In a country like Sudan, those with access to education become the object of intense competition on the part of political parties of all stripes, especially those with no traditional base of support. Secondary schools and especially universities become the hunting ground — and sometimes the killing ground — for groups whose success on campus represents a shortcut to political hegemony in the country. Whatever the nature of their rhetoric about “the people,” these parties rely on elites, recalling the crucial role that the Graduates Congress played in Sudan’s struggle for independence. Sections of the elite were again instrumental in toppling military regimes in October 1964 and April 1985. [1]

This is a lesson which political parties in Sudan have taken to heart, most of all the National Islamic Front (NIF), which wants to conquer not only the state but civil society as well. [2] The “educational revolution” now being implemented reflects not only what the NIF hopes to achieve in the educational system. It also corresponds to the NIF’s political behavior with regard to education in the past, especially during the 1978-1985 period of NIF alliance with Ja‘far Numayri’s regime.

The NIF knew exactly what it wanted from Numayri. Two areas were of paramount importance: the economy and education. Numayri’s decision to “Islamize” the economy gave the NIF an unprecedented opportunity to control some of the levers of economic power in the country through the new “Islamic” banking system. The NIF used its new economic power to infiltrate the ranks of the elite through the use of patronage. In what has been an extremely sluggish job market, student leaders who owed their allegiance to the NIF have gotten jobs in Islamic banks, firms and organizations controlled by the NIF the minute they left university. The present regime has extended this policy to the public sector, especially the civil service, where interviews are used to screen out job applicants who are not NIF members. Graduates in engineering, for example, are asked questions on religious knowledge. [3]

Campus Monopoly

In education, Numayri’s regime gave the NIF a free hand in higher secondary schools in exchange for a task that the NIF was more than willing to perform: keeping campuses quiet, especially Khartoum University. Supporters of other parties and members of independent student groups in the higher secondary schools were muzzled not only by Numayri’s security apparatus but also by the violent tactics used by NIF supporters to silence opposition. The NIF enjoyed a virtual monopoly of political activity in the schools, while other political parties were forced to work underground. The factionalism that bedeviled opposition student groups contributed to the success of the NIF in controlling student bodies, especially the Khartoum University Student Union, for much of the period between 1978 and 1984. [4]

The NIF’s obsessive concern with the student movement stems, first, from the elitist nature of its political philosophy and, second, from its failure so far to control professional associations and trade unions, all of which are firmly opposed to its policies. [5] The NIF bases its strategy for hegemony, as opposed to direct domination, on its ability to win converts among the different elite sectors, notably the professional associations and unions. These have proved able over the years to topple dictatorial regimes through the creative use of civil disobedience and the general strike. Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir banned all trade unions in his first speech, on June 30, 1989, the day he seized power. The only associations exempted were student unions and religious associations, the majority of which were then controlled by the NIF.

Our analysis of the education policies pursued by the NIF-controlled regime would be incomplete if we were to gloss over the real problems that Sudan’s educational system faced prior to 1989. Enormous budget cuts had forced postponement of the “target of universal primary education” from 1990 to the year 2000. [6] The UNESCO mission is right to assert that “the provision of basic education for all is the main challenge facing Sudan’s educational policymakers…. The twin elements of a long-term strategy to meet the challenge are the development and renewal of primary education and the promotion of adult literacy.” [7] The disparities in educational development in the various regions are enormous. Primary enrollment ratios were 87 percent in the Khartoum region in 1984-1985, and 96.3 percent in the north, 42.8 percent in the east, 35.6 percent in Darfur, 44.6 percent in Kordofan, 6.3 percent in Bahr al-Ghazal, 15.9 percent in Upper Nile and 45.3 percent in Equatoria in 1986-1987. [8] Nearly 80 percent of those enrolled in higher education come from the northern and central regions and Khartoum. “The remaining four regions, with two thirds of the total population, account for only 20 percent of total enrollment.” [9] A massive “skills” migration to oil-rich countries in the Persian Gulf contributed to a severe shortage of teachers. Higher education suffered additionally from inefficient management of resources, deteriorating infrastructure, repeated attempts by military regimes to curtail freedom of thought and research, and frequent disruptions as a result of student factional conflict. [10]

