TOGO: Government yields to student pressure

After more than eight weeks of suspended classes, sit-ins and violent clashes with security forces, students at Togo's largest higher education institution, the University of Lomé, forced the government to the negotiation table. Students were protesting against a new semester system, a minimum pass mark and inadequate facilities, among other things.

Subtle intervention and behind-the-scenes pleas by a number of ambassadors of African and European countries also played a part in persuading the Togolese government to enter into dialogue with student leaders.

The government has acceded to students' main demands.

In response to the government's positive gestures, student organisations have called on their members to end boycotts and participate in the end-of-semester examinations. But they also promised to "go back to the trenches" if university authorities renege on their promises.

"We made it known to representatives of the government and university authorities that we expect rapid implementation of the agreement. We expect that our hostels, laboratories and libraries [will be] equipped before we come back to the campus for the next session.

"We have won a battle. But we have not won the war. We may be forced to go back to the trenches if we discover any insincerity from the authorities," warned Kondo Komlavi, secretary and spokesperson of the leading independent student organisation MEET, Mouvement Pour l'Emancipation de l'Etudiant Togolais.

The students' main gripe has been with the introduction of a modified semester system, along American lines.

The new system requires all students to obtain a minimum pass mark for both compulsory and elective subjects before proceeding to the next class. Previously, students who failed elective courses could move on unhindered.

The new system was introduced three years ago, without any transition period for existing students. Students who came in when the old grading system was in force could not cope.

Souleman Kolani, a law student, said this had resulted in many students spending far longer completing their courses than previously.

"We pleaded with the university authorities to establish a waiver so that this category of students could graduate. They turned deaf ears to our humanitarian pleas," said Kolani, adding that parents had suspended financial support for their children because they had stayed too long at university.

Other major complaints include a shortage of lecturers, lecture halls and laboratories, which are needed to drive the new semester system. "If the university cannot provide these amenities, more students will be forced to prolong their stay," said Dignité Akoete, a member of MEET.

The student protests started two months ago, after the demands of final-year law students were ignored by the authorities. The grievances rapidly snowballed into protests engulfing the entire university campus.

"We had to make sure that the end-of-the-session examination did not take place as scheduled. We seized this opportunity to compel the university authorities to find solutions to our problems, which they have arrogantly ignored," declared Adou Seibou, MEET's leader.

According to a radical student leader who did not want to be named, the leadership of MEET gathered at an undisclosed venue in Lomé to analyse student frustrations, and then produced flyers urging students to boycott examinations until issues surrounding the semester system were resolved. Demands included on the flyers were for more lecturers, better infrastructure and government financial support for students.

The university authorities tried to counter MEET's boycott strategy by encouraging other student associations to campaign for non-interruption of the examinations. But the boycott was successful.

In retaliation, the university expelled Adou Seibou and banned him from registering as a student at any public university for six years. This angered students, who vowed not to return to campus until all their demands had been met and their expelled leader readmitted.

According to diplomatic sources in Lomé, officials of the African Union, European Union and American embassy advised the Togolese presidency to accede to the legitimate demands of the students. They said recent financial support from the European Union to the Togolese government to build the capacity of universities could be used to satisfy student demands.

Consequently, Togolese Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda, supported by Minister of Higher Education Gilbert Houssoun and Vice-chancellor of the University of Lomé Professor Ahadji Nonou, met with representatives of student organisations. After many hours of deliberation, a memorandum of understanding was signed.

Key among the agreements is the creation of 'crash' academic programmes followed by special examinations for students of the previous system, called anciens étudiants - those who came to university before the introduction of two semesters for each academic session.

Also, as from the new academic year, there will be two examinations in each semester to cater for those who have failed previous examinations. This new approach is to allow students to redo, in the same session, exams for compulsory and elective courses. This should reduce the number of failures and the time students spend obtaining their degrees.

A major complaint of students has been that they are not adequately informed of alterations to teaching and examination timetables. To close this communication gap, the government has promised to build an information and communication technology centre, from which information will be disseminated on a regular basis to all students.

The prime minister announced that the government would also provide an intervention fund of four billion Central African francs (US$9 million) to improve hostel accommodation and teaching infrastructure, and to award bursaries, scholarships and meal ticket subsidies to students.

The government ordered the university authorities to readmit all expelled students, and gave a formal commitment not to victimise students on the basis of their participation in the protests.