Politics of violence and higher education in Niger: 1960-beginning of 1990s

Our first session took place on May 13th, 2021 between 4-6pm (Berlin time) with our guest, Dr. Tatiana Smirnova. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre FrancoPaix (UQAM) and an associate researcher at the Sahel Research Group (University of Florida). She presented her research on “Politics of violence and higher education in Niger: 1960-beginning of 1990s.

Three Questions to Dr. Tatiana Smirnova

Postdoctoral Researcher at Centre FrancoPaix in Conflict Resolution and Peace Missions Chaire Raoul-Dandurand

Based on your research, what are the most significant watershed moment(s)/important junctures in student activism in Niger since independence until 1991?

My research on student activism in Niger has shown that from independence to 1991 important moments of the movement were systematically advanced by “abeyance” periods, allowing for better organization both on a structural and ideological levels and therefore making the critical junctures possible. These “junctures” could be also referred to as specific windows of political action which found various outlets for expression depending on the form of state power as well as the form and methods of activism. All in all, from 1960 to 1991, there are four specific junctions  I could identify.

The first significant moment relates to the strikes of the early 1970s and specifically to January 1972, coinciding with the first official visit of President Georges Pompidou of France when a student threw a tomato that stained the French president’s jacket. The paternalistic and relatively tolerant reaction of the authorities allowed for strikes to continue and the discontent grew through 1972-1973, stimulated by drought and food shortages. Diori’s unpopular regime fell in April 1974 after a military coup led by lieutenant-colonel Seyni Kountché.

The second important moment in the history of the student movement relates to November 1976, when high school students initiated a wave of protests that pushed authorities to close down schools for the entire 1976-1977 academic year. The government’s repressive response to the strikes finally forced activists to go underground. However, some form of protests continued, reinforcing ideological and organizational structures. Consequently, the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s became a true ‘golden age’ for the activist movement.

The third moment corresponds to the strikes of 1982 and 1983. After a brief period of internal divisions between 1976 and 1979, students developed a clever strategy in order to force authorities to directly negotiate with them. The negotiations that took place in 1982 were unprecedented in the history of the student movement at that time. The strategy of the movement consisted in putting authorities under the pressure through a series of strikes launched before French president, François Mitterand’s visit to Niger in 1982. The memories of the “tomato accident” of 1972 pushed authorities to open discussions with the movement and sign the document officially recognizing the student organization, USN (Union des Scolaires Nigériens). Consequently, the 1982 negotiations between the government representatives and the USN leaders were a clear indication of a break within the dominant political order: now, it was students who made political authorities negotiate with them, not the other way around. The next strike, the one of May 1983 was severely repressed: students leaders were imprisoned, others – managed to escape to the neighboring countries. The student organization’s apparent withdrawal from the political arena allowed activists to distance themselves from direct confrontations with authorities, instead developing and strengthening their political ideas, particularly through alliances with other social groups, such as civil servants and teachers. The result was a far more organized politically sophisticated ideological struggle, led also underground – that resulted in a creation of a political party with a strong social support in 1990.

The fourth critical juncture of the student movement was the student march of February 9, 1990 that created a political moment allowing for other social forces (including clandestine) to mobilize claiming the National Conference, multipartisme and regime change. The multipartisme was proclaimed in December 1990 and the National Conference took place between July and November 1991.  

Could you tell us more about ‘violence’ as a form of political and social regulation on campus? What is particular about this regulation?

The University is a space where violence has been always exercised in a recurrent manner, literally and figuratively, by students but also by the State. From its creation, the University of Niamey has been in line with the colonial education project, thus reproducing the mechanisms of violence that were deeply rooted in the system. Such continuity could be observed in the objectives of the educational system, in the curriculum, through the language of instruction, selectivity of the system and important presence of French cooperants (at least until middle 1990th). Furthermore, through 1960th-1980th violence was going well beyond the specific domain of higher education. It has also been a routine phenomenon, an integral part of the institutional mechanisms of the State: if we think in particular of the violent repression of Sawaba, the main opposition movement on the eve of and just after independence, of the 1974 coup d’état as well as of the 1983 coup attempt, or of the repression of the Tuareg rebellion in 1985, or even of the actions of the political police that existed under the military regime of Seyni Kountché.

The early 1990th and beginning of the 2000th were followed by massive student mobilizations against Structural Adjustment Programs and subsequent reforms of higher education. The images of burned cars, broken windows – as well as those of wounded activists with their heads bleeding – used to feed the media narrative of student violence as something “compulsive”. However, reducing violence solely to irrationality poses the problem of the social responsibility of the actors and mechanisms that are the carriers of this violence.

Therefore, in my research, I follow the analytical perspective that proposes – rather than analyzing the confrontations between students and security forces in terms of dysfunction of the academic system – to show that contestation, including in a violent form, is a constitutive part of public action in higher education in Niger.

Thus, one of the objectives of my work was to draw attention to the need to go beyond a schematic distinction between public policies (responsible and relational) – on the one hand, and violence (irrational) on the other, as if the former (associated with the Sate) were “normal” and the latter (social contest in its most violent form) “pathological”. The point I am making is relates to the importance to comprehend the responsibility of actors, but also the limits of violence. Violence as means of political and social regulation is thus closely related to “responsibility” and “limits”. And comprehending this process needs further research, going beyond student campus. 

Drawing on your research, how do you explain the importance of transnational connections (global “left”) in shaping student activism in Niger?

The importance of these transnational connections can be explained by different factors. First, by the historical context of the emergence and development of higher education in Niger. Indeed, the Center of Higher Education in Niamey (Centre d’Enseignement Supérieur / CES) was created relatively late – only in 1970. Before the creation of the CES and even after its transformation into the University in 1973 – at least until late 1970s, most students pursued higher education abroad, mostly in West Africa or in France. Thus, the connections with the “global left” were deeply related with student experiences abroad namely, with the Black African Students Federation in France (FEANF, Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noir en France).  Secondly, the connections with the “global left” were also fed by the influence exercised by the URSS embassy through the distribution of ideological literature or organization of exhibitions. 

It is also important to underline that while staying connected to the “global left”, school and student contest is also deeply rooted in the violence exercised by the authorities during the colonial period and early post-colonial period. In my research I also show how a broader “left” narrative was also deeply rooted in the local activism on different levels. For example, through the creation of clandestine radical leftist groups in the 1970th – 1980th, but also, in daily activist experience via the organization of strikes, ideological debates or via different ways of semi-clandestine work.

Religion, Morality and Boko: Students Training for a Good Life. What to look for? How?

Our first workshop on “Religion, Morality and Boko: Students Trainig for a Good Life. What to look for? How?” took place on December 11-12, 2018 at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin.

This is the initial workshop of the Remoboko project. It will focus on the methodological aspects of the project. It will also be the opportunity to introduce the overall idea of the project and the individual projects the three PhD students will be working on. We expect to receive feedback and suggestions from colleagues working on similar and closely related issues. This is important and will help the different project refine their research questions and seek collaborations. Finally, the workshop will be the occasion for all project participants, the group leader, the PhD students and their supervisors, to meet for the first time in Berlin.

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