The new regime convened a conference in September 1990 to discuss the problems of general education, but higher education comes at the top of the regime’s agenda. This is evident not only from the much larger number of decisions taken in connection with higher education and the speed with which they were implemented, but also from the pattern of appointments to top posts in the higher education sector. Overall supervision has been entrusted to Brig. Gen. Zubayr Muhammad Salih, deputy chairman of the RCC and deputy prime minister and the NIF’s strong man in the RCC. The chair of the National Council of Higher Education was given to Ibrahim Ahmad ‘Umar, a high-ranking NIF member of long standing, later appointed minister of higher education. By contrast, none of the three persons who have held the post of minister of education over the last two years had any formal connection with the NIF before the 1989 coup. [11]

The regime inaugurated its policies for the higher education sector with what one can only call “mopping-up operations.” The first target was Khartoum University. Following the fall of Numayri, the Khartoum University Staff (Faculty) Union pushed for a new act for the university, which did away with the ambiguities that infringed on the autonomy of the university and freedom of thought and research, and inaugurated a new system of elections for the top administrative offices in the university. [12] A few months after taking power, the new regime abolished the electoral system embodied in the 1986 act and unilaterally appointed a new vice chancellor, a deputy vice chancellor, deans and heads of department. Later a new act was imposed throughout the country with not a single word about elections or any guarantees for freedom of thought and research. [13]

Another casualty of the regime’s policies was the bit of remaining stability on university campuses. A series of extremely violent clashes at Khartoum and Gezira Universities, toward the end of 1989 and 1990 respectively, pitted security forces and NIF students against students opposed to the regime. Three students at Khartoum University were killed.

Militia Centers

Realizing that they were under siege, anti-NIF students at Khartoum University abandoned their factionalism and united against NIF candidates in the Students’s Union election held around the end of 1990. These elections are usually followed with a great deal of interest on the national level. The NIF suffered a stunning defeat, its first since 1986. This came as a shock to the regime and served as a clear sign of the growing opposition to its repressive policies. One factor was the blatant attempt by the regime to force new students who had already passed their Sudan School Certificate examinations, and had already been accepted at institutes of higher education, to join the militia camps of the so-called Popular Defense Forces before taking up their studies. Registration for universities was moved from the campuses to the militia camps.

Popular Defense Forces camp conditions are extremely harsh. The camps function as reeducation centers, where the objective is to brutalize the students and to browbeat them into submission. Female students were exempted from reporting to the camps at the last moment. Male students and their parents knew what was in store, but a university education is so highly prized and competition is so fierce that the vast majority submitted to the dictates of the regime.

It was next the tum of lecturers and professors. For more than a year, universities were not affected by the mass dismissals which civil servants and other employees in the public sector suffered. The blow came in the fall of 1990, when scores of teachers and administrators from the universities of Gezira, Juba, Sudan University for Science and Technology and the Islamic University of Omdurman were pensioned off. The decisions were evidently based, in the majority of cases, on past political affiliations.

Perhaps the most important developments in higher education during the last two years relate to a number of decrees announced by Omar al-Bashir at the end of 1989. Three in particular deserve attention. The regime announced the creation of five new public and private universities, doubled the number of entrants to all the older universities, and insisted on the use of Arabic as a medium of instruction at the higher education level. All of this was to happen immediately.

One needs to see these decisions in the light of some of the problems that plagued both general and higher education prior to the 1989 coup. Only 8 percent of those who pass their Sudan School Certificate examinations find places in higher education institutions, and some young Sudanese are forced as a result to seek higher education abroad. [14] The UNESCO mission warns nonetheless that “caution may be required concerning any temptation to expand higher education enrollment,” arguing that “disadvantaged regions could improve and increase their share in higher education only through the improvement of educational opportunities at secondary and primary levels.” It also points out that there was a sharp drop, from 1982-1983 onward, in the number of graduates employed “to 21.1 percent in 1983-1984 and 17.4 percent in 1985-1986,” and that the existing higher education system is in dire need of rehabilitation. [15]

Militia Centers

The regime’s decision to increase enrollment and to create new universities at a time of dire economic crisis is designed to broaden the NIF’s base in the higher education system and increase its share of adherents among future members of the elite, with the aim of eventually controlling professional unions and associations. [16] The rhetoric of the NIF about the need to root education in the culture and traditions of Sudan (i.e., in its own self-serving version of Islam) points to its fear of foreign influences on Sudanese students studying abroad. The creation of new universities will also enable the regime and the NIF to monitor and control recruitment and training of teaching staff and appointment of administrators at these institutions, especially at a time when the National Council for Higher Education is assuming more and more power.

