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Sudanese university students demand a campus free of violence

In a courageous and unique act of collective action, students at the University of Khartoum in Sudan have gone on strike to protest the killing of a fellow student; demanding justice and a campus free of violence. Will their demands be met?

Dalia Haj-Omar
23 April 2014
Male and Female student sit at a desk outside in front of a camera. Hundreds of student supporters  look on.

Students share their strike demands with a wider public at a press conference at the University of Khartoum, April 10, 2014.

One might assume that universities are a safe haven for free dialogue, learning and intellectual debate. This, however, is far from the reality in Sudan, where most public universities have a heavy presence of armed pro-regime student militias who store their weapons on campus in what are called Jihadist Units. Pro-government militias are also often involved in terrorizing students by rigging student union elections and disrupting public debates on campus (also called arkan, meaning [debate] corners)--a common tradition in many universities in Sudan. 

Since the National Congress Party (NCP) came to power 25 years ago, at least 17 students from universities around the country have paid with their lives while peacefully practicing or demanding basic rights. None of these incidents have ever been investigated transparently, and no one has ever been held accountable.

March 11, 2014 was just another normal day on the campus of Khartoum University. A normal day that metamorphosed into a nightmare that the student body is still grappling with. That morning the Darfur Student Union organized a peaceful debate to raise awareness amongst their fellow students about the plight of their families in Darfur, where, according  to the United Nations, the rate of displacement in the last year is reminiscent of the early years of the conflict. Since the end of February this year, there have been more than 200,000 newly displaced persons in North and South Darfur combined.

The debate turned into a peaceful protest around and outside the campus that was then met with tear gas and live ammunition, leading to the death of a Darfuri Student, Ali Abbaker. He was a third year student studying economics, and was described by fellow students as someone who lacked any political affiliation and who was attending the debate and the protest like many others.

An active female student who was at the campus that day told the author anonymously:

Three students who are part of the NCP student militias entered the campus with guns. One of them shot Ali Abbaker as he was running. His killer can be identified, because he was seen and is known by many on the campus. Ali Abbaker could have been any one of us, he was not politically affiliated; he just happened to be there that day... We spend half our day on campus, is it logical that we spend all that time feeling insecure?

After a three-week shutdown the university re-opened its doors on March 31, but only to a limited number of faculties that are scattered from each other, to make it harder for students to congregate and organize. Those returning faculties excluded the Faculties of Arts - where Ali Abbaker was shot and killed - and the Faculty of Economics where he was studying. Dr. Ismat Mahmoud, a professor at the university known for his sympathetic stand with the students and their demands, asked on this facebook book page:

Given the that the Martyr Ali Abbaker was killed at the Faculty of Arts, those who have information about his murderers are students from the Economics and Arts departments. I have a thousand and one questions: to whose benefit are these students being kept away? I refuse the protection of murderers

Since then,Khartoum University students have managed to stage a rare feat: a 10-day strike that included solidarity from a non-official coalition of 23 sympathetic professors and almost 100 percent of the attending student body. The students also put forward a set of specific demands to the University's administration. The last time a strike was staged in late 2011, and it only lasted five days before the authorities closed the entire campus for two months.

Hundreds of students in a rally, holding up a copies of the same picture.

As the strike is announced, students hold pictures of killed student Ali Abbaker demanding justice and a violence-free campus.

Khartoum University has not had a functioning student union since 2010. The excessive violence by pro-regime militias attempting to rig student union elections led to a lot of instability on the campus; prompting the administration to ban future student union elections. This left the students without legitimate and formal representatives with decision-making authorities, and who could liaise amongst students, and between students and the University administration. Hence making organization hard, if not impossible - a tactic that is calculated and desired by the regime.

However, the returning students persisted. Each faculty created assemblies where discussions were held to raise awareness, and decisions were made by consensus with the presence of a facilitator. Everybody’s voice was heard, and student representatives were chosen from all classes. Decisions were then shared with a larger public via two press conferences that were attended by the more liberal leaning local press and shared via social media.

Hundreds of students in a forum set-up

Over 2000 University of Khartoum students congregate to make plans and reach by consensus their collective demands, Apr 13, 2014

This resulted in a set of demands agreed upon by all the student body that included: identifying the killer(s) of Ali Abaker and demanding that he/they face justice; ensuring that the campus environment is safe and free of violence and weapons ( including those stored in the University's mosque); and resuming classes for all suspended faculties.

These demands were expanded upon in the Framework Agreement between Students and Professors that was signed on April 11, which demanded that three student representatives become part of the fact-finding committee investigating the death of student Ali Abbaker. The students also asked the University administration to review the role and mandate of the University’s security staff (who stood idle during the events); and to reinstate the student union.

The Framework Agreement was signed by 23 professors, and with the insistence of the professors it led to the end of the strike on April 15. However, many students see it as a non-binding agreement since it has yet to be endorsed by the University administration. Hence there is talk of re-igniting the strike if no official endorsement arrives soon. Taj Alsir Gafar, an active student commented on his facebook page saying:

The agreement between the students and the professors that resulted in suspending the April strike..... does not represent the University’s administration, because there is not yet one official statement or memo that approves or refers to this agreement. Additionally this initiative only includes a limited number of professors historically known for their noble support to the students.

Sure enough, on April 20 the Dean of the University issued a statement responding to the Framework Agreement and announcing that the University will set up a number of committees to look into each demand. Although some of the professors said that the statement addressed most of the concerns of the students, the students were not satisfied and announced that their strike will resume on April 21. Their main objection was that there were no practical steps put in place by the University to address their concerns; and that no concrete procedures were mentioned to deal with the Jihadist Units responsible for the violence on campus. The Dean’s statement, they said, was mired in vagueness, “an indication that the administration is dragging its feet”.

I asked Maryam (not her real name), a student who’s been active in organizing the strike, why there’s such a high level of student participation and solidarity for this strike. She said: “we worked hard on raising the awareness of the students about our demands; but we also made sure we stay away from politicizing the demands in anyway.” She however expressed concerns that the fact-finding committee set up by the University to look into the death of Abbakar lacked legitimacy, and added that students did not feel safe going to talk to its members because several of them are affiliated with the ruling party; and that so far the committee lacked official links with the judiciary and the police.

It is important to note that the Sudanese government is facing national challenges at multiple levels. Last September President Omer al Bashir’s legitimacy was drastically weakened after receiving severe criticism from within his party for using excessive force to quell popular protests that led to the death of at least 200 young protestors. Since then, the NCP has revamped its leadership by removing five influential figures including the first vice president, presidential advisors, and parliamentarians. This was followed by calls for a National Dialogue that encompassed loosening up restrictions on political freedoms, and releasing political detainees. None of these promises have completely materialized. But with a collapsing economy, and chronic wars raging in two-thirds of the country (Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State), the regime is wary of the mounting street anger; and hence is likely to tread carefully with the student strike at the University of Khartoum.

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