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Vague presidential promise keeps campuses closed

The latest attempt at negotiations between Benin's president and leaders of striking public sector workers and lecturers has ended in deadlock. University students and school pupils are disappointed with the outcome of the two-month strike, as institutions remain closed.

There is concern that without an amicable solution to the crisis, frustrated students with uncertain futures may embark on protests that end in confrontations with the security forces, which acted with violence against protesting workers in December last year.

The industrial action has hit public but not private universities.

Head of State Thomas Yayi Boni promised to meet all the demands of the strikers. But their leaders, after consulting the rank-and-file, rejected the promise because of its vague nature. As a result, campuses remain closed.

Public sector paralysis

A general strike by public sector workers in Benin, including in public universities, commenced in mid-January and continues to paralyse public institutions and agencies.

Initially the president appointed Martial Morton and Francois Abiola, the ministers of public works and higher education respectively, as negotiators with a mandate to ensure that the strike be brought to an end as soon as possible.

The negotiations, which began in February, recently entered a sixth round. But the only tangible result so far has been a decision by workers in clinics and hospitals to suspend participation in industrial action for humanitarian reasons.

Newspaper editorials called on Yayi Boni to personally intervene in the crisis, in the national interest.

The president bowed to public pressure, and in nationwide radio and television broadcasts appealed to civil servants including teachers and lecturers to return to work in order to save the country from descending into deeper social and economic crisis.

He promised to look into worker grievances and to provide solutions to them as soon as possible. But the appeal to the 'patriotic spirit' of workers had no impact at all.

"President Yayi Boni has power but he has almost lost legitimacy because he sent the security forces after workers who were peacefully demonstrating for their rights. No worker would abide by his appeal," said Leonard Nounagnon, spokesperson for the health workers union.

New negotiations

The president decided to take a second step by inviting worker representative to negotiations. There was an air of optimism when the unions accepted the invitation.

The meeting lasted for 10 hours, during which the president reportedly apologised profusely for violence against striking workers by security agents in late December.

Pascal Tidjinou, spokesperson for the trade union leaders, said they had called for the firing of two high-ranking police officers who led operations against the protestors. But the president said an internal enquiry was ongoing and the officers would face the law if indicted.

The origin of the crisis was alleged fraud and irregularities in the selection process for jobs in the Ministry of Finance, as reported by University World News.

The president reminded the union leaders that he had responded to a workers' petition on the matter by setting up a commission of enquiry headed by a respected civil servant. He promised that the commission's enquiry would be made public soon.

The workers argued that the commission was unnecessary because the minister in charge of public institutions had admitted there were irregularities in the selection process.

The leaders of Benin's three academic staff unions - Dr Vincent Houndedako, Professor Fulgence Afouda and Professor Thomas Lokossou - demanded an end to the indiscriminate creation of university centres around the country.

Most were unnecessary, they argued, and the government's focus should be on recruiting and equipping experienced staff at existing campuses. The president reportedly agreed to look into the issue, and that state resources should be judiciously used.

A major grievance of workers is the president's decision to freeze their salaries, in the hope that this might break the strike. The union leaders reminded Yayi Boni that salaries withheld from striking lecturers in 2012 had yet to be paid.

The president promised to pay all frozen salaries - including those from 2012 - but he did not give dates. He also promised to raise the national minimum wage by 5%, but added that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund would not be disposed to such an increase.

The trade union leaders retorted that there would be enough funds to satisfy the salary demands of workers if the government re-ordered its priorities and curbed corruption among its officials.

According to reliable sources, the president did not take kindly to such comments, even though he is aware that the United States suspended assistance to Benin because of the government's inability to curb what Washington called endemic corrupt practices.

Student leaders got wind of lack of progress in the negotiations, and embarked on spontaneous demonstrations along the major arteries of Cotonou, economic capital of Benin.

Student leaders condemned the attitude of the president towards workers' 'legitimate' demands and warned that he would bear the consequences of prolonged closures of campuses. "If the strike is not called off on time, we may be heading towards the cancellation of this year's academic session," said one.

Workers reject offer

At the end of the negotiation, Yayi Boni urged the workers to call off the strike in the interests of the nation. At a press conference afterwards, Pascal Tidjinou said the details of the negotiations would be tabled before workers in all major cities and towns.

This was done, with the aims being to provide information to members about the president's responses and to dispel rumours that they had 'sold out' to Yayi Boni's tactics.

Polls were held and most workers voted to continue the strike, because the president's offers were too vague. At a well-attended media briefing in Cotonou, the union leaders announced that the strike would continue until their major demands were granted.

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