By: Emmanuelle Assy
From a barely tolerated and highly repressed students’ rights organization under the one-party leadership, to a state-sponsored armed militia accused of various human rights abuses, the Student Federation of Côte d’Ivoire (Fédération Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte d’Ivoire, FESCI) has been a key and controversial political (and military) force in and out the Ivoirian academic sphere of the last 20 years. Officially created in April 1990, the FESCI has progressively become unrepresentative of students’ interests over years. Though it initially served as an organization militating for the improvement of students living conditions and multiparty democracy establishment in difficult socio-economic times in the 1990s, this position later changed. From 2002 to its dissolution in 2011, it became an organization that perpetrated egregious acts of violence against populations to supposedly preserve ruling party political interests. It is critical to understand how and why political violence has been a defining feature of the FESCI mandate; and delineate the implications of this form of political violence for the education system, youth, and society.
Overall, FESCI relationship with the Ivoirian government can be understood over two periodic patterns. First, from the 1990s until 1999/2000, it was brutally repressed, reprimanded, repeatedly banned, and its leaders beaten and sentenced several times by the government ruled by the PDCI (Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire). The latter, led by the first President, Houphouet Boigny negotiated the country’s independence in 1960. It believed the FESCI to favor the nascent opposition, perceiving it as an organization hiding an opposing political agenda behind its activities. In return, the student activists fiercely resisted the government and were at the forefront of repeated political upheavals.
The second period occurred when Laurent Gbagbo, the former opposition leader and principal opponent to Houphouet Boigny’s one-party state acceded to power in 2000. Hence, emerged a pro-government FESCI that was given carte blanche and resources to operate freely. The University Professor Gbabgo, who allegedly used universities to convey anti-governmental messages in the 1990s, was suspected as also having funded and armed the student organization to achieve his political agenda during his presidency years from 2000 to 2011. His complacency with the organization generated growing public backlash and despite the reported acts of aggression, victims could not obtain justice.
Laurent Gbagbo is not the only political leader strongly connected to the students’ organization. Charles Blé Goudé, former FESCI leader from 1998 to 2000, is at the International Crime Court (ICC) for war crimes. Then, Soro Guillame, leader of the rebels’ forces that divided the country in two parts in 2002, ex-prime minister, and current president of the National assembly under President Alassane Ouattara was also head of the FESCI from 1995 to 1998. The ties between the two men are said to date back to Soro Guillaume’s student years as FESCI leader. Other former FESCI presidents have filled various political party ranks. Ble Guirao and Konate Navigue for example became secretary general of the UDPCI (Union pour la Démocratie et la Paix de Côte d’Ivoire) the party of General Robert Guéi, author of the first military coup in 1999 and youth leader of Gbagbo’s FPI (Front Populaire Ivoirien). Doumbia Major, from the 1998 “dissident” wing discussed in the next paragraph, rejoined Alassane Ouattara’s party, the RDR (Rassemblement des Republicains). In the aftermath of the 2010 electoral crisis, some FESCI’s members joined either the pro-Gbagbo armed forces or Ouattara’s. At this time, the rebel forces led by Soro formed the bulk of Ouattara’s fighting forces.
Internal clashes were also frequent among FESCI members irrespective of national politics, fissures along political lines appeared within FESCI’s leadership in 1998. Members were divided between a pro-FPI “loyalist” faction led by Charles Blé Goudé and a “dissident” faction led by a pro-RDR). Doumbia Major. On-campus violence culminated when the fratricide battles institutionalized the use of machetes (often called the “war of machetes”). Public universities and schools became theatres of horror. Dozens of students perished, or were injured and numerous traumatized. Officially operating for better functioning of the federation, the 1998 “dissident” group was rumored to serve as a political instrument for control over the powerful organization by political leaders due to its potential for youth mobilization and voting.
The repeated unpunished acts of violence perpetrated by the students association have been documented by various human rights organizations and agencies of the United Nations. Cases of rape, beatings, murders and attacks on students, opposition ministers, magistrates, journalists, police officers, human rights organizations, among others, are outlined in a 98-page Human Rights Watch report: ‘The Best School': Student Violence, Impunity, and the Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire”. FESCI activists attacked the headquarters of two leading human rights organizations because of their support in favor of university professors striking for better working conditions. Repeatedly, FESCI members have been mobilized to slow down Côte d’Ivoire’s peace process at key junctures to the benefit of FPI of Laurent Gbagbo. According to the UN, during 2010 presidential elections, “poll foot-soldiers of FESCI destroyed three UN-designated voter registration centers in areas purported to be sympathetic to the opposition… They also allegedly participated in a UN convoy attack”. Moreover, FESCI has consistently silenced other student’s organizations, using fear and intimidation in secondary schools and universities to guarantee a central position among students. In keeping with accusations, FESCI has been considered a ‘mafia’-type criminal organization for extorting and demanding protection rackets involving merchants working in and around universities and high schools. They discriminatively regulated access to university rooms by renting rooms to students and non-students. The report highlights: “Côte d’Ivoire’s higher-educational system appears to be producing a generation of leaders who have cut their political teeth in a climate of intimidation, violence, and impunity, an environment in which dissent and difference of opinion are violently repressed”.
Unsurprisingly, the consequences have been disastrous for the education system. Following the 1990 political battles, many academic institutions were repeatedly shut down and the 1989/1990, academic year was invalidated. Moreover, FESCI riots were generally associated with destruction of public goods and university estates. Often, FESCI abused its prerogative and has forced schools to be closed for reasons that could have been resolved through peaceful negotiations or better internal organization. Student affairs became secondary in many cases with an overly polarized association. While the degradation of schools was continuing, FESCI leaders were more preoccupied with national political leadership and financial interests. As result, FESCI has lost its credibility in the society and the general image of students has been severely tarnished.
Arguably, politically motivated violence in public schools did not only affect education quality but also threatens the prospects of better communities in general. The case of FESCI provides ample evidence suggesting that exposing children to political violence can inculcate both a tolerance of violence and future participation in violence in the long term. Ivorian youth have experienced a sustained exposure to violence that has emerged as a normative channel to gain power. While much remains unknown, consequences on society include loss of faith in judiciary system, political leaders and security forces. This situation also undermined rule of law, human rights, and freedom of expression, assembly and association on campuses. Cleary, it also aggravated social tensions. The overall psychological consequences as well as direct impacts of FESCI violent behavior on major crises in Cote d’Ivoire still need to be assessed. Sadly enough, FESCI’s positive actions in favor of democracy in the 1990s and for better conditions have been usurped by overly politicized agendas, interactions with political movements and armed groups, and the legitimation of violence on and off campuses.
The FESCI represents an example of the dark side of politics involvement in schools. Ever since its creation in 1990 in tumultuous national politics contexts, the culture of violence has never left the organization. With education being fundamental for healthy societies, it is important that education decision makers find effective ways to ban violence inflicted on and perpetuated by students in schools. More importantly, the schooling environment should be kept free from weapons. Respect for human rights and freedom of expression in the educational context must remain a top priority in promoting students code of conduct. While students have the right of association, students’ rights agencies must be apolitical. Political leaders should be prevented to fund students’ organizations and must dissociate from any that engages in unlawful activity.
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