Sudan splits and science community divides

Published online 8 July 2011

As South Sudan prepares to become Africa's newest nation, government plans to build an independent higher education system are in disarray and universities remain closed.

Linda Nordling, Deborah-Fay Ndhlovu

The imminent partition of Africa's largest country Sudan has meant that several universities that moved north to avoid the worst of the civil war in the early 1990s must now relocate back south. But a lack of money and the poor state of disrepair that many of the former facilities have fallen into has plunged plans into chaos and risks setting back science in Sudan several decades.

Juba University, Upper Nile University and Bahr el Ghazal Unviersity had planned to return south in preparation for the formal split of Sudan on 9 July 2011. Each was due to open its doors to students in early May, but the three remain closed and many staff and students are reluctant to move to South Sudan.

"We are still preparing because we cannot bring students to universities that are not ready and are without halls, accommodation or laboratories. Without that we cannot open," says Mou Mou Athian Koul, the undersecretary for the South Sudan Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

The South Sudan government has raised only half of the US$12 million needed to construct hostels, laboratories and lecture halls needed by the three universities, according to Koul. The three universities are now closed indefinitely, but Kaul hopes that minimal facilities would have been constructed in the next three months to allow the universities to open.

Sudan's research capacity is strongest in the north. National data do not distinguish research and development (R&D) activity between north and south, but the University of Khartoum in north Sudan produces about 70% of the country's total peer-reviewed research papers, according to Mohamed El-Tom, a mathematician and the president of Garden City College, a new private university in Khartoum. Most of the country's nearly one hundred higher education institutions focus on teaching, while research is focused in a handful of institutions.

Dire state

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Sudan spent 0.29% of GDP on research and development in 2007, similar to an average of 0.3% of GDP in Arab states in Northern Africa. However, some researchers question the validity of these figures. "UNESCO's source is the government and the government is not reliable. I think it's less than what they say," says El-Tom.

Many Sudanese scientists depend on foreign funding, but official statistics are unavailable. "Nearly all the research that I was doing in the last 40 years has been supported by funds from outside the country," says Ahmed El-Hassan, a medical researcher at the University of Khartoum and founder and president of the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences (SNAS).

International support has been squeezed in the last few years by economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations.

Universities in the south

The Upper Nile University, housed in a former second-level school in Malakal, SouthSudan, when it was founded in 1991, has since built its faculty of medicine in Khartoum. The faculty of medicine is due to move south with the other faculties, but there are no proper facilities to house it.

"We are not going to have a faculty of medicine for some time until we make the necessary preparations," says Bol Deng Chol, vice chancellor of Upper Nile University.

Chol had been lobbying the government to leave the faculty of medicine in the north, but this is unlikely as the university's facilities in the north will be transferred to Bahray University, recently formed to absorb the remnants of the departing universities.

Details remain vague, including any senior faculty appointments, but Bahray University will be funded by monies previously allocated to the three universities moving south.

The government of South Sudan will take responsibity for financing the operations of Juba University, Upper Nile University and Bahr el Ghazal University, which are relocating to Juba, Malakal and Wau, respectively, from Khartoum

Chol has advised students to enrol in Bahray University, which is accepting students and staff from the three universities moving south.

"We have told the students if you come down to us in the South you will be idle," he says.

Koul says his government will be refurbishing Agok Leprosy Hospital, in the city of Wau, to facilitate the faculties of medicine of Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal universities. The hospital was built in the 1980s, but it never opened due to the war and remains without labs and is too small to accommodate students from the two universities, says Chol.

Juba University is now struggling to fit its 12,000 students and 600 lecturers back onto its old campus. They need to build new hostels and lecture halls since the campus has been left in a state of disarray after the northern Sudanese government used it as an army base.

"There are so many students from North Sudan. I don't know who will come or who will stay in Khartoum. That's the complication that we have," said Samson Wasara, dean of the faculty of economics and policy studies at Juba University.

The problems might extend further than just facilities. For those students who move south, their courses might be without sufficient staff, as 90% of lecturers, who were mostly from the North, have left in droves to join Bahray University. Many of those reluctant to relocate claim a fear of retribution for the actions of the North Sudanese government during the civil war.

The departure of faculty members means, for example, that the faculty of medicine at the Upper Nile University will be left with three lecturers, Chol says. The faculty of veterinary science at the university will only have one staff member.

Peacetime collaboration

We shall be continuously plagued by outbreaks or even epidemics in both countries, and we need to address these issues jointly.

This situation could change for the South when the country secedes if international sanctions are lifted. "I think South Sudan will get more funding for research than Sudan from institutes in Europe and America," says Hassan Hussein Musa from the University of Nyala in Darfur. Meanwhile, Sudan will continue to depend on their government's meagre allocations for research, as well as on those international donors that still accept funding applications from Sudan.

This might present researchers in the north with an opportunity. "Collaboration with South Sudanese researchers may help circumvent the problem of US sanctions by basing the project in South Sudan," says Dia-Eldin Elnaiem, an ecologist at the University of Khartoum. However, South Sudan has a very limited scientific capacity as most of the scientists that have returned from exile have entered politics or advisory roles, says Suad Sulaiman, a health and environment advisor for SNAS.

Some Sudanese researchers, especially those in the old garde, hope Sudan and South Sudan will consider scientific research as an opportunity to cultivate goodwill between the new neighbours. A joint research agency would be a start, and signal to the rest of the world that the governments are burying the hatchet and invite more international support, says El-Hassan. "This will also help in establishing good relations between North and South, which is badly needed at this point in time."

If the tense political atmosphere persists, collaborative projects may not flourish. This could affect research that focuses on problems that affects both Sudan and South Sudan, such as the management of the Nile's water or wildlife conservation, says Asim El-Moghraby, an ecologist from the University of Khartoum.

It could also hamper research into problems that primarily concern South Sudan, but where northern scientists have been leading the hunt for solutions. In public health, a major problem in South Sudan is leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that kills nearly all those infected if untreated. An eight-fold increase in leishmaniasis cases in southern Sudan in 2010 has raised concerns — especially since refugees returning to the South are especially susceptible to the disease.

When the peace agreement between the warring Sudanese governments was signed in 2005, El-Hassan proposed a research project to target returning refugees to the south at risk of leishmaniasis. He planned to inform refugees of simple preventive measures, such as protection from sand fly bites, and treat those affected. But the project was not funded — a bad omen for the future, according to El-Hassan. "Disease does not know political boundaries. We shall be continuously plagued by outbreaks or even epidemics in both countries, and we need to address these issues jointly."

Future funding

Koul claims South Africa and Zimbabwe have offered to support South Sudan and supply lecturers. Discussions are still preliminary and ongoing, with some contentious issues still to be agreed.

The South Sudan government is also turning to external funders, says Koul. It is already in discussion with international agencies, including the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB). But assistance may not come easy.

A World Bank spokesperson says its assistance to South Sudan is limited to basic education, for now, but it may reconsider its position depending on the outcome of discussions with the government of South Sudan. Pitamber Sunita, the head of fragile states at AfDB, says its offer for help to Southern Sudan will depend on sustainability.

"We still need to think of sustainability and transfer of skills. We need to think about it carefully and get the government to clarify how we proceed," she says.