Will Sudan’s political agreement help with rebuilding HE?

Will the signing of the long-awaited political agreement in Sudan be enough to restore stability – and enable the higher education system, one of many sectors of society that has been affected by the country’s internal turmoil, to function and develop?

The military coup on 25 October 2021, which ended Sudan’s transition to democratic rule after the removal of former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019, created a political climate in which academic freedom and university autonomy have been under threat, while also affecting the general performance of higher education institutions and fuelling the country’s academic brain drain.

Professor Mohammad Yousif Sukkar, the president of the Nile University in Sudan, told University World News that there has not been room, in the current situation, for a review of national educational policies in higher education.

The political framework agreement between the Sudanese military and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) was signed on 5 December 2022 and has been followed by the launch, on 8 January 2023, of the final phase of the political process that aims to set up a transitional civilian authority until democratic elections are held.

Dr Mosab Hamad, a departmental head in the faculty of health sciences at the Elsheikh Abdallah Elbadri University in Sudan, told University World News that he would like the political agreement to be representative of more political groups for the sake of greater stability, which “will provide an ideal environment for real elections to take place”.

Adil Mohamed Ali, the head of the Institutional Development Programme, at the Sudanese Environment Conservation Society and a coordinator with the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, also cautioned that the December agreement still needed to be followed up by a final agreement.

“If the final political agreement is reached and enacted, then, there will eventually be stability in the country and this will be reflected in the stability of higher education,” Ali pointed out.

“However, it is very difficult to predict the political future of Sudan. Let us hope that all the concerned parties will be more rational and reach compromises,” Ali indicated.

What does the academic community say?

However, the academic community is split about the agreement.

Professor Awad Elkarim Khalifa, the dean of the Institute of Gum Arabic Research and Desertification Studies at the University of Kordofan in Sudan, described the agreement as a positive development. He told University World News: “The academics are accepting the political agreement and expecting that it will lead to stability in the higher education sector”.

On the other hand, the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) issued a statement on 13 December 2022 to say it rejected anything that stands in the way of the sovereignty of the people.

SPA is an umbrella group of independent professional unions, including doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers, as well as the Association of Sudanese Professors at universities, faculties and higher institutes, which led nationwide demonstrations against al-Bashir’s rule from December 2018 until his removal from power in April 2019.

Several other civil society organisations also rejected the agreement, including the Sudanese Environmentalists Association, a SPA member, the Sudanese Plastic Artists Rally, also a SPA member, and the Alliance of Forces for Radical Change (AFRC), which also denounced the agreement in a statement[/url].

AFRC consists of various mass organisations and trade unions, most notably SPA and the Sudanese Women’s Union, which includes academics.

Impact on the higher education sector

Sukkar emphasised that leadership instability made it very difficult to get decisions on important matters requiring communication between the educational institutions and the Ministry of Higher Education.

“There are some positive developments, but there are also some negative voices that slow down the progress towards the stability essential for stable educational institutions and satisfactory conditions for teachers and students,” he said.

“Under the present conditions of temporary leaderships there cannot be room for review of national educational policies in higher education,” Sukkar pointed out.

For Khalifa, the political difficulties have highlighted how sensitive the higher education sector is for instability in a society.

“The regular changes in the government led to the changing of the minister of higher education and, therefore, the changing of the university vice- chancellors, and the changing of the dean of the facilities inside each university,” Khalifa said.

This situation has affected the plans of the universities and led to instability of the educational processes and has prolonged the students’ period of study before graduation, Khalifa added.

Khalifa’s view is supported by the annual report of the Scholars at Risk network’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project Free to Think 2022 report, which indicated that Sudan’s military forces have violated students’ free expression through violent means in a bid to quell student anti-coup demonstrations.

In addition, the Sudanese military-led government dismissed all university boards and replaced 30 public university presidents and eight vice-presidents who had been appointed by the prior civilian-led government.

Hamad said that the removal of academics from their posts and restricting their freedom of expression and speech are examples of the violation of academic freedom that has been taking place after the military coup, and which has negatively affected academic research and debate.

“Actually, political disturbances also led to migration of thousands of Sudanese people including university professors,” Hamad said.

“The coup has also disrupted the academic year as most public universities were locked down for several months, as higher education academic staff and other non-academics stopped their teaching until the military-led government increased their salaries which was not matched with what was approved by the civilian-led government to face the rapid rise in the cost of life in Sudan,” Hamad indicated.

Hamad’s views are in line with a 2021 study, ‘The power of push factors on academic’s brain drain in higher education system in Sudan’, which indicated that the status of a university environment and lack of intellectual freedom, as well as the political atmosphere along with low wages and remunerations, have led Sudanese higher education institutions to lose a growing number of highly qualified professors.

Echoing Khalifa and Hamad’s views, Ali said: “The coup has had negative impacts not only on the political, social, economic and livelihoods but also on [the] higher education sector.

“Thus, I agree that the 25 October 2021 military coup in Sudan has negatively affected academic freedom, autonomy and performance of higher education institutions along with enhancing the academic brain drain,” Ali said.

Sudan is a weak performer in terms of its knowledge infrastructure. It ranks 19th out of 27 countries with low human development and 145th out of 154 countries in the Global Knowledge Index (GKI) 2021, which measures knowledge performance worldwide, using seven main sectoral indices, including higher education alongside research, development and innovation.

Looking ahead

As a regional observer, Dr Kazeem Ajasa Badaru from the University of Fort Hare’ s East London Campus in South Africa told University World News that under military rule there is usually a gross abuse of fundamental human rights.

“The university staff would live in palpable fear to carry out their official duties. Students also would not be free to exercise their rights to certain freedoms of expression and association because military rulers do not entertain opposition or ‘ destructive’ criticisms. The university programmes have to be adjusted to the military junta’s ideology, whether it is suitable for citizens or not.

“The political debacle, instability, and ongoing chaos in Sudan do not augur well for its higher education institutions to thrive and function as expected,” Badaru said.

He warned that the current political situation would have “a debilitating effect on Sudan’s human capital development” if the country is not quickly returned to the path of democracy and good governance.

“Thus, the announcement by the Sudanese military leader, General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, to return the country to civilian rule would help boost the morale and confidence of the university staff and students to return to campuses without fears and harassment from the military,” Badaru indicated.

“As political stability and promotion of democratic values are imperative in the best interest of any nation, including Sudan, the international community should continue to mount pressure on the Sudanese military rulers until the country gets back on track with democracy,” Badaru concluded.