Student Politics: A Proxy Fight between National Political Parties

By Sayoh Kamara

A pivotal stage in the involvement of students in the politics of Sierra Leone could be traced back to 1977 when students of Fourah Bay College (FBC) and secondary schools in Freetown staged the ‘No College, No School’ demonstration. The demonstration which shook the pillars of power was staged as a result of poor governance, government corruption, a declining economy and poor student welfare. The uprising was led by student activists including Hindolo Trye, then the President of the Student Union, Pious Foray and a host of others and was violently suppressed by the Siaka Stevens government. Most of the key student leaders were arrested and locked up and subsequently fled the country in the aftermath. Some of those students subsequently ended up in Muammar Gaddaffi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya to study the Libyan leader’s political philosophy set out in his Green Book. The outbreak of the country’s civil war in the 1990s has been linked to the popular discontent that continued following the 1977 uprising.

In the aftermath of the 1977 demonstration, various camps were set up at Fourah Bay College and they became a breeding ground for future political leaders. Various political camps were set up after the Gardeners Club, which was central to a number of demonstrations in the 1970s and 80s, was banned. The current divide of Blacks and Whites has since spread to other colleges, tertiary institutions and even senior secondary schools. This phenomenon has now almost become a cult. Today, it is rare for a student to emerge as a leader if he/she does not belong to one of these camps. Most of today’s politicians had their teeth cut in politics in their respective colleges and camps and these alliances and allegiances continue to impact mainstream national politics. Names abound of such students turned politicians who have had their political trainings in colleges, especially Fourah Bay College. A substantial number of those who served in Student Union governments at Fourah Bay College and other colleges later became full-time politicians and their successes are an inducement for the students of today.

Following the 1977 students uprising, student politics took a different dimension. From been a platform for breeding, bold, vocal and radical student leaders that can use their voice and radical ideas to agitate for their needs and wants, the rivalry and power struggle in which students were ultimately engulfed have always resulted in violence and the actions of the students especially at Fourah Bay College have always had concomitant repercussions on down-town Freetown. At some point of the country’s transition from one party rule to military rule and now multi-party democracy, students were at the vanguard of these transitions and because they have pricelessly carved a position for themselves, they became centre of interests by the very politicians groomed by the college’s student body politic. Invariably, these very politicians from the black and white camps have also spread themselves between the two main political parties, the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

When students have concerns relating to their welfare and learning conditions, they always seek to negotiate a way forward. They usually threaten some form of agitation especially in cases where the student executive body is supportive of the party in opposition. To try to prevent this, the government of the day may surreptitiously use the college administration to either thwart the student elections or hand pick the executives that best suits their interest. That is a key reason why student union elections have become more contentious and acrimonious between students and by extension political parties. As a consequence, there is a no love lost between students and the college administrations and by extension the government of the day. The authorities, be it the college administration and existing governments are yet to find a way prevent national politics from having a negative impact on student politics.

This is unlikely to change in the near future as former student leaders have been appointed to various positions in government. This indirect influence on student politics would have to be logically looked at in the face of the fact that students as citizens must also have a space in the decision-making sphere at the national level. As a matter of fact, student politics should and must be limited within the confines of college campuses with clear cut mandates pinned on seeking the welfare of students. But college administrators should also be seen to be apolitical in their approach to student governance, regardless of which government appoints them to administer the colleges.

Indeed, colleges should train future leaders but should not do so with preconceived notions as to which political party the students must belong. Like the sex for grade scandal that at one point, engulfed the country’s colleges, the issue of party colour used by some lecturers against hardworking students should be investigated and nipped in the board. These in my view, will go a long way in sanitizing student politics in the country’s colleges and other centres of higher learning. In Sierra Leone, student politics is a mixed blessing. 

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