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African Engineers: Dr E Bamfo Kwakye

Many people were surprised when in 1975 Bamfo Kwakye was appointed Vice Chancellor of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana. Prior to his promotion to the university’s top job, Bamfo Kwakye had been Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering but his academic status was still that of Associate Professor. Overtaking full professors in other faculties, Bamfo Kwakye’s appointment seemed destined to promote jealousy and discord, but in retrospect it can be seen that he was a worthy successor to his distinguished predecessors and presided over a difficult but significant phase of the university’s development.

Small, dark, bespectacled with a small moustache, Professor E Bamfo Kwakye possessed a sharp mind that was partly hidden by a characteristic pause that often preceded his response to any question or statement, almost as though every new issue took him a little by surprise. With large eyes behind powerful lenses, Bamfo Kwakye carried a permanent startled look. Though every inch an intellectual, his retiring manner befitted the role of a back-room scientist rather than that of a vice-chancellor. He may have lacked the presence and charisma of Dr Baffour or the urbane sophistication of Dr Evans-Anform, but Dr Bamfo Kwakye always knew where he was heading and succeeded in achieving most of what he planned.

Soon after taking office, Bamfo Kwakye was charged with the task of drawing up a five-year development plan for the university. This plan was expected to include the establishment of a northern campus for the university at Tamale in the Northern Region. As an integral part of the northern campus the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) proposed setting up an Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU), to help promote local small-scale industries like the ITTU to be established at Suame Magazine in Kumasi. However, in 1975, neither the Suame nor the Tamale ITTU projects had attracted funding support and Bamfo Kwakye used all the authority of his office to support the TCC Director’s appeals to the Government of Ghana and international development agencies.

After lobbying for the support of the Ashanti Regional Administration, the Ministry of Industries, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the Asantehene (King of Ashanti), the university eventually gained funding support for both projects in 1979. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided foreign support for the Suame ITTU, and the ITTU in Tamale formed part of a larger programme supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Bamfo Kwakye presided over the formal opening of the Suame ITTU in February 1981, an event attended by four government ministers, the Canadian High Commissioner and other dignitaries, as well as hundreds of artisans who earned their living in Ghana’s biggest informal industrial estate. The work in Tamale went ahead more slowly and by the time the Tamale ITTU was completed and formally opened in April 1988, Bamfo kwakye had retired as Vice-Chancellor.

Bamfo Kwakye’s second great mission was to establish a medical school at KNUST. Again he crusaded to win the support of the Government of Ghana and international development agencies. The World Health Organisation (WHO) judged Kumasi’s Komfo Anokye Hospital to be unsuitable as a teaching hospital, and numerous problems were raised by members of the Academic Board and University Council, but the energetic and far-seeing vice-chancellor was undeterred. Bamfo Kwakye had the satisfaction of seeing Ghana’s second medical school firmly established in Kumasi before his tenure of office came to an end in 1982.

Bamfo Kwakye’s achievements would have won him lasting distinction in the best of times but these were in many ways the worst of times. Ghana’s economy was in varying degrees of distress throughout his term in office, and the years 1978 to 1981 saw four changes of government and three military coups. A defining moment of Bamfo-Kwakye’s vice-chancellorship came shortly after Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings’ first coup in June 1979 when the young air force officer addressed a crowd of several thousand KNUST students and staff on the university’s sports ground.

Standing on the roof of his 4 x 4 vehicle the leader of the revolution asked the vice-chancellor to join him. Never was Bamfo Kwakye’s startled look so apparent as when he stood high on that precarious perch. Bravely he bore the torment while his companion denounced the corrupt managers and professionals who were said to be exploiting their authority in all public institutions, including the university. The sun was setting and dark shadows were sweeping across the sports ground, so the beleaguered vice-chancellor made good his descent to terra firma by suggesting that the gathering should reconvene in the Great Hall.

Bamfo Kwakye was happier when his feet were firmly on the ground and he provided a firm foundation for the university. He maintained the identity and independence of KNUST through severe political and economic storms that included invasions of the campus by the army and by miners from Obuasi gold field, as well as an attempted take-over of the university by a Workers’ Defence Committee (WDC). By succeeding in expanding and diversifying the role of KNUST in such turbulent times Bamfo Kwakye ensured that his vice-chancellorship will be remembered with honour, and be a source of inspiration for both academics and students in more peaceful times.

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