Blowing whistles and armed with knives and clubs, members of the Student Federation of Cote d’Ivoire (FESCI) burst into classrooms, scattered students from their chairs, and announced: “Comrades, the time is critical.”
The students might agree, but for a different reason.
FESCI uses such tactics to announce its occasional campaigns ostensibly to demand higher education subsidies or improve living conditions on campus. But human rights groups and many students say the most “critical” thing afoot is the tactics of FESCI itself as it allegedly tries to control political thought, student activities and even commerce on campus.
“There is physical violence as well as deaths,” said Pierre Gondo, secretary general of the Ivorian League of Human Rights (LIDHO). “With such a culture it is not certain that it can change now unless the authorities decide to take the bull by the horns and condemn them.”
Observers say this is unlikely because FESCI supports the government of President Laurent Gbagbo and his ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), although the group denies that it has any particular political orientation.
Human rights activists say the culture of violence on campuses in Cote d’Ivoire’s main city, Abidjan, is pervasive, symptomatic of an overall breakdown in law and order since a coup in 1999 derailed decades of relative peace. Academic freedom has suffered along with other liberties, including guarantees of justice and the ability to move without hindrance across the country.
A failed coup in 2002 further eroded stability, sparking a brief civil war that left the nation divided. Some 11,000 United Nations and French peacekeepers monitor a buffer zone between the rebel-held north and government-run south.
With the ongoing political impasse, the economy has suffered and opportunities for university graduates have dwindled. As a result, observers say groups such as FESCI feel justified in carrying out extortion or exerting strong-arm tactics to win favor with the government when students rebel.
A history of violence
Founded in the early 1990s as a platform for students to air their grievances, FESCI members suffered persecution for their opposition to the government, including the one led by former president Henri Konan Bedie, who came to power after founding leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, was overthrown in 1999.
The organisation has been repeatedly banned over the years and gave early voice to former members Charles Ble Goude and Guillaume Soro. Goude now heads the ruling party’s militant youth wing, the Young Patriots, and Soro leads the northern-based New Forces rebels.
Many students now say FESCI is no more than a government militia in support of President Gbagbo, disguised as a group representing the interests of students. Students claim harassment and extortion by FESCI members. University professors have also been targeted for their political beliefs, human rights groups say. Gbagbo himself is a former university lecturer who served time in jail for his dissent under former Houphouet-Boigny.
The UN Mission in Cote d’Ivoire in 2005 condemned an escalation of violence at university campuses in Abidjan. The UN said there had been “serious human rights violations” and cases of rape and torture by students.
When some members of a new rival union, the General Association of Students of Cote d’Ivoire (AGEECI), gathered at the university in July 2005, FESCI supporters attacked them and shut down the campus.
“When you reach a situation where arms circulate freely on campus and at universities it is truly unbelievable,” said Innocent Gnelbin, a former member of FECSI who helped found AGEECI five years ago. “We hope that everyone will understand that the fight for freedom and democracy in an educational setting is the business of everyone or else the school will die and with it its children.”
Serges Koffi, secretary general of FESCI, denies that the organisation has arms or a political agenda. “We have no set ambition, no political convictions,” he said. “We are not an organisation of violence. There are sometimes acts of this nature but they are isolated and we remind the instigators to be orderly.”
Students claim attacks
Students say that FESCI lords over Abidjan campuses, controlling business and tenancy in university housing. Merchants say they have to pay monthly “taxes” to FESCI members to continue to operate their small stands to sell food and drinks. At one student restaurant in the suburb of Williamsville, about two dozen FESCI members have the right to eat a free meal each day at lunch and dinner, student Herve Kassy told IRIN. Other students are obliged to pay.
“Sometimes if some of the members are absent it is prohibited to eat their meals,” Kassy said. “They prefer that it is thrown in the trash rather than be consumed by another student.”
Students also say they are forced to pay FESCI members each month to stay in campus housing.
“I occupied a room belonging to a member of FESCI. At the end of each month, he came to get his money, 3,000 CFA (US $6),” said psychology student Geoffroy Kone at the University of Cocody. “The day that I was late with my payment, he sent his guys at two in the morning to expel me from the room and beat me. I left the residence halls and I don’t intend to return.”
Women say they have their own kind of problems with FESCI members.
“As soon as a girl pleases them they … send their guys to get her. If she refuses to submit to them she is expelled from the residence and they prevent her from going on campus to attend her classes,” said law student Raissa Aby.
Even professors are not spared, rights groups say. One teacher’s face was disfigured in an attack, prompting his colleagues to halt work for two weeks.
“We no longer recognise our children. They have become violent,” said Charles Ahizi, a father of three students. “If they don’t respect their parents I don’t see how they will submit to their educators.”
Students say that university authorities make little effort to control the actions of FESCI.
Earlier this month, the director of the University of Cocody, Kanon Nahounou, was to be replaced by a new director designated by the Ministry of Higher Education. But on the day that the new director was to take up his position he was attacked and beaten by alleged FESCI members and sought treatment at hospital for a head injury. Nahounou remains at his post, telling a press conference that he would only leave on orders from President Gbagbo himself.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]