COTE D'IVOIRE: Campuses cleared of militia

With ousted Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo arrested by forces loyal to Dramane Allasane Ouattara, who was on Friday sworn in as the country's president, the new democratically elected government has ordered the military to clear universities of militia. But with campuses long embroiled in the political conflict, this task is far from simple.

As reported in University World News in March, the ongoing and bitter political rivalry over the disputed presidential elections had spilled over onto campuses, with the universities in Daloa, in 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.

Peace is gradually returning to campuses. But Ouattara, who is now fully in charge of the entire country, is bound to take a critical look at the future of higher education.

Ivoirian universities were among the best centres of learning in Francophone West Africa. But since the advent of multi-party democracy in the 1990s campuses have been turned into an ideological battleground among the ruling elite, with a struggle for the hearts and minds of students.

Teaching and research were relegated to the background. Campuses became, in the hands of political parties, avenues for recruiting thugs and party agents.

"For over 20 years learning and research have been absent because of partisan politics. If higher education must regain its lost glories, partisan student unionism should be suspended for now," said an Ivoirian diplomat in Lagos, Nigeria, who pleaded for anonymity.

With previous president Gbagbo converting campuses in Abidjan into training and residential grounds for his militia during the battle between opposition and government forces for control of the country, universities - especially those situated near the presidency - played a major role in the conflict.

Things looked set to change on 3 December 2010, which could be described as a landmark in the history of Cote d'Ivoire. The country had two presidents: Gbagbo and Ouattara. The former lost the presidential election and refused to vacate the presidential palace. The latter, whose victory at the polls was recognised by the international community including the African Union, converted a five-star hotel, Golf Hôtel Abidjan, into a temporary presidential palace.

But the struggle for power between the two men had direct implications for campuses in Abidjan. According to diplomatic sources, Gbagbo ordered his head of the armed forces, General Philippe Mangou, to convert universities and student hostels into fortified camps for his militia.

Members of the pro-Gbagbo militia included students who belonged to a movement called La Federation Estudiantine et Scolaire de Cote d'Ivoire (la Fesci), which was controlled directly by the country's First Lady Simone Gbagbo and coordinated by the former Secretary General of la Fesci Charles Blé Goudé (who was appointed minister of youth in Gbagbo's cabinet).

Two campuses in particular played a vital role in the post-electoral presidential crisis: Cocody and Yopougon.

The Cocody campus, which is a stone's throw from the presidential palace, was occupied by frontline students and mercenaries from Liberia with the sole objective of providing additional security networks for Gbagbo and his wife - both of whom had made up their minds to use force to stay in power.

Yopougon campus is situated in a densely populated residential area of Abidjan whose inhabitants voted for Ouattara. General Mangou and Blé Goudé were mandated by Simone Gbagbo to ensure that rebel forces loyal to Ouattara did not launch any offensive with the aim of gradually capturing the presidential palace.

The pro-Ouattara forces, an offshoot of an anti-Gbagbo rebellion in 2002, were under the direct control of Prime Minister and Defence Minister Guillaume Kibafori Soro. (The latter was a founding member of la Fesci when it was created by opposition forces during the struggle for multi-party democracy in the 1990s. Some key officers of pro-Ouattara forces were also pioneer members of la Fesci.)

"I will flush Gbagbo's men out of the campuses. I know them," declared Soro at a press conference in Abidjan.

"You cannot. We shall defend to the last drop of our blood the mandate of our president Laurent Gbagbo, who won the presidential election. Allasane Ouattara stole his mandate", retorted Blé Goudé.

After several days of violent confrontation between the forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara, the Cocody campus was captured from Gbagbo's men. This victory paved the way for the snatching of the presidential lodge from Gbagbo and his wife (who, incidentally, were former teachers on the Cocody campus).

The campuses at Yopuogou and Adjame were more problematic. They are situated in densely populated areas. Elements loyal to Gbagbo converted the campuses to snipers' dens.

"We intend to dislodge Gbagbo's men from these campuses. We want to return them to centres of learning and research", said Soro.

He appealed to the Red Cross to assist in removing corpses from campuses.

"We are undertaking some sanitary measures to get rid of the dead bodies. We don't want an outbreak of any epidemic on the campuses", confirmed Dr Nioule Ziade Leonard, an official of the Ivoirian Red Cross.

There are still pockets of resistance from members of la Fesci operating clandestinely in some parts of Abidjan.

But military authorities are confident the city will soon be entirely secured from the militia. Blé Goudé is reported to have taken refuge in neighbouring Ghana.

Concluded the Ivoirian diplomat: "President Allasane Ouattara should, first of all, de-politicise student unionism. There should be a temporary ban of student unionism on the campuses, so as to allow peace to return. However, students' associations at the level of academic departments are needed to protect their rights."