Elections on, university off

Closed since June 2023, the University of Dakar has become a symbol of the collapse of Senegalese democracy.

Students evacuating University of Dakar campus on June 2, 2023 © Moussa Ngom.

On the evening of February 11, men in uniform, some wearing helmets and carrying shields, stood guard at each of the entrances to the university professors’ residence in Dakar. Their vans surrounded the complex. Just a reminder of the new era that Senegal has entered since the institutional coup d’état orchestrated by President Macky Sall, who announced on February 3 that he was canceling the presidential elections scheduled for February 25 (a move that was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council on February 15).

Demonstrations against this unilateral decision have since been systematically repressed with tear gas, arbitrary arrests, and, in some cases, live ammunition. Alpha Yoro Tounkara, a student at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, was killed by an officer during a demonstration on the campus on February 9. His violent death sent shockwaves through the country’s universities, with all student unions immediately announcing the suspension of classes for several days. All except those at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar (UCAD). This is because the most famous French-speaking university in West Africa has been closed for almost nine months.

At their nightly vigil in memory of Alpha Yoro Tounkara, which was delayed by the incursion of two policemen who had come to intimidate the organizers, academics from different faculties discussed the ongoing political crisis and the state of UCAD. Among them, the historian Mamadou Diouf: “Have we not bought more guns than books in Senegal? Have we not opened more barracks than schools and recruited more policemen than teachers? Meanwhile, the University of Dakar is hermetically sealed; one of the main signs of the collapse of Senegalese democracy.”

This is not the first time that the University of Dakar has been closed, but the current blockade—the longest in the country’s history—is in many ways unprecedented. It is not the result of localized student protests, ranging from material demands to aspirations for sociopolitical change, as part of a power struggle with the authorities. Rather, it is an expression of the current regime’s desire to disintegrate the politicized student body, even at the cost of the collapse of the university itself.

Hotbed of tension

Even before its closure in June 2023, UCAD was struggling to recover from the spillover of several academic years, exacerbated by the suspension of classes for more than six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a temporary closure before the 2022 legislative elections. As a result, the 2022–2023 academic year did not start until May 2023 in some departments (not at all in others), and only partly, due to a lack of available classrooms.

In addition to the serious backlog, the security on campus has been significantly tightened since the demonstrations of March 2021, which were bloodily suppressed by the authorities. Many students testify to the increasing number of nervis (or militiamen) who pose as security guards during clashes, and who operate unhindered by the services of the Centre des œuvres universitaires de Dakar (COUD). Of the 90,000 students officially enrolled at UCAD, at least 40,000 live on the campus, which houses the student residences managed by the COUD.

Several videos posted on social media show these nervis intimidating and abusing students identified as opposition supporters. Other reports mention frequent attacks by members of the Republican Pupils and Students Movement (MEER), the official student wing of the ruling party, Alliance for the Republic (APR), who are also covered by the security services.

“In June 2022, during the casserole concerts [also known as cacerolazo] we were holding in response to a call from [opposition leader] Ousmane Sonko, several former students, members of the MEER, came to our room at 6 a.m. They broke down the door and stabbed two of our friends, one of whom received eight stab wounds,” says Khadija Badiane, then a law student and member of the FRAPP movement (Front for an Anti-Imperialist, Popular, and Pan-African Revolution). “I saw their faces and recognized them: we filed a complaint, but nothing was done.”

Khadija Badiane was living on the campus at the time but was no longer a student at UCAD: a year earlier, she had been banned from all public universities in the country for two years, along with other student opponents, for “insulting messages” and “harassing” the dean, after she challenged the annulment—considered arbitrary—of the results of her faculty’s delegate elections. Khadija Badiane, who was seen to be close to Guy Marius Sagna, the administrative secretary of FRAPP, has no doubts: “They wanted to get rid of us, whatever the reason.”

The flames of June

Then came June 1, 2023. When opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting youth,” the streets of Dakar exploded, and the university was at the forefront. Mouhamed Sylla, a history student at the time who has since transferred to the University of Paris-Nanterre, recalls: “When the students, in revolt, wanted to leave their pavilion to demonstrate their disagreement, men armed with machetes were already on the campus waiting to prevent them from protesting in front of the COUD gate. The first students to come down from the pavilion were immediately knocked down by these ‘nervis’ and forced to return to their rooms.”

