Last year’s reopening of Cote d’Ivoire’s universities was a grand affair, turning the page on a bloody leadership crisis that had forced their closure with new lecture halls, added student housing and sprawling sports fields.
But two semesters in, student discontent is back on the boil, with questions arising over whether the funds in the overhaul were well spent.
Higher Education Minister Ibrahima Cisse Bacongo felt the full force of student fury early last week when hundreds of them caused him to beat a hasty retreat under a hail of rocks.
“Bacongo is a thief” and “Bacongo is a liar” the students shouted on a visit by the minister to Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny University in the commercial capital’s chic north.
The universities were ravaged during the 2010-11 political crisis which left 3,000 people dead as former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat at the polls to his rival Alassane Ouattara.
In the four months of violence that swept the world’s top cocoa producer, campuses were engulfed in clashes between rival student groups. The Ouattara government says Gbagbo’s supporters manipulated students to foment the violence.
Pro-Ouattara media have pointed the finger at the Student Federation of Cote d’Ivoire (FESCI), a powerful youth group that backed Gbagbo’s 2000-10 regime. At the height of its power, there was an explosion of campus violence and alleged racketeering by FESCI members.
Opposition newspapers for their part depict the violence as a student revolt against President Ouattara.
Almost as soon as he took office in April 2011, Ouattara closed the universities to launch the major overhaul costing some 110 billion CFA francs (167 million euros, $215 million).
“A new starts, a complete break with the past,” the president said as he re-inaugurated one of Cote d’Ivoire’s five faculties last September.
“When we saw the facilities, we were happy: the buildings were freshly painted, there was air-conditioning in the lecture halls, the lawns were beautiful,” law student Gaoussou Diabate said.
“But the facilities had barely begun to be used before we were disappointed,” added Diabate, who is also a spokesman for Cote d’Ivoire’s national student alliance.
Students now complain of overcrowded classes and a lack of classrooms — some classes are held outdoors — and insufficient transport. Student unions say several people have been injured, and that some have even died, in the chaos that erupts when a bus stops outside campus.
“They sold us a dream,” Diabate said. “There are power outages, microphones don’t work … and there are no (water) fountains on campus.”
Although the government insists the reconstruction work is still underway, some students blame greedy officials for the situation, accusing them of helping themselves to some of the funds earmarked for the universities.
“It takes a second to see where those [CFA] 110 billion went,” literature student Armand Kakou said.
Education ministry official Krou Adohi pleaded for patience, saying: “We haven’t even used half” of the funds yet. According to Adohi, the work is expected to be completed by the start of the next academic year.
But the attack on the minister was followed by clashes later in the week between student groups at Abidjan’s two universities that left several injured, according to witnesses.