The University of Khartoum, although it has a rich history, is now caught in the conflict between those who support the current government and the rising opposition. A murder on campus in March, regular violent protests and political echoes of the conflict in Darfur mean many students lived in fear daily. Now the university is closed and it is not clear when it will reopen.
The University of Khartoum is often known by the Arabic phrase “jameela wa mustahila,” meaning the beautiful and impossible. The campus is beautiful because of the magnificent location of the central campus facing the river Nile and the historic architecture, with many buildings dating back to British rule. The university is also considered “impossible” because of the relatively low number of students admitted to the university due to its strict requirements.
The University of Khartoum was first founded in 1902 and is the largest and oldest university in Sudan. Politics at the university are a microcosm of political life outside campus. Students, throughout the years have played a prominent role in determining the political flavor in the country and were instrumental in toppling two military regimes, one in 1964 and one in 1985.
The situation we have today is far more complicated. Students affiliated with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are more violent, I believe, than at any time in their political history. This is a direct result of the growing opposition against the government and the decreasing popularity of the party and its Islamic fundamentalism. Several opposition parties are using the university grounds through what is called arkan alnigash (debate corners). Debate corners are accepted by the university administration as they ensure the right for freedom of expression and intellectual discussion for all students.
The current regime, which came to power in June 1989, started as a faction at the University of Khartoum. Then named the National Islamic Front, party members used Islam and its teachings to persuade many to join their party. Their goal was to control the university’s student union and later the country’s vital institutions. It is paradoxical that a regime that once seized power that way now feels threatened by the presence of organized factions at the University of Khartoum, especially in the current age, when political expression is so easy on the Internet.
But many Sudanese youth activists have distinguished themselves from the traditional political parties by avoiding sectarian affiliations and focusing on specific grievances, such as the rising cost of bus fares, bread and notebooks and poor dormitory life.
The use of violence became a regular sight on the university campus. Many students have been ready to flee lecture rooms, laboratories or courtyards as soon as they hear about tear gas or the presence of pro-regime armed students on the campus. The tear gas or the militias often appear after the expression of even the slightest disagreement with the party’s policies.
The murder of Ali Abbakr Musa, a third-year economics student by an armed man in March 2014, has ratcheted up campus tension. He was killed by live ammunition when militias opened fire against a peaceful protest about the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the suffering of students’ families, including Ali Abbakr’s.
These minority Darfuri students were peacefully urging the international community to make a tangible move and save their families, who are displaced from their homes due to the war in Darfur between the indigenous population and government forces. The regime accused the Darfuri students of being representatives of armed rebel movements in Darfur. The regime said these students were provoked into protesting and encouraged to bring the rebel movements’ own political views to campus.
The death of Ali Abbakr Musa has left most students fearful for their own lives. It drew the attention of Amnesty International. Using weapons on campus is forbidden under university laws but it is still commonplace. The dominant view of students was that they should immediately begin an open strike. Students wanted an honest, clear investigation of the student’s death to take place until those responsible were brought to justice. They were united in their demands and they all shared the pain of Ali Abbakr’s family and friends.
As the students marched silently to the chancellor’s office on April 4 in remembrance of Ali, they threw away the gown of politics and put on that of humanity. Others strongly criticized the idea of a strike and saw it as hindering education. They felt more comfortable nibbling at their books. They believe their education will one day give them a much better life beyond the borders of this troubled country.
The strike took place for almost two weeks until an agreement between the students and professors was reached on April 11. Professors joined the students’ demands. But both groups didn’t want to defy the administration; they wanted to demonstrate their good intentions. The strike ended on April 15 so as to give more time for the administration to act. The dean issued a statement on April 20, saying the administration would look into student’s demands and investigate the student’s death.
I think for almost all students the statement was vague and full of disdain. It did not explain the mechanism of an investigation. The strike resumed again on April 21.
As a student in the University of Khartoum, I strongly support the idea of a strike as peaceful and constructive. We would like our requests to be taken into consideration, studied, discussed and the outcomes clearly explained to us. But in the absence of this and the mysteriousness of what is happening backstage, our feelings are frustration, despair and doubt. With the university seeming to be completely operated from the presidential palace, neither the dean nor any strike will cause any tangible results.
The administration gave up and ordered the university closed until further notice. We are now waiting anxiously for this notice that seems far off. The closure of the university jeopardizes the loss of valuable and qualified professors as many are weighing the decision whether to stay or not. In the long run many students will also leave. Perhaps reopening the university doors and meeting with our professors and fellow students again and discussing some mathematical equations or sharing a motivational quote will ease the situation more. But the struggle deep inside to trace the light and eliminate darkness still stands.
Alaa Shibeika is enrolled in her second year in the department of electrical and electronics engineering at the University of Khartoum. One day, she wishes to pursue a career in journalism.