Cuttington president seeks help in US for Liberian college

( [email protected] ) Jul 07, 2003 03:13 AM EDT

Dr. Henrique F. Tokpa is a college president, but his professional life is about as far from the ivory towers of academia as it is possible to get. He is the president of Liberia's Cuttington University College, established by the Episcopal Church in 1889--and for many years caught in a war zone.

For most of the past year, Cuttington, based in the central Liberian town of Suacoco--a site of extensive rebel activity--has been forced to hold classes in the capital of Monrovia, as the government of President Charles Taylor and forces calling themselves Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) fight for control of the West African country.

Liberia, a country of three million established by freed American slaves more than 150 years ago, has suffered 14 years of near-constant civil war. Lutheran World Service officials report that it is believed that more than 750,000 people have been displaced by the war throughout the country. No death toll has been confirmed, but it is believe that several hundred people have been killed just in the latest fighting.

LURD troops currently hold more than 60 percent of the country and are pressing hard on Monrovia. According to the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), has occupied the southeast of the country since March.

At peace talks held in Accra, Ghana, a cease-fire was negotiated June 17, which included provisions for Taylor's resignation (Taylor's term as president ends in January 2004). But Taylor, who faces a 17-count indictment for war crimes from the United Nations Special Court, has reneged on his promise, and there are growing calls for the United States to lead a multinational intervention force under chapter VII of the UN Charter, particularly given the historic ties between the US and Liberia. President George W. Bush, who will visit West Africa July 7-12, has urged Taylor to step down.

Tokpa's manner is pleasant and friendly, but there is a weariness behind his smile that betrays the burden of trying to administer an institution of higher education in a world that seems bent on teaching only the arts of war. ENS deputy director Jan Nunley interviewed him after a day of meetings at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

ENS: What's the situation at Cuttington right now? Is everyone safe, as far as you know?

Tokpa: Even though we have transferred classes from the main campus in Suacoco and reestablished in Monrovia, we had classes until last week when fighting was renewed in the city. I have been in contact with my staff every day, twice a day, finding out what the situation has been. Everyone is well; there has been no harm, except for our public relations officer [Ted Brown] who was at the Greystone building when a shell landed there. The Greystone is the building owned by the United States [the US Embassy compound]. He didn't get hurt. He immediately left the area with his family. Everything is fine.

ENS: What kind of relationship does Cuttington have with the Charles Taylor government?

Topka: With regards to the relationship of the church and the state, I think it's cordial. The government needs Cuttington. The government supports about one-fifth of our students; it has a large amount of students there, mainly those who serve in the military who decide to go back to school, and they are pretty good students. They have no intention of going back to the front. They are on scholarship. In most cases they told us what was coming up and we were prepared to take the kind of safety measures that we needed. The government supported our fundraising effort to appeal to the Taiwanese government to try to get some money to fix up the university.

So there has been pressure on us to open when we felt it was not safe to open and we have stood up to that, especially when I met the president on May 13 and we had a discussion on that issue, because he wanted us to go back on the campus and I felt it was not safe and we were not going to put at risk the students. But he understood after some talk.

As far as that's concerned, our staff have not been harassed by any of the groups. We hope that remains the case.

ENS: How do you keep educating students in the midst of this?

Tokpa: It's hard to describe, but you have a situation where those who are willing to learn will ask you, 'Come and teach us.' They're willing to go to school. You have no choice but to teach them, except that you have to do what you can to provide a kind of atmosphere for learning. We have a staff counseling program in our student services; we try to identify students who have problems. If, for example, we find out they are dropping their studies or they are not coming to school, something is wrong, we will counsel them. And they take advantage of the counseling services.

Cuttington is a small school. Almost all the teachers know all the students and they come to their homes for help; when they have personal problems, they share. That's how Cuttington was set up, to be a small Episcopal college that would have person-to-person contact, and not be situated in a major city where there's no contact among the teachers and the students.

So that has helped a whole deal. We also have a religious life. The Rev. Dr. Tomba is the head of the Epiphany Chapel at Cuttington, also the head of the theology department. He helps churches, he holds services, those who need to go to church, those who need to pray, he prays with them.

So far things have been working out. We just hope that this nightmare will finish and we'll go back to doing what we do best.

ENS: What's the feeling about the ability of the US to intervene in this longstanding conflict?

Tokpa: To be honest, it's a very bad feeling for most Liberians. Most Liberians feel closer to the United States than the United States feels close to them. There have been a lot of instances where they could have intervened, and just a pronouncement, we believe, would have ended this nightmare.

That hasn't happened. In fact, I think it was yesterday [June 26] that there was some demonstration where the civilians just got annoyed and took a couple of bodies and went and dumped them before the US Embassy, and said you cannot sit on the sea and have your Marines. Liberia has a close tie with the United States, a lot of the officials there. A large percentage of our population has relationships here. They trace their background here up to now. And we feel that what the French did in the Ivory Coast by intervening, and what the British did in Sierra Leone by intervening, the United States has more reason to intervene in Liberia than those other nations had to intervene in their former colonies. But we just cannot understand why, why that hasn't happened.

ENS: You're here in New York to obtain some support for Cuttington from the Episcopal Church.

Tokpa: Actually, I know times are hard here with the church, but I came to see whether I could get some money. We do have a little money in our account. We haven't paid our staff since April and I was trying to see how we could get some money to pay them because the bank is closed in Liberia, we cannot get money out, and we have a little amount of money in the Chase Manhattan Bank here. I do not have access to it because my bishop [Edward Neufville], who is a co-signatory to that account, was not here, but he has now come.

There was other money that would have been released by next week, but I came to try to see if I could have them release it earlier so that I can give at least fifty percent salary relief to my people. Since we don't have relief services, at least we can have access to the little money that we have. That would help. I was told that would be possible, that we'll get some of that money, and we are working out the details as to how to get it to Ghana, for me to go there and pick it up and try to get it back to Liberia. We hope everything will work out.

ENS: What can Episcopalians do for Cuttington?

Tokpa: We just want everyone to pray for us. We need prayers, because the point where things are now, I think prayer would do. And that's what carries us, a great deal of faith and belief that things will be all right. We are just asking for people to pray for us and any kind of help that anyone can give to help us rebuild the only Episcopal college in West Africa, to help us rebuild and carry on our work.

--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.