Mounting protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan have resulted in the government closing all of the country’s universities.
Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan’s Minister of Higher Education, announced the suspension of study at 38 public universities and about 100 private higher education institutions after the outbreak of popular demonstrations against the country’s punishing economic conditions and the increased cost of living. Sudan has lost three quarters of its oil production since the split of South Sudan in 2011 and continues to be affected by the remnants of economic sanctions.
Al-Mahdi’s decision was confirmed by Mohammed al-Khair Abdul Rahman, director of Sinnar University, who explained in a statement to university students that the disruption was “to alleviate the suffering of students in the current circumstances,” according to SUNA, the state news agency.
But Mohamed Yousif, a professor at Khartoum University’s Faculty of Economics, disagrees with that view. He says the country is closing its universities due to the government’s fear of a revolution. “It will be difficult to suppress student protests by university guards, and it will be difficult for university guards to control or prevent incidents of violence because of their weak equipment,” said Yousif, who is also the spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, a nongovernmental union with many academic members that was founded secretly after the country’s protests in September 2013 and went public last August.
In 1964, clashes between police and students at the University of Khartoum eventually escalated into a protest movement that toppled the military dictator Ibrahim Abboud, in power at that time.
All Sudanese now face steep inflation. An end to government subsidies has resulted in sharp increases in the cost of bread, cooking gas, and fuel. Although the United States has lifted economic sanctions on Sudan, it still lists the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, and that status continues the economic isolation that is strangling the Sudanese economy.
The economic issues have heightened longstanding dissatisfaction in the country with the government, many Sudanese observers say.
Nuha al-Zein Mohammed, a professor at Al-Neelain University’s Faculty of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and a member of the Association of Professors at Sudanese Universities, Colleges and Higher Institutes, agrees that the universities are closed for political reasons. “The regime aims at discouraging the revolution,” she said. “The role of Sudanese universities and their students in supporting the call to change and igniting the first spark of any revolution throughout Sudanese history is well known.”
Al-Zein Mohammed says this is not the first time the government has closed the country’s universities. Similar actions have been taken in the past, she says, as a result of economic crises, such as fuel shortages in 2013.
Sudan is a young country. Citizens under 24 represented 56 percent of Sudan’s population of about 40 million in 2017, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Although 88 higher education institutions have opened during President Bashir’s rule, the government and private companies could not hire the graduates those institutions produced, and the unemployment rate among young Sudanese exceeded 27 percent in 2017, according to World Bank data.
The current round of protests has not resulted in any damage to university buildings or other infrastructure, according to the Association of Professors at Sudanese Universities, Colleges and Higher Institutes. Still, hundreds of students and dozens of professors have been arrested since the protests intensified in December.
“I was arrested at my house and systematically tortured by security agents,” said Ahmed al-Tayeb, a fourth-year pharmacy student at Al-Neelain University, a public institution in Khartoum. He also said that six detainees, including three university students, have been killed by torture.
The Human Rights Watch report on Sudan for 2018 catalogues the government’s use of arbitrary detention, censorship, travel bans and violence against protestors, including student protestors. Police have used tear gas, clubs, and rifle fire against student protesters, human-rights observers have reported.
On February 12, 17 professors were arrested at a peaceful protest in front of the University of Khartoum’s faculty members’ building, and some of those professors are still in prison.
Many professors do not deny the involvement of students and university staff in the protest movement, but do not want to suspend studies. Nuha Hasb al-Rasool, the dean of Sudan University of Science and Technology’s Faculty of Communication Sciences, believes that the closure of universities hurts students.
“I am against freezing school, this is a waste of time and a waste of the youth’s future,” she said, noting that the resumption of studies later on will complicate the academic schedule and will increase the burden on professors and students alike.
Some students also believe that the disruption of education due to political conditions is unfair.
“My colleagues and I have become frustrated, we have nothing to do with politics,” said Mohamed Abdul-Hadi, a law student at Al-Neelain University. “Our goal is to complete our university studies so that we can start building our independent lives and reducing our burden on our families.” He pointed out that the continued disruption of studies could mean the loss of a full academic year.
Other students say a successful revolution is all that matters. “The current revolution is all that concerns the Sudanese people, and there is no education under such a painful situation,” said Shahad Amjad, a student at Sudan International University, a private institution in Khartoum.
The decision to close the universities has displaced hundreds of students, who have been forced to leave university housing.
“We are supporting students’ mobility and trying to provide housing and living expenses for university students or to help them to earn the necessary money to allow them to return to their homes until their studies resume,” said Abbas al-Khair, a student in the forestry department and a representative of University of Khartoum’s students.
Al-Zein Mohammed, the Al-Neelain professor, believes that resuming studies now will benefit no one.
“The educational process will not be resumed as desired until the ruling party system is removed from the administration of the country’s economy, education and health,” she said. “That’s what we now have to achieve.”