Military coup may harm an already fragile university sector

Higher education leaders in Niger have raised concerns about how the military coup on 26 July may harm an already fragile higher education system in this francophone Sahel country.

As the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) considers force to restore the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Bazoum, elected in April 2021 in the country’s first peaceful transfer of power, students and academics have warned of potential disorder in Niger universities.

Moctar Saïdou, the press secretary for the Union of Nigerien students, or Union des Scolaires Nigériens, is concerned that the ministry of higher education and research is about to close the Abdou Moumouni University (formerly the University of Niamey), the largest public higher education institution in the country.

An order has formally closed its campus and associated food services, and Saïdou said that, if transport is not provided to help students return to their homes, “they will be in anguish”.

Foreign nationals, especially from European Union countries have already been evacuated, as Western governments call for the coup leaders to step down and restore Bazoum to power.

Public universities were already on the eve of their long summer holidays but, with the junta within the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP) announcing the dissolution of the country’s constitution, government and other democratic institutions, there is concern that students will not have access to basic services.

Existing conflict

This coup also comes as Niger faces attacks by jihadist terrorist groups in the Tillabéri region of north-west Niger, (north of the capital, Niamey,) and by the Boko Haram group in the Diffa region, south-east Niger.

These security risks have raised concern at local higher education institutions, such as the Université Boubacar Bâ de Tillabéri and the Université de Diffa.

The president of the Club of Students and Professionals in Peace and Security, at Abdou Moumouni University, Elhadji Amani Madougou Moussa, said the coup would have negative repercussions in such insurgency areas.

“In the conflict zones, notably Diffa and Tillabéri, the universities are in the capitals of the regions. Already, before the advent of this coup, it has been difficult for researchers to be in the field, since their safety is not guaranteed,” he told University World News.

If telecommunications and internet disruption follows, “this poses more of a problem of access to reliable data; network problems for communication in the villages; the difficult access to the area due to insecurity, and above all, the difficulty in finding funding, since international institutions have suspended their partnership with the country”.

A struggling HE system

Niger’s higher education sector was, in any case, struggling with insufficient accommodation, food, transport and care facilities for students, weak courses in public universities, a lack of lecturers and failures to make scholarship payments and release state social assistance for students.

These problems had been communicated to the Bazoum government, and the coup has made the situation more worrying, said Saïdou: “Today, the most concerning aspect is the question of scholarships and social assistance. For scholarship payments, the students of the first year 2022-23 have received nothing throughout this year; they are waiting; and second-year scholarship students are waiting for the second instalment of their scholarships; and non-scholarship holders hope to obtain social assistance.”

He said: “The scholarship for the student is like the salary for the civil servant. It is an acquired right and the [junta] authorities ... are under the obligation to meet this requirement.”

He added that, should the military government stay in power, it “must continue to recruit lecturers or researchers”, to enable universities to deliver courses as planned.

He wanted higher education construction projects to continue and for the new government to arrange the transport of students to their homes for the upcoming summer holidays.

These concerns were shared by Abdou Moumouni University second-year legal student Maman Sani, who told University World News: “It goes without saying that the students are alarmed by this new situation. The coup occurred while we were waiting for the payment of the scholarship and social assistance to go on vacation in our home localities.”

The resulting sanctions imposed on Niger because of the coup by the European Union, the African Union, the West African Economic and Monetary Union, or UEMOA, and ECOWAS, means that students are “in total uncertainty because we have no guarantee as to the effectiveness of the functioning of our universities,” she said.

Issa Moussa, at the university’s École Normale Supérieure, said the result could be students who cannot return home: “If the military junta in power does not manage to honour the payment of allowances, many students will stay in Niamey. Especially with the curfew in place, even nocturnal activities carried out by the students are stopped,” he told University World News.

Sociologist and Boko Haram specialist at Abdou Moumouni University, Bello Adamou Mahamadou, warned that the coup could have grave consequences for the functioning of higher education in Niger.

“The reality is that the country relies more on external partners to obtain certain support to finance part of higher education. Among this support, there are mobility grants which consist of supporting Nigerien doctoral students in higher education institutions in Europe, particularly in France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland.

“These stays allow doctoral students to advance the writing of their theses,” he said.

He is worried about the future of Niger universities as a result: “With the decision of the partners to suspend their partnerships with the country until the return to normal constitutional order, many students will have difficulty financing their research.

Infrastructure and financing

Added to this is the construction of infrastructure and the financing of thematic research, all of which could be threatened by a halting of links with European and North American governments and institutions.

As usual in such times of strife, there are supporters of the incoming authorities, with one Niamay university communications student at the faculty of letters, Abdoul Madjid Alassan, telling University World News: “This choice of the military junta to take power goes with the sacrifices that every Nigerien must make to save the homeland from all the evils mentioned by the president of the CNSP”, General Abdourahamane Tiani, who has become head of state, and who has been justifying the coup.

For the time being, however, the student said: “The impact [of the coup] is certainly tangible since the university is a public establishment and its operation depends on the central state.”

But he added: “In the long term, if international sanctions persist against Niger, I ask each student for the necessary dedication to their country.”

The teachers’ and researchers’ union, the Syndicat National des Enseignants Chercheurs du Supérieur is counselling caution, however. Its secretary-general Bakasso Sahabi did not wish to react: “We are holding a meeting and we plan to issue a public statement,” he said.