Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Welcome to Juba U.

Southern Sudan's premiere university, relocated to the north during years of civil war, is finally back. Is it up to the task of training a new country's next leaders?

PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images
PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images
PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images

Juba, SUDAN—Cinderblocks lie around the half-built theater hall, loose wires stick out from the top of the clock tower with its nonworking clock, and packs of goats wander the dirt paths that make up the campus. Welcome to the University of Juba, one of Southern Sudan's most recently repatriated refugees. Two decades ago, at the height of a bloody civil war, the university fled -- like many citizens of the south -- to the relative safety of the northern capital, Khartoum. In 2006, just as displaced southerners began trickling back across the border, so too did the university. Today eight of the 12 faculties have been repatriated to Juba. Torn by conflict and now reeling from the challenges of rebuilding amid peace, the university has come to embody the struggles of Southern Sudan more broadly as it inches closer and closer to independence.

Juba has suffered centuries of trauma: neglect by Ottoman, British, and Egyptian overlords; slave raids that lasted well into the 20th century; the war against the Arab government in Khartoum, which broke out even before Sudanese independence in 1956. In 1972, an agreement signed in Addis Ababa between the government and the southern rebels gave the south something it desperately needed: a period of calm. As the fighting stalled, hope spread out from Juba into the south's towns and villages. Three years later, at the urging of southern citizens who wanted a school that could train new skilled workers to address their region's needs, the Sudanese government decided to give the south its first-ever institution of higher learning: the University of Juba.  

The university's first eight years were bustling and exciting. Students came from all regions of Sudan, north and south, to learn. To be a student there in the 1980s was not all that bad -- especially in comparison with today's conditions, recalls Samson Wassara, an alumnus who is now dean of the College of Social and Economic Studies. "You [were] accommodated in single or double rooms, especially when you are an upperclassman. You have someone cleaning your room, changing the sheets for you ... and you have a variety of foods -- you have chicken, you have fish," he told me. "We had expatriates from all over the world teaching at the school, and even our library was up to date, getting collections from different journals, periodicals from the World Bank, the IMF, [and] the European Union."

Juba, SUDAN—Cinderblocks lie around the half-built theater hall, loose wires stick out from the top of the clock tower with its nonworking clock, and packs of goats wander the dirt paths that make up the campus. Welcome to the University of Juba, one of Southern Sudan’s most recently repatriated refugees. Two decades ago, at the height of a bloody civil war, the university fled — like many citizens of the south — to the relative safety of the northern capital, Khartoum. In 2006, just as displaced southerners began trickling back across the border, so too did the university. Today eight of the 12 faculties have been repatriated to Juba. Torn by conflict and now reeling from the challenges of rebuilding amid peace, the university has come to embody the struggles of Southern Sudan more broadly as it inches closer and closer to independence.

Juba has suffered centuries of trauma: neglect by Ottoman, British, and Egyptian overlords; slave raids that lasted well into the 20th century; the war against the Arab government in Khartoum, which broke out even before Sudanese independence in 1956. In 1972, an agreement signed in Addis Ababa between the government and the southern rebels gave the south something it desperately needed: a period of calm. As the fighting stalled, hope spread out from Juba into the south’s towns and villages. Three years later, at the urging of southern citizens who wanted a school that could train new skilled workers to address their region’s needs, the Sudanese government decided to give the south its first-ever institution of higher learning: the University of Juba.  

The university’s first eight years were bustling and exciting. Students came from all regions of Sudan, north and south, to learn. To be a student there in the 1980s was not all that bad — especially in comparison with today’s conditions, recalls Samson Wassara, an alumnus who is now dean of the College of Social and Economic Studies. "You [were] accommodated in single or double rooms, especially when you are an upperclassman. You have someone cleaning your room, changing the sheets for you … and you have a variety of foods — you have chicken, you have fish," he told me. "We had expatriates from all over the world teaching at the school, and even our library was up to date, getting collections from different journals, periodicals from the World Bank, the IMF, [and] the European Union."

In the meantime, however, the fragile peace had begun to shatter. By the early 1980s it was clear that Khartoum had reneged on its promise to allow greater autonomy for the south, dominated by Africans whom the Arabs of the north saw as subjects. First, the government attempted to redraw the border between north and south to include the newly discovered oil fields in the Bahr el-Ghazal and Upper Nile regions. The final straw came in 1983 when Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry began to impose sharia law across the entire country and the fighting resumed. By the late 1980s, Juba, which was then home to a major contingent of northern soldiers, was under siege by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the southern rebel movement. The fighting around the city was so intense, Wassara remembers, that during the quiet days "we would wonder, ‘Why was there no shelling today?’"

The fighting became too much, and university students who had come from the north began pressuring the Sudanese government in Khartoum to do something about their predicament. In 1989, citing the deteriorating security situation, the northern regime decided that the university — students, equipment, everything short of the buildings themselves — would relocate to Khartoum.

