Ivorian youths show clout

Violent protests last weekend against French peace plan highlight young people's influence on government.

With his Philadelphia 76ers jersey and school-boy smile, he would seem an unlikely candidate to help lead Ivorian student protests.

But Dieudonné N'Guessan, normally a serene doctoral student in economics, is fed up with the nearly four-and-a-half month standoff here between three rebel groups and government forces.

"This situation ticks me off!" he says, jamming his finger into the knee of a journalist to drive home his point. "When we demonstrate, we know we have power. We know they will see us in Europe and know we are not happy."

Prior to 1990, Mr. N'Guessan says he paid little attention to politics. But after the government reduced scholarship aid to students and jobs became scare, he, like many other young people, started to join protests.

Ivorian students such as N'Guessan, who are some of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo's staunchest supporters, exert a strong political pull in Abidjan. Their sentiments are often a barometer of the southern, progovernment half of the country. And their influence suggests that any compromise with the rebels could be very difficult.

Hundreds of thousands of Ivorians - many of them youths - attended a weekend demonstration that denounced a recent French-brokered peace plan. Government military forces and five political parties also oppose the plan.

Mr. Gbagbo originally agreed to a deal in which he would relinquish control of the government to a prime minister. But last week, after violent anti-French protests in which thousands took to the streets, beat foreigners, and destroyed French property, Gbagbo called the deal only "a proposition."

French citizens became the target of much of the anger. Demonstrators hurled rocks and insults at them last week as they tried to leave from Abidjan's airport.

More peaceful protests continued Monday in Abidjan, where thousands of Ivorian women surrounded the French Embassy to demonstrate against the peace accord and chant, "Chirac, liar."

Jean Yves Dibopieu, secretary-general of The Federation of Students and Schools of Ivory Coast (FESCI), a student movement that can mobilize thousands in a hurry, says the youth movement has the ear of the president.

"Gbagbo listens to the youths a lot because he knows that they put him where he is," says Mr. Dibopieu referring to the 2000 election which former Gen. Robert Guei allegedly rigged, pronouncing himself president. At the time, tens of thousands of youths took to the streets in protest, which helped bring Gbagbo to power.

"We know that it's the future of the youth and students that's at stake. Our role is to mobilize everyday, the population, the youth, to take to the streets to stand up against this form of imperialism," he says, referring to the French-brokered peace accords, which have received backing from the international community - much to the chagrin of the students.

Manipulation

Some outside observers question whether student protesters are as powerful or independent as they'd like to think.

"In Ivory Coast, all the political parties and adult groups are mobilizing - even manipulating - their young supporters: [it is] the continuation of adult political struggles by other proven means," says Cyril Daddieh, a political science professor and director of the Black Studies program at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Dibopieu, a symbolic and popular leader admired by young people here, says that FESCI won't accept rebels in the government as was proposed by the peace deal. That is a viewpoint shared by Charles Blé Goudé, the fiery leader of Coalition of Young Patriots (COJEP), and a former leader of FESCI, with whom Gbagbo often consults, according to sources. "For us, it would be like handing over to bandits the keys to your house," he recently said on Ivorian television.

In a sign that rebel groups may make concessions in order to break the deadlock, Reuters reported Monday that the main rebel faction would consider choosing a junior defense minister in a coalition government rather than the minister. News that the defense ministry had been allotted to rebels triggered the week of protests.

With a soaring youth unemployment rate that some put as high as 70 percent in Abidjan, and many university graduates reduced to running roadside cellular-phone stands, many are demonstrating as much to vent pent-up frustration as to denounce the peace plan. "Behind the politics is the economics; our situation isn't as comfortable as [that of] our parents," says Mr. N'Guessan the economics student.

Broad frustration

That is the case beyond Ivory Coast as well. Declining traditional values, frustration over a lack of advancement in society, and exclusion from political dialogues has increased activism among students throughout Africa, observers say.

"It is not that youth [is] so powerful, it is rather a problem of blocked opportunities," says Ineke van Kessel, a professor of history at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. Gbato says he and his fellow demonstrators are in for the long haul. "It could last one year, it could last 10 years," he says. "We [the students] are the most numerous. We are the ones who decide."

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