DAKAR, Senegal — On the pink-splashed walls of the university buildings the slogans survive, scrawled in black: " La Lutte Continue ," " A Bas le Fascisme ."
The struggle goes on. Down with fascism.
"That's from before," said Mamadou Bocoum from his mildewy dormitory room at one end of a dank hallway. "Before we ended the strike."
Bocoum is 26 and his eyes were bright with triumph. As a leader of the longest student strike in his country's history, he helped establish his colleagues as a political force to be reckoned with. No less a figure than Senegal's President Abdou Diouf came to their table to personally settle the yearlong strike.
By then what had begun as an annual rite of education here had escalated into Senegal's worst civil disturbance since independence in 1960.
A Unique Liberty
Fed by the country's extraordinary liberty of political discourse, unique in sub-Saharan Africa, last year's strike became entwined with the nastiest presidential election in Senegal's history. Before it was over, the cities were under curfew, the army was occupying the university and some political leaders were in jail.
The resulting crisis may have done lasting damage to Senegal's reputation for open democracy.
For those reasons and others, Bocoum may be over-optimistic in relegating those graffiti to the past. For if the revolt proved anything, it is that the problems of Senegal's youth are sure to persist long enough to inspire another strike, possibly even more violent, this year.
"The government has survived a major political crisis," said one representative of an international aid agency. "But it's the lull before the storm."
Bocoum's classmates are by a wide margin the most politicized in Africa, the most expert disrupters on the continent. They learn the art of agitation early, for effective strikes by secondary\o7 -\f7 school students as young as 11 have been a fixture each October since Bocoum himself was a secondary-school pupil.
With an elite leadership that is well traveled in Europe and exposed to other West African students who come to Senegal to study, the country's students are among the continent's most sophisticated and cosmopolitan. That makes for a discomfiting contrast with the basic poverty of their surroundings and prospects.
No one is more alert to the social consequences of Senegal's nine-year-old economic austerity program than the students, who feel they are doomed to leave campus armed with advanced degrees and virtually no job prospects in its overwhelmingly rural economy.
Of the University of Dakar's 2,500 baccalaureate graduates in 1982, fully 1,000 remain unemployed today, said Bocoum.
Certainly the country's feeble economy deserves some of the blame, but many observers point to a fundamental deficiency in its educational system.
Put simply, Senegal, which is 65% rural, graduates more lawyers and philosophers than farmers. This is a relic of the tradition-bound colonial French educational system, which Senegal's schools still follow more closely than those of any other former French colony in Africa.
With a curriculum resembling American liberal arts studies, the system promotes academic learning at the expense of the technical and vocational training that Senegal desperately needs.
Loss of 9,000 Jobs
If anything, the chasm between the students' training and the country's requirements has widened over the last few years, in which Senegal has undertaken an industrial restructuring resulting in the loss of 9,000 managerial, government and industrial jobs.
The eruption of such a mixture last year marked a watershed in Senegal's educational and political history. Where previous strikes had lasted six to eight weeks, this one consumed the entire year. In the end the government agreed to erase the year from student records and to forgive all housing and tuition bills.
This strike marked the emergence of Senegal's students as perhaps the most potent political force in the country.
"Here the government listens to students," said one diplomatic observer. "They fill the gap left by the nonexistence of a political opposition."
That could be explosive. If unemployment is the tinder of student unrest, the fire was lit by the spark of politics.
Strike Began Conventionally
Senegal's politicians may have underestimated the 1988 strike because it began so conventionally late in 1987 in the secondary schools. There, the pupils' protests over degrading classroom conditions and a lack of books and materials has become an annual feature of the \o7 rentree\f7 , the start of the school year, and the authorities seemed unconcerned even as it stretched on into February.
That was the danger point, because in February the nation's presidential election began with opposition charges that Diouf was prepared to win by fraud, if necessary.