Academic freedom remains under threat in Africa – Report

Attacks on scholars, students, academic freedom and tertiary education institutions remain pervasive in Africa, with a high frequency of incidents undermining higher education in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, according to Scholars at Risk (SAR), a network that provides sanctuary to threatened academics around the world and campaigns for freedom to think.

In its annual report, Free to Think 2022, for the period 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2022, SAR documented various types of attacks, 391 in total, on higher education communities in 65 countries globally, including in African countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

Instances in which governments interfered or attempted to undermine academic freedom were reported in Algeria, Ghana and Kenya.

“Most of those attacks were carried out by the state [soldiers, governments], that included armed militant and extremist groups, police and military forces, government authorities, off-campus groups, and even members of higher education communities,” said Clare Robinson, SAR’s director of advocacy, on 8 November when the report was released.

Caught up in conflict

Ethnic tensions in Africa, as one manifestation of conflict, have contributed to violence on and threats to scholars. On 3 November 2021, unidentified gunmen killed Meareg Amare, a professor of chemistry at Bahir Dar University in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

According to the report, Amare, who was a member of the Tigrayan ethnic community, was shot amid conflict, at the time, between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, militants and Ethiopian government forces.

Amid the ethnic conflict, several other incidents in Ethiopia were also reported.

The campus of Wollo University which is located in Amhara region, was taken over by TPFL forces, after hitting university buildings with weapons that forced students, academic staff and workers to evacuate the campus.

Further damage to the campus infrastructure was caused by drone strikes by Ethiopian forces targeting TPLF fighters on university facilities where the TPFL troops looted the campus, taking computers and medical equipment.

Similarly, in Cameroon, on 10 November 2021, unidentified individuals detonated a home-made bomb at the campus of the University of Buea, in the southwest of the country, injuring 11 students. The incident occurred against the backdrop of ongoing conflict between anglophone separatists and the government of Cameroon in the western part of the country.

Shortly after the military coup in Sudan, on 25 October 2021, last year, soldiers raided the University of Khartoum, where they used force against students in an apparent effort to stop anti-coup protest activities. Students claimed that soldiers beat them with whips and confiscated mobile phones.

Violent attacks on academic staff

Attacks on academics and students by militants have led to deaths, injuries, deprivations of freedom of expression and loss of liberty. In addition to the conflict in Cameroon, mentioned earlier, Nigeria experienced several incidents involving Boko Haram.

On 10 January this year (2022), suspected members of the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked the Tukur Yusufu Buratai Institute for War and Peace at the Nigerian Army University, killing two employees and burning cars and offices on the campus.

In this regard, Boko Haram was viewed as a major deterrent to academic freedom as it carried out frequent abductions of students and lecturers, mostly in northern Nigeria.

For instance, on 28 September 2021, armed men, believed to be Boko Haram militants, kidnapped Professor John Alabi of Kogi State University outside his apartment as he was returning home. Later, the militants contacted Alabi’s wife and the university management demanding a ransom.

Boko Haram had also been connected with abductions at the University of Abuja, whereby a professor of economics and two children were abducted at night by two gunmen. During the period under review, various incidents of abduction were reported at the Federal University Gusau, DS Adegbenro ICT Polytechnic, Delta State University and Arthur Jarvis University in Nigeria.

Incidents of state actors directly attacking students occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho and Nigeria. On 12 April 2022, a police officer in the DRC killed a student at the University of Mbandaka during a response to a protest over tuition fees.

On 16 June 2022, police killed a student and injured several others when they opened fire during their response to a protest over the reduction of grants at the National University of Lesotho, while on 23 September 2021, in Nigeria, police opened fire at students of Abia State Polytechnic who were protesting in response to news that a police officer had raped a student.

In Nigeria, on 12 May 2022, a group of students at Shehu Shagari College of Education Sokoto killed Deborah Samuel, a Christian student. The attack was based on a WhatsApp group chat, whereby Samuel allegedly made a comment that classmates perceived as insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Prison and prosecution

During the period under review, some scholars and students in Africa suffered imprisonment and prosecution that undermined academic freedom and freedom of expression. In some countries, lecturers, researchers and students were investigated, prosecuted and imprisoned for a wide range of academic activities as well as for their public views and ideas.

