When demands are a part of education

March 13, 1998

Africa's francophone campuses need rescuing if learning is to go on.

Thirty years ago most students from francophone Africa studied in France. Since the 1970s many countries in the region have set up "autonomous" universities for their citizens who could not get into French universities.

The drastic devaluation of the CFA Franc in January 1994 hastened a decline in the universities and their quality of teaching and research, leading to constant strikes, student sit-ins and an exodus of highly qualified teachers.

Student and staff demands for better conditions for study, teaching and research are common in Africa's francophone universities.

Clashes between armed police and students outside the university campus at Abomey-Calavi, in Cotonou, Benin, were sparked by grievances over the non-payment of monthly allowances and a deterioration in the quality of food in the canteen. The students barricaded the highway and set tyres on fire. At first, the police kept a distance in the hope that the students would eventually withdraw into the campus, but, as traffic jams grew, the police fired rubber bullets into the air and released several canisters of teargas.

No sooner did the police bring the situation under control than lecturers began a strike in support of reforms. Leopold Dossouand and Fulgence Afouda, general secretaries of the two academic staff unions, warned that the strike would be prolonged if the university authorities did not enter into immediate negotiation with them over salary demands. They also sought changes in the way the university's principal officers were appointed - by democratic election rather than mandate.

In Cote d'Ivoire, the university campuses in Abidjan and Bouake have suffered recent violent clashes between protesting students and state security operatives.

A section of the Uopougon campus in Abidjan was burned down, with students blaming the police, while the latter attributed the arson to the students.

Konau Bedie, Cote d'Ivoire's president, closed the campus, renovated it, converted it into police barracks and dissolved the national student union. In the tense atmosphere, no student graduated from the faculty of medicine in 1995-96. The government later lifted the ban and restored the campus to a students' residence.

In Burkina Faso, the students union demanded subsidised health services for students not on government scholarships and more buses for students to travel between university hostels and the campus in the university towns of Ouagadougou and Bobo Diolasso. Students resumed their studies after some of their demands were met.

In Senegal, last year's academic year had to be extended after several months of strikes by students at Cheik Anta Diop University of Dakar, who clashed with the police after demonstrating over a lack of journals and poor refectory conditions.

Calm returned when Abdoul Diouf, the Senegalese president, injected a substantial amount of money into the university to solve some of the immediate problems.

Niger students studying overseas occupied their country's embassies in Abidjan and Rabat, Morocco, claiming that their government had failed to pay bursaries and scholarships for several months. When the students told the press about their sit-in, General Ibrahim Mainessara, Niger's president, ordered his finance minister to ensure prompt payment.

Politically-motivated disruption of academic activities is rare in francophone universities. However, students at universities in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi in the former Zaire were at the forefront of the political groups that fought and overthrew the dictatorial regime of late Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko.

Although they supported forces loyal to Laurent Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the students are gradually becoming disillusioned with the new government which they regard as slow in improving their conditions.

Conscious of the role the students played in the overthrow of Moussa Troare's regime, Alpha Omar Konare, the president of Mali, has maintained a constant dialogue with students, who have recently warned that they are again ready to shed blood if funds are not allocated to the universities at Bamako and Timbuktu.

In Togo, to head off opposition parties' attempts to woo the students, president Gnassingbe Eyadema ordered continued scholarships and bursaries to all Togolese students at Universite de Benin in the 1998 budget.

Theophile Ngando Mpondo, vice-chancellor of Doula University in Cameroon, says that both the public and private sectors must play a part in rescuing the university system of francophone Africa.

He sees some assistance in the accessibility of the Internet to link universities in the developed and developing world. "We would no longer need to send students and lecturers to Europe to look for information in libraries and laboratories," Professor Mpondo says.

Aminou Taofikl, deputy vice-chancellor of Universite de Benin, in Cotonou, says that disruption of academic activities can be minimised if lecturers are involved in the running of their university.

There is agreement that thedeterioration of the francophone university system could worsen unless governments increase their investment.

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