Pushed back into the university, some of the rebels expressed their anger from inside. “At one point,” Mouhamed Sylla continues, “a student addressed the crowd: ‘Now that the authorities have deployed people to prevent us from demonstrating, we’re going to set fire to the buses!’ The group dispersed and moved on. As for the Faculty of Law pavilion, not everyone agreed that it should be set on fire. More and more damage was done, and the university became a battleground between students and police.”

The School of Journalism was stoned, cars set on fire, administrative archives damaged: as striking images of the material damage began to circulate, the police surrounded the campus, making numerous arrests and firing tear gas even into the students’ rooms. Amid the noise and commotion, Rassoul (who did not wish to give his last name), a biology master’s student, rushed to the aid of his distraught classmates: “In the girls’ dormitory, many of them fell and couldn’t breathe. We had to go into their rooms to evacuate them to the medical service.” “You could smell the shells hundreds of meters away, asthmatics fainted, the hospital was bursting at the seams,” says Khadija Badiane, pausing to catch her breath as she recounts the scenes. “The screams I heard traumatized me for days. It was chaos.”

In the evening, the administration decided to cut off the electricity and water supply to the dormitories and to close the restaurants and shops operating on campus. After an initial announcement that classes would be suspended indefinitely, the rectorate issued a new statement: the campus would have to be evacuated the next morning; if not, students would be considered personæ non gratæ and would not be able to collect their belongings. Panicked, tens of thousands of them, still suffocating from the toxic clouds of tear gas and crammed into their rooms far beyond capacity, tried to pack up. Some, whose families lived in the Dakar region, decided to evacuate in the middle of the night. Others waited until dawn. For a few hours, Cheikh Anta Diop Avenue became a crossroads for buses from all over the country.

Indefinite closure

Ten days after closing the campus, UCAD’s academic council finally announced the resumption of classes “in a remote format,” which would allow the 2023–2024 academic year to begin in November. In practice, however, distance learning did not work. The format had already been tried, without success, during the COVID-19 pandemic closure, and there had not been any major technical improvements since then. In June and July, many courses did not have a dedicated web link. Those that did were attended by less than half the usual number of students, due to the high cost of an internet connection; the instability or absence of a network outside the main cities, where many students had returned to their families; or the boycott by some students, for whom these virtual sessions without the appropriate technology undermined equality of opportunity.

The reopening of the campus was finally announced for October 2023, then postponed until November, then promised for January 2024. In October, the Autonomous Higher Education Trade Union (SAES) rejected “the fallacious alibi of the renovation of social infrastructures” as a reason for keeping the university closed and called for “a return to a normal academic year, undermined by the almost spontaneous closures due to the social [context] and the electoral calendar.”

Around that time, just before a press conference held by student associations on the campus, which was immediately broken up by the police, one of their leaders denounced: “Senegalese students no longer have any hope of staying in a country where the universities are closed. In Ukraine, where there is war, the University of Kyiv has not been closed. But in Senegal, they want to close the universities because of a political situation.”

“Some have given up eating two meals a day”

In the current context, where the leading opponent, Ousmane Sonko—who was prevented from running in the presidential elections but was replaced by his party’s number two, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who is expected to be one of the favorites in the race—enjoys a high level of popularity among urban youth, unlike Amadou Ba, the candidate nominated by President Macky Sall, the political risks of a reopening of UCAD are proving too great for the regime. “If the students had been on campus, the struggle would have ended yesterday,” sighed one student the day after Macky Sall’s address on February 3.

In early January 2024, the dean of UCAD, Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, cited “community safety” as the reason for keeping the campus shut. However, renovations did not begin until late 2023, and the university’s main avenues have been transformed into a permanent construction site. That said, most of the campus’s teaching areas remain undamaged and have been actively used—but for activities that mostly do not involve students. UCAD continues to host various international seminars and conferences where foreign researchers, surprised by the unusually empty faculty corridors, are somewhat embarrassingly assured that the students are… on holiday.

The new solution, found in January, was to hold second-semester “remediation sessions” (even though the first semester had barely begun) in external locations. Some classes were held, sometimes with more than three or four times the capacity of the selected rooms, for students who were based in the Dakar region. The others, some of whom decided to return to the capital without access to accommodation or affordable food due to the closure of the campus, have been only surviving.

