President’s adjudication fails to halt universities crisis

Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade has studied a raft of demands from the lecturers’ union and adjudicated in its favour. But still the crisis in higher education looks set to intensify, with the union now calling for 72-hour strikes to be extended as it accuses key government ministers of shirking their responsibilities and of “double speak”.

At the weekly cabinet meeting on 26 January, Wade agreed with Ndiaye Seydi Ababacar, head of Senegal’s Independent Union of Teachers in Higher Education (SAES), in terms of the union’s criticisms of Higher Education Minister Amadou Tidiane Bâ – a position that some have described as scathing repudiation of Bâ.

The president shared with cabinet members the minutes of his meeting with the trade union delegation, and reminded the higher education minister and the minister of economics and finance that the union demands fell squarely within their areas of responsibility.

Academics are demanding reform of lecturer grades, an increase in university budgets, the readjustment of housing allowances, and progress on substantial infrastructure due for construction at the University Cheikh Anta Diop arts faculty – a development termed the ‘second city’.

The head of state asked the minister of economics and finance to shed light on hold-ups with construction of the second city.

On hearing that a budget of CFA800 million (US$1.6 million) had been transferred to the account of the ministry for the purposes of funding the work but had subsequently been transferred to be spent elsewhere after lying dormant in the account, Wade concluded that the complaints of lecturers and students were justified.

The shock finding regarding the funds was declared grounds for union representatives to attend the committee meetings of Budget Minister Abdoulaye Diop (in the absence of the minister of economics and finance), to monitor claims of a financial nature, including increasing university budgets, reform of grades, adjustment of lecturers’ housing allowances, payment of overtime and settlement of universities’ domestic debts.

But if the head of state seems to be in agreement with the union on all the issues, the same cannot be said for the higher education minister or the budget minister. At least, that is the sentiment of Moustapha Sall, who was tasked with representing SAES when the union delegation went to meet the committee to monitor the crisis.

Afterwards, a very bitter Sall said the union had decided to suspend its participation in the monitoring committee because of government’s “double speak”.

He said Wade seemed completely in line with the union and the lecturers. But ministers Bâ and Diop seemed to be doing everything in their power to block progress on the matter.

The evidence, Sall argued, was that “these two plenipotentiaries” refused to prioritise their responsibilities. And therefore representatives of SAES had no interest in discussions with any member of the government.

For the union, said Sall, “the only credible interlocutor is the head of state”.

Meanwhile, following a general meeting held on 26 January on Senegal’s university campuses, SAES decided to extend the 72-hour strikes that it has been embarking on since early December. Meetings were also planned last week, to be supported by all of the unions, who have vowed to put pressure on government to meet their demands.

The strike has now become radicalised. And this is cause for concern given the country’s current political situation, which is tense.

At the end of January the constitutional council published the official list of 14 presidential candidates. The list includes 85-year-old current incumbent Wade who, despite widespread protest, has been granted permission to run for a third term.

According to a story on the website of France24:“Tensions have escalated in the West African nation after the constitutional council gave Wade the green light to run in 26 February polls, prompting international calls for calm and condemnations of violence.”

But with Wade the only voice the SAES considers reasonable in the current higher education crisis, it seems likely that the matter will be relegated to the sidelines for a long time, as jostling for political power and presidential victory take centre-stage.