On the campus at Cocody in the chic north of the city, newly baptised the Felix Houphouet-Boigny University after the father of the nation, workers have yet to complete renovation. But the vast site is already impressive, with its lecture halls, new student housing and large sports fields.
The site marks a stark contrast with the state of the campus in April 2011, when buildings had been ravaged by conflict and vandalism during the four months of a political crisis after president Laurent Gbagbo refused to admit defeat in elections to his rival Alassane Ouattara.
Some of the students became engaged in two weeks of outright warfare before Ouattara came to power, at the cost of 3,000 lives. Almost as soon as he was in office, Ouattara decided to shut down both universities in Abidjan and launch a major overhaul.
“This is not just renovation. We have been obliged to build from the bottom up because everything was looted, broken and vandalised,” Higher Education Minister Ibrahima Cisse Bacongo told AFP.
The work, which has been under way at all five faculties in the west African country — once the economic powerhouse of the region — will cost “100 billion CFA francs (153 million euros / $191 million dollars), the equivalent of three new universities,” Bacongo said.
For more than 80,000 students, the new academic year that is scheduled to begin on September 3 “will mark a new start, a complete break with the past,” he added.
Bacongo said that Ivorian “students were manipulated, exploited under the former regime of Laurent Gbagbo, and they developed a culture of violence in university circles.”
For the authorities, a main culprit was the Student and School Federation of Ivory Coast (FESCI), the all-powerful trade union movement which was closely allied to Gbagbo’s regime after he took power in 2000.
FESCI has been held responsible for much of the violence on Abidjan’s campuses, which spilled over on to the streets, and it ran rackets and a reign of terror, which led even Gbagbo to describe it as a “mafioso organisation.”
The union has not been dissolved, as the Ouattara government initially envisaged, but it has been marginalised from power during the closure of the universities.
FESCI secretary-general Augustin Mian puts a brave face on the change in fortunes and said that the movement will “adapt to new demands… For the benefit of learning, peace and serenity must return to the university.”
The closure of the universities was not universally welcomed. The party that once backed Gbagbo, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), said that it meant the end of higher education in Ivory Coast.
“You don’t shut down a university,” protested Dedy Sery, a professor of sociology close to the FPI. “It’s as if you’re decapitating the future of the country,” he added, denouncing a “cultural crime.”
Sery charged that Ouattara’s government undertook “a witchhunt” among the academic staff, who were traditional allies of Gbagbo, long a socialist in opposition before he came to power.
Moreover a large increase in inscription fees, from 6,000 CFA francs (nine euros) to 100,000 CFA francs (150 euros) for the first year, caused an outcry until the authorities brought it back down to 30,000 CFA francs (45 euros).
Meanwhile the contract to renovate the campuses has sparked questions.
Ouattara has ordered an inquiry into the terms under which the tender was made and accepted and sacked Bacongo’s financial director for “problems of governance.” Many people have objected to the cost of the work, which has more than doubled in two months.
For Eric Ahizi, a 22-year-old student of economic sciences, the imminent start of the academic year will end “a real nightmare… I had a year to finish my master’s degree and put myself on the job market, which is swamped today.”
Ahizi said he was looking forward to seeing the “fine achievements” of the revamped campus and pointed out that it was now up to students to “look after them”.