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      The Student-Intelligentsia in sub-Saharan Africa: Structural Adjustment, Activism and Transformation

      a , * ,
      Review of African Political Economy
      Review of African Political Economy


            University students acquired a politically privileged status in much of sub-Saharan Africa; this was connected to the role the student-intelligentsia played in the struggles for independence. After independence, student activism became an important feature of the new states. However, higher education on the continent came under sustained attack in the 1980s and 1990s, with the policies of the IMF and World Bank reversing the generous funding national universities had received. This cast student activists into a world transformed by political and economic forces, contested in waves of popular protest. While students in many cases maintained their status as politically privileged actors, they now did so in countries where there had been a convergence of popular classes. This article charts some of these developments, and argues that the student-intelligentsia has played a diverse and contradictory role in the recent political and economic upheavals on the continent.

            Main article text


            On 29 September 1988, University of Zimbabwe students marched through central Harare. There were more than 500 demonstrators. They carried a banner that read ‘Revolutionary Intellectuals’. They were protesting against government corruption in defence of Robert Mugabe's apparent drive to return the ruling party to the Leadership Code.1 But the students received a rude awakening when Mugabe, the father of liberation, publicly chastised them for criticising the government. From this moment students became intransigent opponents of the regime that had only come to power eight years before.

            However, Zimbabwean university students continued to understand their activism as the ‘voice of the voiceless’, the slogan of their movement. As enlightened intellectuals students were society's overseers. After independence university students across the continent defended the new post-colonial world (and elite) and then, when they awoke to the reality of independence, they campaigned for new liberations. Students inherited the role of privileged political actors from national liberation movements in Africa. These struggles had been led by an older generation of the student-intelligentsia. The student-intelligentsia became the professional revolutionary elite. This group played the leading role in national independence and was able to pose as the radical arbiters of the nation against sectional interests. This mantle of (‘revolutionary’) nationalist struggle was the political legacy of university students after independence. Students accepted and subverted their inheritance.

            During the period following independence university students were a transitory social group, who held well-founded expectations of rewarding and high status employment after graduation. The 1970s began to erode many of these assurances as countries that had attempted to implement state-led development faced international recession, internal corruption and decay. By the late 1970s state funding of higher education was targeted for restructuring. Student activism was affected: while students clung onto a self-conscious elitism, the reality of student poverty and the financial crises of African universities transformed their activism (Bathily et al. 1995). However, these processes were inherently contradictory. As well as seeing their status as a privileged group collapse, there was an unprecedented ‘convergence of forces’ (Kagoro, interview 23 June 2003) between students and the popular classes (Seddon 2002). The ivory tower had been turned inside out by the austerity imposed by structural adjustment and national governments. This convergence was expressed in the waves of resistance from the mid-1970s and later the ‘democratic transitions’ that swept the continent from the late 1980s.

            This article surveys the role of students, the nature of their protest and their relationship with civil society in the processes that brought about a wave of multi-party elections and democratic struggles in sub-Saharan Africa. The article focuses specifically on the literature that relates to student activism and protest, although it is acknowledged that this activism brings into play many other factors. The context in which students become political actors in contemporary Africa is tied to the transformation of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, often under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank led reform. These wider macro processes impinge on the ability of students to exercise effective and meaningful political agency.

            The next section explores the changing nature of higher education in the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on the changed circumstances that student activists have been forced to negotiate in the last 25 years. Subsequent sections discuss both the evolution of student activism, the way it has been characterised in recent commentary and the involvement of students in the ‘convergence of forces’ and the popular protests that were typical of the democratic transitions. The article intentionally presents the broad political and economic changes to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, and details the role of students in the actual transitions that took place in the 1990s. The history of these transitions must be, in E.P. Thompson's words, ‘embodied … in a real context’ (Thompson 1991, p. 8).

            The Collapse in Higher Education

            Universities on the continent are in general crumbling ruins of an earlier and brief period of state development. If there is some dispute about the role of structural adjustment in under-funding higher education across Africa, there is little disagreement on the physical state of tertiary institutions. The material collapse of sub-Saharan African colleges and universities is well documented.

