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Education in a Rebel-Held Town


Two men in neatly pressed military fatigues chew on some seeds as they wait in front of the hospital. Dust blows around their boots as they lean in to check a visitor’s bag. A routine operation by security forces controlling safety in public spaces, it seems. But these two men are no ordinary officers. They are rebels. Part of a coalition that toppled the former president of the Central African Republic, François Bozizé, in a coup d’état in 2013. They couldn’t hold on to national power for long, but at least here in Ndélé, a calm town in the country’s far north-east, rebels have exerted undisputed control since the rebellion started.

During five years of rebel control over Ndélé the central state has had no access to the town and its people, with the exception of two departments: health and education. This is why the hospital is guarded by rebel soldiers, as well as the secondary school. Impressively, Ndélé’s secondary school received one of the best pass rates country-wide during last year’s final exams. What explains this surprising finding?

The acting director of Ndélé’s high-school receives us in his office and has an answer at hand: Teachers and staff are driven by a will to make their students succeed. A geography professor joins the discussion and explains how he and his colleagues work through the curricula of the senior year so efficiently that they can spend two months focusing their students’ minds on practicing for the final exam. This puts them ahead of other schools despite the towns remoteness and rebel control.

The rebel leader invites us to his office to explain why he and his countrymen felt the need to take over control of their home region. Better education was among the top of their long list of demands. People in this region feel they have unequal access to education and particularly secondary and higher education – the whole region has only one high school and the successful graduates feel the distant capital is too prejudiced against Muslims for them to pursue their studies at the country’s only university in Bangui. While rebels do not finance or support the school directly, the uncontested rebel rule in Ndélé has spared the town recurrent fighting as witnessed in other towns of the country. It has also stopped the recurrent fighting the town had experienced over the past ten years when rebels amongst each other and with the government fought over control. Therefore, the school doors can now stay open year round – no small feat for a country at war!

School building in Ndélé

As we continued talking to parents, students, and officials, something, however, seemed odd.  A number of our interlocutors evaded our questions and responded with platitudes. When we provided safe environments to talk, we heard stories of teachers abusing children and demanding fees to get better grades. We also dug into the high school’s files and found recent statistics showing that in every class around two thirds of students have to repeat the year. And of the 1,000 students starting secondary education, only 50 make it through all seven grades and to the final exam. After talking to those present in Ndélé it was now time to find those that had consciously chosen not to be here.

“When I saw all those men in arms, I was scared”, says Pierre in his family home back in Bangui. He took up a teaching post in Ndélé a few months back, but left at the end of the year and is unsure if he can go back. The director of Ndélé’s high school had an even worse experience. Locals threatened him when he tried implementing the state headscarf-ban at school. In fact, when the town’s rebels say they allow education officials to come to their town, they do not acknowledge that education depends on many other departments. The secondary school, for instance, does not have its own budget, because neither the tax department nor the finance department are allowed in by the rebels. And without state police officers in town, many teachers feel unsafe to take up their post in this remote, rebel-held town.

In summary, many researchers agree that forms of inequality – marginalization, discrimination, lack of public services – lie at the root of the country’s conflict. The details of how reducing inequality and preventing a recurrence of conflict work together have to be investigated through research on the ground. The Ndélé example shows that state-led education is indeed possible in a rebel-held town. Educational inequality was one of the inequalities that lay at the root of the conflict. In part, school access has been facilitated by the provision of public security by rebel forces. However, the presence of rebel forces brings with it a whole host of other problems and the rebels are unlikely to go away unless other deep-rooted issues of social and political inequality are addressed.

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