Sudan’s University Students Have a Long History of Political Activism

The latest fighting to erupt in Sudan has plunged the nation into a fresh crisis. Since 15 April, conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces has left nearly 800 people dead and forced about a million others to seek sanctuary abroad. It has disrupted daily life, destroyed property and shut down universities.

It is adult military generals who have created this political abyss. I believe that the country’s young people – particularly its university students – symbolise Sudan’s hopes of reconstructing its future.

I am an academic researching higher education, education in post-conflict contexts and comparative national systems of education. I have also served in government in South Sudan, as the director general for universities in the Ministry of Higher Education. As such, and given my own experiences as a student activist, I have a deep interest in the role of university students in Sudan.

It would not be the first time that university students have come to the forefront to drive political change. They have done so four times before: once in the struggle to gain independence from colonial Britain in 1956 and thrice as the Sudanese people stood up to military regimes – in 1964, 1985 and 2019.

Sudan’s university students have not only spearheaded revolutions. They also contributed to a thriving campus culture that has given voice to multiple political views, ethnicities and religious beliefs. No matter the students’ individual differences, the four uprisings I discuss here were driven by something they had in common: the desire for Sudan to be democratically ruled.

Liberation struggles

Universities play various societal roles. In Sudan, tertiary institutions have historically had two main functions. First, as with any other African country immediately after colonial rule ended, they are responsible for socio-economic development. They supply both the private and public labour forces. Civil servants were particularly important immediately after the British ceded control.

Second, Sudan’s university students have played a key role in liberation struggles.

The Graduates General Congress began its life in the 1940s as an association for alumni of Gordon Memorial College. This institution would ultimately become the University of Khartoum, located in Sudan’s capital city.

The congress’s members articulated calls for independence. They galvanised many other Sudanese to push for the withdrawal of the British colonial state.

After independence, universities in Sudan continued on the same political path. Students led three popular uprisings that toppled military dictatorships and restored civilian and democratic rule.

University of Khartoum students organised and drove the October 1964 revolution. This ended General Ibrahim Abboud’s eight-year presidency. Students – including myself, an undergraduate at the time – were also key players in 1985, when protests and a civil disobedience campaign deposed president Jaafar Mohammed Numeiri.

Most recently, university students and academics were at the forefront of the popular uprising in 2019 that ended Omar al-Bashir’s rule after 30 years.

Read more: Academics have shaped Sudan’s political history, and may do it again

Khartoum at the centre

The University of Khartoum, in various iterations, has been central to all these protests. The institution was originally a satellite college of the University of London. It was established as a public university at independence in 1956.

Two other regional universities, Gezira and Juba (in what is today the capital of South Sudan), were opened in the 1970s. The 1990s saw what scholars have called the “higher education revolution”, when the growing demand for tertiary education led to 26 new institutions being created in 1991 alone.

Most of these universities are in Khartoum. This geographical concentration consolidates students’ power. It means they are physically well placed to collaborate and coordinate with other powerful groupings in society, like trade unions, to push for political change.