The regime has also decided to “deregulate” private education at the higher education level, although Sudan’s experience with private education has not been a very happy one. [17] Despite this, the regime has proceeded: At least four such new universities have already started admitting students. It seems that the whole policy of the regime in higher education is premised on the belief that the NIF is capable of controlling the student movement. What the NIF has overlooked is that the political affiliations of students are not immutable. Neither patronage, intimidation nor appeals to religious sentiments will lessen the impact of socioeconomic conditions on the students and their families, or make them tum a blind eye to the suffering around them.

The use of Arabic as a medium of instruction in higher education has been an issue on the agenda of the older universities (with the exception of the Islamic University of Omdurman, which has used Arabic from its inception) for at least 15 years. The University of Khartoum set up, more than 10 years ago, a translation and Arabization unit. Now a full-fledged department, it has concentrated almost exclusively on teaching translation, not because the members of faculty concerned were averse to the idea of Arabization but because the university did not have a clear policy with regard to the issue. Opinion is divided, if not about the principle at least about the timing and the preparations needed (although there are those faculty members whose attitude toward Arabization is ambivalent, to say the least.)

There is no emphasis in NIF discourse on the pedagogical arguments which the advocates of Arabization usually advance — e.g., that students learn better in their own language. There is also very little emphasis on the need to improve standards or on the educational and pedagogical problems involved. The stress is rather on the need to root education in the “culture” and “traditions” of Sudan — as interpreted by the NIF. (A new Center for the Islamization of Knowledge has been established at Gezira University!)

The decision to Arabize higher education, in a country characterized by great diversity, begs a great number of questions. Whose culture and traditions? Should there be separate higher institutions for the different national groups in Sudan? Islamization and Arabization of higher education will certainly preclude some Sudanese from access to most higher education institutions in Sudan (this is already the case in the Islamic University of Omdurman and other Islamic institutions): those Sudanese whose command of Arabic is not adequate for study at the higher education level and those who profess a faith other than Islam. [18] Even if the government were to set up new universities to cater to the needs of “minorities,” the result would still be separate but not equal educational opportunities. How could a new university, especially when we take into account the catastrophic economic situation in the country, compete with an institution like the 90-year-old Khartoum University in terms of facilities and standards? The fundamentalists decreed, when the Islamic University of Omdurman was established, that female and male students should be taught separately, despite the cost to the taxpayer. Would the regime agree to similar arrangements for Southern students whose mother tongue is not Arabic at Khartoum University? The share of the south in the total population of Sudan was 25.6 percent in 1983, while its share in student places in higher education was only 0.1 percent in 1987.

Political expediency has dictated the educational policies of the present regime, especially at the higher education level. The decision to increase enrollment will perpetuate the glaring disparities between regions. It will exacerbate disparities in other services as well, such as health. Unemployment among graduates, already a serious problem, will assume catastrophic proportions and the outflow of trained individuals from Sudan will likely accelerate. Funds needed to rehabilitate the older universities will be siphoned off to set up new ones with little prospect of becoming viable in the near future. General education, especially at the primary level, will be another casualty. But all this will not deter the present regime, since it believes that the majority of the new entrants to higher education will be grist for the mill of the National Islamic Front. Renewed clashes in mid-July 1991 between security forces and Khartoum University students resulted in at least one student death and many injuries, and closure of the university for a short period.


