Student Leaders Escape Death, Flee to Ghana

By Siahyonkron Nyanseor

The Perspective
May 22, 2001

Fifteen students of the University of Liberia, mostly of the student leadership - Student Unification Party and University of Liberia Student Union (SUP and ULSU), have fled for safety of their lives and are currently in Ghana at the Buduburam Refugee Camp. The students have taken precautionary measures in lieu of statements made by Justice Minister Varmah that they were "collaborators" of the dissidents in Lofa County. Often dubbed the "voice of conscience" of society, Liberian students from the University of Liberia and the Cuttington University College in Suacoco, Bong County, have played a significant role in exposing the vices of the government and have been in the forefront of championing the interest of the downtrodden Liberian masses.

During the 60s, under the reigns of William V. S. Tubman, Liberia's longest serving president - students were branded as "Communists" and considered pawns of the Soviet Union. Many were sent to Belle Yalla, the country's notorious maximum-security prison. The incident of the Youth Solidarity Movement (YSM) of 1962 is worthy of note. Some members of YSM were charged and convicted of sedition in a "Communist plot" to destabilize the Tubman government. Since then the Liberia government has made it a preoccupation to basically silence students from speaking out against the ills of the society.

Even though branded "troublemakers" in the 70s, the liberal atmosphere existing under the Tolbert regime, allowed student activism to regain its voice, and it became consolidated by the formation of the Liberian National Students Union (LINSU) - the umbrella organization of various student association around the country. But depending on the ebb and flow of Liberian politics, Students activism receded, heightened or was repressed. Even amidst heightened repression, the students always showed resiliency and became a constant thorn in the side of government. This was very evident in the 80's during the reign of dictator Samuel Kanyon Doe. Branding students as "Socialists", the Doe regime adopted one of the most brutal postures in dealing with students. Many were sent to prison, killed or forced into exile.

This trend of continued repression of students has been reinforced under Taylor's rule. The tenuous relationship between the students and government came to a head-on collision on March 21, 2001, when the University of Liberia campus was invaded by the notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), to quell a peaceful rally and fundraising organized by the students in support of four journalists of the independent "The News" newspaper who were imprisoned on the bogus charge of espionage for reporting that government was misusing public funds to repair helicopters and buying gifts for personal friends of Taylor and his family. The invasion on the University campus led to students being brutalized and severely flogged. The police and military officers also beat university professors and some administrators.

With the spiraling of events - the long-running war in Lofa County and now the imposition of UN sanctions - the regime has adopted various policy measures that not only further isolates it, but it has falling back on its old strategy of finding scapegoats or placing blame on individuals or groups it considers adversarial to its ruthless and repressive policies. Recently, Justice Minister Eddington Varmah, one of Taylor's war lieutenants, in a press conference charged that there were students at the University who were "collaborators" of the dissident forces in Lofa County.

"Based on evidence gathered by our intelligence sources, we have confirmation that there are dissident collaborators operating on the University of Liberia campus and that these agent provocateurs are using this institution as launching grounds for anarchy within the City of Monrovia.

"There being no express permission from the Ministry of Justice as required by law for holding of a demonstration by the Concerned Students Movement, said Movement and the public in general are warned that no one under whatever circumstances, will be allowed to hold any illegal demonstration anywhere within the territorial confines of the Republic of Liberia.

"Accordingly, anyone found in violation of this warning and engaging in the holding of illegal demonstration and/or rallies would be deemed a dissident collaborator, ordered arrested and prosecuted in accordance with the laws of the land.

"The so-called Concerned Students Movement of the University of Liberia, the public and all alike are advised to remain law abiding during these times our nation struggle against forces bent on bringing untold suffering to the Liberian people."

Political observers consider this statement from the Justice Minister as a clear message that the students were being targeted for attack. According to the reports reaching this magazine, a high-ranking Minister within the government had secretly approached and advised them to "leave the country at all cost even if they have to use a canoe to save their lives."

But in the report of the "Special Crisis Committee", a committee appointed by the University administration to investigate the March 21st incidence, the committee observed in one of its findings that:

"It believes that the police action may have been exacerbated by the image the police has of the University as a 'place of political confusion.' Thus, being invited on campus, they seemingly felt they had an excellent opportunity to deal with the institution that has been considered a source of political confusion in the country."

Meanwhile, the government of Liberia has denied issuing an arrest warrant for these student leaders. According to the Ministry of Information press release, "the surreptitious departure of student Alphonso Nimley and his colleagues and their subsequent claims that they are being harassed are all attempts to defame this Government while seeking favors from international detractors."

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