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Students in Ivory Coast Turn Against Each Other - 2004-07-08

Students in Ivory Coast are divided between pro- and anti-government factions, much like the rest of the country, which has split since a civil war broke out in late 2002. This division among students has also led to violence and an increasingly hostile environment on campuses in the government-run south. The largest pro-government group (FESCI) is turning into a gang, spreading violence on and off campus.

A few weeks ago, student activists stormed the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, where rebel leaders had been residing, demanding they leave the south and disarm their fighters in the north.

Speaking from an Abidjan campus, called the Red City, and surrounded by bodyguards wearing black jackets, student leader Serges Kouyo says the pro-government student association known as FESCI has a double role.

He said that they need to defend students, but help reunify Ivory Coast as well, so that northern students can go back to school.

The government has given aid money to displaced northern students, but more than half of the money ended up in FESCI's coffers. The group also extorts money from merchants in and around the city's 10 university campuses, where police are not allowed.

The FESCI also rents out half the government-subsidized rooms to non-students, while demanding extra payment from students who want to stay. If they refuse, their rooms are broken into and ransacked.

Mr. Kouyo admited to these practices, but says the FESCI needs the money. He says the group's main activities include making sure exams are taking place, despite the war, curbing corruption among university officials, enrolling thousands of youths who have been refused entry and helping subsidize the poorest among them.

Many students, however, describe the FESCI as a monster getting out of control. A student in English at the Cocody Abidjan university, who gave only his first name, Richard, says he decided to leave the student association and his room on campus last year.

"Every person that practices an activity in these campuses is always beaten by these members of the FESCI," he said. "It's very, very difficult. They take their money by violence, and sometimes, they rape the student girls who live there. It's very, very difficult to live there."

Richard says the FESCI gets away with everything because of its close ties to President Laurent Gbagbo.

"They do what they want because they know that they have the protection of the members of government," he added. "FESCI is one group the members of government use to lead a majority of students to collaborate, to vote for, let's say the president, and when they do something bad, there is no sanction."

At recent protests against French nationals, militants from the FESCI smashed dozens of cars. Insurers have refused to pay for the damage on the grounds it occurred in a war zone.

A recent U.N. report name the FESCI as one of several pro-government militia groups that took part in the brutal repression of an opposition demonstration last March. More than 100 people were killed in the violence that the United Nations blames on Ivory Coast's highest authorities.

Some students have tried to set up their own associations, acting at their own peril. One of the organizers, Habib Dodo, who was also the head of the youth wing of a communist party, was found dead last month at a side of a road, his body stuffed into a cocoa bag.

Now, former FESCI member Innocent Gnelbin, who is accused of having close ties with rebel leader Guillaume Soro, himself a former FESCI leader, is also trying to set up a rival student group.

Mr. Gnelbin said that if he is accused of being a rebel, he will accept this, because he says he is a rebel against the FESCI. He added the FESCI is turning the university campus into what he calls a hellish nightmare.

He also accused the FESCI of killing Mr. Dodo, as well as several other student activists in recent weeks.

As with many other political crimes in Ivory Coast, the investigation into Mr. Dodo's death is on a very slow track.

Violence on Ivorian campuses actually erupted before the civil war, when Charles Ble Goude, now the leader of the pro-government Young Patriots, cracked down on an opposition faction within FESCI. About a dozen students were killed during the violence, either cut up with machetes or thrown out of the windows of high campus buildings.

A FESCI spokesman, Hamadou Kamarate, says he hopes that once a political solution is found to stop the war, student activists will stop fighting each other.

"After the war, our hope is that all the Ivorian youths come together and look straight about their future, which is today in danger with the occurrence of this war," he said. "We think that after the war, we'll have a more responsible youth ready to fight for the country."

With the Ivory Coast's unity government in disarray and the 18-month-old peace agreement still awaiting implementation, the end to student violence may be slow in coming.