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In Sudan, a Tradition of Campus Debate Is Threatened

KHARTOUM—A crackdown by government forces against student demonstrations this year has put in danger a tradition of public debate by students at the University of Khartoum that traces back to Sudan’s independence in 1956.

In January, University of Khartoum students protested the university cafeteria’s rising prices, the result of the Sudanese pound falling in value against the U.S. dollar. More broadly, the devaluation has led to an economic crisis in which the prices of all basic commodities have risen sharply. The price of bread has almost doubled.

On the third day of the protests, the university police arrested five students. Determined to continue their opposition to the higher prices and to protest the arrests themselves, students organized sit-ins, boycotted lectures and refused to fulfill course requirements.

Throughout the years, the culture of “discussion corners”—where students gather to discuss political and social issues—has been an important part of life at the University of Khartoum. These corners have often played a vital role in shaping Sudan’s political climate. Political parties would use student representatives to spread their policy platforms. But in the past year, that tradition has come into sharp conflict with government efforts to suppress dissent.

In August 2016, the government established a special “university police” unit to replace security guards on the campuses of public universities. The notion of policing universities has seldom intimidated students and more often has led to scuffles on campuses. “It’s like we’re criminals under surveillance,” a University of Khartoum student said. With a student body of almost 17,000, the University of Khartoum is the largest and oldest university in Sudan.

Violent incidents inside higher-education institutions in Sudan often lead to disruption in the academic program. Both students and instructors can fall behind schedule, to the detriment of academic goals. In the past five years, study has been suspended at the University of Khartoum four times for periods of several months—twice in 2014, once in 2016 and most recently in 2018. In each case the suspension was due to student protests or sit-ins that would continue for days.

One student expressed frustration with interruptions to study. “We cannot follow the prepared annual schedule,” he said. “Things are always changing, so we must always adapt, whatever the situation.”

In an incident that was reported to have occurred on January 11 at Aldalang University in South Kordofan state, an armed officer opened fire on the campus after a female student refused his advances. The officer killed two students and then killed himself. Afterwards, students gathered in protest. Security forces raided the university, evacuating university buildings and youth hostels to prevent further violence.

Violence by state forces in response to student protest is not limited to the universities. On January 8, in an episode related to this year’s price rises, hundreds of secondary-school students in El Geneina in the state of West Darfur participated in a peaceful march to protest the increased price of bread. The students were mostly 15 and 16 years old. Live ammunition was fired at the crowd; one student was killed and six were injured. After the incident, the minister of education for West Darfur suspended classes for all primary and secondary-school students for one week.

The government in Khartoum has always feared the potential of student protests to cause political change. The uprising of October 21, 1964, that led to the overthrow of the military rule of Ibrahim Abboud began at the University of Khartoum, an incident considered one of the earliest Arabic popular revolts against a military regime. The revolution began when security forces entered the University of Khartoum campus to disperse students participating in a discussion corner. This raid agitated the student body and led to turmoil that eventually ignited the 1964 revolution.

The African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies—a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization working to monitor and promote respect for human rights and legal reform in Sudan—has been tracking violations of students’ rights since 2013.

In a statement, Tayfor Elamin, the center’s program assistant, said the organization was “dedicated to creating a Sudan committed to all human rights, the rule of law and peace, in which the rights and freedoms of the individual are honoured and where all persons and groups are granted their rights to non-discrimination, equality and justice.” The statement went on to call on universities “to ensure the prevention of violence and to take the correct measurements when such acts of violence take place.”

One consequence of state violence against protest and debate on campuses is that some students are becoming cynical and apathetic about participating in politics. Some students fear engaging in activism because of the likelihood of a violent response.

Another, more positive reaction among students is a surge in volunteering and community service.

At the University of Khartoum several student-led organizations have emerged in  recent years. One such group, Takaful—also known as Solidarity—aims to assist university students with tuition fees, collects donations to sponsor orphans and distributes Ramadan food packages for the poor.

Students have also started scientific organizations like the University of Khartoum branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Sudan branch of Arab Women in Computing, and the University of Khartoum chapter of the Arab Innovation Network.

“This is a remarkable phenomenon of a generation disconnected from conventional politics and yet that has much civic potential,” said Ahmed, a civic leader who did not want his full name to be published. “It is a light at the end of the tunnel.”


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