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Academic freedom violations in public institutions are increasing

Academic freedom in African universities has dipped significantly in the recent past as a result of threats by political systems, according to researchers who searched databases on the issue in Scopus and Google Scholar platforms. The papers were published between 2004 and 2022.

Dr Jonathan Odame, a lecturer of education at the University of Ghana, Legon, and Dr Kofi Koranteng Adu, a communication researcher at the University of South Africa, or UNISA, in a study published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Educational Development, retrieved only 25 papers on academic freedom in Africa.
The papers were categorised in five thematic areas: laws for the protection of academic freedom; the effects of colonialism on academic freedom; safety and academic freedom; academic freedom and intellectual engagement; and academic freedom and sexuality.

South Africa had 15 papers, or 60% of the total publications, while Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana had two papers each and Kenya, Namibia, Egypt and Tunisia one paper each.

In the study, ‘Academic freedom in Africa: A systematic review of content analysis studies’, the two scholars noted that academic freedom in Africa is violated by governments and academic institutions and taken for granted by politicians.

Common phenomenon

According to Odame and Adu, violations against academic freedom have become a common phenomenon across public universities in Africa. “Socially, the subject is hardly talked about as it is considered as an attempt to question the authority of superiors,” stated the two researchers.

They argued that it is for this reason that even the available literature on academic freedom in the continent approached the subject from global perspectives rather than from the African context.

Researchers said that most African governments favoured the narrow definition of academic freedom merely as the right to teach and to do research, but disregarded democratic and human basic rights as integral parts of academic freedom.

For instance, there is wide violation of institutional governance, whereby many public universities appeared to have lost their academic autonomy, especially the power to appoint top management, to choose the courses to teach and to select fields of research.

In this regard, 12 countries, that included Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Central Africa Republic, Côte d’ Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, were found to have failed to comply with institutional governance in accordance with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s recommendations on academic freedom.

According to Odame and Adu, academic freedom in Africa has also stagnated in Mali, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso, all countries that have experienced an upsurge in military takeovers in the recent past. In this context, academic freedom in Sudan will continue to be curtailed.

Factors limiting academic freedom

Other researchers pointed out that limits of democracy in many African countries, occasioned by electoral violence and constitutional coups invariably extending the tenure and powers of the executive and surveillance of academics, are setbacks to academic freedom.

Dr Liisa Laakso, a senior researcher at Nordic Africa Institute, and Hajer Kratou, an associate professor of economics at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, also faulted multiparty political systems for not increasing processes that would contribute to academic freedom.

In their study, ‘The Impact of Academic Freedom on Democracy in Africa’, Laakso and Kratou highlighted the issue that countries in Africa that had experienced urban protests during anti-colonial movements have provided more academic freedom than those that had rural uprisings.

What is emerging is that many political systems across Africa have continued to subdue academic freedom and the impact has been greatest in low-income countries, usually at different levels of direct and indirect suppression by authoritarian governments.

According to Odame and Adu, academic freedom has been rendered bleak and vulnerable in many countries through measures that have been insensitive to African academics and students.

In some African countries, immigration law is often being used to prosecute and deport non-citizen academics, or to silence them, according to Dr Kudus Oluwatoyin Adebayo, a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, whereas academics blame politicians and governments for suppressing academic freedom, there are instances whereby universities side with the oppressive groups, or become oppressors themselves.

“We academics often fail the self-criticism tests while failing to notice ways in which our own university administrations and fellow academics repress academic freedom,” says Artwell Nhemachena, an associate professor at the University of Namibia.

The issue is that, whereas academic freedom is universally considered as the right of academics to freely express their views, publish their scientific research unhindered and disseminate their findings without any influence, there are those academics who have chosen not to speak their mind on issues affecting the university autonomy and sovereignty.

But the striking feature of Odame’s and Adu’s study is that, in some African countries, activism on academic freedom is criminalised, which often uncovers the challenges faced by African academics and probably why some of them choose to keep quiet.

The issue is that attacks on academic freedom in Africa have been widespread since the colonial days and there are no indicators as to when the situation will improve for the better. In this regard, the researchers warned of continued political indoctrination, suppression of scholars’ freedom to speak on a wide range of issues and lack of university autonomy.

There is no doubt that oppressive regimes on the continent will impede the collection of data for research in some areas and continue using a culture of fear to subvert academic freedom.

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Written by Wachira Kigotho,
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