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I am privileged once again to participate in a ceremony recognizing the achievement of men and women, individuals who have been equipped to help make the dreams and aspirations of this country come true. Indeed, I always look forward to every available opportunity to be directly involved in the activities of this great institution. This is not just because of my status as its Chancellor, but also an admirer of its unique tradition as a torch bearer in the promotion of excellence in sub-Saharan Africa.

I am therefore, particularly gratified that I have the privilege to preside over another Convocation ceremony of the University as Chancellor. I cannot ask for a better job!

My respect for, and admiration of this great institution, which has earned our nation international recognition, is also extended to you Mr. Vice-Chancellor, Principals, Heads of Institutes, Faculty, Staff and students, who have strived to maintain the legacy and integrity of the University under difficult conditions in the recent past, particularly over the ten years of conflict in our country.

You have had to work under unattractive conditions of service and appalling physical environment. You have been subjected to terror; and some of you to physical abuse during the course of the conflict. In spite of all this, you have persevered in the service of the University.

I would like you to know that the people of this country acknowledge and appreciate your sacrifice, as well as the sacrifice of those who, because of their particular circumstances had to leave the University or even the country. I know that many of those who had to leave still have a strong commitment to the University, and are in many ways making significant contributions to the institution and the country as a whole. It is my fervent hope that before long they will find it possible to rejoin us.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, it is against this background that I regard those receiving degrees, diplomas and certificates as having special abilities. The value of their diplomas is beyond measure, as they symbolize a victory against all odds. I salute them.

The conferment of degrees and approval of the award of diplomas and certificates in an environment such as ours should always be regarded as a significant triumph over adversity, a victory against all odds.

The accomplishment of the graduands here today, represents a true measure of success, as one distinguished Sierra Leonean noted when he said, and I quote: "The real successful individual is someone who uses stumbling blocks and other obstacles as stepping stones in pursuit of his or her goals and objectives."

As Head of State and Government, I have a special interest in the crop of people that are coming through the University and its constituent colleges today. The exceptional discipline, hard work and commitment which have been seen through their studies are essential qualities that this country needs to address the immediate post-conflict challenges now confronting us. I am indeed pleased to note that in you, graduands, we have a vital resource with which to undertake this giant task.

In the past twelve months, student enrollment has increased. There have also been impressive strides in the range of academic, technical and professional programmes offered to students, and the revitalization and development of new institutional linkages. We have also seen some modest improvement in the infrastructure of the constituent colleges. Among other noteworthy developments is the first batch of Bachelor of Science degree graduates in Financial Services, and a high number of graduands at the Masters' and two at the PhD degree levels.

Current effort by the University to create more postgraduate training programmes is clearly manifested in today's Congregation. This trend must continue in view of easy access to relevant teaching materials and the high cost of sending Sierra Leoneans abroad for specialist training. Such institutional strategies will also enable the University to make use of its available capabilities, enrich its academic programmes, and contribute more effectively to the human resources needs of the nation.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, we acknowledge the fact that in spite of its meagre resources and other constraints, the University has continued, as you described it sometime ago, "to fulfill its mission firmly grounded on the tripartite objectives of relevance, quality and service."

However, you will agree with me that yours is a continuous one. As I told the new session of the University Court just over a week ago, the university should epitomize flexibility and adaptability. New visions, new imperatives and new challenges continue to emerge. The viability of the University is reflected in its ability to respond to those new challenges. In this regard, we are encouraged by its response to the emerging needs of the nation, based on the theme education for national development. We welcome the impressive initiatives under way to restructure university programmes and courses. I understand that courses are being re-oriented on the basis of current and future of human resources needs, and that new courses are also being introduced to provide a more realistic approach to the development of our nation.