            For the majority of public universities, the situation in Nigeria is typical of much of the continent:

            In libraries current literatures are hardly available. Yet, many students are too poor to buy books of their own. Water problems, toilet facilities and conveniences are deplorable. There is no regular supply of water. This affects toilets – they are usually locked up. Lecturers and students have to make use of nearby bush. The perennial, epileptic supply of electricity affects courses. Darkness envelops virtually the whole country at night, on a daily basis, with the exception of the few who could afford private electricity generation through generators. (Interview, Femi Aborisade, 3 March 2009)

            It is important not to generalise uncritically from Aborisade's observations, although much of the literature tends to corroborate his observations (Lebeau 1997, Caffentzis 2000). For example Kerr and Mapanje (2002, p. 90) reported that in Malawi the physical decay at the University of Malawi, the poor salaries of staff and declining amenities for students have led to an ‘atmosphere of marginalisation’ that has triggered ‘anti-social behaviour’. The authors note the increase in sexual assaults on female students since 1994.

            It is clear that there is a notable similarity in the collapse of sub-Saharan African universities over the last 30 years; countries thousands of miles apart experienced the same deterioration of higher education. Piet Konings (2002, p. 181) wrote about the crisis of the University of Yaounde in Cameroon in the 1990s and how ‘Mockingly, students referred to their university as ‘the bachelors’ cemetery'. Typical of most campuses on the continent, student numbers at the university have mushroomed from approximately 10,000 at the beginning of the 1980s, to more than 42,000 by the mid-1990s. University infrastructure built in the early days of independence for one or two thousand are forced to cope with an explosion of student numbers. Even in Makerere University, regarded as a model for the rest of Africa, half of students questioned in a survey failed to attend lectures because there were not enough seats (Musisi and Nansozi 2003, p. 43).

            A similar story can be told of Kenya's university system. Although Maurice Amutabi (2002) tends to romanticise student activism,2 his descriptions of conditions in Kenya's universities is convincing:

            The lecture theatres and libraries are not only congested but also run down. The hostels have become overcrowded, sanitary conditions have worsened, and food quality has deteriorated. University buildings are dilapidated, making the university conditions not different from any slum or poor neighbourhood in Kenya. (Amutabi, 2002, p. 163)

            Amutabi goes on to make an important argument, one that this article will consider in detail – he argued that the extreme poverty of campus life in Kenyan society has transformed students today into the ‘bedfellows’ with the wider poor of Kenyan society. They are no longer a privileged layer.

            Commentators of the university crisis point to the pivotal role played by structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) in promoting the withdrawal of state funds from tertiary education (Alidou et al. 2000, Konings 2002). These policies, often sponsored by the World Bank, pushed for the persistent deprioritisation of higher education in Africa. Governments reversed years of relatively generous funding to universities and as a corollary of these reforms, instigated fees, levies and loans on students.

            Neoliberal Reform and Higher Education in Africa

            For more than a decade from the early 1980s the World Bank developed its thinking about the tertiary education reform on the continent. Each study championed the reversal of state funding to universities, which became fashionably regarded as over-generous, wasteful and bloated. The first most important study was the ‘Berg Report’, Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa, published in 1981. The report spoke in general about development, advocating serious deregulation. Part of the study also focused specifically on education and similarly promoted systematic reorganisation. Although heavily criticised (Sandbrook 1993, Diouf and Mamdani 1994), the approach advocated in the report helped to fix the agenda and approach of donor agencies to education in Africa, diagnosing the problem as one of simple over-funding:

            Expenditure on schooling already claims a large part of GDP – around four per cent in two thirds of the countries for which data are available. And, more important, they claim a sizeable share of public expenditure – about 16 per cent of the total, on average, more than any other government function except general administration. In a significant number of African countries, recurrent expenditure on education is between 25 and 35 per cent of total recurrent spending. In the 1970s, when government revenues rose rapidly in most of the continent, the average African country's incremental share going to education was 13 per cent – again larger than any other single item except general administration. (World Bank 1981, pp. 81–82)

            The logic of the report was implacable. The report based its recommendations on ‘cost-analysis’; primary education had to be prioritised at the expense of the university system. The calculation was made clear:

            Given Africa's extreme shortage of fiscal resources and the many claims on revenue, all educational strategies must have a key objective of greater efficiency in resource use. African education is expensive not only in the sense that it absorbs a significant share of public sector resources; it is expensive also in terms of average cost per pupil, especially at the higher level. African governments spend as much per university student as countries with per capita incomes at least three times and as much as eight times higher. By contrast primary education is cheap in comparison with industrialised countries. Primary education costs per student year as a per cent of per capita GNP in Africa are about as much as in other developing areas; secondary education costs are four to five times as much and higher education costs five to ten times as much. (World Bank 1981, p. 82)