For instance, in Egypt, Ayman Mansour Nada, a renowned journalism professor and head of radio and television at Cairo University, was detained for two months in November 2021, for his public criticism of some of Egypt’s media personalities and officials.

On 12 March 2022, a court in Cairo issued Nada a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (then about US$1,000) for charges related to “publicly and maliciously publishing false news about Egyptian media that would disturb public peace and harm the public interest”.

In Ethiopia, on 21 November 2021, state authorities arrested Assefa Fiseha, a law professor at Addis Ababa University, amid a state of emergency in the country. According to the SAR report, Fiseha is still held in detention but, as of now, SAR stated in the report that there had been no information indicating Fiseha’s whereabouts or even whether he has been charged.

According to the report, students’ right to freedom of expression and academic freedom have also been undermined through the use of violent force, detentions and coercive legal and disciplinary actions.

In this context, in Guinea on 20 January 2022, police fired tear gas and arrested students from the Gamal Abdel Nasser University of Conakry during a protest demanding improved conditions, including student transportation services.

Free movement

Trends are also emerging whereby some governments across the continent have been using broad policies and practices to restrict the movement of scholars and students, thereby limiting their academic activity and reducing the cross-border exchange of ideas among academic communities.

On 5 July 2022, Algeria’s Ministry of Higher Education ordered a ban on Algerian scholars attending academic conferences in Morocco or publishing research in Moroccan journals and the decision stemmed from the publication of allegedly anti-Algerian articles in a Moroccan journal.

On 24 May 2021, Egyptian authorities barred Walid Salem, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington and an Egyptian citizen, from travelling to the United States to resume his studies.

Salem was held in pre-trial detention for seven months in 2018 for charges of joining a terrorist organisation and spreading false news to undermine national interests, but the case was never brought to trial. But, when he recently informed state security officials of his plan to leave the country for the US to resume his studies, he was told that the ban on his travel was still active.

Patrick George Zaki, another Egyptian student pursuing a masters degree in gender studies at the University of Bologna in Italy, is expected to appear in court on 29 November on charges of spreading false news. But SAR says the charges are a retaliation against Zaki’s academic research.

Ahmed Samir Santawy, a postgraduate student at Central European University in Vienna, was accorded a presidential pardon on 30 July this year, but he is subject to a travel ban, restricting him from leaving Egypt and returning to Austria to resume his studies. Santawy had been imprisoned for three years, for publishing false news, a crime that he denied.

Still, on 13 March 2022, violent clashes broke out at Addis Ababa University’s Sidist Kilo campus in Ethiopia, allegedly between ethnic Oromo students and other ethnic groups. On 25 June, police beat and attempted to stop students from the campus from protesting against ethnic violence.

Government interference

Subsequently, institutional independence was impaired in some countries when government officials and lawmakers using their respective administrative and legislative powers undermined academic freedom and autonomy of higher education communities.

In this regard, on March 29 this year, the Sudanese military-led government dismissed all university boards and replaced 30 public university presidents and eight vice-presidents who had been appointed by the prior civilian-led government.

In Kenya in 2021, the ministry of education, through parliament, attempted to revise the prevailing legal framework governing the universities and give veto powers and control to the education cabinet secretary over the appointment of key university leadership positions at public higher education institutions, including university council members and vice-chancellors.

In Morocco, on 11 April 2022, Ibn Tofaïl University closed its campus and suspended classes for three days in order to prevent a three-day forum responding to normalisation of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel. While announcing the closure, the university said the forum had nothing to do with the university as it was organised in collaboration with outsiders.

Further, in Ghana, members of the academic community raised institutional autonomy concerns over a parliamentary act that would have merged three higher education institutions, the Ghana Institute of Journalism, the Ghana Institute of Languages, and the National Film and Television Institute, into a single entity, the University of Media, Arts, and Communications, or UMAC.

But, despite the raised concerns of limiting of press freedom with the government having influence over the new university, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, has assented to the bill.

In its assessment, SAR thinks threats to academic freedom and violent attacks on higher education students and lecturers in Africa are likely to rise, especially in countries in armed conflict occasioned by ethnic tensions, political disorders and extremist militants.