Being intellectual in South Sudan

In South Sudan, formal education – in a Western mould, with letters after your name – and state political capability are inseparable; one cannot be a legitimate popular politician without some claim to academic legitimacy. Politicians must have been students – preferably for a good long time.

The proliferation of PhDs amongst the politicians of Juba is a demonstration of this historical principle. From the beginnings of Southern politics, politicians were drawn from the small ranks of the educated elites, whose scarcity and distinctiveness because of their qualifications set them apart socially and often egotistically from their local communities. Now, politicians compete over academic credentials: for example, Lam Akol, in his rebuttal to Dr John Akec over the future of university education in the South, said cattily:

‘The insinuation is that somebody of my stature can write a paper that is not “research[ed]”. I wonder what research has Dr Akec conducted and how many academic papers did he ever publish in reputable journals. Since he claims to have a PhD in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, then I would certainly know the journals he could possibly publish in.’

Snide one-upmanship aside, the very fact that politicians must be intellectuals – and vice versa – in South Sudan is a historical one. Being a formally educated, published academic is both a title and a job description. This is something brought up by a lot of people but not much is written on it; I’m not going to talk much more about it specifically here, since I’ve written an article on this historical production of educational legitimacy, and I don’t want to self plagiarise (!) or get ahead of myself.  But the role of education in politics has been brought up by Naomi Pendle and Zoe Cormack in a paper about students in Wau at the Sudans Studies Conference in Bonn this summer.

Being a “student” in South Sudan has been a claim to membership of an intellectual elite since the early decades of last century. The lucky (predominantly male) Southern student body was tiny, and their political visibility – if not activity – was disproportionate to their size. Archives everywhere are peppered with ambitiously titled paper – the Students’ Associations of various refugee camps in Uganda from the 1960s, the Student Wings of parties, various Southern associations in Rome seminaries, Khartoum University, London and elsewhere, and individual students writing letters and making impromptu and often unwanted calls on various British Embassies, visiting dignitaries and priests. Students had a privileged status in returnee organisation in 1972; records in the South Sudan National Archives are full of students asking for positions in the new regional government and asking for funds for further study. Students in South Sudan have a strong tradition of being vocal proto-political lobbyists.

Arguably this is what student politics still is in South Sudan at the moment; as much as there are legitimate grievances about the language of tuition, lack of housing and closed faculties, student groups in the South are lobby groups, formed around often ethnic, regional or political interests, and producing meetings, memorandums, press statements, elections and above all disputes and conflicts that mirror Southern politics. I would add to Naomi’s comment that student politics in the South is specifically a place of identity formation; I think that a key role of self-professed student intellectual – and leaders in waiting – is a firmly established political identity, a historical identity, that people can choose to ‘step into’, and that forms a framework for the other ethnic and social divisions and debates that these groups engage in.

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Filed under Academia, Archives, Current affairs, Politics, South Sudan

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