The weird story of the arrest of a Canadian education researcher in Uganda

By Valerie Strauss*

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni stands under an umbrella during his swearing-in ceremony in Kampala on May 12. (Gael Grilhot/AFP/Getty Images)
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni stands under an umbrella during his swearing-in ceremony in Kampala on May 12. (Gael Grilhot/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s one for the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up files: A Canadian doctoral student who was in Uganda to research the operations of a for-profit outfit called Bridge International Academies (BIA) was arrested after complaints about his work by the company.

Curtis Riep, the University of Alberta researcher, was in Uganda to research BIA’s operations for a study commissioned by Education International, a federation of 396 associations and unions in 171 countries and territories. He was arrested in late May by Ugandan police on charges of impersonating a BIA officer and trespassing, but he was cleared of all charges and released two days later. He has now returned to Calgary, but the episode has put a spotlight on the company and how it works.

BIA — which is supported by the World Bank; Pearson, the world’s largest for-profit education company; and billionaire education philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others — operates a chain of for-profit schools in a few African countries, charging what it says is an average of $5 a month to families for high-quality nursery and primary education in places where public education is poor or nonexistent.

Educators’ unions have been critical of for-profit companies opening schools in poor countries, saying that some of these schools are run by unqualified staff in inadequate facilities. Shortly before the May arrest, BIA’s plans to expand operations in Uganda were halted by the government.

BIA complained to Uganda authorities about Riep, and he was arrested and questioned by police for two days. Riep and his supporters — including several teachers’ federations from various countries, including Uganda — said the charges were false and that Riep had been “set up” by BIA to keep their operations secret.

Fred van Leeuwen, secretary general of Education International, sent a letter to BIA co-founder Shannon May on June 6 saying in part (you can see it in full here):

We are shocked by the actions of your company, Bridge International Academies Ltd., in Uganda, against Mr. Curtis Riep, a Canadian researcher, undertaking a study commissioned by Education International. This study follows serious concerns that our International has received from a number of our member organisations concerning your operations in their countries. We are appalled that Bridge International Academies Ltd. published a ‘wanted’ advertisement in New Vision on 24 May 2016 accusing Mr. Riep of impersonating one of your employees. That allegation, together with the allegation of criminal trespass, which led to the arrest of Mr. Riep, were both dismissed following a thorough investigation by the authorities. Your actions have been exposed as not only unwarranted, but also irresponsible.

May sent a reply to van Leeuwen on June 7, which you can see in full here, saying that the company had been told that “a gentleman was making his way into various school grounds falsely impersonating a senior Bridge International Academies staff member.” It also said in part:

When we received word that an unknown foreign gentleman had visited a number of our academies under false pretense you can imagine our alarm and immediate fear for our pupils. We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect our children. Every parent expects that the school their children attend will protect their safety. Teachers also expect that the school at which they work will ensure that they are able to teach and lead their class without intervention.

Quoting Riep, an Educational International statement said:

“[Bridge] definitely orchestrated the whole thing. Literally two minutes after I sat down with executives from Bridge for an interview, their ‘detective’ and two police officers were there to arrest me,” recalled Riep of his 30 May arrest in email correspondence. “In the car that took me to the police station there was a lawyer from Bridge. When we arrived at the police station four media outlets were already there to snap photos of me.”

Heather Smith, president of the Canadian Teachers Federation, said in a statement:

“BIA’s attempt at intimidation demonstrates how the company fears transparency about its own operations. We know their practices have been the subject of significant criticism, including the employment of unqualified staff delivering a scripted standardised curriculum in inadequate school facilities.”

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