Students watch classes and election remotely in Senegal’s capitalThu, 18 Jan 2024 07:09:07 GMT

Making his way through Dakar’s bustling Colobane market, 23-year-old Serigne Fallou Gueye hopes to peddle the tracksuits tucked under his arm.The second-year law student only turned to street vending after his university was closed last June, explaining he would rather work than stay idle and ask his parents for money.One of West Africa’s largest universities, Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar (UCAD), was shut by authorities after it became a hotbed of the deadly unrest that shook Senegal following the sentencing of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison.In the flare-up of violence, young people pelted police in riot gear, set fire to buses and ransacked offices.Authorities say the university was then closed on security grounds. But many students point to political motivations in the run up to the February 25 presidential vote.”Seven months without classes is catastrophic and scandalous. The state wants to sacrifice our future for strictly political reasons,” said Gueye. Opposition figure Sonko has generated a passionate following among Senegal’s disaffected youth, striking a chord with his pan-Africanist rhetoric and tough stance on former colonial power France.The firebrand, who came third in the 2019 presidential election, has been at the centre of a bitter stand-off with the state over his eligibility to stand in the February poll, with UCAD playing a significant role in the turmoil.Since its inauguration in 1959, the university has become known as a place of protest and was home to independence demands at the end of the colonial era.Seven months after UCAD’s closure, the usually lively campus lies deserted and silent.- ‘Secure opening’ -“If we start again under the same conditions, won’t we have riots under the same conditions?” asked Senegal’s Higher Education Minister, Moussa Balde, while addressing the National Assembly in November.Balde, who is also a UCAD mathematics professor, said authorities were working out how to ensure a “secure opening” of the campus and defended the idea of digital access cards to prevent potential intrusions.For the time being, the university has restarted the online teaching that was in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.UCAD’s closure is yet another blow to the student population who, even under normal circumstances, must contend with insufficient means and overcrowded lecture theatres.Young people make up more than half of Senegal’s population, and in the current economic climate even a university diploma offers no guarantee of a bright future.Most of the students interviewed by AFP said they knew fellow classmates who like many of their compatriots had attempted the perilous crossing to Europe by boat, some losing their lives en route.Claude Lishou, who heads the higher institute for distance learning at UCAD, said efforts had been made to revive online teaching and make it more accessible for students.He said telecoms operators had agreed to offer a free connection to students, adding that “even a modest-performance smart phone is enough to take part in teaching activities”.- ‘Family to help’ -Senegal’s Higher Education Minister in November insisted the move to distance learning had been introduced “in consultation with all stakeholders, including students”.While acknowledging the need for improvement, he said that “well-done distance learning (could) be more profitable than face-to-face teaching” as courses would be permanently accessible and students could have more interaction with professors.But the teaching method excludes many students who may not have access to the right equipment or who lack a stable internet connection. Coumba Aw, a 23-year-old third-year law student said she tried to follow the online classes but soon gave up because the application installed on her phone often didn’t work.”The courses are taught without any assistance from the professors and are just thrown on the platform,” she added.UCAD announced a partial resumption of face-to-face classes from January 3 at off-campus sites.Malick Dieng, 28, who was studying for a Master’s degree in Portuguese, gave up his 80-page dissertation and now works in online business.”I’ve got a family to help,” he sighed. “My place is no longer on the [university] benches”.