[1] The most determined opposition to the regime inside the country is being mounted by the Sudan Railways Workers Union, 3,000 of whose members were dismissed from their jobs. Sudan Update, December 5, 1990, p. 2. The militancy of this section of the working class is partly the result of the catastrophic economic situation in Sudan, and should serve as a warning against sweeping generalizations concerning the role of elites in public life in Sudan. On the Graduates Congress see Afaf Abu Hasabo, Factional Conflict in the Sudanese Nationalist Movement, 1918-1948 (Khartoum: University of Khartoum, Graduate College Monograph Series, 1985.) Saad Eddin Ibrahim cites the work of “voluntary professional associations” in the Sudan as “a dramatic and honorable model” of the kind of endeavor that political parties have failed to perform. See al-Intelligentsia al-‘Arabiyya: al-Muthaqqafun wa al-Sulta (Amman, 1988), p. 19.
[2] According to Gramsci’s famous distinction, these two levels correspond to “direct domination” and “hegemony” respectively. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971).
[3] See “Funding Fundamentalism: The Political Economy of an Islamist State” in this issue.
[4] NIF supporters constitute the largest single group (around 20 percent) among students in the university. The popular uprising that finally toppled Numayri’s regime in 1985 occurred when student groups opposed to the regime and the Muslim fundamentalists united to take control of Khartoum University Students’ Union.
[5] Bahi al-Din Shu‘ayb stresses the elitist nature of all Muslim fundamentalist parties in al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi, May 27, 1991. The associations in question include those of engineers, doctors, university teachers and bankers. The Bar Association in particular is anathema to the NIF, which converted the Bar Association headquarters in Khartoum into a detention center for political opponents, including members of the Bar Association, after the 1989 coup.
[6] Development of Education: 1986-1988, National Report of Sudan, Educational Planning, Ministry of Education, Khartoum, Sudan, 1988, p. 51.
[7] UNESCO, Sudan: An Analysis of the Education and Training System and Recommendations for its Development, vol. 1: Text, May 1988, p. 29.
[8] Ibid. , pp. xviii-xix.
[9] Ibid., p. 74.
[10] An estimated 25 to 30 percent of the higher education budget went, as least through 1987, to financing student board and transportation. Ibid. , p. 93. The ratio of non-teaching university personnel to students at the same period was 1:2. Ibid., p. 87.
[11] This does not mean that policy toward general education is one of benign neglect. Like other government institutions, the Ministry of Education has been purged and some teachers and administrators have been pensioned off. NIF supporters have been placed in key positions in the Ministry of Education. Plans are afoot to “Islamize” general education, but the real problems confronting this sector have not been addressed.
[12] Former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi commended the elections that followed the adoption of the new act saying that “the outcome was proof of maturity and a tendency among university professors toward moderation.“ “Educational Trends in Sudan,” 1988, p. 8.
[13] This is a very ominous sign especially in the light of the introduction, in March 1991, of a new Islamic penal code which, among other provisions, prohibits apostasy (ridda), the renunciation of Islam. “Under these circumstances,” Africa Watch states, “the prohibition on apostasy can easily become an instrument of terror for enforcing religious and political conformity on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” Africa Watch, April 9, 1991, p. 7.
[14] UNESCO, op cit., pp. 66-67.
[15] Ibid., p. 77, 101-102.
[16] The five are al-Sharq University, Wadi al-Nil, al-Fatih min September, Kordofan and African Islamic University. Al-Bashir declared recently that four more universities “would be opened next year, namely the universities of Isma‘il al-Azhari, Imam al-Mahdi, Upper Nile and Bahr al-Ghazal.” Sudan Update, June 4, 1991, p. 3.
[17] There were only two private universities or colleges prior to this decision: Ahfad University College (for women) and Omdurman Ahliyya University. The exception was during the colonial period, when the creation of private schools had overwhelming popular support as an expression of defiance of British colonial power, which was not at all keen on expanding general education. The situation is different now. See “Educational Trends in Sudan,” 1987, pp. 13-14.
[18] Given conditions in the south at the moment, to create two universities, Bahr al-Ghazal and Upper Nile, next year means temporarily housing these universities in Khartoum.

How to cite this article:

Ali Abdalla Abbas "The National Islamic Front and the Politics of Education," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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