Students returned to school in DR Congo on Monday after a six-month closure because of the coronavirus pandemic, with teacher strikes piling pressure on the government’s promise of free primary education.
President Felix Tshisekedi took office early last year on the pledge, but questions persist over whether the country can afford the policy.
Teacher unions in several provinces of the vast Central African country, where half of the 80 million population are aged under 20, announced Monday a strike over unpaid wages.
“We support free education, but we do not teach for free,” a teacher’s union in South Kivu province said in a statement.
Union official Simon Nsilulu told AFP that teachers in the Kongo Central province had vowed “school without teachers from Monday”, accusing the government of failing to pay hundreds of teachers.
Experts estimate the annual cost of free primary education at $2.64 billion, a colossal sum for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As of September 11, total state revenue was no more than $2.5 billion, according to the Central Bank of Congo.
But the World Bank has pledged $800 million to help pay for education in sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest nation, where 73 percent of the population live in extreme poverty.
The previous free school year started in September 2019, before ending in March when the country recorded its first coronavirus cases.
“This will be the second year of free education,” Carine Kabututu, education ministry spokeswoman, told AFP.
The challenge is all the greater with more than four million new students this year, according to education ministry statistics.
Former prime minister and opposition figure Adolphe Muzito said the country’s free education policy was essentially “makeshift”.
UNESCO director Audrey Azoulay will visit DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa and the Republic of Congo’s Brazzaville this week, focusing on education — in particular for girls — in the two countries.