Africa’s newest country, South Sudan, has five public universities, but only one of them was established before the beginning of the long civil war in 1983, which ultimately led to the country’s independence from Sudan in 2011.
Nor was research envisaged as a prime pursuit of the embryonic University of Juba in 1977. Rather, its foremost object was to train professionals for what was then the autonomous regional government in South Sudan. Thus, Juba’s founding colleges were education, adult education, social and economic studies, medicine and natural resources and environmental studies.
In 1989, the university adopted a research agenda and established a graduate college. Several research centres, institutes and schools were subsequently set up within the university, most notably the Centre for Peace and Development Studies (CPDS). Aimed at promoting research in conflict, peace and development, the centre quickly became the graduate college’s most vibrant postgraduate research entity and an important force for peace in Sudan, a country deeply fractured by ethnic and religious cleavages.
The centre provided a rare neutral forum for a broad-based political dialogue during the civil war, hosting seminars and conferences attended by politicians, foreign diplomats and academics to explore Sudan’s multifaceted socio-economic problems. In this way, it contributed to the crystallisation of peace efforts that culminated in the comprehensive agreement between the country’s north and south in 2005.
The CPDS’ success means its courses are overwhelmingly oversubscribed. Currently it has more than 200 students, including 20 doctoral candidates. The vast majority are army officers, diplomats, civil servants and humanitarian workers. A considerable number of the former interrupted their education in the 1980s to join the liberation struggle. They come to reflect on important state-building concerns and concepts, such as diversity, tolerance, corruption, transparency, rule of law, community cohesion and good governance. Some are researching topics that could significantly inform policy and practice in the country. For example, I currently have a student examining the deterioration in South Sudanese relations with the US: a vital issue given the US’ past contributions to the peace process and state-building. Another student is exploring the brutal, intractable inter-tribal conflict in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei, the ending of which is a national preoccupation. A third student, a former army officer, is investigating the impact of a government programme on the reintegration of army veterans into society, an issue that has been problematic.
Thus, it is imperative that these students’ research endeavours are supported. But the CPDS, like South Sudanese higher education in general, faces huge challenges. First, money is short. In 2015-16, the entire education sector received 7 per cent of South Sudan’s annual fiscal allocations, but tertiary institutions got less than 1 per cent. This amounts to just SSP106 million, or approximately £2.9 million. With funding this inadequate, it is impossible for the universities to achieve a lot.
Juba’s problems are compounded by its recent return to its home city, following exile in Khartoum since 1989. It has lost some key Northern Sudanese staff, and the bulk of its laboratory equipment and library were also left behind in the north (forming part of what is now known as the University of Bahri, or the University of Khartoum North). Hence, although recent improvement in pay has attracted some academics to rejoin higher education, the university continues to suffer from an acute shortage of qualified teachers.
Some of these challenges could be tackled with help from Western universities. For a start, US and UK institutions could donate books and provide access to journals. Given the current paucity of books at Juba in particular, donating any relevant material would make a colossal contribution to the CPDS’ research endeavours. South Sudanese doctoral students may also gain enormously from exchange programmes. In 2008, I met an exchange PhD colleague from a Kenyan university at what was then the Institute of Education in London. After presenting her work to the IoE’s tutors and attending lectures and tutorials, she realised that she had to redo all her assignments. She spent most of the term in the library, devouring whatever she could lay her hands on. That must have enhanced the quality of her thesis enormously.
Exchanges in the other direction would give Western academics access to South Sudan’s fertile territory for research in a range of disciplines, such as tropical medicine, social anthropology, sociology and conflict resolution, while also helping to build local capacity for research in these areas.
Despite the limited research resources, the students at the CPDS remain enthusiastic and studious. Their determination to succeed is inspirational, and their research could contribute to strengthening the foundations of the nascent Republic of South Sudan. But they are in dire need of support.
Kuyok Abol Kuyok teaches sociology of education at the College of Education and Research Methodology at the Centre for Peace and Development Studies, University of Juba, South Sudan.