Attacks on academic freedom recorded across Africa – ReportSAR), a global network that campaigns for the right of academics – and students – to think and express ideas without fear.
In its annual report, Free to Think: 2023, for the period 1 July 2022 to 30 June 2023, SAR documented a total of 409 attacks in 66 countries.
According to Rob Quinn, the executive director of SAR, these attacks occurred in the context of authoritarian entrenchment and democratic backsliding. “Governments increasingly used their regulatory power to constrain higher education and limit university autonomy, academic freedom and free expression on campus,” said Quinn in a brief to University World News.
The report highlighted that, whereas most of the attacks were perpetrated by the police and the military, non-state actors that included organised militant groups were also involved.
In Africa, attacks on academics and students, as well as the destruction of university facilities occurred in Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Sudan and Tunisia
For instance, against the backdrop of the ongoing civil war in Sudan that broke out in April this year between the Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), universities were not just closed but experienced widespread looting and bombings. In one case, the library archives at the Muhammad Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies were looted, culminating in a fire that caused extensive damage.
“The archives contained a large collection of irreplaceable documents relating to Sudanese politics, history, and culture,” stated the report.
During the period under review, suppression of dissent and the spread of political intolerance in Tunisia led to the scientific council of the faculty of letters, arts, and humanities at the University of Manouba to strip Habib Kazdaghli of the title of emeritus professor for his planned participation in an international conference in Paris with Israeli academics from 16-18 April 2023.
On 11 April, Kazdaghli, an historian and former dean of the faculty, was told of the decision to strip him of the title for organising meetings behind the scenes of the symposium to enable discussion on normalisation of relations with Israel.
According to the report, in 2014, Kazdaghli received an SAR Courage to Think award for his academic work on contemporary minority rights, including Tunisia’s Jewish community, which made him a target for extremists in the country and beyond.
On 29 October 2022, Al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group in Somalia, carried out deadly car bombings that targeted the ministry of education, culture and higher education. At least 121 people were killed and more were wounded. While claiming responsibility for the attack, the militant group accused education officials of allowing Christian-based syllabuses to be used in Somali educational institutions.
In Ethiopia, on 13 September last year, the military forces conducted drone strikes on Mekelle University, with one person injured and some university facilities damaged. According to the report, the attack occurred as fighting resumed in a two-year-old conflict, at the time between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governs the Tigray region.
In Cameroon, on 8 July last year, armed separatist fighters entered the campus of the University of Buea with machetes and disrupted examinations, abducting an examination supervisor. Students reported that the gunmen ordered everyone to lie on the ground and asked the supervisor to leave the room with them.
During the publication of the current report, SAR had no information about the status of the abducted examination supervisor.
Academic freedom was impeded at University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when, on 18 and 19 August 2022, higher education officials prohibited Dr Denis Mukwege, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a possible candidate for the 2023 presidential election, from giving two public lectures at the University of Kisangani.
Similarly, in Algeria, higher education officials, on 5 July last year, banned Algerian scholars from attending academic conferences in Morocco or from publishing research in Moroccan journals.
“The decision stemmed from the publication of allegedly anti-Algerian articles in Al-Bahit, a Moroccan legal and judicial studies journal, as well as tense relations between the Moroccan and Algerian governments,” stated the report.
Highlighting violence and disappearances of scholars and students, the report cited the incident that occurred at Arthur Jarvis University in eastern Nigeria when, on 19 July 2023, unidentified gunmen abducted Josephine Etim Edet, a student at the university. Several other students were injured while evading the gunmen, according to the report.
Although Edet was taken to a nearby forest after the attack, she was rescued by police two days later in a shootout with the kidnappers. According to SAR, this attack occurred in a context in which kidnappers frequently target university students in exchange for money.
In South Africa, on 6 January 2023, unidentified assailants attempted to kill the University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu. Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, was killed in the attack that occurred outside the vice-chancellor’s home. Reports said the attack was in retaliation for Buhlungu’s efforts to combat corruption at the university.
Incidents related to threats to students’ freedom of expression were reported in various African countries during the period under review. On 5 December 2023, police in Kenya shot and killed Brilliant Anusu, a student at Machakos University, during a demonstration.
Students were protesting about the lack of security on campus following a violent criminal attack on a student.
Further, in Zimbabwe, on 17 October 2022, police arrested six students who were on their way to deliver a petition to the management of Great Zimbabwe University. The petition, according to the report, was related to fee hikes at the university and the students were taken to court and charged with criminal nuisance and were ordered to pay a fine.
Unfortunately, although students are frequently subjected to violations, the report cited an incident in which students, themselves, undermined academic freedom.
In this regard, on 8 July 2023, Betungura Bewatte, a law student at Uganda Christian University, was killed during violent clashes between supporters of different parties during rival student government campaigns at Makerere University. According to the report, Bewatte died from wounds sustained after being stabbed with a broken bottle.
Nonetheless, students continued to suffer violence from state actors as in the case in Malawi where, on 23 September 2022, police responding to a student protest at the University of Malawi fired tear gas at students and campus residence halls after students delivered a petition against the university’s decision to schedule a five-month holiday.
In Kenya, on 20 March 2023, police shot and killed William Mayange, a student at Maseno University in Kisumu during a demonstration. Students had gathered on the main campus as part of the nationwide demonstrations and blocked a road near the campus.
“Although it is unclear what sparked the clashes when police exhausted their supply of tear gas, they used live bullets at the students and many students were injured,” noted the report.
Indeed, killings, violence, kidnappings, wrongful imprisonment and prosecution, the loss of academic positions, and travel restrictions of dissenting scholars and students continue to threaten the foundations of democratic societies and social progress in Africa and beyond.
As Quinn pointed out, during the year under review, governments’ crackdowns on scholars and students in many countries around the world have not only suppressed freedom of expression but have also reinforced a culture of fear and self-censorship in academia.
The report, which was released on 31 October, will be formally launched on 9 November.