Southern Sudanese are voting this week in a referendum that will decide whether the south will secede from Sudan and become a new nation. No matter what the decision is, the authorities in the vast territory face the staggering task of reconstruction after decades of war and neglect. VOA reports from the University of Juba on the challenges facing one institution that will play an important role in the effort.
The University of Juba’s campus consists of a dozen brown-stone buildings, grouped around a clock tower near the center of the city.
The midday sun beats onto the collapsed wooden rafters of the main administration building. It has no roof or windows.
At the nearby lab science building, Professor Simon Monoja proudly displays his ink-stained index finger after casting his vote in the referendum.
He has taught for 30 years at the university. Its story in many ways illustrates the challenges facing the region.
“It has been very difficult, especially the 20 years we spent in Khartoum because when we moved we had no facilities,” said Monoja. “We were teaching under tents.”
Juba University had been operating relatively smoothly, despite the civil war when a military coup in 1989 brought to power a government with strong Islamist-Arabist ideas.
The government soon moved the University to Khartoum, thousands of kilometers to the north, citing security concerns.
Southerners felt this was part of a policy of assimilation of the south, where historical and cultural affinities lay closer to East Africa, a few hundred kilometers to the south.
Monoja says gradually the school adapted to its new surroundings in the Sudanese capital and classes were moved from the tents into prefabricated buildings.
But the campus was located 40 kilometers from downtown Khartoum which made transportation difficult for students and staff.
Resentment increased when the government decreed that all teaching would be done in Arabic. English, the lingua franca of the south, would be abandoned.
“We were forced to be operating in Arabic,” he said. “Although we managed to resist total the Arabicization of the university, our counter-problem was that we had no teaching materials.”
He says faculty members developed their own English teaching materials and continued teaching in English when they could. He says, fortunately, the authorities looked the other way.
A second year student in the Psychology Department at Khartoum, Moris Tumusiime, has come to Juba to vote. He says the southern Sudanese students feel discrimination in race and in language.
“Here [in southern Sudan] we speak English as an official language and there we were forced to speak Arabic which we have not actually gone through [studied] in primary level,” said Tumusiime. “So it became very difficult for us to catch up with the students who are there.”
Eventually it was decided to move the university back to Juba; but this also posed obstacles.
“When we went to Khartoum in 1989, we had only five colleges,” said Monoja. “But, over the years, the number of faculties developed to 16. So it became a problem moving back because the campus here was so small.”
To date, nearly half of the departments have returned to Juba, helped by the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan and international donors. In July, 2,600 students registered for classes here.
Monoja says the biggest challenge has been the lack of facilities. But he notes the government has already begun rebuilding the campus and hopes this will intensify after the referendum.
He says another challenge is staffing. Many northerners who taught at the Khartoum campus did not want to move south.
Officials hope southern Sudanese living abroad will return to help out. But Monoja says many of them are hesitating.
“Many of them are still waiting for what will happen after the referendum,” he said. “So everybody is still waiting and [to] see. But we are hoping that after this referendum, if the south secedes, many of them are going to come and maybe assist us and join us in the teaching profession.”
Monoja notes that reconstruction began after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south, or CPA, was signed in 2005. Although much remains to be done the progress gives him confidence.
“I personally am optimistic that the South, given the last six years since the signing of the CPA, and what has happened in the south within those six years, I am really hopeful and very optimistic that the south will be making it,” said Monoja.
Officials here say they desperately need to expand educational institutions to train teachers, health workers, civil servants, lawyers and the other professionals that the south so desperately needs.
The problem is that other sectors of society are also crying out for personnel and funds.
With limited resources, they will have to address these tremendous demands, whether independence is chosen or not.