of three sons, Al Ghanimi had worked on contract at a Tunisian university for seven years. In 2015, his contract was not renewed because he had not completed his PhD. He turned to selling children’s toys to make a living.

A February 2016 video clip shows Al Ghanimi protesting and threating to commit suicide in response to the ending of his contract.

A protest on 9 February in front of the offices of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research was led by about 2,600 university staff from several universities experiencing similar circumstances to those of Al Ghanimi.

Before Al Ghanimi's death, he submitted his completed PhD thesis, which was due to be examined by the university’s science faculty in the coming months.

The General Federation of Higher Learning and Scientific Research released a statement on 8 July concerning Al Ghanimi’s suicide, calling for an investigation into the circumstances of the incident and for holding accountable those who had committed a “crime” against Al Ghanimi.

It also pledges assistance to the family of a "martyr".

The Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers, along with other similar higher education syndicates, have created a Facebook page named "We are all Imad Al Ghanimi, a victim of injustice and oppression".

The page issued a call for protest action on 14 July in front of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research where a symbolic funeral for Al Ghanimi was to be held.

"We hold the ministry of higher education fully responsible for the marginalisation of scientific research which forced Imad Al Ghanimi to search for work to provide a livelihood through the sale of children’s toys," the union said in a statement.

Experts told University World News there has been a rise in the number of people setting themselves alight in the region, despite the advent of democracy.

"Al Ghanimi is the latest in a wave of horrific self-immolations in Tunisia and Morocco by jobless university graduates and staff who set themselves on fire in protest against unemployment,” said higher education expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid.

He said Al Ghanimi's suicide protest highlighted the urgent need for higher education reform in North Africa.

“There is a need to produce employable graduates and for more focus on entrepreneurship education, along with linking university curricula to the needs of industry and the private sector.

“We also need university-based career centres to enhance the employability of graduates and their transition to the workforce, in order tackle the huge problem of graduate joblessness," Abdelhamid said.

He added that dealing with graduate unemployment had become extremely urgent because of its dire social and political consequences.