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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Fifteen years ago, the main student union at Ivory Coast's largest university began resembling a brutal pro-government militia, bringing it full circle from the days when its leaders were arrested by officials from a previous government who were seeking to clamp down on protests.
Now, days before presidential elections, the union is on a charm offensive intended to show that it has abandoned its violent ways.
The government of President Alassane Ouattara is similarly trying to show, on a much wider scale, that the country has moved on from years of political violence that stunted development in a West African country that is the world's biggest cocoa producer and one of the region's economic engines.
Soon after FESCI — as the union is known by its initials in French — was created in 1990, the group found itself at odds with the country's founding president and his successor, who had its leaders arrested for illegal meetings and demonstrations. After Laurent Gbagbo, a rival of those first presidents, came to power in 2000, FESCI enjoyed a privileged status, and authorities looked the other way as members attacked opposition supporters on and off campus, said Yacouba Traore, a historian of Ivory Coast student movements.
In postelection violence that killed thousands in 2011, with Gbagbo refusing to concede defeat, the union and its former leaders allegedly attacked the regime's opponents. For his alleged role, one of FESCI's former leaders, Charles Ble Goude, faces trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of commanding violent FESCI members and alumni.
Last week, Athanase Diomande, a 28-year-old graduate student and FESCI officer, joined hands with fellow union members and representatives of rival groups in the middle of a patchy soccer field at Felix Houphouet-Boigny University — named for the country's first president — singing the national anthem and listening to a referee read out rules for a soccer match.
"Today, we are trying to give a new image to FESCI, because our image was ruined," he later told AP. "Today in Ivory Coast, when you say FESCI, people still have a bit of apprehension."
Not everyone is convinced the makeover is genuine.
"I think that FESCI today is behaving like a boy trying to get a girlfriend," said Aristide Wise Bogny, a student who was harassed and extorted by union members in the years before the 2011 crisis. "FESCI is trying to tell students, 'You see, now we have really changed.' But if you say FESCI is not violent, it means FESCI is no longer FESCI."
Historian Traore said it is impossible to condemn FESCI without also condemning the country's entire political class. He noted that another FESCI alumnus is Guillaume Soro, a former rebel commander and currently head of the National Assembly. A host of youth leaders of various political parties also got their early exposure to politics in FESCI, he said.
After the post-election violence ended with Gbagbo's arrest, the university remained closed for more than a year with Ouattara's government fearing a return of violent student politics.
Today, the campus is a microcosm of the country's uneven recovery. Alongside gleaming new facilities and manicured lawns are libraries devoid of books, science labs lacking equipment and a disused swimming pool half-filled with muck and rainwater.
Many students say these shortcomings highlight the need for an effective student union, though FESCI's reputation has been marred as recently as July, when FESCI members allegedly attacked a "Peace Fair" organized on campus, stealing phones and computers and clashing with police, according to witnesses. The event was financed by the U.S. State Department, and a U.S. diplomat was among those who took shelter in an amphitheater as FESCI members hurled stones at the windows.
Fulgence Assi, FESCI's current secretary-general, insisted that the group was only responding to provocation from security forces.
"No student would be violent against a fellow student," he said.
Officials hope Assi's words will prove true during Sunday's election, which Ouattara is favored to win, and beyond.