COTE D'IVOIRE: Campuses closed by conflict, sanctions

Students have been dragged into the violent power struggle between Cote d'Ivoire's rival leaders. Fierce ongoing fighting has escalated and sparked a mass exodus of up to a million people from the commercial capital Abidjan. Academic activities have been severely disrupted at all tertiary institutions, and they have closed.

The refusal of outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo (pictured) to step down after losing the presidential election on 28 November last year to Allasane Ouattara, is behind civil conflict that has spiraled in recent weeks. Gbagbo's refusal to cede power also led to sanctions being imposed on Cote d'Ivoire by the international community, and the economy has ground to a halt.

Political instability, fighting and lack of cash and credit facilities precipitated the indefinite closure of all higher education campuses.

Students have left for home and some have joined the warring factions as militias. Foreign students have reportedly besieged their embassies, pleading to be evacuated immediately.

The current academic session commenced with an air of uncertainty. There had been fears that supporters of Gbagbo among highly polarised student populations might not accept the verdict of the November elections if he lost, and those fears proved to be well-founded.

During the first round of the presidential poll, no candidate obtained the required 50% of the vote. But Gbagbo won the most votes, followed by Ouattara. The latter won the second round in a poll result recognised by governments in Africa and around the world.

After the first round there was wild jubilation on campuses among members of MESSI, a student movement that supports Gbagbo. They had enjoyed his patronage and protection for a decade. Cote d'Ivoire has been run by the ruling Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) as a one-party state within a 'multi-party democracy', and MESSI leaders have enjoyed privileges akin to a state-sponsored labour aristocracy.

Wanting to ensure that the second round of voting would favour Gbagbo, MESSI turned campuses into campaign grounds for the ruling party. Student associations supporting Allasane Ouattara could not openly campaign for fear of intimidation and violent harassment.

As the campaign progressed, lectures were disrupted by the unruly behavior of ruling party supporters. Suddenly, rival militias made their appearance on campuses.

Supporters of Gbagbo took over the university campus in Abidjan, and students backing Ouattara were chased away.

In retaliation, rebel forces called les forces Nouvelles, who are in control of Bouake, the country's second largest city in the north, provided logistical support for pro-Ouattara students to take over the University of Bouake. Student supporters of Gbagbo fled that campus.

At the University of Yamoussoukro, home town of late president Houphuet- Boigny, there was what one student called a 'balance of terror'.

In the words of Mariam Koffi, a law student: "The campus was physically divided. The northern part was occupied by supporters of Gbagbo, while the southern end of the campus was in the hands of pro-Ouattara students. Since the university authorities could not persuade the students to resume lectures, the rector was forced to close down the campus indefinitely."

The polarisation of universities prompted the majority of students, caught dangerously in the middle of rival political factions, to vote with their feet and go home. Campuses gradually became deserted.

The publication of the election results and their rejection by Gbagbo further fuelled tension on campuses.

His Minster of Youth and Development Charles Blu Goude, a former secretary-general of MESSI, invited its members to receive military training in order to defend the country against "Western imperialism led by France and US". He declared that Ouattara was an agent of Western imperialism and "must never be allowed to rule this country".

The University of Abidjan was transformed into a make-shift military training camp. Students who support Ouattara moved clandestinely to the University of Bouake, where they also received military training. Violent confrontations among students moved from the campus into the streets, towns and villages.

The economic and financial sanctions slapped against the Gbagbo regime also had immediate and direct consequences for universities, which were hit by shortages of the cash and credit facilities essential to running institutions.

Universities in Daloa, Korhogo in the central region, and in Abdijan - including the American University in Grand Bassam near Abidjan, which is affiliated to the University of Atlanta in the US - closed indefinitely.

No one is sure when universities will re-open their doors. Meanwhile, there is little for students to do but be recruited to fight for one of the factions struggling for power.