SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 23, 2017

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):Njala University

Region & Country:Western Africa | Sierra Leone

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 23, 2017, violent clashes between student protesters and police  broke out in the city of Bo, resulting in the death of one student, multiple injuries, and the arrests of 35 protesters.

Students led protests in several cities across Sierra Leone on March 23, in response to ongoing faculty strikes at Njala University, among others. Faculty at several universities have been holding strikes, to protest unpaid wages and pensions, since October 2016 — the beginning of the academic year, after most students had paid their tuition fees. Sources indicate that students from Njala University marched without a permit through the streets of Bo, with some students reportedly burning tires, blocking roads, and engaging in vandalism. Police on the scene reportedly opened fire and launched tear gas at the students, in an effort to disperse them, which resulted in at least one student killed and many more injured. 35 protesters were reportedly arrested for allegedly destroying property, and were scheduled to appear in court the next day.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of excessive force in response to non-violent student expression.  While authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining order and protecting property, they must do so in ways that are proportional to the situation, minimize the risk of physical injury, and otherwise respect the right to free expression. Use of excessive force in response to alleged unrest unnecessarily increases risks of physical harm to individuals and undermines academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Scholars at Risk is likewise concerned about destructive actions taken in the course of student protests.  While students have the right to free expression, that right does not extend to violence or destruction of property – expressive activity must be undertaken in a manner that is consistent with university values including social responsibility.