ABIDJAN, 29 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - At the main university in Cote d'Ivoire's commercial capital, Abidjan, many scholars are more worried about self-defence than self-improvement on a campus dominated by a pro-government student union that uses rape and torture to maintain control.
Many students insist that the Students' Federation of Cote d'Ivoire (FESCI) is nothing more than a government militia, with what some call a "mafia"-like hold on the university.
The United Nations and national and international human rights groups have accused FESCI, which is aligned to President Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), of violence against students who support the opposition.
Dissension and heated political debate are nothing new at the treed campus in the smart Cocody part of town. Indeed, Gbagbo was a history lecturer and dean in the faculty of Languages and Cultures when he and other academics founded the FPI.
But unrest since a failed coup in 2002 has exacerbated hostilities among students and some say has allowed the FESCI to attack opponents with impunity.
When some members of a new rival union, the General Association of Students of Cote d'Ivoire (AGEECI), gathered at the university earlier this week, FESCI supporters attacked them and shut down the campus.
Students perpetrating rapes, assaults
Last week, the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire, ONUCI, issued a statement condemning an escalation of violence at university campuses in Abidjan. ONUCI said there had been "serious human rights violations" and cases of rape and torture by students.
ONUCI called on the government to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of the violence.
In a report earlier this year the UN mission accused FESCI students of torture and detaining university students and personnel.
The Ivorian Human Rights League (LIDHO) earlier this month condemned FESCI for the rape and torture of student members of AGEECI.
"For several years FESCI has maintained a climate of aggression both on and off campus and its belligerent acts remain unpunished," LIDHO said in a statement.
Nathalie Soro, an arts student and member of AGEECI, said she was gang-raped by four FESCI members last month. The rape took place on the day of a memorial service for Habib Dodo, a colleague who was killed in 2004, many believe by FESCI members.
"Today, I still have nightmares," she told IRIN, adding that FESCI has warned her not to return to campus.
Few dare to speak out
AGEECI leader Innocent Gnelbin told IRIN that students and professors alike are appalled by FESCI and its ways, but most are too frightened to speak out.
"Even professors are afraid of being attacked by FESCI members if they speak in any way against the government; there is no criticism of the government allowed," he said.
However, AGEECI members have decided to take a stand, at the risk of assault or even death, Gnelbin said.
"It's true we will be tortured, mutilated, raped and even killed," he said. "But we continue to believe in our cause. Gandhi has shown us the way."
He said students need a true advocacy union that can support them.
"We want students to have a real union that will take up students' problems and not a mafia that will only terrorise students," he said. "We will not give up as long as this bullying and intolerance in the university setting justify our fight."
In addition to sowing terror, students told IRIN, FESCI controls much of what goes on at the university -- including which merchants or restaurateurs will do business on campus and who lives in campus accommodation.
"Here, the students of FESCI have all the rights," university student Maurice Tchetche said. "They eat free at university restaurants and they have the rights to rooms in all the university residences."
"When FESCI doesn't approve of something the university administrators renounce the thing, as if they were the ones making the decision... We are afraid of FESCI," he said.
The leader of FESCI since May, Serge Koffi Yao, insisted AGEECI is an organisation representing the rebels who control the northern half of Cote d'Ivoire since 2002.
"AGEECI is not a student organisation and we cannot let them meet on campus. It is a rebel organisation created in the rebel zone and seeking to spread its tentacles to the university," he said.
FESCI was set up in 1990 and has a history of challenging the government of the day and even leading violent street clashes with the authorities. The organisation has been repeatedly banned as a result.
FESCI was not always so partial. Throughout the 1990s when the Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI) held power, the student union represented a mix of political activists, shakily united in opposition to the ruling PDCI.
Charles Ble Goude, fiery leader of the Young Patriots, is a former FESCI leader from this period, as is his archrival, Guillaume Soro, now head of the rebels who occupy northern Cote d'Ivoire.
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