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

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 May 2021:

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!

9 Comments

  1. Jane Tucker, you have to understand that when performing for an organisation such as IBM, you know that all your activities are closely monitored. You are just a link in a chain which you may not see or understand but it’s ready to bring you down in a split second. As a result your performance is transparent and to the letter. You have never heard nor understand the word corruption. But when you find yourself in a government setting such as we have, the criminal in you comes to the fore, aided by the devil. You see or hear of billions of Leones going missing at government departments and so you clasp your hands and say “my salary at IBM would never have lifted me financially compared to what is now on offer, and here I go”.

    SLPP and APC have never produced saints in most of our years of independence, just first cousins of the devil, whose entire ploy is geared towards taking us to hell. APC and SLPP are quite simply putting us through our paces right here on Earth to prepare us for the shock of the final phase when we die.

  2. It took me just ten days and nothing more to be able to reflect and assess the abilities of His Excellency the President of Sierra Leone when he assumed the reins of Power and draw my unbiased conclusions; I was shocked to find out he lacked the intuition, diligence and thoughtfulness that a leader should have in order to move forward, increase in speed and
    succeed in all his endeavors. And there’s more, because of his reliance on human crutches for support, my findings decisively indicated to me that this old soldier was unfit to rule our little Sierra Leone. 10 quiet days of reflection was all it took to predict a failing Presidency and it turned out, I was right on the money. (lol) And it didn’t end there folks, I took another ten days that were as still as flowers in a garden on a windless day and began examining Prof David Francis and found the man to be nothing but a self-seeking workhorse carrying a huge pile of books on his back. (lol)

    But folks, it was the ten days of intensely scrutinizing the history and past shady, corrupt dealings of the Hangman JJ Saffa that gave me a lot of valid reasons for concern. The man did not know ‘Diddly Squat’ about Progressive Financial and Economic policy. He was also a square peg in round hole. A Guesser and a Conman juggling ideas like a loony circus clown putting on a bad show not worth the price of your nickel, dime or even a penny. (lol) Strange is it not, that inept men with class two mentalities like Alpha Wurie are now becoming Ministers in Sierra Leone. What has my country now become? I cannot tell if it is a den of merciless thieves or a Banana republic with Cocaine farms sprawled out everywhere.

    I cannot understand why education is free but children are going to school under Mango and Boabab trees. Someone, anyone please tell me why Teachers are not being paid on time but the President and his wife just keep on milking the system like a cow about to be slaughtered by its mean-spirited owner. Its time for diligent leaders with good intentions for Sierra Leone to take over her affairs – Playtime is over.

    • I stand with you bro. The moment the lad presented his government plans and personnel, I knew we have been hanged to dry. Implementing free education backed by free transportation and books was not only a policy blunder but a national disaster. You allow an independent audit of the fleeced education project, like the Wurie sababu project, it’ll fall flat. More monies have been stolen in that department than anywhere in the two years of this paopa game play. As educated as Sengeh is, he’s not good at running that ministry.

      As a tech guru, he could have best helped us mechanized all our transactions , everything we do as a nation. Digitize all, so we’ll know where and who did what. The chronically corrupt civil servants won’t allow things to work normally, so they all lobbied for Sengeh to be moved in order to get a breathing space, and the president concurred. Hence most of his men are also too deep in the game.

  3. These PhD holders have not got a clue what to do. They are all in it for the money because most of them (correction all of them) could barely survive in the Western countries where they lived before political appointment. Now they earn thousands of taxpayers dollars for doing nothing. They see it as easy money. Dr Shambles’s children I bet none of them attend any of the government schools that Papa is responsible for. I bet they are all in private schooling in Sierra Leone or overseas, whilst the ordinary man has to send his children to these non-performing schools.

    • Patricia, ‘Dr. Shamble” just celebrated his thirty-second (32) birthday. He has a toddler. Before he was asked to come head the ICT Directorate in 2019, he was the Chief IBM Technical Director responsible for the entire East Africa. He was based in Kenya. Kenya is one of African leaders in information technology. Paper money is almost something of the past in many East African countries.

      You don’t stand in line for your Covid-19 test results in Kenya or Rwanda, you access it on your smartphone. However, in Sierra Leone even if you bring Jesus we will drag him to fail.Dr. Shamble was appointed Minister of Basic education in 2020 and yet he is responsible for the rots in That Ministry as per you and the author’s assessment.

      • I think it is to deliberately misread Mr James Faya-Williams’ brilliant analysis to claim that he has singled out ‘Dr Shambles’ as being solely responsible for the rot into which our country’s educational standards have sunk. In point of fact, Mr Faya-Williams provides a clear context for the undisputable observations he makes. He starts with Dr Alpha Wurie wondering and rightly so, when and how he acquired his title of professor. It is common knowledge that Dr Wurie left academia long ago to serve for no less than a decade as Minister of Education in President Kabba’s government. And when Bio won the general election in 2018, Dr Wurie resurfaced, becoming Health Minister in the first instance and then Higher and Technical Education Minister, an office he once occupied without producing anything to write home about.

        The point of Mr Faya-Williams’ analysis is that the current crop of Ministers made up of PhD holders, a number of whom masquerade as professors, constitutes a bunch of incompetents. Like ministers in previous administrations, they have proved incapable of improving the country’s health and education systems. This fact leads us to an inescapable conclusion: Dr Wurie and Dr Sengeh/Shambles now share the Education portfolio between them, and if the past and indeed the present are anything to go by, it will be a miracle if they are able to turn things around.

        By the way, why is Dr Sengeh called Dr Shambles, a name, or rather, nickname, that does not inspire confidence? Is it a case of there being no smoke without fire, that is, a clue to his chaotic mode of operation? He may have headed prior to his joining Bio’s government, IBM’s East African operations. But was his tenure a success story? And will he necessarily replicate that success as head of the Science and Technology Directorate while doubling as head of a Ministry as crucial as that of Basic Education? The fact that he was one of only three recipients of the highest award in a recent ministerial performance assessment while the country was reeling under the embarrassment of abjectly poor WASSCE exam results, proves the hollowness of the award in question. True, Dr Sengeh has been at the Ministry for only a year or so. Yet, already, his tenure has been celebrated as a resounding success. Is that logical, not to say credible?

      • Jane, first of all can we please leave Jesus out of this. I guess in your opinion, being 32 he should be let off the hook. I disagree. Once he accepted the post and is in the driving seat, I am sorry, but he will have to be held responsible.
        I, like many people were excited with the introduction of the Free Education. But there has been hardly any change. Teachers not being paid; teachers giving paid lessons in school; a lot of children struggle to write a correct sentence in English; extremely poor exam results. I despair for these children.

        • This is exactly what we sierra Loeneans are experiencing from the past and present government.

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