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Ivorian Students, Teachers Protest School Conditions - 2004-02-18


Schools and universities in West Africa are beset by mounting problems of poor security, lack of money, corruption, and overcrowding, and neither students nor teachers are willing to take it anymore. They have staged a number of demonstrations recently, some of which are turning violent.

Ivorian police used tear gas to disperse one of the protests, after leaders of a student association started burning cars. The association was angry that three students were arrested Monday for taking their own security measures to control theft on a university campus.

Tuesday, the same students staged a violent protest, slashing tires in front of a private high school in Abidjan where teachers have gone on strike to force the adoption of school uniforms.

The teachers say they are attacked by unidentified assailants when they give out poor grades, and that only uniformed students should be allowed inside the school to prevent such incidents.

Meanwhile, students displaced by the 17-month Ivorian civil war, who have been denied aid money promised to them last year, are boycotting classes this week. They say they have been living in wretched conditions, sometimes 10 to a small room, and some of them have even turned to prostitution.

School protests are not unique to Ivory Coast. Student and teacher demonstrations have also taken place recently in Mauritania, Guinea, and Gabon, where schools have become what some students describe as wastelands.

At the Nouakchott University in the Mauritanian capital, which has 12,000 students, many of them from remote areas, students went on strike Tuesday.

One of the organizers, Suleiman Diallo, who comes from the country's interior, says poor students need more aid money because room and transportation fees are too high. He says it is also impossible to find cheap books or food in Nouakchott.

In Guinea's capital, Conakry, more than 10,000 students struck last week to protest the arrest of student leaders, as well as severe overcrowding in cash-strapped universities.

Authorities accused students of being manipulated by opposition political parties, but students denied this.

Gabon's government has decided to confront its school problems aggressively. But even there, the problems are getting worse.

In the capital Libreville, university students have been erecting barricades on a daily basis, while last month teachers went on strike at the Omar Bongo Technical High School to protest lawlessness in the classrooms. A government investigation revealed classes were packed with 100 students, some of them in their thirties. Prostitution, bribes, and alcohol were found to be widespread.

The government kicked the administrators out, and Tuesday Gabon's minister in charge of higher education, Vincent Moulengui-Boukossou, also promised major reforms in the entire school system.

He says he does not know if it is the teachers or the students who are to blame. But he admits the school system itself needs changing to avoid having students stay in school too long.

For the time being, calm is unlikely to return to schools in West Africa anytime soon, and it seems to be spreading into other countries.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is expecting school demonstrations later this month. The National Association of Nigerian Students says it will go on strike February 27 to protest higher campus fees, which it says most students can not afford.