            Further reports emerged during the decade, some criticising the apparent extremism of Berg. A World Bank study (1989) admitted that budgetary constraints and its own recommendations had prompted a general fall in primary and post-secondary education. ‘Robbing Paul to pay Peter’ had not exactly worked. To some extent retreating from earlier policy prescriptions the 1989 report recognised the need to fund and improve human resources (Sandbrook 1993, pp. 83–84). But the effects of these reforms had already seen a decline in salaries and falling standards at universities. Now there were serious shortages of doctors, managers, accountants and economists. As Sandbrook (1993, p. 43) argued:

            A widespread decline in the quality of secondary and university education in the 1980s aggravated the problem of finding qualified staff. Economic crisis and budget cutbacks have deprived educational institutions of the resources they require.

            Even if there was a modest retreat from an earlier fundamentalism, damage had already been done. The World Bank even mooted the relevance of the continued existence of universities in Africa (Iman and Mama 1994, p. 73). The argument that runs through the reports is that the ‘reprioritisation’ of education will ensure that African countries see a more equal distribution of resources across the education sector. Critics at the time of the reforms cite the fact that after five years of SAPs, social spending in sub-Saharan African countries had declined by 26 per cent (between 1980 to 1986). Governments already facing financial crisis were pressurised to cut subsides to secondary and tertiary level students. The World Bank responded by claiming that they intended to reorganise funding for education because for too long governments had regarded universities as ‘sacred cows’, when in reality they were over-funded and inefficient (see Caffentzis 2000).

            Some contest the universal collapse of higher education in Africa. There is one university on the continent that is frequently touted by the World Bank as a successful example of reform. Makerere University (Musisi and Nansozi 2003), they argue, succeeded in escaping the crisis in higher education. Apparently the university has succeeded in regaining its former status as a premier tertiary institution in east Africa. According the World Bank, the university managed to increase the enrolment of students and the numbers of students paying fees. By the end of the 1990s, approximately 70 per cent of students were contributing towards fees and 30 per cent of funding was raised by the university (World Bank, 2000, pp. 54–55).3

            The World Bank envisaged the total transformation of the university system in Africa: from the reforms aimed at creating ‘centres of excellence’ for a smaller number of students of ‘high quality’, to a system of ‘on-the-job’ training which envisaged private sector co-funding where ‘worker-students’ would receive training and lower wages. In Senegal, Dakar has returned to being the educational focal point for the sub-region, with students making pilgrimages to a pedagogical world almost entirely privatised. The city has been turned into a training centre; according to a pamphlet advertising Enseignement supérieur, there are now 80 public and private establishments, almost all based in the capital Dakar and offering an array of internationally recognised degrees, certificates and diplomas. Most of these schools, colleges and universities are private (65 are private and 15 public), and the majority of their students come from elsewhere in West Africa. The massive expansion in private colleges is connected to the liberalisation of higher education in Senegal since 1994 (Etudier au Sénégal 2003, p. 4).

            Reform Failure

            Rather than blossoming through the reform process, higher education struggles to survive. The rationalisation of tertiary education advocated by the World Bank has left universities in desperation. Even if student numbers have swollen, as they have done in most institutions, the continent still has the lowest re-enrolment rates for higher education of any region in the world.

            Today the World Bank continues to advocate a system of loans and fees, introduced almost without exception across Africa. Consequently, there needs to be a pool of students who are able to take up and pay the loans. This is contingent on two factors: real wages that can sustain a system of loans and fees, and employment for students after graduation to ensure the repayment of these loans (White House 2002). There is an additional problem connected to the relationship between primary and tertiary education. If the World Bank is motivated by a desire to expand primary education, then by necessity it requires a complementary expansion of teaching graduates from universities. To do this, Caffentzis (2002, p. 11) argues that the yearly influx from tertiary education must increase by 10 per cent a year, but an enrolment growth rate of 1 per cent cannot keep up with the stated demands of expanding primary education and the World Bank is ‘subverting its own alleged objective: the expansion and improvement of primary education.

