#FireHabib: Why students at SOAS are protesting against Adam Habib

Students’ demands are clear: “Fire Habib”

SOAS students are demanding the university “Fire Habib”, following the decision of an independent enquiry to declare him not guilty of racism.  

In early March, SOAS made headlines when director Adam Habib used the n-word in an all student meeting. The university saw widespread outrage and objections from societies, students and staff. Multiple societies issued statements on social media channels, departments sent out emails, students set up a petition, and wrote letters to the board of trustees. UNISON staff voted no confidence in Habib and the SU held a vote which condemned Habib’s use of the word in solidarity with the black community at SOAS.

In response, the board of trustees temporarily suspended Habib and set up an independent enquiry into his actions.  However, the results saw Habib reinstated as the university’s director, and SOAS, a university whose student body has an established history of protest, are rejecting this verdict.

Since 5th May, when Habib’s reinstatement was announced, two sabbatical officers, the Co-Presidents for Democracy and Education and Welfare and Campaigns have stepped down from their positions on the SOAS Board of Trustees.

The Students’ Union has further issued a statement from the Black Student Body, outlining their outrage at Habib’s reinstatement as “Afriphobic, patronising, retraumatising and ignorant of the Black students’ pain”. They call for an apology with grass-led reparatory justice “that centres the harmed student and community, rather than the abuser”. Their demands are clear: “Fire Habib”. 

Despite exams, final assignment deadlines and Ramadan, posters circulated the university, setting plans for a protest on Monday 10th to object the Board of Trustees’ decision to reinstate the director. 

The protest which, in true SOAS-style, started late, saw both current students and alumni speakers from different societies contribute on Habib’s history, his actions, his reinstatement by the board, the university’s mistreatment of African students, and the intersections between these issues and broader issues on campus; the current violence in Palestine and the ethical issues and misuse of the PREVENT strategy on campus. 

The message was clear; students and alumni have deemed the independent inquiry “illegitimate” and believe that “Habib must go”.

In the period following Habib’s use of the racial slur, one speaker said: “The university has spent all its resources getting police-associated people to investigate themselves, and come back with a report claiming they suffered, and this is a lesson for them to learn”, adding that “not once has the board spoken to this young man” who initially posed the question to Habib regarding the university’s casual use of the word, and who has, as a result, had to defer his own degree.  

Banners read ‘The A in SOAS stands for Anti-Black”, and speakers from the Art and the African Mind outlined the paradox which decorated their outrage at Habib’s comments: SOAS’ issues with funding have resulted in a massive cut down on the BA African Studies modules, with the “Africa” section of the library not sustaining its own floor, yet funds are being directed towards employing Habib, a man who used the n-word openly in an open meeting with students.

Students acknowledge that the problem of racism on campus existed before Habib, but they assert that “the reason he is in power is because the continuation of this behaviour will be allowed under him” . 

Habib’s previous post in a South African university was a point of reference in the protest. In his previous post in response to students protesting against plans to raise fees, “Habib collaborated with the national guard, with police and thousands of cops were brought onto campus, they beat students and they shot them with rubber bullets, the President of the Students’ Union was shot 14 times in the back and that is how they defeated the Union”.

SOAS “knew this when they were hiring him, and they hired him anyway. That is the Board of Trustees, and that is the people that supposedly did the investigation into Adam Habib. If they were okay with him shooting students on campus, why wouldn’t they be okay with him saying racist slurs to students in an open meeting?”

Students expressed their fear of a director capable of inciting this violence, with little regret as he continues to justify the decisions he made in South Africa. As a student in his final year adds, Habib has also made it clear he has “no regrets about his use of the n-word as we saw in his 17-part non-apology on Twitter, no regrets about his conduct towards a Black African student, but we also know that history un-addressed repeats itself.

“He is boldened by the fact that he can act as a racist on this campus and not be held accountable, and we are going to hold him to account. Habib is harmful and dangerous but most importantly, Habib should not be taught by us. We are here to learn, we have paid fees to learn, Habib has not paid fees, yet he is now being educated by the university.”

The end of the protest saw students remain on the campus steps, and despite exams and the ongoing pandemic, there was a clear establishment of the beginning of a movement, set on Habib’s removal and a real, corrective and restorative justice process, focused on the welfare of students themselves.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• SOAS ‘investigating’ after uni director used the n-word at a student meeting

• SOAS union members vote no confidence in director Adam Habib

• SOAS Director who used ‘n-word’ found not guilty of racism