When they arrived in Khartoum, the comforts of university dorms and international lecturers quickly evaporated. "We started off [in Khartoum] under very difficult conditions," says Aggrey Abate, the school’s vice chancellor. "The staff from Juba had to teach in tents, had to be housed in apartment blocks." Eventually, the university managed to acquire some land and some facilities, allowing it to carry on.

But politics continued to interfere. The same year that the University of Juba set up shop in Khartoum, Omar Hassan al-Bashir overthrew the civilian government and swept to power promising an Islamic revolution. Bashir and his allies in the National Islamic Front immediately set about refashioning Sudan into a sharia state. The country’s universities, the longtime centers of political activity, became a prime target of the campaign.

The government allowed the use of English in some courses, particularly in the sciences, but Arabic partially replaced it as the school’s language of instruction. Students’ English skills dropped off drastically, as did their access to teaching materials; English books were removed from the libraries. Bashir continued excluding southerners from the school’s top jobs. Until 2006, the university’s vice chancellors came exclusively from the Arab-dominated north. (The chancellor of the University of Juba, and of every other university in Sudan, became none other than Bashir himself.)

Another of Bashir’s objectives was to expand access to higher education in Sudan — and it often came at the expense of quality. University enrollment numbers ballooned across Sudan, far faster than the system could support. When the University of Juba came to Khartoum in 1989, it had 800 students. Today, more than 22,000 students are enrolled there.

Over those two decades, Juba still awaited the day it could bring its namesake university back home. In 2005, after more than 20 years of fighting that left 2 million dead and 4 million displaced from their homes, peace was declared, and a year later the nascent government of Southern Sudan demanded the return of its university. Southern students protested as well, until finally the University of Juba began to move back to its old campus, parts of which had been used as a barracks for the Sudanese army during the war. To date, eight of the colleges have returned. The four that remain in Khartoum are set to relocate to Juba by March.

As part of the 2005 peace agreement, the southern Sudanese also won the chance to vote for their region’s independence, which they overwhelmingly did in January. Preliminary results show that 99 percent of southerners favored separation; the vote will be certified in mid-February and Southern Sudan is expected to proclaim its independence on July 9.

On July 10, however, the University of Juba — much like the rest of Southern Sudan — will wake up to a magnitude of challenges.

Independence will sever the financial lifeline connecting the school to the government in Khartoum, forcing it to rely entirely on Southern authorities and international donors. The south’s total budget last year was a mere $2 billion, 7 percent of which went toward education (compared with 37 percent spent on the military). Linda Bishai, an education expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, believes that the government of Southern Sudan "will be under pressure to deliver on [education] pledges." But the state can only work with as much money as it has.

Staffing the university is another challenge. As many as 80 percent of the university’s current professors are from the north, and Abate worries that many will decide not to move to Juba — due to either fear of pay cuts or concerns about a fresh wave of violence in the south. But Wassara is confident that once independence is finalized and stability assured, "some of our [northern] colleagues will come here." There’s also a hope here in Juba that, despite all the difficulties, Southern Sudan might offer something to academia that the north cannot: freedom. "Some [professors], like the leftists, might not be tolerated in the north," Wassara says. "Some of them, as a matter of protecting their ideas, hope to move here."

If staff shortage is an impending threat, the lack of basic infrastructure is already a stark reality. Many of the northern students may choose not to relocate to Juba, which will help. Still, the university today is 20 times larger than when the campus was built, and as a result, the halls, dorms, and classrooms in Juba are overstuffed. There aren’t enough lecture halls to host all the classes on offer. Students lucky enough to live on campus sleep six, eight, or sometimes 10 to a room. In the dorms I visited, there was no running water. The library is one of the rare buildings to have been renovated — but as Bishai, who visited the campus in Juba last November, recalls, "A lot of the books were outdated, and some were in bad shape."

Despite all its struggles, the university will be a necessary support for Southern Sudan as the new state seeks to become functional. With 90 percent of Southern Sudan’s population living on less than a dollar a day and an illiteracy rate said to be as high as 85 percent, trained graduates have never been in greater demand. The school, says vice chancellor Abate, will try to stay true to its original vision: to address the development needs of the south. In the long term, that will mean trying to wean Africa’s newest country off its excessive dependence on oil: Ninety eight percent of the government budget derives from crude revenues. "We want to help farmers because this is where you can spread out the wealth, the technology," says Abate. "We will want to produce more graduates who are going to go out there and strengthen our agricultural capacity."

For the time being, however, Abate realizes that oil — once the cause of so much of the south’s suffering — is his country’s economic lifeblood. And Southern Sudan needs a lot more technicians. Luckily, the University of Juba has an engineering school.

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.