History professor Daha Chérif Ba, vice-coordinator of the Republican Academics Network (RUR), described their unbearable living conditions in a letter sent on February 8 to Minister of Higher Education Moussa Baldé, the RUR’s coordinator:

Some have given up eating two meals a day. Others don’t dare to eat breakfast until the middle of the day so that they can fast at night. In other words, they are very poorly nourished and walk at a snail’s pace to reach the external sites. At night, like ghostly shadows, many of the students sneak into the wooden furniture displayed along the canal [near the campus] to find a place to sleep for a while.

A social time bomb

The closure of UCAD, together with the blockade imposed on Casamance (Senegal’s southern region) following the suspension of the ferry with Dakar in June 2023, can certainly be seen as a reflection of the class war being waged by the current regime against the most disadvantaged sections of society. The university faculties targeted are those with the highest enrollments (humanities, law, medicine, etc.) and the most underprivileged students, many of whom are scholarship holders.

Meanwhile, those who are better off have the option of going to private institutes, some of which operate on the Dakar campus: filtering students by charging additional fees, these programs offer more stability, with a fixed timetable and a guaranteed diploma. Others try their luck with scholarships abroad, such as in France, where the number of Senegalese students has risen by more than 60% since 2016. Canada, another popular destination, has also seen an increase in Senegalese applications in recent years.

But the students who do manage to go abroad remain a minority, including many children of leading figures in the regime. When Aïssata Tall Sall, then President Macky Sall’s new ally, published photos of herself in the United States at her sons’ graduation ceremony from the University of North Carolina in 2019, outraged reactions were swift. Tuition fees there exceed 1 million CFA francs per month (around US$1,800), thirty times the average monthly stipend students receive at UCAD. Amadou Ba, a member of the opposition party African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (PASTEF), which is headed by Ousmane Sonko, commented: “At a time when Senegalese students risk dying just to claim their scholarships, this spectacle is a tad inappropriate. […] After Aly Ngouille Ndiaye’s [then minister of the interior] son swaggered in front of his London Institute of Petroleum and Macky Sall’s son was given a special flight to attend his graduation in the USA, our politicians give the impression of having fueled a machine for reproducing elites by co-opting their offspring for the most prestigious positions.”

Are Senegal’s leaders abandoning public universities—which have, for the most part, educated them—because their children, most of whom are schooled privately or abroad, will not suffer the consequences? The fact remains that the policies pursued in recent years have widened the social divide in the country. Since June 2023, many have abandoned their studies and sought paid employment to keep their heads above water. “The sector that employs the most students is construction, where they work for 3,000 or 3,500 CFA francs [US$5 or US$6] a day,” says Rassoul. “But very few recruit you if you don’t know someone who knows someone.” Others have already risked their lives by taking the dangerous routes of exile to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean and to North America via Nicaragua; some of whom have already perished at sea.

Sacrificed generation

At the vigil held on February 11 at the university professors’ residence in Dakar, everyone had their own opinion on the state of UCAD. One of them, a doctoral student in philosophy, pointed a finger at the teachers: “We are being sacrificed and at the same time you are sacrificing us. You know full well that classes have barely even started. You want to rush two weeks of classes to organize exams and at the same time you want students to succeed?” Applause and shouts of agreement from the audience, followed by a teacher’s reply: “The same criticism can be leveled at you: why haven’t you organized yourselves to revolt? Are you waiting for the teachers to tell you to revolt? You shouldn’t accept being assessed on something you haven’t learned.”

Nevertheless, many of the students have resigned themselves to the fact that the university will not reopen before the election. “This is a collective punishment for the students who rose up against the unjust policies of the regime,” argues Khadija Badiane. “The state has desecrated our temple of knowledge.” “This system is condemning us to failure and wasting our time,” says one history student on a WhatsApp discussion group. “It’s better to start a business or try pre-registration in France or Canada. Our government doesn’t care about our future.”

Fatigue, discouragement, defiance, despair, depression… Rassoul can hardly hide his dismay: “I feel sad, I feel angry. You’ve finished your first cycle, you have a few months left to finish your second cycle, and with the closure, you’ve lost one to two years. Everything is uncertain. It’s very difficult to live with.” He concludes: “I can no longer afford to continue my studies in Senegal. If I go back to school, it will have to be abroad.”

Further Reading

Sanctioning the regime in Senegal

After defying the state apparatus in March 2021, Senegalese voters sent a strong message of disobedience and sanction via their ballots in January 2022 and signaling their readiness for another regime change in 2024.