            The report Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise (2000), funded by the World Bank, includes an important criticism of the approach previously taken by the Bank:

            Since the 1980s, many national governments and international donors have assigned higher education a relatively low priority. Narrow – and, in our view, misleading – economic analysis has contributed to the view that public investment in universities and colleges brings meagre returns compared to investment in primary and secondary schools, and that higher education magnifies income inequality. (World Bank 2000, p. 10)

            The report notes that although 85 per cent of the world's population live in the Third World, less than half of the world's 80 million students in higher education are from these areas. The report stresses the problems for students in the Third World:

            they are taught by poorly-qualified, poorly-motivated and (no surprise) poorly-compensated faculty, struggling with inadequate facilities and outmoded curricula. The secondary education system has often failed to prepare these students adequately for advanced study – and, once on campus, political activism, violence, cheating, corruption and discrimination can undermine their progress. (Bloom 2001)

            These are not reasons to undermine higher education but, on the contrary:

            We have educated more and more young people to primary and secondary level – but, like Oliver Twist, they want more! They realise something that even the richest governments are only beginning to wake up to: in today's world, higher education is basic education. Education that is needed by the masses – and can no longer be confined to a tiny elite. (Bloom 2001)

            In the report, the university sector is regarded as a system to both generate national elites, to respond to the ‘challenges’ of globalisation and ‘to promote prosperity among people with talent and motivation, irrespective of their social origins’ (Bloom 2001). However, there are few signs that the WB or IMF have accepted these criticisms, or that after almost 30 years they can see the importance of higher education in Africa (Pithouse 2006).

            Student Corporatism and New Struggles?

            Two principle strands can be discerned in the recent commentary on student activism on the continent. One position argues radically that student protests on the continent represent a pan-African movement of unparalleled resistance and intransigence. This position has been made forcefully in the American newsletter of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (CAFA), which has recently been suspended. These arguments are also made in the collection produced by the leading members of CAFA: A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities:

            Although the state is the immediate perpetrator, the ultimate responsibility for many violations of academic rights on the African campuses is borne by international financial institutions and more specifically, by the policy of ‘adjustment’ adopted by Washington and the European Union in the 1980s, that calls for the virtual recolonisation of Africa's educational systems. (Alidou et al. 2000, p. xiii)

            For a number of years, CAFA produced a consistent and determined critique of World Bank and IMF policies on the continent, but the from the perspective of popular and frequently student-led resistance (see, for example, CAFA 1991, 1996).

            For some time the role of the African university was the formation of elites, but this has been severely undermined by the collapse in state funding. Many have written about this process. Piet Koning (2002) makes a similar point to CAFA with regard to the student rebellions in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

            As a result of such state withdrawal, African universities no longer appeared to be serving as centres of elite formation … Little wonder that they have been inclined to see corrupt and authoritarian regimes as responsible for their predicament and to perceive a ‘democratic transition’ as a necessary condition for change in society in general and in universities in particular. (pp. 180–181)

            The process discussed by CAFA has been explained as the ‘convergence of forces’ (Kagoro 2003), merging formerly privileged layers of students with the urban poor. A former student activist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Brian Kagoro makes these arguments with reference to the privatisation and under-funding of tertiary education in Zimbabwe. Students on diminishing stipends started to support their parents because the latter had been made redundant under the impact of the first and second structural adjustment programmes:

            So in a sense as poverty increases you have a reconvergence of these forces. And the critique started … around issues of social economic justice, [the] right to a living wage … students started couching their demands around a right to livelihood. (Interview, 23 June 2003)

            Other writers have analysed this convergence of forces. For example, Graham Harrison (2002, p. 114) has noted: ‘One can see the decline of corporatism and the increasing informalisation of the urban economy [as] … the reformulation of … political identities into a realm of fiscal austerity and speculation’. The ‘hybridisation’ of these social forces bringing together motley groups, has altered the mobilisation and activism of students.

            In contrast, Bathily et al. (1995) wrote a pioneering essay on student activism in Senegal that contains wider arguments that are important to this article. They argue that a clear distinction can be made between the highpoint of activism in the 1960s and 1970s and the narrow ‘bread and butter fights’ waged by students today. So far from being a pan-African movement of university resistance, as CAFA and others would claim, students are ‘left with their daily corporatism and the inefficiency of their fights’ (Bathily et al. 1995, p. 401). In the heady days after independence, students were the voice of political alternatives and futures: ‘If prior to World War II students tacitly accepted being petty bourgeois with colonial linkages … [subsequently and] up to the mid-1970s they claimed a left vanguard status’ (Bathily et al. 1995, p. 401). The respected scholar Donal Cruise O'Brien makes a similar point about student protests in defence of their ‘elite status’: ‘Students will riot for their privileges too … defending their ‘right’ to better scholarship' (Cruise O'Brien 1996, p. 65).