Of course, much more remains to the done. For instance, the University has realized that it should continue to nurture the budding links it is now establishing with institutions abroad. In this connection, you may be interested to know that during my recent visit to the United States, I had the opportunity of initiating what we hope will result in a new relationship between Yale University and the University of Sierra Leone. As a complement to this initiative, I am confident that the University will continue to encourage Sierra Leonean academics abroad to come home and serve in the capacities of visiting fellows and professors for one or two terms. Meanwhile, Government is determined to improve the conditions of service of faculty and staff, to arrest the brain drain while encouraging the University to attract qualified and dedicated Sierra Leoneans and non-nationals to the University.

Our experience as a post-conflict state has further depleted our human resource base. Even before the conflict, there was a paucity of human resources in critical areas, including medical and allied sciences, technical and vocational skills and management skills, in legal drafting, programme formulation and management of civil service reform.

A Human Resources Tracer Study carried out by UNDP in July 1998 revealed that about 80 per cent of professionals from all institutions and organizations fled the country after the May 25 1997 coup, in addition to 10 to 15 per cent who had already left the country as the war raged on. The most seriously affected areas were the University and other tertiary institutions, the medical profession and secondary schools.

The UNDP study found that a total of 323 professionals were resident in Guinea, while 474 were resident in the Gambia. These comprised mainly of teachers, accountants, engineers, nurses, bankers, and civil servants. Additionally, it is believed that a significant number of professionals have also migrated to Europe, America and other parts of the world. The Government is determined to revitalize the economy as a basis for improving support to the University to address the problem of the brain drain.

At the same time we cannot over-emphasize the need for the University to pursue more vigorously its strategy for strengthening partnership with the private sector, with commerce and industry and other constituencies here at home. This will no doubt help generate resources to supplement Government subventions to the constituent colleges and institutes of the University.

I am sure there is scope for our University to strengthen its research capability, especially in areas of immediate and long-term relevance to the development of our nation. Opportunities created by recent advancements in science and technology, especially in information and communication technology should be tapped to ensure that the institution is equipped to cope with the hi-tech challenges of the 21st. century. The establishment of computer centres in the various campuses is one small but bold step in that direction.

While we acknowledge and commend you for your achievements, we are certainly not in a position to declare that the mission of the University is accomplished. On the contrary, as these granduands move into other environments and venture into new horizons -- in the workplace, or in academia for further studies -- we must remember that there are thousands of their compatriots who are outside, waiting to enter these institutions of enlightenment. They will be coming with their own special needs, their own expectations, even their own demands -- all of which may be dictated by the imperatives of modern science and technology, and social equality. Of course there are thousands of others out there who will never have an opportunity to enter these institutions. They too expect the University to reach out to them.

Are you prepared for this new challenge? Are you ready to help them meet their expectations? Are you equipped to assume these responsibilities?

Underlying these questions are some of the most profound challenges our nation has failed to address effectively over the years. These are the challenges of creating and maintaining a fair, secure and prosperous society. This calls for a society where those that have the privilege to govern are responsive to the needs of the citizens of the country without regard to family connections, tribal, regional, religious, political or other forms of social affiliations. It also necessary that we ensure that the fundamental values of merit and diligence form the main criteria for career advancement and success in everything we do.

However, over the years we created and maintained a society that institutionalized injustice, mediocrity, corruption and influence peddling. It should have come as no surprise that at some point there would be a public mobilization to correct these ills and their corrosive effect on our society. It is however unfortunate that the activities undertaken by several well-meaning groups in society to effect peaceful change were overtaken by a violent rebellion that exacerbated the misfortunes of our already distressed nation.

In this connection, it is instructive to recall the testimony of a young ex-combatant boy in Kailahun who was abducted by the RUF at the age of about 8 years. He explained on national TV that when he was captured he was first given what was said to be IDEOLOGY. This was before he was trained to kill. The content of the ideological instruction included the charge that the country was being run by people who, without any regard for the needs and feelings of others, were using the country's enormous natural resources only for their own comfort, and that of their families. And that the rest of society was relegated to a permanent state of illiteracy and poverty.

