Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And There Goes Conteh:
From Academia to Diplomacy
By:Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

It is December 2004. Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, former Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Liberia and former Chairman of the Department of Geography at Pennsylvania University in the United States is being inducted as President of the University of Liberia . UNMIL military personnel and artilleries have sandwiched the Capitol Hill to ensure the success of this occasion. He had taken over and had spent four years, though in a rough terrain and under tumultuous conditions, he leaves with pride and unfadable records to take over as Liberia ’s Ambassador to the Federal republic of Nigeria with oversight responsibility on Benin and Togo and Permanent Representative to ECOWAS.

Many knew just a little about his individual charisma and professionalism. So in 2004 upon his appointment by the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, they protested unsuspectingly, demanding the Chairman to withdraw his appointment and forge for another person to head the state-owned University of Liberia . Through the turbulence of institutional collapse at the University itself, weak state bureaucracy, inadequate financial and logistical support, traumatized citizenry, and with much condemnation, he braved the storm, surmounted the hilly terrains and took over the University. For some, he should have given up since in fact, he was inducted as President of the University of Liberia like a military leader because the vicinity of the University was surrounded with maximum fortification against protestors. But as a patriot harboring a strong vision for the recovery of his native land, as he had chosen to leave the prestigious University of Pennsylvania , nothing could weaken his resolve to serve the people in the revitalization of the education sector, mainly the University of Liberia . And so amidst the criticism and bullies he was inducted and he took over with enthusiasm presaging by exemplary leadership that he would prove his critics wrong. This he did and all have been united working with him successfully.

For the four years, Conteh was tempted by all that could make an ordinary caretaker to leave the University in disdain, but as a leader and true administrator, he successfully managed every temptation and hurdles to restore the credibility and professional status of the University. For many, an ordinary man could not just achieve what he achieved except with extraordinary characteristics with resilience, emotion control, tolerance, efficiency and credibility. His administration witnessed protests from all ends directly against his person - from students as well as from faculty members. But at all times there was no protest that directly pointed out any malfeasance or malpractice as a result of his leadership. Nearly all demanded his resignation or his removal, but all declined to expose his ‘shortcomings’. The fact that he could serve all the years under a transitional Government and the first half of a sitting government appraised for democracy and fight against corruption proves his innocence to the allegations against him at the University, and further strengthens his national status as a statesman.

The University of Liberia , like any other public institution that survived the civil war, was a relic of a collapsed body, with all previously functional centers decrepit. But Conteh’s reform package backed by the genuineness of his desire to serve, and the support of some men who see far ahead, resurrected the University and classes began effectively. Realizing the immediate human resource need of the country to fill the gap of brain drain created by the civil crisis, Conteh and his team introduced a trimester system to enable students complete degree programs in about three years. This system is still at the University, and only needs to be effective that this dream may be realized.

As a leader understanding that the capacity of students needs to be built by men who are by themselves fully capacitated, he introduced a program to ensure that professors and lecturers are well qualified to be at the University, and to strengthen the capacity of the lecturers, Conteh immediately intervened to increase salaries, allowances and benefits.

Under his leadership at the University of Liberia , the graduate programs at the University have been standardized with efficiency and more graduate programs have been initiated to address the professional needs of the country. The University of Liberia for the first time now has a Master Degree Program in Business Administration and a post-graduate diploma in peace studies and conflict resolution. The latter is soon to be elevated to a full master’s degree program.

Since the civil war spew its destructive venoms on the people of Liberia , the University of Liberia ’s Fendall Campus was in terrible ruins. This congested nearly 20,000 students on the capitol Hill campus, thereby creating problems in enrollment and even space for effective operation. But as a visionary leader, he and his team reopened Fendall Campus starting with the Science students utilizing the facilities and with a bilateral agreement with the Chinese to build and rehabilitate the facilities that it may accommodate as mush students as possible. He was also instrumental as an administrator to establish a US $ 1.4 million endowment fund for the University.

To enter into an art of just chronologically outlining Conteh’s four years achievements at the University, may take but another four years. But there he goes now in active diplomacy as Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If indeed one must attempt to calculate his accomplishments at the University of Liberia, his grade must not be limited to the University as a unit, but what the country will be in the years to come, because his service at the University was to make men that will restore, recover and rebuild this country with a united and educated people. This has already taken root, as we can see many Liberians (mainly young ones) taken over professional and leadership roles in both the public and private sectors.

One wonders as to what a man who has spent all of his time in the academia researching, teaching, and writing texts and policy papers for institutions could do in a diplomatic career and actualize the interest of his nation out there. But the strength of his imagination and the sharpness of his intellect give him the charismatic posture and administrative eloquence to fulfill that mission. He is going as an Ambassador whose understanding of leadership and administration can immensely contribute to the problems of the sub-region as he goes on to discharge multiple functions also as Liberia’s Permanent Representative to ECOWAS and with oversight responsibility over Benin and Togo.

As he always call for collaborative effort in achieving his objectives and visions as an administrator, like he called on government and international partners for support to the University and today the University is one of the institution with bright post war success story, Conteh has called for support as he takes on this new Herculean task: “I wish to request, Madam President, our Government’s unflinching and timely support in discharging my duties”. He had made this timely request as he takes the challenge after giving a historical overview of Liberia ’s relationship with Nigeria and ECOWAS. He declared: “In this context, my priorities will include implementing our country’s foreign policy by working with the Government of Nigeria to promote regional integration and the implementation of internationally Agreed Development within the context of the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS for the benefit of our people”.

Conteh leaves with a reputation and passion to work and teach in a way that all who know him will miss his service, but as a statesman, he must go where his country wants him to go. And so there he goes, the die had been cast, all has been done, the academician has been metamorphosed into a diplomat.

No comments: