Safeguarding Sudanese academia
War has closed down universities in Sudan and shattered the academic milieu. This places an extraordinary responsibility on academia and international partners, but also an opportunity: To contribute to preventing the biggest brain drain from Sudan ever.
When war broke out in Sudan on April 15, the whole country shut down. Schools and universities were closed, and salaries stopped coming into people’s accounts. In an extremely difficult and precarious situation, prices are skyrocketing and there is little to no hope of going back to work. For researchers, even if the universities had been open, their work is now more dangerous than ever. As in any war, the ongoing war in Sudan is also a propaganda war in which researchers and academics are being expected to choose sides.
Adjusting to a new reality
In a situation like this a project like the Sudan-Norway Academic Cooperation (SNAC) has a more important role than ever.
-SNAC is in a unique position to contribute to prevent a brain drain that will set Sudan back decades, says Tamer Abd Elkreem, Deputy director of the Peace Research Institute at the University of Khartoum.
Along with several colleagues from the Sudan-Norway Academic Cooperation (SNAC) project, Abd Elkreem now finds himself in Cairo after a dramatic escape out of Khartoum to get to safety and several weeks of waiting at the Sudanese-Egyptian border.
They recently met up with Norwegian SNAC-partners in Cairo to discuss how the project can be adjusted to the new situation. The idea is to temporarily work with the Sudanese SNAC-team members through Egyptian research institutions like CEDEJ (the Centre for Economic, Legal, and Social Study and Documentation), and to cooperate on a more individual basis than through institutions in Sudan, an option that is not feasible at the moment.
Talking about the future of academia in Sudan, Abd Elkreem stresses that it is not only about the brain drain. The war has done serious damage also to all parts of the educational infrastructure. The Ministry of Higher Education has been burnt down. Several universities have been looted and burnt to the ground, and many campuses have been destroyed. It has been difficult to get credible information about the status of his own university as the university buildings are located close to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) main base.
-We think that the main building is intact, but there have been attempts from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to capture the area. They have been using heavy artillery, so it is very hard to estimate the level of destruction, says Abd Elkreem.
Unprecedented brain drain
Even though it will take years for Khartoum to again become a functional city with an infrastructure that can support the population, buildings can be rebuilt. What he fears more is the consequences of the ongoing brain drain from Sudan to particularly the Gulf states and Saudi-Arabia.
Before war broke out, there was already a gradual brain drain taking place due to the dire economic situation in the country and the Islamist policy of isolating Sudanese academia and educational institutions from the rest of the world. But the revolution spurred temporary hope. After decades of isolation from international academia during the Islamist rule, the spirit of the revolution convinced academics to come back to Sudan.
-The idea of vibrant academic institutions that would no longer be isolated from the international community was part of the revolutionary discourse, says Abd Elkreem.
Then a new blow took its toll. After the 2021 coup, many lost hope and left. And then disaster struck. A full-fledged war broke out, leading to a dramatic jump in the number of academics and researchers leaving the country.
-We’re now at a place where university staff struggle even feed their family, nor keep them safe, he says.
Many senior scholars have already left the country, and they will likely find job opportunities elsewhere, making it less plausible that they will ever return to Sudan, says Abd Elkreem.
The more junior scholars with less experience are the ones who will be forced to remain, dramatically affecting the quality of teaching and research that can be offered after the universities reopen.
Contributing to keep eyes on Sudan
The war dramatically affects Sudan’s place in the academic world, and here’s where the SNAC project really comes into play. According to Abd Elkreem the project has a great potential in keeping the Sudanese team members engaged in continued research, hence maintaining the scholarly level. The core identity of the Bergen-Sudan collaboration that SNAC is the newest addition to is to keep going, through good times and bad. And this is what makes him hopeful that the SNAC project’s approach will be successful.
-What you usually see in international academic cooperation is that when times are good, people keep flocking to it. But at the time when collaboration is most needed, people start pulling out. Diametrically opposite to this you have the SNAC project, a project that keeps looking for ways of continuing the close cooperation despite external factors, says Abd Elkreem.
SNAC aims to reconnect Sudanese researchers with international academia, not only through keeping Sudanese scholars actively engaged in research, but also through contributing to debates about the country both domestically and internationally.
-It is paramount to avoid that Sudan becomes a dark spot where no one knows what is going on. Such an environment, where no information comes out, is the best stage for dictators. Everything is hidden, and there is no one to pose critical questions. But the SNAC project facilitates continued critical questions, a continued focus on Sudan in academia. We keep working, we keep doing research on the ground in new ways, and we keep connecting the dots, says Abd Elkreem.
He stresses the significance of this work for something that has become a slogan for the Sudanese who are still working for change and peace: Keep eyes on Sudan.
-When there is no public discussion, the production of knowledge dies. You cannot bring new perspectives into a debate when the ones who bring the perspective are gone. Through continued cooperation, like SNAC, we can prevent Sudan from disappearing from the international agenda.