Bad Education: The Politics of Fake Degrees in Sierra Leone

Youth artist Rousno calls for more education and human rights for children. 2012
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On the 26th March 2022, Dominion Christian University (DCU) located in Waterloo, Sierra Leone was seen in a video conferring fake honorary PhDs to Sierra Leoneans under mango trees. On 16th March,  The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) stated in a press release that the institution is “not accredited to operate in Sierra Leone” and directed them to cancel their planned award ceremony. The DCU ignored the commission, arguing that they are globally recognised and registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission in Sierra Leone and the Western Area Rural District Council. These claims are however not legitimate as noted by TEC.

This shameful incident went viral and was accessed by thousands of social media users in Sierra Leone and abroad. After seeing the video of DCU Vice-Chancellor, Dr Ezekiel Bangura, awarding fake PhD degrees to their students, the Police apprehended him and went ahead to close their structure. The situation has attracted public debate surrounding fraud degrees and fake institutions illegally operating in Sierra Leone. Critical questions have been posed: When did the TEC realise that the institution is not accredited to work in Sierra Leone? Why was the institution not stopped from operating all this while? What could have been done by TEC and the Ministry of Higher Education? How long has the institution worked in the country?

A critical question that we need to ask ourselves is what impact does this scandal have on the integrity of the academic system in Sierra Leone and elsewhere? For academic institutions, fake degrees are associated with reputational risk. It damages the reputations of such universities and affect the productivity of students and graduates who falsify their credentials. For a country, fake academic qualifications can enhance a lack of accountability, insufficient regulatory checks, increased bureaucratic interferences, and promote systemic corruption, as Bakshi revealed. For employers, hiring individuals with fake qualifications poses reputational damage  and could lead to loss of revenue and corruption. The most worrying implication for the issuance of fake academic qualifications is that it destroys the quality of education in society. So what next for Sierra Leone?

The Academic Staff Association – University of Sierra Leone (ASA-USL), in a press release dated the 5th April 2022, noted that they are “appalled by various media publications on the illegal award of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees to Sierra Leoneans by some suspicious institutions operating both locally and internationally.” They furthered that what is of particular concern to them is that some of these fraud institutions “have been operating in the country publicly and arrogating to themselves the authority to award higher degrees (e.g. PhD) to prominent persons highly placed in the public and private sector.” The Conference of Vice-Chancellors and Principals Sierra Leone (CVCP-SL), in a press release dated the 7th April 2022, also noted “with utter disappointment the events of 26th March 2022, leading to the award of degrees by one Dominion Christian University in Waterloo, with its attendant public reaction…The CVCP-SL regards this as a total mockery of; and a disdain for genuine academic achievement, to which the Conference stands dissociated.”

The issue of fraud institutions in Sierra Leone is not new. By the end of the brutal civil war in 2002, several fake colleges and universities, including St. Clement University (eventually closed by the government) emerged. The DCU fraud convocation has thus compelled critical citizens to investigate suspicious academic institutions and fake degrees.

A Facebook user by the name of Dr John Idris Lahai, who was a former lecturer at the Peace and Conflict Department at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, has brought to the attention of Sierra Leoneans the academic fraud involving the country’s Inspector General (IG) of Police, Mr Ambrose Michael Sovula and other prominent Sierra Leoneans including the Country’s Clerk of Parliament, Umarr Paran Tarawallie. He pointed out that the Inspector General of Police is not a PhD holder. His doctorate was conferred to him by a so-called Africa Graduate University (AGU) in Uganda. Findings from concerned Sierra Leoneans revealed that AGU is not a recognised university in Uganda. This issue is suspicious because the students belonging to the institution are all Sierra Leoneans and none are from Uganda or East Africa, where they claim to exist. In response, the AGU, in a press release dated 4th April 2022, claimed that “the Africa Graduate University is an online university and a legal entity registered by the Government of Uganda with a certificate of incorporation (REG: 80010003632175 9under section 18(3) of the Company Act 2012)”. It further claimed that “the AGU-International is accredited by Accreditation Services for International Schools, Colleges, and Universities (ASIC) in the United Kingdom.” Are these claims legitimate? The TEC in Sierra Leone has dismissed such claim and warned that anyone with degree from AGU must note that such degree is not recognised in Sierra Leone.

