Prof. John Kenneth Mensah

Senior Lecturer

Dept: Chemistry
Chemistry Department
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Kumasi, Ghana

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Bio-organic Chemistry where research interest is at the intersection of chemistry with biology....~more

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Students’ Message in Their Unrest Was “be Afraid.”

KNUST drew the world’s attention on October 22nd 2018 for the wrong reasons when thousands of angry students, presumably, fed up with the administrative stance of Prof. Kwasi Obiri Danso (KOD) on a variety of issues proceeded on a violent demonstration that destroyed several public and private property valued GHs1.6 million. The intensity and ferocity of this singular act has led many to propose that even when the turbulent national history of students unrest during the military dictatorship eras are factored into consideration, no generational batch of Ghanaian students would have earned a more deserved reputation for wanton destruction of property as answers to real and imagined grievances than the current crop of 2018-2019 KNUST students.

In an unrest that breaks with both precedent and with decency, the obvious unanswered question remains: why? Multiple versions of events and plethora of reasons abound. Since the events leading to the unrest and the events underpinning the execution of the unrest itself are still under official review by the Otumfour’s committee, this opinion will not consider the merits or demerits of specific rumored grievances. In the committee’s public accounting –who, where, when, what-of the unrests hard truthful and reliable evidence will soon emerge and will eventually be disseminated as support for the official version. Nevertheless, subsidiary questions need to be asked. What life and death scenario confronted students with such an urgency as to compel them to bypass time-tested diplomacy on issues supposedly under judicial litigation?  What philosophical, policy and cultural differences with university management is so irreconcilable that it warrants a resort to such a level of chaos, disorder and vandalism as the necessary and indispensable weapons to raise public awareness and seek redress? No easy answers are available.

Student demonstrations as "civil disobedience" are morally acceptable and constitutionally legal. But it matters a whole lot how students’ demonstrations are conducted. Whatever merits that were embedded in students’ grievances became subsumed by the corrosiveness of the method they employed in this demonstration. Put bluntly, students’ unrest that vandalize personal and public property are wrong! The destruction is costly, its toll on the human spirit of victims is too exacting and its methods erode norms of human decency and violate age-old principles of civil-disobedience.

 “Civil disobedience” as defined by Henry David Thoreau is the “public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, labelled civil-disobedience as a means to “arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice” and asserted to adherents that “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” In other words, the freedom to engage in demonstration should be bounded by self-imposed restraints. Acknowledgment of these historical perspectives and the massive precedential records of past student demonstrations in KNUST should have compelled current student to resist the strong urge of indulgence into violence and vandalism.  But students’ actions as seen on TV crossed the dangerous line from attention-grabbing initiative to into fear-inducing and public-trauma trigger.

The unrest verged from drawing public attention to ignored grievances into instilling fear into the wider non-student population of KNUST. Administrators whose offices were raided by the marauding mob know this assertion is neither tinged with exaggeration nor colored by polemics. Ask colleagues and administrators who fled their offices to avoid a physical confrontation with students and to avoid personal harm and they will recount their palpable fear of mob rule. There are signs that events are seared in the memory and conscience of administrators. The students’ vandalism did more than destroy cars and damage infrastructure-it evoked fear in the hitherto pristine collegial space. And the deepest scars are in the psyches of workers who were victimized by students. Their memory of events will be revived again and again when students innocently sing their moral songs and the disheartening feelings such songs arouse will produce an excuse for workers to be hypervigilant. The point of the destructive rampage was to unnerve and frighten and the abiding message KNUST students communicated to the rest of the university community was “Be afraid! Be very afraid in dealing with us! Be scared if you don’t allow us to have our own way. Don’t mess with students! Students rule! Students matter most! The consequences will be grave if you mess with our traditions.” Terrifying reality, in my opinion, is that students unleashed their primal passion and primordial instincts just to scare the hell out of all of us!

Academic life is a tough one. Students are under inordinate pressure to excel and as a consequence their stress level is chronically high. To relieve student stress, society has accorded them deference almost to the point of pampering them. Because students are viewed by the public as just “innocent youth”, they continue to benefit tremendously from the presumption that their motives are pure and their acts are just. Catering to students with these underlying objectives are commendable but the underpinning sentiments have birthed practices that have led to the creation of a sense of entitlement among students. Students have become seduced and the public have become captivated by this sense of entitlement. Consequently, the bar for unacceptable student behavior has been gradually lowered to accept most forms of bawdy acts that are too despicable for me to enuciate and for publishers to print. Only university workers who deal with university students on a daily continual basis know the potential for meanness that lurks under the veneer of pristine innocence and the façade of immaculate virtue. As a consequence, most students cannot resist the seductive claims that embolden people with virtuous motives to overstep their bounds.

