Victory for Nigerien students after protests | Africa | DW | 20.04.2017
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Victory for Nigerien students after protests

Students have succeeded in their quest for education reform in Niger's universities. After a student was killed in ongoing protests, the government replaced its education minister and initiated dialogue with students.

A week of mass protests by students in Niger's capital Niamey has pushed President Mahamadou Issoufou to replace Education Minister Ben Omar Mohamed. Issoufou finally declared that former Minister of Labor Yahouza Sadissou will assume Mohamed's office effective immediately.

"This technical restructuring comes from the need for the president to restore peace in the education sector after the regrettable events of April 10," said Gandou Zakara, the secretary general of the Nigerien Government, in a press release.

The government also ordered the release of four imprisoned student representatives, as well as an independent investigation into the death of a demonstrator.

Students demand better learning conditions

On April 10, Nigerien students organized demonstrations demanding the disbursement of their scholarships, improved learning conditions and higher living standards in their dormitories.

Lecturers are poorly paid and their salaries are often unpaid or delayed students argued. This has resulted in recurring strikes, canceled lectures, and study periods that are frequently and needlessly extended, all of which disrupt their education.

While the landlocked west African country has repeatedly been hit by protests, so far, nothing has changed. Lecturers remain without wages, and students' scholarships have not yet been paid out.

"For six months, Nigerien students at public universities and at vocational schools have not received any scholarship fees," Husseini Sumaila Sambo, a student representative, told DW. "This would be unimaginable in foreign countries."

Niger Niamey Studentenproteste (DW/Abdoulaye Mamane Amadou )

Students in Niger's capital Niamey built barricades and set them alight in ongoing protests against inadequate learning conditions

Escalating demonstrations

According to official statistics, 313 arrests have been made and 109 people injured; a sociology student was also killed during the protests which the government said were not approved by officials ahead of time.

While the police deny allegations of excessive use of force, the student body insists that their peers were hit by tear gas. As Mohamed fled the campus, where more than 11,000 students live, security forces stormed faculties, libraries and dormitories

"We were peacefully studying when the security officers came in. They began to hit us and spray tear gas," student Adamou Abubakar told DW. "They [police] said they were acting on the order of 'those up there.'"

Niger Niamey Studentenproteste (DW/Abdoulaye Mamane Amadou )

Classrooms in two of Niger's universities were left empty after they were closed for several days

Police force stymies conciliation talks

The campus in Niamey was then closed for several days, leaving thousands of students without shelter. They slept on the street, in mosques and restaurants, or sought lodging from relatives and fellow students. The university in Maradi, the country's third largest city, also remained closed due to the ongoing protests.

Conciliation seemed to be in sight last Saturday, when President Issoufou ordered the reopening of the two universities and sought dialogue with student body representatives. Soon after, however, a video circulated on social media showing police officers striking an unarmed student with batons.

In the video, the student lies in the tray of a pickup truck, while police force him to shout "long live the police". The officers involved in the incident documented and published the footage themselves.

Many Nigeriens have said they are shocked at the violence perpetrated by uniformed men against an unarmed youth.

Three of the policemen from the video have since been identified, and were arrested on Sunday.

They have "broken the laws and the rules of the republic" and "will answer for their acts before competent courts", said Adily Toro, the spokesman for the national police.

The arrest of the policemen, however, did not help with appeasement efforts. Thousands of students took to the streets again on Monday evening as student representatives broke talks with the government and threatened to continue the strike indefinitely.

Niger Demonsration für Bildungsreform (picture-alliance/AA/B. Boureima )

The protests have been ongoing since last year, when anti-government demonstrations demanded education reform

Only the dismissal of Education Minister Ben Omar Mohamed, whom student representatives blame directly for the violence, made Niger's students receptive to further negotiations with government officials about education reform.

"Education as a development opportunity for the Niger"

"Those same government representatives, who have benefited from scholarships and now have high-ranking positions, are now organizing against defenseless students," said human rights activist Mohammadou Nuhu Arzuka. "They should be taking care of improving study conditions, so that young Nigeriens can benefit and contribute to the country's long term development."

The education sector in the Niger is among the least developed in sub-Saharan Africa. A lack of well-trained teachers, sufficient schools and teaching materials has contributed to a literacy rate of 19 percent among citizens over 15 years old, according to UNESCO.

Abdoulaye Mamane Amadou and Mahaman Kanta contributed to this article. Translated by Meggie Morris.

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