            If these arguments avoid the perhaps exaggerated romanticism of student militancy, they fail to see the originality of the new waves, from the 1980s, of student and popular protests in Africa. In the words of Alidou et al. (2008, p. 65), a shifting political economy that has seen the re-composition of the ‘African ‘proletariat’ unprecedented since independence'.

            However, there might be a danger of underestimating the peculiarities and weaknesses of student action in recent years. Caffentzis, Federici and Alidou have played a vital role in celebrating student action, stating that:

            when not shut down, [campuses] were turning into battlefields … students were among the first main opponents of structural adjustment and the dismantling of public education demanded by the World Bank. Demonstrations, strikes, blockades, confrontations with police and army forces invading the campuses, quickly became part of the campus experience in every African country. (2000, p. 63).

            But what of the depoliticisation, cooption and corruption of student activists? Today, students are forced to negotiate social breakdown, economic stagnation, ideological confusion and mass unemployment. These factors have created complex forms of activism, where students continue to display both their celebrated vanguardism (Chouli 2009) and new forms of protests (Zeilig and Dawson 2008).

            Transitions, Social Movements and Students

            Perhaps it is advisable to express a certain caution about the connection that is often (and lazily) made between events in Africa and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Boren (2001) makes the common assumption that the events in Africa in the early 1990s were a direct corollary of the revolutions that swept aside the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. This idea received some support from incumbent regimes conscious of the events in Europe. Ali Mazrui (1994, p. 172) has questioned these assumptions: ‘we cannot trace all democratic forces in Africa to the … impact of Eastern Europe’. Mazrui states that the origins of these movements can be properly traced back to earlier acts of democratic struggle, long predating the upheavals in Eastern Europe. Mazrui (1994, p. 172) continues to press his point: ‘What should be borne in mind is that the role model for Africa has not been necessarily the impact of demonstrations across the Berlin Wall. It has been youthful riots against armed apartheid’. Although the influence of pan-African struggles has an important impact on the mobilisation of student and trade union militants, it was the shared nature of the economic crisis gripping Africa that brought these movements together (Saul 2001).

            The period of political transition started in 1989 in Bénin. Students began to protest, insisting on the payment of grants and formal employment on graduation. A prolonged period of political transition was launched (Jeune Afrique 1991). In Zaire, students were the first to respond to Mobutu's declaration on 24 April 1990 on the legalisation of political parties and democratic opening. Activisms at the University of Kinshasa in Zaire triggered a largely urban-based protest movement that continued, almost unseating the dictator, until the exhaustion and cooption of the official opposition by the mid-1990s (Martins 2002, Renton et al. 2006). The movement continued, with devastating consequences at the University of Lubumbashi in Katanga (Nkongolo 2000, p. 182). Reports vary, but approximately 100 students were murdered by Mobutu's ‘Squadron of death’. In many ways the massacre was pivotal to the early stages of the ‘transition’. Several academic accounts question the ‘massacre’, or doubt that it happened at all (Munikengi and Sangol 2004, p. 99). Most ‘observers’ were student eyewitnesses who survived the massacre, and not academic commentators. Even academic ‘observers’ confirm the events recounted by the students themselves (Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, pp. 155–156). Students suffered the heaviest blows as old regimes hesitantly democratised.

            Students at the national university in Harare were the first group to confront the ruling party, particularly over the question of the one-party state. In 1989 the young and audacious new leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Morgan Tsvangirai, was imprisoned for opposing the crackdown on activism at the University of Zimbabwe. Students condemned the Investment Code that facilitated foreign investment in Zimbabwe, viewing it ‘as a further entrenchment of capitalism in Zimbabwe … an acquiescence to the IMF and World Bank sponsored programmes … and incompatible with the doctrine of socialism’ (quoted in Tengenende 1994, pp. 389–392). As the struggles against structural adjustment intensified in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, university students and the ZCTU started to work together for the formation of the first nation-wide mass opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (Gwisai 2002, Zeilig 2007).