What do we do to hold this batch of students accountable for the recklessness of their actions? First, government and school authorities should send a clear irrevocable, irreversible message to students that the university values a non-violent means of addressing students’ grievances. Government can exercise leadership verbally by strong public denunciation of student vandalism and tangibly by an unequivocal reaffirmation of the university charter to non-violent conflict resolution. Government must, additionall,  provide both verbal and tangible support for committee findings and public endorsement of disciplinary actions that must be taken against worst student perpetrators. The government must emphasize that the university values must be seen by students and Ghanaians as an indispensable part of the strength of our nation state. Such university values are part of our global influence that has been carefully cultivated through time-tested academic collaboration with foreign researchers, through admission of international students who value order, calm and non-violence and through time-tested stability in global academic discourse generally. And so any disruption, particularly a violent one, does not materially and philosophically advance the nation’s interest.

I don’t think I have to say this but I will say it just the same. Government response should not be about politics; it should be about maintaining the health and upholding the resilience of the university system and about upholding its in-built capacity to cushion stress while forging new successful pathways towards modernity without fear and distraction from students’ unrest.

In their all-consuming zeal for reports and for answer by the inquisitive press, reporters and opinion writers should challenge student leaders to articulate their grievances and justify their decisions to the public stance as their methodological approach for presenting clarity on students’ dissatisfaction. Despite their protestation that inclusion of female students in some previously male halls is not the trigger for the demonstration, the students’ leaders have sadly offered very little issue with comparable emotive power as the catalyst for their action. The press can insist on greater transparency on the rason d’etre and force student leaders to specify which of the litany of issues they have raised are relevant to the cause. Administration should promptly address these issues in a thorough comprehensive manner while opening the doorway for future resolution of grievances in a more civil manner. As students face public pressure, the press “inquisition”, should be vigilant in showing proportionality in coverage.

Evidence of alumni involvement demands investigation. What this assertion illustrates is the unparalleled synergy between "tradition-minded alumni" and current students in the execution of the violence. Given the vandalism that characterized this union, Alumni must signal a shift in priorities-engagement with students at all cost-to merge with that of the administration on all campus related issues including the male-female halls. Clearly, there is now a glaring concern that alumni student synergy could be a destructive moral and political force. However, despite the investigation, we still don’t know the depth of alumni involvement with the vandalism. National security agencies can use their oversight authority to examine the influence of disgruntled alumni on students’ decisions and recommend ways through which this association can be channeled to align with administrative decisions. Parliament and law enforcement can work to end purported alumni direct involvement in the planning and in the execution of this unrest which precipitated the worst vandalism in KNUST history. Rather than powering students’ unrest for any reason, alumni may bring the feuding parties together to find common ground. This conciliatory approach is critical for conflict resolution as student leaders hear too many different voices from too many parties with different levels of vested interests in their extra-curricular affairs. The events should inform a broader review of students-alumni relationship and find ways of mitigating collaborating actions that opposes the university’s broader interests.

Additionally, any evidence of emerging collusion between “hired non-student thugs” and students demands security oversight. Students’ message benefited immensely from the “shock value” of the activities of the so-called “hired thugs.” And it will be disengenious now for students to deny any association and reject this synergy.

Beyond checking for possible emerging new lines of collusion, security personnel and opinion leaders must push back against lassie-fair attitude to student discipline that makes it harder for authorities to establish decorum with students’ extra-curricular involvements. Sadly, some students will not distinguish between juvenile shock-behavior that is reserved for internal student consumption and anodyne fun behavior that is decent for general public consumption.

With all the necessary means, KNUST must avoid a long-term residual vandalism footprint. Institutional amnesia will increase the dangers of resurgence of vandalism. Stakeholders must make sure that specific events -planning and execution- of this demonstration does not become a template for future students’ unrest. This responsibility includes prompt administrative action on any intelligence report about any nascent grumblings, however trivial. Until we confront forcefully the tyranny of mob behavior in KNUST to achieve complete and durable exorcism, students in other schools and future KNUST will leverage this success for a much more intense destruction-prone confrontation with school authorities.

The riot just satisfied the political aspirations of a select few disgruntled alumni without morally, strategically and materially advancing KNUST's national and global standings as well as further its academic and professional interests. All Ghanaians must use whatever means necessary to let the planners, executioners and perpetrators know of the error in their choice of dissent. Because public acceptance will normalize such deviant behavior and lead us to accede to unacceptable infiltration of our academic social culture with vandalism.

