Exiles find a home from home - of sorts

June 9, 2006

Displacement has failed to crush Southern Sudanese students' hopes for a decent future. Wendy Wallace reports

A southern Sudanese university, exiled in the northern capital Khartoum, has been closed since February after students set fire to cars and buildings at one of its campuses. At the accounts office of Juba University, more than 50 computers and staff vehicles were burned; some of the students who were subsequently arrested remain in detention.

The protest was partly fuelled by student demand, stymied repeatedly by the authorities, for the right to form a student union. But the frustration is also due to the fact that Juba is powerfully symbolic of southern Sudanese aspirations for a more equitable future. In a region where the primary school completion rate among girls is the lowest in the world, southerners know that they need an educated cadre of leaders and administrators to bring the ten southern states into the modern world and to ensure their people benefit from Sudan's oil wealth and other natural resources.

The situation in Sudan's western Darfur region, described as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, remains unstable. However, a peace deal was struck more than a year ago in the related war between northern and southern Sudan that had raged for 20 years. Since the accord, pressure has been building from ordinary southerners and southern students at the university for the institutions to return to Juba. "There is no war, so there is no reason to stay," says Alex Liki, a 40-year-old rural development student. "We are expecting every institution to go back. If not, this burning, this violent reaction, will not stop."

Sudan, Africa's largest country, also has the unwelcome distinction of being home to the continent's longest running civil war. Until a comprehensive peace agreement was signed last year, war had raged for two decades between the northern Islamist Government and southern rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Religion, race, oil and history all fuelled the conflict. But William Ater, Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Education in the newly formed Government of Southern Sudan, says an important aspect for southerners was identity. The question of "who are we?" was a key part of it.

Juba, founded in the eponymous southern capital in the 1970s, was a dividend of the peace that followed an earlier liberation struggle - and an important block in the structure of southern identity. But just ten years later, with war being waged once again and Juba occupied by troops of the northern Government, the university was disrupted. Along with the displaced population, who fled the war-ravaged South in large numbers, it transferred to Khartoum, the country's capital.

Initially, remembers Rubena Lumaya Wani, the recently retired dean of rural development, the university based itself in the squatter settlements in the desert outside the capital where southerners congregated in shacks built of sacking and wood. "We had no buildings. We hired tents," he says. "We had to put up with it, because there was no alternative. We worked hard." The university was subsequently lent spaces by other institutions in the capital, until it transferred most of its operations to temporary buildings at Kodoro campus three years ago.

Now, with a new peace agreement in place, southerners are impatient for their university to return to Juba. The Kodoro riots were sparked partly by student dismay at the construction of a new administrative block at the Khartoum campus.

The "ownership" of the institution is more than a geographic issue. Once a distinctively southern university - with teaching in English and a predominance of southern lecturers and students - the university has been Islamicised since its move to the North.

Controversially, its vice-chancellors have always been from northern Sudan.

Once the institution itself became a refugee, the northern National Islamic Front Government moved to take full administrative control of it. "In this country, any organ of the Government is controlled by the Government and carries the ideology of the Government," says 29-year-old James Boniface, an animal sciences student.

The university, since its move North, has appointed northern Muslim lecturers, who now make up 81 per cent of academic staff. Southern lecturers, many of whom are Christian, say they feel marginalised.

Government-appointed administrators took charge of the ethos and direction of the university. The few southerners in key administrative positions were left to shuffle papers while their party-member deputies made decisions, claims one administrator.

In keeping with the Islamic law that prevails in northern Sudan, female students had to wear full Islamic dress, whatever their religion or culture. "Even inside the women's hostel, we were forced to cover our heads," says Monica Sabino (see box), although this has recently been relaxed. Official university notices are now issued in Arabic, which some southern students cannot read. In the libraries, English books are old stock and recent acquisitions are all in Arabic. "By name it is the University of Juba - but it is by name only," says another student.

"Policies are against the original aims, which were to educate southerners."

In the same period, the university has greatly expanded; there are now 9,000 undergraduates, plus almost as many distance learners. Northern students are in the majority, at least on the more prestigious and expensive courses such as engineering, medicine and applied sciences.

Ahmed Sayed Abu Zeid, the acting vice-chancellor, denies that southern students and faculty members face discrimination in what is meant to be their own institution. "The philosophy of the university is still geared towards the development of the South," he says, adding that a committee in the Ministry of Higher Education is looking at means of transferring courses south.

The small faculty of fine arts has already returned to the South, and is paying its lecturers double the normal salaries as an incentive. Juno Longa, 56, is a student of music and education in the department and is based at the original Juba campus. He is pursuing a long-deferred dream of becoming a university lecturer.

"Books have been my best friends. Even during the war, I would light a small lamp and just read," he says. He would have gone to university in the 1970s, when Juba first opened at the end of Sudan's last civil war, but he responded to a call for educated people (those who had completed a secondary school education) to serve as teachers. Now, with Sudan's most recent war over and his children grown up, Longa has returned to his studies. He says: "My ambition is to master music and to be able to teach it at any level."

Diploma courses were run in the South during the war and continue to be.

But there are practical difficulties hindering university relocation. Even if the political will were there on the part of the northern Government of National Unity, the Juba campus is small and ramshackle, with facilities and resources all but non-existent. An administrative block on the other side of the Nile was destroyed in the war and the university needs major investment to make relocation possible.

Abu Zeid concedes that another fear of southern and northern students - falling standards - may be well-founded. He says that the level of achievement of students on admission has dropped and that student life has become more difficult since the central Government in effect withdrew funding. "In the 1980s, students were fully supported by Government. Now, they suffer in terms of accommodation, food, transport. But things are more or less OK."

Outside Sudan, a debate is under way about what the proper function of Juba University should be if and when it relocates. Some Sudanese academics in the diaspora believe the only way to protect the southern university from the interference of central Government is to start a private university, focused clearly on the developmental needs of the South.


Monica Sabino, 26, is the first woman in her family to go into higher education. She is studying rural development at Juba University in Khartoum.

She laughs at the idea of her parents (cattle keepers in Bahr el Ghazal province in southern Sudan) being able to pay her $150 a year (£80) fees. "I am sponsored by the Catholic Church."

The university often closes because of student unrest - last year, it was shut for three months - so it has taken her seven years to complete a five-year course. Now, with the school closed again after February's violence, she is unable to sit her finals.

"We don't know when we will be called back. It is just a kind of punishment," she says.

Students struggle to support themselves while at college, with many southerners working as house boys and girls, security guards or in factories.

Monica is impatient to put what she has learnt into practice at home in the South. "I will go to the countryside and work with my people there."

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