Attacks on scholars a threat to democracy in Africa : The link between decreased academic freedom and the stagnation of democracy – World – ReliefWeb

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The percentage of attacks on higher education is higher in Africa than in any other region. And with Covid lockdowns, the academic freedom at African universities has been challenged even further. Given the strong links between academic freedom and democracy, organisations working with democratic development in Africa should take action to support and protect scholars at risk.
Academic freedom refers to the right of universities and individual scholars to conduct research, to teach and to communicate, even on matters that may be politically sensitive, without being targeted for suppression. The Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility further highlights a reciprocal social responsibility.
Academia has to be committed to adhere to research ethics, truth and objectivity.
Threats are on the rise Threats to academic freedom, violent attacks on the higher education community including scholars, students, staff and institutions, are on the rise globally. In a 2017 statement, the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), raised alarm on incidents of infringement of scholars’ human rights within and outside of Europe, stressing its global nature. Recent trends in several European countries suggest narrowing academic space through regulatory restrictions and limitations. Social media all over the world provide platforms for a fast spreading of hate speech affecting researchers working on issues that have become politically sensitive like migration, racism, climate change or even vaccinations.
The Scholars at Risk (SAR) network identifies, assesses and tracks attacks on academic freedom through its Academic Freedom Monitoring Project. SAR is a global network of institutions and individuals, operating at 500 universities in 40 countries, with the goal of promoting academic freedom and protecting those researchers whose lives or jobs are under threat. The backing towards this goal is gaining traction. Among the members of SAR are higher education institutions from all the Nordic countries with the Icelandic and Danish ones joining in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Norway has hosted around 30 at-risk scholars in its universities since 2011. Education funding agencies in Sweden and Finland have made commitments to fund institutions to host at-risk scholars. In November 2021, Finland marked its first Scholars at Risk Finland (SARF) Day, with an event advocating for academic freedom.
In 2021 SAR recorded 285 reported attacks on higher education and scholars working in higher education across the world. 76 of these were in African countries.
Such attacks could involve: killings, disappearances, wrongful imprisonments or detention, prosecutions, restrictions on travel and retaliatory dismissal, loss of position or expulsion from study.
Scholars were among those at the forefront in advocating against injustices exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ugandan scholar and activist Stella Nyanzi was arrested and charged with inciting violence, because she led a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office.
The protest followed an earlier petition that had called for the distribution of food relief and face masks, and for the release of prisoners held for allegedly violating measures to contain the spread of Covid-19. In Egypt, four members of the intellectual community – two professors, a human rights activist and a novelist – were also arrested after holding a protest demanding that the state take measures to guard against Covid outbreaks in prison.
SAR has also recorded several attacks unrelated to the pandemic, highlighting the persistent nature of the clampdown on academic freedom. A PhD candidate and political activist from South Sudan was arrested in July 2018 and charged with treason. In 2020, he fled with his family to the United States, alleging that the South Sudanese president had ordered his execution or abduction in neighbouring Kenya. In Nigeria, a political science lecturer and a university administrator were arrested for protesting on social media about unpaid salaries: the police alleged that they had insulted the vice-chancellor of the university. Targeted violent attacks have also been reported, including the kidnap and beating of a student leader and opposition party member in Burundi. SAR has also noted the use of excessive and sometimes lethal force against student expression or to contain protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia and Sudan, among others.
Diminishing academic space is being witnessed even in countries such as Ghana where university autonomy has strong roots. The Universities Teachers of Association of Ghana (UTAG) continues to fight against the Public Universities Bill that is regarded as a legislative attack on academic freedom. Under the proposed law, the president has power to appoint university Chancellors although the Ghanaian constitution provides that the Chancellor should be appointed by the university governing council. Additionally, the bill increases government representation in the university councils and requires that universities seek prior approval from the Minister for Education before entering into agreements with institutions within or outside the country. Such clauses have triggered concerns of political interference in the management of universities that would negatively impact their autonomy. The bill was suspended in December 2020 during the election period but fears loom that the government may seek to re-introduce it.
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