Human rights abuses precipitate university closures

Public universities in Benin were recently closed in protest against human rights abuses and corruption. The country's three academic unions joined an indefinite strike by civil servants that paralysed the public sector from late last year.

According to an analyst, the strikes cost Benin about US$4.2 million a day.

Initially, workers in public service were protesting against the 'unjust' exclusion of a graduate who passed the qualifying test into the public service but had her name replaced by another candidate with lower marks.

The unions accused the government of corruption and abuse of power, and held a protest that was brutally terminated by security agents - and at that point, academics joined the strike. The government responded by freezing the salaries of workers in the public sector, including those of academics.

There was concern that if the strike continued the academic calendar would be in jeopardy and students would be unable to graduate. Students warned that they would make the country ungovernable if campuses remained closed.

Mediators initiated negotiations between the unions and the government, but at the beginning of March no solution was in sight and campuses remained closed.

How it all started

On 14 October 2012 Professor Joel Aivo, deputy director of the postgraduate school at the National University of Benin, Cotonou, wrote an article in a daily newspaper titled "Who Rules Benin?" He cited an example of abuse of office and corruption in the public service.

In the selection of recruits into the Ministry of Finance, he claimed, university graduate Lydia Idjouola had applied successfully - but then her name was replaced with that of another graduate with lower scores, Hadissou Issa Imorou. The professor concluded that Benin was plagued by social injustice.

Little did anybody know that the article would have such far-reaching consequences for the country's polity. In January last year, Idjouola wrote a protest letter to Professor Albert Tevoedjre, a political scientist and the country's conflict mediator.

The mediator wrote to the minister in charge of public institutions demanding details, and the minister confirmed that Idjouola had been successful and that the 'mistake' would be rectified - but then he was contradicted by Garba Yaya, the director in charge of recruitment.

This angered trade union leaders, who wrote to Benin's President Boni Yayi, demanding a commission of enquiry to investigate what they called a blatant miscarriage of justice. The president ignored their request.

Reliable sources said the scandal provided an opportunity for unions to vent opposition to an attempt by Yayi to amend the country's constitution - which would have allowed him to stay in power for as long as he wishes - and to a corruption scandal involving businessman Patrick Talon, who has fled to France in fear of persecution over his refusal to finance the president's campaign to overstay in power.

On 27 December all public sector unions applied for a protest against corruption and abuse of office, and received approval. But the Cotonou police chief gave orders to disperse the protestors, and this was done brutally using tear gas and rubber bullets.

"This is a sad chapter in our country's march towards participatory democracy," declared Dr Nathaniel Kitty, a law lecturer at the National University in Cotonou.

Union leaders then unanimously agreed to embark on limited industrial action, working only on Mondays and Fridays. Yayi angrily ordered partial payment of workers' salaries.

Strike at universities

Since then, public institutions have not been functioning.

In a joint statement, the leaders of academic unions declared a full and indefinite strike until all their demands were met including the restoration of salaries and payment of arrears. They warned that if issues were not resolved, they would not hold examinations for students.

The determination of the lecturers panicked students. They warned that they would demonstrate if the demands of the academics were not met. "We shall soon go to the streets like Ukrainian students," warned student spokesperson Idris De Sousa.

In early March, the country remained at a standstill.

A fourth round of negotiations between the government and worker representatives failed. Meanwhile, no public institutions have been working - and prospects for further violence and public disorder remain high.