What is Sierra Leone’s Government’s response to this situation? In a press release dated 8th April 2022, the Tertiary Education Commission noted that their attention has been drawn to the press release issued by the AGU and clearly stated that “the TEC wishes to inform the general public that AGU is not accredited and/or recognised in Sierra Leone. Anyone in possession of their degrees should understand that such degrees should not be used for gainful and other purposes in Sierra Leone.”

This awkward situation has compelled both public and private institutions to audit the academic credentials of their members. The CVCP-SL has called for an audit to authenticate the credentials of all staff working in public and private higher learning institutions. The National Revenue Authority (NRA) has, in a memo dated 12th April 2022, requested the submission of all academic certificates of its staff. This could be the beginning of a massive war against academic fraud and illegal bodies. On 26th April 2022, the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education, Public Service Commission, Human Resource Management Office, TEC, and the Head of the Civil Service/Cabinet Secretariat published a joint communique on unaccredited universities and the awarding of fake degrees in Sierra Leone. They acknowledged the impact of such malpractice on the country’s education system and committed to addressing this challenge.

However, what has left many Sierra Leoneans asking critical questions is the role of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in this scandal. In a radio interview, the Sierra Leone ACC Commissioner, Francis Ben Kaifala, dismissed the role of the ACC, arguing that the matter is for the Police to investigate. Interestingly, the Police IG is at the centre of this academic fraud allegation, making the matter complex. Criticising the response of the ACC commissioner, Rashid Dumbuya, Executive Director of Legal Link and former state prosecutor at the ACC-SL, argued that the involvement of many government officials in the PhD scandal could have been the reason for the ACC’s investigation based on the presumption of corruption. He also cited a situation wherein a foreigner with a PhD who the government appointed to head an academic institution had his credentials investigated by the ACC. So what is special about the current situation? In a recent development, however, the ACC has, on 19th April 2022, called for all Public Sector Institutions to immediately conduct an academic credentials verification and audit.

In a similar situation in South Africa, ANC MP Pallo Jordan was investigated after revelations showed he had acquired a fake doctorate. His party was at the forefront of the scrutinisation. Out of shame, Pallo Jordan resigned his position as Member of Parliament. Another similar instance is German Education Minister Annette Schavan quitting her role as Minister of Education over a PhD plagiarism Scandal.

Other African countries have also experienced the issue of fake degrees and fraud within their education sector. It was reported that in May 2015, South African authorities shut down 42 fake higher learning institutions that were offering fake and unaccredited programs, including three bogus, supposedly US-based universities offering degrees in 15 days. In a 2012 anonymous survey among 475 students in three East African universities, about a third of the students admitted to plagiarism and falsification of references, 25 percent to collusion in an examination to communicate answers, and 5 percent to impersonating someone else in an examination. Research by Garwe (2015) assessing academic fraud claims in Zimbabwe revealed that there was indeed an increase in credential fraud involving both academic and professional awards and recognitions.

African Countries should therefore enhance robust mechanisms to strengthen integrity among their higher learning institutions and drive towards eradiating fake institutions and fraud qualifications. Specifically, education ministries and tertiary education commissions/agencies should set up systems to authenticate local, international, and online degrees. Institutions that are not accredited must be barred and prosecuted. Employers must adopt competency-based interviews as a means of validating individual qualifications. Both public and private institutions should conduct a comprehensive audit of the academic credentials of their members. As Nelson Mandela asserted, “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. Hence, there should be no room for compromise within the education sector.

Ibrahim Barrie (@ibarrie44) teaches Research and Public Policy at the University of Makeni and is a regular contributor to DIA/The Continent.

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