[AfrICANN-discuss] Africa’s Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling

Anne-Rachel Inne anne-rachel.inne at icann.org
Sun May 20 11:22:33 SAST 2007

The New York Times

May 20, 2007
Africa’s Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling

DAKAR, Senegal, May 19 — Thiany Dior usually rises before dawn, 
tiptoeing carefully among thin foam mats laid out on the floor as she 
leaves the cramped dormitory room she shares with half a dozen other 
women. It was built for two.

In the vast auditorium at the law school at Cheikh Anta Diop University, 
she secures a seat two rows from the front, two hours before class. If 
she sat too far back, she would not hear the professor’s lecture over 
the two tinny speakers, and would be more likely to join the 70 percent 
who fail their first- or second-year exams at the university.

Those who arrive later perch on cinderblocks in the aisles, or strain to 
hear from the gallery above. By the time class starts, 2,000 young 
bodies crowd the room in a muffled din of shuffling paper, throat 
clearing and jostling. Outside, dozens of students, early arrivals for 
the next class, mill about noisily.

“I cannot say really we are all learning, but we are trying,” said Ms. 
Dior. “We are too many students.”

Africa’s best universities, the grand institutions that educated a 
revolutionary generation of nation builders and statesmen, doctors and 
engineers, writers and intellectuals, are collapsing. It is partly a 
self-inflicted crisis of mismanagement and neglect, but it is also a 
result of international development policies that for decades have 
favored basic education over higher learning even as a population 
explosion propels more young people than ever toward the already 
strained institutions.

The decrepitude is forcing the best and brightest from countries across 
Africa to seek their education and fortunes abroad and depriving dozens 
of nations of the homegrown expertise that could lift millions out of 

The Commission for Africa, a British government research organization, 
said in a 2005 report that African universities were in a “state of 
crisis” and were failing to produce the professionals desperately needed 
to develop the poorest continent. Far from being a tool of social 
mobility, the repository of a nation’s hopes for the future, Africa’s 
universities have instead become warehouses for a generation of young 
people for whom society has little use and who can expect to be just as 
poor as their uneducated parents.

“Without universities there is no hope of progress, but they have been 
allowed to crumble,” said Penda Mbow, a historian and labor activist at 
Cheikh Anta Diop who has struggled to improve conditions for students 
and professors. “We are throwing away a whole generation.”

As a result, universities across Africa have become hotbeds of 
discontent, occupying a dangerous place at the intersection of politics 
and crime. In Ivory Coast, student union leaders played a large role in 
stirring up xenophobia that led to civil war. In Nigeria, elite schools 
have been overrun by violent criminal gangs. Those gangs have hired 
themselves out to politicians, contributing to the deterioration of the 
electoral process there.

In Senegal, the university has been racked repeatedly by sometimes 
violent strikes by students seeking improvements in their living 
conditions and increases in the tiny stipends for living expenses. 
Students have refused to attend classes and set up burning barricades on 
a central avenue that runs past the university.

In the early days, postcolonial Africa had few institutions as venerable 
and fully developed as its universities. The University of Ibadan in 
southwest Nigeria, the intellectual home of the Nobel Prize-winning 
writer Wole Soyinka, was regarded in 1960 as one of the best 
universities in the British Commonwealth. Makerere University in Uganda 
was considered the Harvard of Africa, and it trained a whole generation 
of postcolonial leaders, including Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

And in Senegal, Cheikh Anta Diop, then known as the University of Dakar, 
drew students from across francophone Africa and transformed them into 
doctors, engineers and lawyers whose credentials were considered equal 
to those of their French counterparts.

The experience of students like Ms. Dior could not be further from that 
of men like Ousmane Camara, a former president of Senegal’s highest 
court, who attended the same law school in the late 1950s. A cracked, 
yellowing photograph from 1957 shows the entire law school student body 
in a single frame, fewer than 100 students.

“We lived in spacious rooms, with more than enough for each to have its 
own,” Mr. Camara said. “We had a minibus that drove us to and from class.”

The young men in the photo went on to do great things: Mr. Camara’s 
classmate Abdou Diouf became Senegal’s second president. Others became 
top government officials and businessmen, shaping the nation’s fortunes 
after it won independence from France in 1960.

Today, nearly 60,000 students are crammed on a campus with just 5,000 
dormitory beds. Renting a room in Dakar is so expensive that students 
pack themselves into tiny rooms by the half dozen.

Firmin Manga, a third-year English student from the southern region of 
Casamance, was lucky enough to be assigned a cramped, airless single 
room. But six of his friends were not so fortunate, so he invited them 
to share. In a space barely wide enough for two twin beds, the young men 
have squeezed four foam mattresses, which serve as beds, desks, dining 
tables and couches. Their clothes were neatly packed into a single 
closet, a dozen pairs of shoes carefully balanced on a ledge above the 

“We have to live like this,” Mr. Manga said, perched on his bed late one 

“Two will sleep here,” he said, placing his palm on a ratty scrap of 
foam. “Two over there, and two over there. Then one more mattress is 
underneath my bed.”