            Frequently, the success of these transitions was based in the capacity of a wider configuration of forces to become involved in the democratic struggles. A convergence of forces had broken down the Chinese wall, dividing university students from the wider urban poor, and ensured that these pro-democracy movements were explosive and profound. But paradoxes abound. As wider forces, often trade union-led, participated in the transitions the visibility of student activism declined. Often student movements had no clearly defined strategy on how to enter National Conferences and new political formations (and to maintain a distance and independence from them). The Zimbabwean activist Hopewell Gumbo, reflecting on the experience of the Zimbabwe National Association of Student Unions (ZINASU) in the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the late 1990s, explains: ‘Our participation was then limited from being an ideological engine to being foot-soldiers in the emergent party’ (Interview, 28 July 2003). However, when the transitions came (for example, in Zambia, Malawi, Mali and Senegal) or were frustrated (for example, in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Zaire), vibrant student movements caved in to factionalism and sectarianism (Woudamike 2008).

            Identity, Privilege and the Student-Intelligentsia

            During the 1980s student activists in Zimbabwe described themselves as ‘revolutionary intellectuals’. One way of understanding this self-identity is in relation to a historically derived status as politically privileged actors, inherited from the student-intelligentsia who played a leading role in national liberation, but also the relative organisational weaknesses of other groups and classes in society. However, in the context of structural adjustment on the continent, do students maintain this position? Has student activism become fragmented and less influential with the privatisation and diversification of higher education? This question divides much of the research (see Federici 2000, Mario & Fry, 2003). The contemporary activism of students takes place in a highly structured world where students frequently no longer view themselves as a privileged elite, but struggle to survive at university and secure a future in an uncertain post-university job market (Mills 2004, p. 671). However, students have repeatedly and recently demonstrated a capacity to ‘touch off’ (Cefkin 1975, p. 158) wider social protests during the transitions.

            The reforms that have impoverished the continent, and pulverised higher education, have not gone unanswered. However, the ideological response of the opposition through the transitions was muted and disorientated by the collapse of Stalinism. Activists across the continent were left believing that there was no genuine alternative. The triumph of neoliberalism, and Bush senior's ‘new world order’, was seemingly without response. Student agency was enfeebled at exactly the time when radical ideological alternatives were needed. The language (and organisation) of social transformation had been prematurely buried in the fall of Soviet communism. This crucial lacuna in the capacity of students to exercise meaningful political agency is, to a certain extent and very unevenly, answered in the rise of global resistance (see Amoore 2005, Larmer et al. 2009).

            However, currently, there is an important element of this ‘elitism’ that continues to generate student activism today. Students still regard themselves as being privileged in terms of their proximity to a European world, as elusive as this reality really is to them – a world of technology, development and globalisation. It is this contradiction – a heady mix of poverty and elitism – that motivated student activists during the transitions in the 1990s and after (Bianchini and Korbeogo 2009). As the Senegalese student activist Mor Faye described: ‘it is us students who have learnt … at the university. It is us who have learnt what a computer is. Our parents understand that we know things that they don't understand’.4 Their parents represent an old world, ‘an African culture, whereas we have a European culture that we have learnt. If we go to them they will accept [what we say]’ (Interview, 5 February 2004).5 Despite the almost total collapse of their material conditions from the heyday of the 1970s, university students in sub-Saharan Africa have maintained a politically privileged position in society.

            However, there are other, perhaps more dramatic, examples of the continued importance of this group in contemporary Africa. One of the secrets of the student-intelligentsia was their capacity to organise in national and international student unions, and politically through access to a conceptual and intellectual world denied to most sections of society. The student milieu generated conditions that were at once internationalist – giving them access to international organisations and funds – while pulling students into ‘hyper-politicised’ spaces, in college and university campuses. Organisations could flourish without the rigid discipline of the workplace or the state-controlled streets. During the last 30 years the student-intelligentsia has been propelled into new roles. Although they are no longer advocates of state capitalist development – that was an elusive goal long before the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe (Walton and Seddon 1994, Saul 2001) – they have become new political actors in diverse movements and groups across the continent.

