Sierra Leone’s broken education system will take generations to fix

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Sierra Leone’s broken education system will take generations to fix
Sierra Leone’s broken education system will take generations to fix

Africa-PressSierra-Leone. When did Alpha Wurie become a professor? This question came to my mind as I sat in a café in Lumley listening to the SLBC news: the reporter had addressed him as ‘Professor’ Alpha Wurie. I laughed in utter disbelief. What was the meaning of this?

Of course, I knew; Alpha Wurie had just been moved from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to become the new Minister of Technical and Higher Education. He was replacing the inept Gbakima – also a ‘professor’ – who during his time in office degraded the already broken higher education system in Sierra Leone.

The president’s obsession with appointing ‘professors’ and ‘doctors (PhDs)’ has triggered a wave of suspect professors and doctors wishing to be named the next Minister of Sea and Sky. In the last two and a half years, the ministers who have been sacked for gross incompetence and ineptitude have also been those who have claimed to be professors or doctors.

Dr Tengbeh, Dr Ali Kabba, Dr Schwartz, Dr Sandi, Prof Gbakima – the list is long. Dodgy doctors with no experience or knowledge of even managing a Sunday league football team only have to wave a piece of paper in the face of the easily hypnotised president to be appointed ministers.

Under ‘Professor’ Alpha Wurie (and many others before him), the Ministry of Health and Sanitation was the worst-managed ministry in Sierra Leone. The country was referred to as the worst place on earth to give birth, and to this day has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.

In most urban and rural maternity clinics in Sierra Leone, women give birth on bare floors. Medical equipment and medicines are stolen by healthcare professionals who use them in their private practices. The healthcare system under ‘Professor’ Alpha Wurie was so damaged that simple medical procedures had to be undertaken outside of the country.

In a rural clinic in Pejeh West Chiefdom, newborn babies and their mothers are laid on tatty mattresses beneath leaking roofs. The mattresses have no mosquito nets, and the dirty walls are dotted with bloodthirsty parasites which feast on the mothers and babies. The only labour room, which is small and devoid of basic amenities, has stale blood on the floor and on the medical instruments. There are no consumables here: no cleaning fluids, no protective gloves, no umbilical clamps, no name tags, no safe drinking water – the list of unmet basic supplies is endless.

Mismanagement and crude corruption of the worst kind imaginable have become fully entrenched in the healthcare system in Sierra Leone. For example, COVID-19 funding that was provided in order to promote awareness, assist destitute communities, and support frontline workers and their working environments was used to buy dozens of brand new, automatic 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles for state officials.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, frontline workers were not only exposed to the virus but continued to be both poorly paid and ill-equipped – they did not even have laptops to process data.

The handling of Sierra Leone’s COVID-19 pandemic is frighteningly chaotic and obscenely corrupt. At Lungi Airport a couple of months ago, I stood in a queue to collect my COVID-19 test certificate before flying out of Sierra Leone. Frontline workers at Lungi Airport did not even have access to the internet to receive test results from the lab in Freetown; passengers had to contribute money to buy internet top-ups for COVID-19 emergency workers, who were using their personal phones to access the results online.

As the test results for passengers started to come in, one worker shouted, ‘there is no paper to print the results!’ I felt sick upon hearing this, and there was an air of disquiet among my fellow passengers; among the European travellers standing in a queue behind me was a man who murmured, ‘Oh Sierra Leone!’

This was my second attempt to fly out of the country; three days earlier, my flight had been cancelled at the airport after state officials ‘misplaced’ my passport, having withheld it under ‘COVID-19 rules’ and taken it to Freetown without informing me.

To reiterate: the man who presided over this mess has recently been appointed Minister for Technical and Higher Education. But what more does he need to offer? He has been in this business for as long as I can remember, and the result has always been the same. His professorship must have been conferred upon him by one of the higher education institutions he is now responsible for.

Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, does not hesitate to bestow upon incompetent leaders its useless and vain honorary academic qualifications. Only a few weeks ago, its lecturers were on strike, demanding a pay rise. Some lecturers here are so cash-strapped that they have resorted to selling exam questions to students. The university has been left to rot, with broken glass in its windows and moss and sapling trees growing on its colonial buildings.

Nowadays, travelling up the dangerous hills to Fourah Bay College is like driving up into the Andes to look for Machu Picchu. The roads have not been touched since colonial times, and shamelessly dilapidated buildings on stilts come into view in quick succession round each bend of the pothole-riddled road as it snakes its way up the steep hill. This place is a death trap.

Lecturers think that the only way they can survive in this country is through political patronage. This is how the education system is being undermined. Some of the lecturers leak exam questions to their political party’s affiliated students, and deliberately fail students in colleges and universities across the country who support opposition parties.

The people who chase political appointments and favours and funds seem prepared to stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Under this administration, the sight of officials driving Range Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers has become the norm. In Lumley, in Freetown, there are more Range Rovers per hundred vehicles on the road than you will find in Cheshire in England.

Stand at Lumley Roundabout and count; even political WAGs (wives and girlfriends) here drive Range Rovers! In the previous administration, it was Hummers and FJ Cruisers – remorseless petrol guzzlers. The IMF and the US government were so irritated by this that they suspended funding to Sierra Leone until petrol subsidies were removed in the country. This is where state money goes while university buildings continue to deteriorate. ‘Professor’ Alpha Wurie will leave the Technical and Higher Education scene in a much worse state than it currently is.

Even the country’s Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (an entirely separate ministry, headed by Dr Sengeh (nicknamed Dr Shambles) is, well, a total shambles. Poor national results after poor national results have debilitated basic education in Sierra Leone. The recent WASSCE (West African Senior School Certificate Examination) result was a total national clanger.

In recent years there has been widespread malpractice, including instances of teachers herding children into exam rooms and showing them the answers in return for payment, and leaks of exam questions several days before the children took their exams.

Last year, schools such as Holy Ghost Secondary School in Segbwema had their entire cohort of WASSCE students’ results confiscated. The poor WASSCE results pushed Sierra Leone down to the bottom of the ranking of primary and secondary education in West Africa. The situation is so degraded that children as young as nine years old get into exam malpractice and bribery with the support of their parents.

The previous Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Alpha Osman Timbo, and his sidekick, Kadiatu Gogra, were charged by the Anti-Corruption Commission for allegedly stealing Chinese-donated rice that was supposed to feed destitute and hungry schoolchildren. But the Anti-Corruption Commission’s case suddenly went cold, and both Alpha Osman Timbo and Kadiatu Gogra were reinstated.

Appointing someone like that as a minister of such a broken and abused education system is like fixing a rickety car with a retired engine; it will never pass a test drive, let alone an MOT. Fascinatingly, both the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education were given presidential awards as the ‘top-performing ministries’ a few moths ago. Honestly! Of course, if you set yourself the lowest possible standards, you can always justify gaining awards for achieving them. This country is in deep leadership crisis. May God help us!

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