18 December 2013

Cote d'Ivoire: Universities - Still Caught Between Violence and Politics?


Closed for 15 months following the post-election crisis, during which they were the scenes of looting and fighting involving some students, the public universities of Côte d'Ivoire reopened in September 2012.

This reopening was accompanied by government measures aimed at rehabilitating and re-equipping the universities, and at containing the phenomenon of student violence.

The measures included the creation of a university police force and student unions signing the 'Alassane Salif N'Diaye Charter for non-violence in university settings'.

This charter came about after the attempted lynching of the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Ibrahima Cissé Bacongo, on 13 May 2013 by students of Félix Houphouët-Boigny University, and the ensuing clashes between students. It stipulates that students should follow to 'the exemplary practice of non-violence'.

Even though the charter appears to have brought some peace to campuses, the latest strike threat by a student's movement, the Ivorian League of Student Groupings (LIGES), has raised fears of a new outbreak of violence.

In analysing four distinct periods it becomes possible to trace the gradual emergence of campus violence, which has culminated in the use of machetes and guns.

Beginning in 1964, the government started using mostly psychological violence against students. In order to control the student population, the authorities created the National Union of Students and Pupils of Côte d'Ivoire (UNEECI), which all students had to join.

This movement quickly fell under the influence of Ivorian students in France, who were influenced by socialist-communist ideologies. UNEECI claimed freedom of association for the students, which led to the dissolution of the union in 1969 by then President Felix Houphouët-Boigny.

The same year, the government established the Pupil and Students Movement of Côte d'Ivoire (MEECI). This new union was conceived as a section of the ruling single party, the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI).

Its launch generated protests that were violently repressed. Many of the students protesting the union's subordination to the single-party regime were imprisoned. They were released only after writing a letter of repentance and promising to join the newly created union.

The second phase, during the 1990s, was marked by students' stronger reaction to state repression. This happened against the backdrop of students losing privileges as result of an economic crisis that severely reduced the capacity of the welfare state.

This situation, aggravated by the struggle for a multiparty democracy, set the stage for violence among students. The police's inability to contain the student demonstrations caused the army to intervene, with soldiers sometimes committing abuses.

There were also allegations that the government had recruited thugs to help the regular security forces.

Meanwhile, violence increased on campuses. This was mainly directed at students 'favoured' by the political authorities, while the demands of the majority of the students were not met.

The death on 13 June 1991 of Thierry Zébié, a staunch defender of state policies, was blamed on a crowd of students protesting his control of university residences. Other observers pointed the finger at the Students and Pupils of Côte d'Ivoire Federation (FESCI).

Launched on 21 April 1990, FESCI was dissolved on 21 June the following year by the government, which was in favour of a single student union. However, FESCI continued its activities to express its defiance.

The ongoing wrangle with the government resulted in the loss of the 1990-1991 academic year and the persecution of 'fescists'.

Eventually, the government agreed to negotiate with FESCI, bringing a temporary halt to the violence and making this association a major player in university-related issues.

The third phase covers the period from 1993 to 2000. Even though the state tolerated FESCI after the debacle that resulted in the loss of one academic year, it still did not have official recognition.

President Henri Konan Bédié, after the death of Houphouët-Boigny, refused to conduct any talks with the union. This decision encouraged the radicalisation of the movement, bringing it closer to the political opposition.

Seven 'fescists' were arrested in 1995 for their participation in an active boycott of the presidential election. In 1998, machetes were first used on campuses during clashes between students.

After the 1999 coup and the split of the Republican Front, which brought together the main opposition parties, a power struggle took place within FESCI between members close to opposition parties and those loyal to the ruling junta.

The last period began in 2000 with the coming to power of Laurent Gbagbo, a long-time 'fescist' ally. This marked the end of state repression as a response to student demands. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of FESCI's use of violence to intimidate and provoke.

In 2002, at the birth of the rebellion, FESCI set itself up as the defender of then President Gbagbo and conducted reprisals against students, teachers and members of the public suspected of supporting the rebel movement.

It emerged as a leading union and conducted a fierce struggle against the very unions that had been launched thanks to its fight against union monopoly.

The impunity it enjoyed during the decade from 2000 to 2010 turned FESCI into a mafia suspected of kidnapping, rape and even murder. Many FESCI members, some of whom are still in prison, were involved in the post-election crisis.

Other students groups have also been guilty of using violence. The General Association of Students of Côte d'Ivoire (AGEECI), the main rival of FESCI and based at the University of Bouaké, has also been involved in armed violence.

The history of the Ivorian student unions is closely linked to the political history of the country. Faced with the collapse of the welfare state, some students viewed politics as a means of social advancement.

The political and military crisis of 2002 promoted the political careers of former FESCI leaders, including Guillaume Soro, secretary general of the former rebel movement, and Charles Blé Goudé, president of the Pan-African Congress of Young Patriots (COJEP), a pro-Gbagbo youth group.

They were seen as models of success, if not from a moral perspective then at least financially. The often-heard statement 'relationships are better than degrees' illustrated the viewpoint that studies were no longer a sure way for success - aligning oneself with political leaders could be more productive.

With the approach of presidential elections scheduled for 2015, students' relationships with political parties of all sides should be closely watched.

The government should continue to improve university conditions to prevent student unions from returning to using violence to make their demands heard, as was the case in May 2013.

At the same time, the political class should realise the risks inherent in manipulating students. It is especially important that university lecturers avoid political propaganda.

As for the student unions' leaders, they should ensure the implementation of the Charter. Beyond these measures, an effective employment and integration policy for young people, without political distinction, should be drawn up and implemented.

Marie Emmanuela Kabran, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

The publication of this article was made possible by a grant from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.

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