Any desire, however minuscule, to instill public fear through vandalism is never a sound (modus operandi) reason for embarkation of a civil-disobedience demonstration. Because instilling fear in people ultimately ends up destroying the reputation of the very people who embrace it. By all standards, resort to vandalism was a pernicious error. As captured in the well-worn adage: “those who ride on the back of the tiger to frighten others should not be surprised if they end up in its stomach as its meal." How will the admission application of KNUST students to foreign universities or temporal academic exchange students be perceived and evaluated with respect to maturity and frustration tolerance that is needed in higher doses in academia?  How should the international academic community evaluate the candidacy of KNUST applicants to their schools for graduate studies? As low frustration tolerant, petulant and behaviorally immature youth who have no qualms on the use of vandalism to settle personal scores?  Academia has long memory and the news media has a long reach. The impact of the events reported both by CNN and BBC will reverberate into the chambers and corridors of the upper echelons of admission committee in international institutions. And their response will not be favorable.

When all is said and done, we cannot write this vandalism off as an aberration. The students’ actions prior to the demonstration and the actual vandalism itself are entirely consistent with the social-cultural changes that have swallowed the fundamental ethos of the nations’ social ethics. Public interaction in the Ghanaian society/public space has become sharp-edged and belligerent rhetoric have filled our political, marital, religious and social discourse. There is always a winner and there is naturally a loser and the winner takes all the marbles. Winning and losing in our political discourse has become the only zero-sum game in town! Just flip through your TV channels for evidence.

Of all the disturbing socio-cultural changes in Ghana, none is as insidious and as disorienting as the take no prisoner; take no for an answer; take no moral instructions from no one; our way or the highway inter-personal aggression. Our national political discourse is rife with in-your-face fiery rhetoric, reciprocal confrontational postures and gestures and enforcement of brute force political decisions executed through intimidating vigilantism and militias. The defense of virtue, temperate, moderation, honesty is now seen broadly and widely perceived as effeminate and defeatist. Seeking common grounds is never an option! "We have to go all the way, if we are really men with testicles between our legs," we say. Politicians have now devoted time, energy and the commitment to normalizing violence in our political space. By the time students’ demonstration unfolded, this extraordinary aggression had become so commonplace, that not even the Ghanaian public could blame students for the destruction, for the fear and for the panic that their actions unleashed on the KNUST university community.

The students’ unrest revealed, to our collective consternation, this unflattering reflection of ourselves in the mirror of reality and the image we saw of our scions finally made us uncomfortable. But to assuage our angst, we sought refuge in coddling the students’ perpetrators by offering a bewildering array of reasons to explain away the damning TV images of ill-tempered future generation. To help us hide our true selves from the uncomfortable public glare, we also sought refuge in high-minded justification as we opined that the students ought to be under inordinate systematic oppressive policies spearheaded by a dictatorial VC and executed by cold-blooded security personnel wearing uniforms of brutality; or that the violence were perpetrated by outside thugs and not by our well-bred pedigreed thoughtful children.

No commentator mentioned that the students grasp of the zeitgeist of the dynamics of inter-personal, inter-groups, inter-political interaction of todays’ Ghana has been very astute - they have understood the potent efficacy of unleashing anger and instilling fear as political weapons and their unmitigated anger made them the center of attention worldwide and forced an otherwise unyielding administration to walk back some of its core policies. In such a heightened state of anger and recrimination on both sides, it was hopeless to use either truth or logic as counter-arguments. Only force sufficed! It’s a sad testament that toughness and strength in today's Ghanaian context is now demonstrated through violence and not dialog. And so you need violent acts in order to be heard! These sentiments of hate and recrimination created an environment in which students violence can flourish.

The issues leading to the unrest that confronted KOD’s administration will not go away. Will Professor (Mrs.) Rita Akosua Dickson’s (RAD) new administration revert to treating students and alumni as bosom-friends and relapse into upholding all their sacrosanct “traditions?”  Give or take, RAD will be confronted with a quandary that has no magic bullets as answers. But the events of Oct 22nd challenge students to critically examine their core beliefs. Again and again, ordinary students, not their leaders, are summoned to ask themselves: is this how we want the world to see us? Are we relying on mob-mentality to accomplish what eluded us through negotiation?  Because sooner or later new issues will also crop-up to exacerbate festering old issues and the combined challenges will test students’ conflicting impulses between maintaining their “tradition” and avoiding a violent demonstration. Choose wisely KNUST students.

In a way the students got more than what they wanted: instilling fear with no repercussion and no consequences and absolutely no remedial responsibilities. Because from now on, the fear of what students will do when they do not get their way will be a looming pre-occupation of RAD’s administrators and a nagging concern of some lecturers including me. This dreaded moment should not happen again.

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