Education Conflict Reaches New Depths in Niger

Saturday 1 November 2003, by François L’ÉCUYER

A two month long general strike continues to paralyze schools, colleges and universities in Niger, where the government has made serious reforms to the education system in response to demands from the World Bank and international capital. Teachers and students continue to protest against the cuts that have come along with restructuring, which has led to numerous violent confrontations and arrests. The following is a portrait of the education crisis in Niger.

At the beginning of October, students and professors at the University of Niamey took to the streets to demonstrate their discontent with the new restructuring programs. Catalyzing this response was a government announcement that only one third of the promised annual budget to the university would be maintained. In the most volatile mass mobilization since the end of the military dictatorship in 1999, students and educators marched the length of the bridge crossing the Niger River to find themselves between burning vehicles and facing physical repression by police forces that responded with gunfire and arrests.

"The students are scraping the bottom of the barrel," explains Moussa Tchangari, editor of Espaces Citroyens, "We’re watching our education system be completely dismantled. Scholarship and bursary amounts have not only been cut in half, but payments are now up to 30 months late. Since it was privatized, the state university cafeteria prepares no more than 1000 meals per day, with a student body numbering 6000. University buses have not been running for months."

Students have not only felt cuts at these most basic levels, as salaries for professors have also been affected by restructuring. "The university simply told us that due to budget cuts, [professors] would no longer be paid" remarks Souley Adji, professor of sociology at U of N "The faculty of education has even been closed, in order to reduce costs of training primary and secondary school teachers".

Budget cuts resulting in drastic service reduction in education has not been limited to Universities. Instead, the structural adjustment plan in Niger, as set out by the World Bank, is in phase four, which is known as the Decennal Education Development Program (PDDE). In the name of debt reduction, this neoliberal program has been implemented in Niger and forced reductions in government spending on social services.

60% of teachers and professors in Niger have been laid off since 1998 due to changes in retirement legislation, which now forces teachers to retire at the age of 50. National unions are still contesting this law, as teachers’ union representative Ouban Doorma asks "How will these professionals survive without a salary from the age of 50 when pensions are not being paid?"

Between now and 2010, it is expected that 90% of teachers will support measures to permit the government to reduce their salaries by 70%. Teachers are being steadily replaced by "education volunteers", who are often young people with no formal training or experience in teaching - reinforcing the closure of the department of education at the U of N. Instead of receiving a salary of $300 per month that a teacher would, these "volunteers" are paid but $90 a month. And in the case that what is bound to happen does and the education system starts to suffer under these new programs, the government can rest assured, as three out of four school evaluators have also lost their jobs.

"Not only do we earn three times less than teachers, but the government is proposing measures that take away our right to unionize and that nullify our right to holiday pay" exclaims Idi Abdou, president of the Union of Secondary Education Volunteers (UNAVES). "We have thus been on strike since the beginning of the school year. We refuse to sign on to this new legislation".

"Many Occidental countries finance, in the form of loans, the dismantling of our public services. And through these loans, we continue to amass a greater debt still through the abandonment of our education sector" proclaims Tchangari. Niger is not the only country that has met with such drastic reforms. Similar programs to that of the PDDE have been set up across the continent, and no one but the World Bank may be held accountable.

Francois L’Ecuyer

Translated by Dawn Paley

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