Gabon student fury grows over university conditions

Students throw smoke bombs at police. Photos published between February 26 and March 4 on our Observer's Facebook page. 
 
 
For more than a year, students at the University of Omar Bongo have been protesting against unpaid scholarships and a lack of student resources. Faced with a lack of response from the authorities, students have turned to violence and started clashing with police.
 
Every Monday since the middle of February, students have gathered on campus to make their pleas heard. Their initial concerns were unpaid scholarships and the cut-off age to qualify for them, which is set at 25. But since last October, other complaints have been added to the list, including student accommodation, transportation and general quality of life on campus.
 
At organized protests, students have resorted to barricading the university entrance, blocking Libreville’s roads and setting tires alight as they clash with police.
 
 
Last January, teachers also went on strike over unpaid bonuses promised the year before. As a result, most university courses were suspended until further notice.
 
Every Monday, students at Omar Bongo University block its entrance in protest. 

“It’s the permanent police presence that encourages us to continue the movement”

Edvine Ballack Obama, 22, is a student at Omar Bongo University. He’s participated in the student movement since January 2012.
 
Monday [March 4], 200 students gathered for the protest. There would have been more of us, but most students no longer set foot on the university because of the teachers' strike. For two months now, there have been practically no classes.
 
The constant police presence at our weekly protests encourages us to continue the movement. This morning there were six police trucks that surrounded us. The police said they were ordered to stop us from protesting. Most of the time, there are no clashes, but some of us are still scarred by being arrested and locked up in solitary confinement last June.
 
Protesting students are angered by the constant police presence during their demonstrations. 
 
“Half our scholarships are eaten up by rent”
 
Our main demands have not been met: Our scholarships have only been increased by 17,000 Francs CFA (€25). What do you do with 83,000 CFA francs (€126) per month of scholarship money? Renting a room already costs us half of this sum. Only a fraction of students have access to a dorm rooms. Many of us have to pay a lot of money for transportation because we live with our parents and come from far away. Finally, our university is very dirty and there are no paved roads.
 
Students have complained about the poor state their univrsity is in, notably, about the muddy unpaved roads.  Video by Jerry Bilbang.
 
“After the government organised an expensive carnival, it became clear that they don’t care about us”
 
A university pavilion has been renovated, it’s been finished for many months; but at the moment it is closed without any students staying there. Our library is also desperately empty and we don’t have any access to recent works to work properly. We find it ridiculous that the university is spending money on construction work that doesn’t benefit us much.
We are not dishonest. We recognize the university is making some effort. The classroom walls have been repainted, air conditioning was installed, and a university restaurant opened its doors. But we feel there is a problem with the government’s priorities. When we see that the government organized a carnival in Libreville that cost 120 million francs CFA (€183,000), it became clear that they don’t care about us.
 
 

“All these problems are symptomatic of a wider issue”

Marc Ona Essangui works in a local nonprofit.
 
I studied at the university in 1990 and I can tell you the problems were the same then: Lack of on-campus housing, the cost of student living and expensive transportation.
 
These protests aren’t exclusive to Omar Bongo University. Students at the Maskus University in Franceville, in the southwest of the country, have also been on strike since February. They denounce the poor security situation in the city following the death of a classmate.
 
All these problems are symptomatic of a wider issue: the education system needs to be overhauled entirely.
 
Students block roads with garbage containers. 
 
The university’s response
 
Gabriel Zomo Yebe is a faculty representative at Omar Bongo University.
 
We do not oppose the student protest movement and understand their demands. But they are disrupting the whole university’s operation. The constant police presence is intended to deal with people with bad intentions might join the students and create havoc. We must therefore be careful. The government seems well aware of all the students’ issues, and created the National Scholarship Agency to fix this. Behind these protests, I see a more profound problem, that is, the students’ fear of unemployment after they graduate [the unemployment rate for Gabon’s youth was 30% in 2011.
 
Close