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‘No campus spies’ pledge as Malawi university reopens

The main college of the University of Malawi is set to re-open on 14 November after an eight-month wrangle over academic freedom that saw protests and academics sacked.

On 26 October, Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, said that he had been “gravely concerned” by the indefinite closure of the university and that four academics sacked at the height of the tussle should be reinstated without any conditions.

He said he was guaranteeing academic freedom as contained in lecturers’ conditions of service.

“Government has never and will never place spies in classrooms or within the campuses of University of Malawi,” said Mutharika, who is also vice-chancellor of the university.

Chancellor College, in the southern city of Zomba, has been closed since 16 February 2011.

The row was sparked by the 12 February decision by the inspector general of police, Peter Mukhito, to summon associate political science professor Blessings Chinsinga for questioning about the contents of a lecture.

Chinsinga had reportedly likened the causes of insurrections that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt to current shortages of fuel and foreign exchange reserves in Malawi.

Lecturers protested, tensions rose and wa Mutharika sacked Chinsinga; law professor Garton Kamchedzera; Jesse Kabwila-Kapasula, the acting president of Chancellor College’s Academic Staff Union; and Franz Amin, the union’s secretary general.

The University of Malawi carries out theoretical and applied research in its five faculties of law, humanities, education, social sciences and sciences at Chancellor College, and Kabwila-Kapasula said the closure had impacted academic research: “Research has suffered because of time constraints.

“We have been busy fighting the evils of University of Malawi Council and government that has come in the form of tying to freeze our salaries, close the college and fire us,” she added.

Kabwila-Kapasula said that for months academics had been attending court and marching almost every day to demand academic freedom.

“We had to meet to sustain our solidarity and have update meetings every day, which took a lot of time,” she said.

They also had to handle the media, she said, leaving no time or energy for research work.

The Malawi authorities confiscated Kabwila-Kapasula’s passport, causing her to miss three international conferences.

Kabwila-Kapasula said that without going into class she could not generate research and interact with other scholars.

“I think as we open, our priority will be teaching and the research will have to be picked up from there,” she said.

She told Research Africa that there were plans to hold a symposium on academic freedom on 14 February 2012 so that academics could learn from this experience from a research perspective.

Similarly, Mwiza Nkhata, a law lecturer at the university, told Research Africa before the decision to reopen the university that he could not engage in meaningful teaching when he had to spend hours preparing for court appearances.

“Generally, the ambience for scholarship has vanished from this place as the struggle deepens. Maybe that is the price we have to pay to uphold the principles we hold dear,” said Nkhata.

Chancellor College has about 200 members of staff, of whom 165 are registered union members.

The staff union deputy president, Timothy Biswick, has given an assurance that staff were ready to resume teaching.