            The cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone are revealing. Richards (1996) describes an alienated intelligentsia composed of ex-students who made up Sierra Leone's rebel armies. One fighter explained: ‘Most of the rebels are students, the majority are students … These are the reasons they are fighting they say. The government doesn't give any encouragement to people … to go to school’ (quoted in Richards 2002, p. 36). In Liberia the same processes have taken place. The wave of resistance to Samuel Doe's brutal and corrupt regime saw students act as the de facto opposition from 1980 to 1984, when all opposition parties were banned. Students helped to organise Firestone workers when their leaders, together with trade unionists, were viciously repressed. Behind the war and the rebel groups was a student-intelligentsia that had been active in the anti-Doe opposition in the early 1980s. The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) were a rebel group that fought Charles Taylor's government after elections brought him to power in 1997. They had been a faction in Taylor's original war against Doe. The majority of the rebel leaders were also former student activists who had been involved in the resistance to Doe in the 1980s (Interview, Ezekiel Pajibo, 28 August 2003).

            The student-intelligentsia has played numerous roles during the period of state decline and collapse. Perhaps most notably, university students have been active in the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. They have been central to the Islamic movements that are now demonised around the world, partly as a result of the collapse in graduate employment and the erosion of the same certainties that undermined the status of students in sub-Saharan Africa. Harman emphasises that it was frequently students who formed the backbone of Islamist movements:

            Students, the recent Arab speaking graduates and above all, the unemployed ex-students who formed a bridge to the very large numbers of discontented youth outside colleges who find that they cannot get college places … And through its influence over a wide layer of students, graduates and the intellectual unemployed, Islamism is able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns as a ‘conservative’ movement. (Harman 1994, pp. 16–17)

            It was the control and domination of Islamic ideas on the campuses of Algeria in the 1980s and 1990s that ensured that the Islamists were able to step into the ‘impoverished streets of the cities where students and ex-students mixed with a mass of other people scrabbling for a livelihood’ (Harman 1994, p. 19). The convergence of forces, that was discussed above – between an impoverished student and ex-student body and the ‘mass of other people’ – has manifested itself in a multiplicity of movements.

            A student-intelligentsia has played a pivotal role in insurgent movements, as the ideological champions of Islamic reforms and of rebel movements during state collapse. In each case they act as disgruntled victims of the economic and political disintegration going on around them. While students in the Muslim association of Senegalese students (AMEAN) in the 1950s could envisage a radical Islam, and a ‘revivalism’ that was linked to a progressive agenda for radical social change, today the collapse of this agenda has transformed student activists. As Diouf (2002, p. 160) has written about Senegal, rather than being the agents of progressive social transformation, these students see themselves as the custodians of tradition: ‘Certain sections of youth assign themselves the role of guardians of a Muslim morality which justifies punitive expeditions against drugs, drunkenness and thieves’.

            Senegalese students have not assumed the ideological mantle of religious change that has characterised North African and Middle Eastern universities, nor have they spearheaded a Senegalese version of the Islamic revival. They have, however, played a crucial role in the separatist movement in the Casamance (see Foucher 2002). Religious associations have grown substantially out of the economic crisis that has gripped the country. Today there are many active Islamic groups. The country is full of Islamic schools, teaching Arabic, in wealthier suburbs and in poor neighbourhoods, in makeshift wooden huts and any improvised spaces. At the university a number of associations claim to instil the pure tradition of the Prophet Mohammed.6 However, what is striking about the associations that are active on the campus is their relative invisibility in the political life of the university (Zeilig 2002).7 What connects most university students across the continent is their economic trajectory; as promises to students were shattered in the economic crisis, they were left without a secular and progressive agenda.8

            There is a persuasive argument today that in many parts of the world university students can be described as a ‘student mass’ and part of the workers' movement; not as a separate class, but increasingly bed-fellows in a neoliberal world marked by workplace informality. The convergence of forces described by activists in Zimbabwe, and across the continent, speaks of an integrative process taking place. Although university students in Africa have a particular dynamic of activism connected to their status and the spaces of resistance, their position in society has been transformed (Zeilig and Ansell 2008). If, in the context of deindustrialisation, they do not simply become part of the workers' movements, they may rally today under the banner of the poor as members of that class and not as its self-appointed voice. But, with the collapse of formal sector employment, the student-intelligentsia may also animate and even lead diverse religious and separatist movements.