While there may be some element of truth in this so-called ideology that fact cannot in any way be used as a justification for the carnage unleashed on the people of this country. There are a number of salient lessons that can be learnt from the statement by that young man. One such lesson is that anyone who is entrusted with public responsibility should not justify the charge contained in that ideology, rather, he should discharge his public trust faithfully, honestly, and transparently for the common good. It is the responsibility of Government to ensure that citizens of this country are not manipulated by unpatriotic individuals in the way this young boy was manipulated.

The fundamental message embedded in the questions that I have posed is that we must be prepared to re-inculcate and strengthen the patriotism of every Sierra Leonean at all levels of society. This applies to all of us in whatever station in life we find ourselves.

Admittedly, it is not for the University alone to take on this challenge although its role in this regard is crucial. It is an assignment that the rest of society should commit itself to execute with an enlightened leadership of Government. For the University, the re-introduction of a department for extra-mural activities would be a significant step in this direction. In the 1960s, such programmes were delivered by the University not only to those in the capital, but throughout the country. This greatly augmented the formal educational system and enhanced the literacy rate in our society.

In a similar vein, I am gratified that the majority of ordinary Sierra Leoneans are prepared to reconcile with the ex-combatant population, as a first and critical step to achieving lasting peace. I would urge that this display of patriotism and sense of reconciliation are maintained and further strengthened.

Government recognizes that the entire population has rightly demonstrated a craving for democracy and good governance. We are aware of our responsibility as leaders to make sure that this need is fulfilled. We are committed to it. This, in my Government's view, is a prerequisite for realizing our collective aspirations for national stability and prosperity. In this regard, my Government is fervently working to create and strengthen vital democratic institutions, For example, the Ant-Corruption Commission which was created to counter the pervasive incidence of corruption in this country, is gradually making a positive impact in our society. In this way we would undo the "ideology" taught to that young ex-combatant to whom I have just referred.

Government's determination to hold free and fair elections in May 2002 remains firm. We are honouring our obligation to provide the necessary financial and logistical resources in support of this process. The Government has also sought financial assistance from external sources to ensure that the elections are conducted at the agreed date. We have also requested technical assistance in the form of personnel experienced in the conduct of elections, to assist the Electoral Commission is carrying out its mandate with integrity. I therefore encourage every Sierra Leonean to exercise their franchise and to consolidate the democratic gains we have fought to achieve over the last few years. I take this opportunity to reiterate what I have said on several occasions, namely, that as good citizens we should regard the elections as a mere friendly contest, not a war. We should also learn to live together in peace, even though we do not share the same views on all political issues.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, this Congregation coincides with two important related developments. These are developments that will indirectly, but in the near future substantially contribute to the advancement of education and other social services in our country. The first is the recent decision by the Paris Club of creditors to cancel about $72 million of our debt to the member nations of the Club. External debt-servicing has placed a heavy burden on the economy. This is a development that we cannot afford to ignore. This is because in real terms, it means that Government's ability to devote more resources to social services such as health and education is significantly enhanced.

The second important development that I believe is of importance to the University is the significant progress we have made in the peace process since the last Congregation. Obviously, the University cannot thrive in an environment of political and economic instability or one that is incessantly plagued by armed conflict. Peace facilitates the pursuit of knowledge. If, as we all know from experience, and as I have already stated, the University's work has been adversely affected by the 10-year rebel war, it goes without saying that the University stands to gain from what we have achieved so far in the disarmament and demobilization of ex-combatants. We should all welcome this acceleration of the peace process, and the renewed prospects for sustainable peace.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, as I have noted earlier, peace facilitates the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge, on the other hand, should be used to promote sustainable peace and reconciliation.

I would like to assure you that as Chancellor, I fully share the vision of the University of Sierra Leone in the new century. I am firmly committed to working with you in pursuit of that vision.

To our graduands I extend my warmest congratulations once again, and wish you all every success in your future undertakings. And if I may offer one word of advice, be proud of what you have accomplished, but remember that in the pursuit of knowledge, in the search for truth, you've only just begun. Congratulations!

I thank you all.