A Changing Makeni in a Changing Sierra Leone: The Context of UNIMAK’s Creation and Consolidation

The city of Makeni lies at the heart of the northern province of Sierra Leone. Its population was roughly 80,000 at the beginning of the present decade, and it has seen rapid change since the end of the civil war in 2002 (Workman 2011, 54). In the years immediately after the civil war, the city was a community frustrated by the lack of economic development, dearth of employment opportunities, and absence of basic services in their town (Bolten 2008). Recently, however, Makeni and its hinterland have become the scene of extensive activity and investment by foreign multinational corporations. This has inspired a certain degree of optimism about the economic future of the area, even while it has had to deal with persistent problems of poverty and underdevelopment. These problems are not unrelated to the historic underprovision of educational infrastructure in the region (Bolten 2008, 35, 170).

The entrance to the town straddles the Azzolini highway, named after the first Catholic bishop of Makeni. About 40 minutes outside of Makeni, the highway passes by an experimental plantation owned by the Addax Corporation. This Swiss-based multinational corporation was previously involved in oil production, but is now attempting to develop an interest in biofuels, which will mean the diversion of local agricultural land to the production of ethanol. For this and related reasons, the project is controversial (Millar 2015, cites it as a local example of the global land rush, a phenomenon with a strong potential for adverse outcomes for local communities). Makeni’s infrastructure has undergone some refurbishment: the town was recently connected to the country’s national electricity grid, and now enjoys a constant electricity supply, making increased economic activity possible (some local institutions, including hospitals still lack electric light at the time of writing). Today, there are six different banking institutions operating in Makeni—a strong contrast with the 1980s, when the only bank in the town had ceased operations due to the lack of demand for its services. The area of the town directly adjacent to the main UNIMAK campus,1 on the Azzolini highway, contains several enterprises of the kind that have emerged in the town as economic growth there has surged. These include an enterprise dealing in the motorbikes that are used by ocada2 motorbike taxi riders, a Lebanese-owned supermarket, and several bars and restaurants. Behind this strip of businesses stands the main campus of UNIMAK. On the opposite side of the highway stands a densely packed row of market stalls and small kiosks, which continues around the poda-poda (minibus) depot at the junction onto the Lunsar road, the street that leads into the center of Makeni town. Every evening at dusk, the highway is thronged with large trucks and earthmovers, the vehicles that the mining corporations require to transport the minerals they extract from Sierra Leone.

The contrast between this burgeoning economic activity and the persistence of poverty is something well known to members of the UNIMAK community. One informant, who was both a lecturer at UNIMAK’s department of Development Studies and a member of Makeni town council, told me that youth unemployment was a key problem with which the council had to deal, and that dealing with this problem inevitably involved liaising with the big foreign multinational corporations that are (at least in part) transforming the economic face of Sierra Leone. The UNIMAK has also had some contact with these multinational corporations, whose intervention in Sierra Leone has led to both economic growth, and to conflict.3 One aspiration of the university has been to enhance the local level of skills in Makeni, the northern region, and in Sierra Leone as a whole. This is not only related to the aspiration to produce a new cadre of educated professionals who can find management positions in the local operations of the new biofuels and mining corporations: it can also be seen as part of an effort to help Sierra Leone join the “knowledge economy.” The concept of the knowledge economy has become one of the most widespread tropes in discussions of development strategies in Africa today, and focuses on the relationship between technology and economic growth, which is seen as the crucial fulcrum of economic development in the twenty-first century, both in Africa as a whole and in Sierra Leone (World Bank 2001, 53; Kargbo 2011, 63). Vice-Chancellor Turay alluded to it more than once in my hearing; it was not, however, the only trope present at the campus.

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