Life in Monrovia (II): A Day at the University of Liberia
"Why do you think the government should buy books for you? In the US, the American government does not buy books for students..."
"One thing I know, is that if you work in America, they pay you. And if you go to a state college, or any college for that matter, they make sure you have books. Look at our library; the newest book is from 1993. You call this a university? There is not single instrument in the labs. The man must go!"
"Who do you want to replace him?"
"We don't care but who ever comes here will be better than this man. His boss man left, let him go to... maybe they can go teach in Nigeria..."
We were on the campus of the University of Liberia and I had stopped to talk to a group of young female students, sitting on a cement bench between the library and the palaver hut. After I introduce myself, as "a faculty member on leave," they asked me why I was filming them.
"To let Liberians in US know what the campus look like now..." I said.
"Here we don't trust cameras. But anyway we don't care; we just want this Dr. Ben Roberts out of here. The man is corrupt and he needs to leave now!"
I chatted with them for a short while. Matt said to them that the war was over and that they should make peace. Two of the girls all stood up and waving their fingers at Matt, said the war would never be over until all the remnants of Charles Taylor regime are kicked out. Matt remained calm and said that not everybody who worked for Taylor was bad. One of the students asked Matt if he too was coming from America like me, because, she added, "People in America have no clue of what is going on this country." Matt said he has never left the country. And the same student said to him, "Then you must be a Taylor man to talk about peace and reconciliation because we the Liberian people want justice." The noise under the Palaver Hut was getting louder and I didn't want to miss whatever was being said. I pulled Matt away and told the girls that we would come back.
"If Ben Roberts must come back to this campus, it must be to clean his desk. If the government wants to send him back here, then they want our blood. The Taylor era is finished and Ben Roberts must go." The crowd applauded. The young man in the middle of the Palaver Hut was wearing a khaki vest and white T-shirt. As he moved from one corner to another, he raised his fist. "Chairman Bryant has to decide today who he wants in this university: our dead bodies or Ben Roberts's dead body."
A student approached me and asked me who I was and why I was filming their debate. I said I was a UL professor on leave. He then added that I couldn't film them without permission. I asked from whom was I to get a permit to film. He said from their leader. I told him I wanted to interview their leader. He then asked me to turn off the camera and wait while he consulted their leader. He walked back inside the Hut and I waited. He returned after a short exchange with the young man who was speaking and said that I could film and that the leader would talk to me after the meeting. I told him that I would come back.
The campus looked like a disaster area, with outgrown grass, rusted broken buses and trash everywhere. The "markets" of oranges and sodas were still at the entrance, near the gate. Few students read newspapers. Tubman Hall was devastated. There were broken chairs in the halls. The Office of the Vice President seemed to have been looted, with papers scattered all around. Tubman statue had been lost long away. Some windows were plastered with cardboard.
We left the students and walked to a group of teachers who were arranging chairs under a veranda not far from what used to be the Vice-President's villa. I spotted the ever-present Joseph Narma, the man who has been running the Physical Education Department since chicken had teeth. We had one of those hugs that make you feel that you are really home and that you meeting family and friends. Prof Lawson – who used to have strong teeth but has none left – and Pewee Lavala of the French department were also there.
Narma volunteered to give his opinion on the crisis. "If Ben Roberts doesn't go or if the Chairman does not dismiss him, things could turn ugly on this campus... the students are adamant, and we the faculty don't want him... he has to go." Narma added that: "If it is true that Ben Roberts is a friend of the Chairman, he should just resign and not put the Chairman in an embarrassing situation." Another teacher said that 90 percent of the faculty had to teach in private institutions, like Don Bosco or the African Methodist University to survive. "Some of our teachers are driving taxis ... and Ben Roberts is out there living large. The man has to go."
The same student came to me and said their leader was ready for the interview. While we walked to the Hut, he pointed to the disaffected cafeteria covered by overgrown flower trees and grass and the broken down half-dozen buses that littered the campus. He said they had sent a petition to the Transitional Assembly.
We looked for a quiet and good backdrop for the interview. We walked to the Firestone Science building, in disrepair since 1990, when NPFL troops bombed the place and camped on UL campus for weeks. The student leader repeated the same complaints we had heard from other students and teachers. When I asked him who they would want for new president, he said:" that's up to President Bryant. We don't care... he can appoint anyone, as long as Ben Roberts is no longer here." We talked for a while. He bought two plastic bags of cold water from young boy and gave me one. We walked by the Library and sat on the step and talked some more. He was 23, born a year after Samuel doe took over. They call him Pope, like the Pope in Rome. Because all his life in school and until then, he never got anything less than A or A+. I asked him if he was serious about bloodletting if Ben Roberts returned as President of the University of Liberia. "It will never happen, because either we will be dead or he will die." He added: "Taylor brought two things to the university: this overpass to cross the road and Ben Roberts. We would have been better off without them."
We spoke to a few more students. The anger was very palpable. One girl told us that she was 26 and had been attending the university since she was 19 and should have graduated in June 2003. "You don't want to know what I went through to reach this far. And for the past six months, every day they say graduation will be next week... what kind of business is this?"
Matt and I continued our tour of the campus. Matt stood in front of the devastated Student Union building, and with the burned down building of the girls dormitory in the background, he told me how, during the war, he and a few of his men had to dodge bombs that ECOMOG was dropping on them. He talked about how he got his nickname, "One night, I carried across the river 5 of my men who had been wounded in a fight. We had fought for five hours a group of government soldiers and finally we had to abandon our positions because we ran out of ammo but I didn't want to leave any of my men behind..."
Two days later, while we were interviewing the police Director Chris Massaquoi, a call came in that the University students were burning tires on campus. The Police Director gave orders to his men to stand by and not to enter campus.
During the meeting he had with news editors and senior writers, Chairman Bryant spoke about the crisis on UL campus. He said if people can come forward and prove that Ben Roberts was corrupt, he would dismiss him. He also said that he was in the process of putting together a new board of trustees, something students and teachers alike demanded.
On the day Chairman Bryant was delivering his State of the Nation address at the Transitional Assembly, students went on rampage. They set fires around campus. They tried to block the road to the Assembly and Capital By-Pass. The UN military went in and dispersed them, taking control of the whole campus and forcing them into the Capitol building yard. We were on our way to film the cultural troop in Kendeja. There were small bush fires all around campus but not building had been damaged. The soldiers refused to let us but allowed us to take pictures from behind the wall.
In the late afternoon, returning from Kendeja Beach, we were forced to take another route at 1st Street, all roads leading to Capitol Hill were closed. The Chairman was giving his speech at the Capitol Building and it seemed that the students had managed to disrupt traffic all through the area. We were caught in a massive traffic jam in Jallah Town. When we reached Bassa Community, we were forced to get off the taxi and walk. There was no way to get to the Capitol Building. I was not in the mood to walk that far, with 100 degree and soldiers and guns all over the place. We reached the residence on Carey Street, ordered two Club beers and listened to the speech on a small radio. Somewhere, between budgetary issues and his upcoming trip to the UN, Chairman Bryant announced that Dr. Ben Roberts had submitted his resignation and he had accepted it.... Now the search was on for a new president and a new board of Trustees for UL.
UL students... some things never change...