Once the last mattress is laid out there is no floor space left. Mr. 
Manga works on his thesis, a treatise comparing the grammar of his 
native Dioula language with English, early in the morning, before any 
else wakes up.

“That is my quiet time alone,” he said.

The graffiti-scarred dormitories, crisscrossed by clotheslines, look 
more like housing projects for the poor than rooms for the country’s 
brightest youths. A $12 million renovation of the library modernized 
what had been a musty, crowded outpost on campus into a modern building 
with Internet access. But technology does not help with its most basic 
problem: it still only has 1,700 chairs. Students study in stairwells 
and sprawled in corners.

In a chemistry lab in the science department, students take turns 
carrying out basic experiments with broken beakers and pipettes.

Equally frustrated are the professors, many of whom could pursue careers 
abroad but choose to remain in Senegal. Alphonse Tiné, a professor of 
chemistry, said he struggled to balance his research with the demands of 
teaching thousands of students.

“If I went abroad maybe I would have more salary, better equipment, 
fewer students,” Mr. Tiné said. “I studied on a government scholarship 
abroad, so I felt I owed my country to stay. But it is very hard.”

Mr. Tiné, 58, plans to stay in Senegal for the rest of his career. But 
many educated Africans will not. The International Organization for 
Migration estimates that Africa has lost 20,000 educated professionals 
every year since 1990. Those who can afford it send their children 
abroad for college. Some of those who cannot push their sons and even 
their daughters to migrate, often illegally.

The disarray of Africa’s universities did not happen by chance. In the 
1960s, universities were seen as the incubator of the vanguard that 
would drive development in the young nations of newly liberated Africa, 
and postcolonial governments spent lavishly on campuses, research 
facilities, scholarships and salaries for academics.

But corruption and mismanagement led to the economic collapses that 
swept much of Africa in the 1970s, and universities were among the first 
institutions to suffer. As idealistic postcolonial governments gave way 
to more cynical and authoritarian ones, universities, with their 
academic freedoms, democratic tendencies and elitist airs, became a 

When the World Bank and International Monetary Fund came to bail out 
African governments with their economic reforms — a bitter cocktail that 
included currency devaluation, opening of markets and privatization — 
higher education was usually low on the list of priorities. Fighting 
poverty required basic skills and literacy, not doctoral students. In 
the mid-1980s nearly a fifth of World Bank’s education spending 
worldwide went to higher education. A decade later, it had dwindled to 
just 7 percent.

Meanwhile, welcome money flooded into primary and secondary education. 
But it set up a time bomb: as more young people got a basic education, 
more wanted to go to college. In 1984, just half of Senegal’s children 
went to primary school, but 20 years later more than 90 percent do.

And more of those children have gone on to high school: Africa has the 
world’s highest growth rate of high school attendance. Abdou Salam Sall, 
rector of the Cheikh Anta Diop, said 9,000 students earned a 
baccalaureate in Senegal in 2000, entitling them to university 
admission. By 2006 there were more than twice that. The university 
cannot handle the influx. Its budget is $32 million, less than $600 per 
student. That money must also maintain a 430-acre campus, pay salaries 
and finance research.

Even those lucky enough to graduate will have difficulty finding a job 
in their struggling economies. As few as one third of African university 
graduates find work, according to the Association of African Universities.

Governments and donors in some countries are starting to spend more on 
higher education. The World Bank chipped in for Cheikh Anta Diop’s 
library renovation, and a coalition of foundations called the 
Partnership for Higher Education in Africa has pledged $200 million to 
help African universities over the next five years.

Fatou Kiné Camara, a law professor and the daughter of Mr. Camara, the 
former judge, said she felt the frustration of her students as she 
struggled to teach a class of thousands. When the students cannot hear 
her over the loudspeaker, they hurl vulgar insults, a taboo in a society 
that prides itself on decorum and respect for elders.

“They are angry, and I cannot blame them,” she said. “The country has 
nothing to offer them, and their education is worthless. It doesn’t 
prepare them for anything.”

Attempts to reduce the student population by admitting fewer students 
are seen as political suicide — student unions play a big role in 
elections, and the country’s leaders are fearful of widespread 
discontent among the educated youth. Senegal has created new 
universities in provincial capitals like Saint Louis and Ziguinchor, but 
few students want to attend them because they are new and untested, and 
the government has not forced the issue.

“They fear us because we are the young, and the future belongs to us,” 
said Babacar Sohkna, a student union leader. “But where is our future? 
We are just waiting here for poverty.”

Elizabeth Dickinson contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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