            Students' role in neoliberal ‘transitions’ has proven complex because it was inextricably tied to the liberalisation of political space and the manipulations of these processes by incumbent governments and political parties. The ‘success’ of student activism has been linked to the wider social forces that they could help animate and identify with, tied to their ability to ‘converge’ their struggles with broader popular forces. Mamdani (1994) is correct to recognise that when students were effective they succeeded in ‘forcing an opening up’, even if they lacked an alternative strategy: ‘Its possibilities depended far more on the character of forces that student action succeeded in mobilising than its own internal energies’ (Mamdani 1994, p. 259).

            Popular mobilisations are a response to widespread disaffection with the policies of austerity and structural adjustment, yet these movements have been responding in new ways. Class structures in sub-Saharan African had been transformed, and resistance did not simply take old forms. The processes of class alignment and resistance brought in new and heterogeneous forces (Harrison 2002, Seddon 2002; see also Seddon and Zeilig 2005). Seddon (2002) defines the role of the ‘popular classes’ in Africa, describing a shifting constellation of political forces that include the unemployed, informal sector traders and trade unionists. This article argues that students and unemployed graduates have also come to form an important part of the popular classes. As Harrison (2002) correctly formulates the issues:

            The salience of youth identities derives from a broader set of changes. Economic crisis has had a direct and negative impact on the postcolonial social political project of modernisation. The ensuing ruptures of social life have impacted on … urban society – notably they are part of the context in which the working class has become fractured and ‘informalised’… But the particular situation of youth, either leaving school to find employment, dignity and independence, or leaving university to join the middle classes, predominately through linkages with the state, gives a peculiarly sharpened twist to the experience of Africa's recent economic decline. (pp. 119–120)

            This ‘informalisation’ or ‘hybribisation’ of the social structure is not the effect of ‘indeterminacy of political identity’ but the product of the political economy in much of Africa (Harrison 2002, p. 113). These circumstances form the inherited structures that contemporary students have been forced to negotiate. The resulting hybridity of social groups in Africa has transformed their activism and identity and affected their ability to exercise political agency. It can be said that students expressed their status as politically privileged actors in diverse forms during the political transitions, yet repeatedly they have sparked wider protests in a period that has seen the convergence of social forces.


            This article is part of a larger project, ‘The development of student activism and higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, 1985–2006: cases from Senegal, South Africa, the DRC and Uganda’. This research is being conducted with the support and funding of the Institut Français d'Afrique du Sud (IFAS).



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            A document that emerged after independence committing ZANU-PF to a strict anti-corruption code.

            Amutabi argues that the student movement managed, almost uniquely, to hold aloft the banner of democratisation.

            There is much evidence disputing these conclusions (Mamdani 2007).

            ‘C'est nous [les étudiants] qui avons appris … à l'université. C'est nous qui avons compris c'est quoi l'ordinateur. Nos parents là aussi par modestie savent que nous savons quelque chose qu'ils ne comprennent pas’.

            ‘une culture africaine, [et nous] une culture qui nous vienne de l'Europe qu'on nous a apprise. Nous qui l'avons apprise, si on vient ils vont l'accepter’.

            The three largest of these associations at the university in 2005 were the Association des Elèves et Etudiants Musulmans du Sénégal (AEEMS) and the Association des Etudiants Musulmans de l'Université de Dakar (AMEUD). Another was established in September 2001, the Mouvement des Elèves et Etudiants de la Jamaatou Ibadou Rahmane (MEEJIR). This structure is attached to a non-student group, the Jamaatou Ibodou Rahmane, the worshippers of God. The largest and most active of these groups, AEEMS, has almost 1000 members and it is well represented at the university and in many schools and colleges in Senegal.

            Interviews with Muslim activist at the university in May 2001; and also Oumy Ndour January 2001.

            The increase in private universities has exploited religious cleavages. A number of ‘not-for-profit’ universities cater for particular religious groups, there are two examples from Uganda: the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) and the Uganda Martyrs University (UMU).

            Author and article information

            Review of African Political Economy
            Review of African Political Economy
            March 2009
            : 36
            : 119
            : 63-78
            a University of the Witwatersrand and a Research Associate at the Centre for Sociological Research at the University of Johannesburg
            Author notes
            388742 Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 36, No. 119, March 2009, pp. 63–78

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            Page count
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            Sociology,Economic development,Political science,Labor & Demographic economics,Political economics,Africa


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