War-torn Sudan is one of the 30% of countries in the world with the lowest levels of academic freedom, where academics and students frequently face widespread attacks and where universities are denied admission. their autonomy, according to Scholars at Risk (DAS), a global network that advocates for the rights of academics – and students – to think and express their ideas without fear.
In its annual report report, Free to think: 2023For the period July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023, SAR documented a total of 409 attacks in 66 countries.
According to Rob Quinn, executive director of SAR, these attacks occurred in a context of authoritarian entrenchment and democratic backsliding. “Governments have increasingly used their regulatory power to restrict higher education and limit university autonomy, academic freedom, and free speech on campus,” Quinn said in a brief to News from the academic world.
The report highlights that while most attacks were carried out by the police and military, non-state actors, including organized militant groups, were also involved.
In Africa, attacks on academics and students, as well as the destruction of university facilities, have occurred in Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria , Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. .
Sudan and Tunisia
For example, in the context of the civil war that broke out in Sudan in April this year between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), universities were not only closed, but also fell victim to widespread looting and bombings. In one case, the library archives of the Muhammad Omar Bashir Center for Sudanese Studies were looted, resulting in a fire that caused extensive damage.
“The archives contained a vast collection of irreplaceable documents relating to Sudanese politics, history and culture,” the report said.
During the period under review, the repression of dissent and the spread of political intolerance in Tunisia led the scientific council of the faculty of letters, arts and human sciences of the University of Manouba to withdraw Habib Kazdaghli the title of professor emeritus for his project to participate in an international conference in Paris with Israeli academics from April 16 to 18, 2023.
On April 11, Kazdaghli, a historian and former dean of the faculty, was informed of the decision to strip him of his title for having organized meetings behind the scenes of the conference to discuss the normalization of relations with Israel.
According to the report, in 2014, Kazdaghli received the SAR Courage to Think Award for his academic work on the contemporary rights of minorities, including Tunisia’s Jewish community, which made him a target for extremists in the country and beyond.
On October 29, 2022, Al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group in Somalia, carried out deadly car bomb attacks against the Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education. At least 121 people were killed and others injured. While claiming responsibility for the attack, the militant group accused education officials of allowing the use of Christian-based curricula in Somali educational institutions.
In Ethiopia, on September 13 last year, military forces carried out drone strikes on Mekelle University, leaving one person injured and some university facilities damaged. According to the report, the attack occurred as fighting resumed in a two-year-old conflict at the time between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governs the Tigray region.
In Cameroon, on July 8 last year, armed separatist fighters entered the University of Buea campus with machetes and disrupted exams, kidnapping an exam supervisor. The students reported that the armed men ordered everyone to lie on the floor and asked the proctor to leave the room with them.
At the time of publication of this report, SAR had no information on the status of the removed exam supervisor.
Academic freedom was hampered at the University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo when, on August 18 and 19, 2022, higher education officials banned Dr. Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize winner and possible candidate for the presidential election of 2023, to give two public lectures at the University of Kisangani.
Similarly, in Algeria, higher education officials on July 5 last year banned Algerian academics from attending academic conferences in Morocco or publishing research in Moroccan journals.
“This decision follows the publication of allegedly anti-Algerian articles in Al BahitMoroccan journal of legal and judicial studies, as well as the tense relations between the Moroccan and Algerian governments,” the report states.
Highlighting the violence and disappearances of academics and students, the report cites the incident at Arthur Jarvis University in eastern Nigeria when, on July 19, 2023, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Josephine Etim Edet, a university student. Several other students were injured while escaping the gunmen, the report said.
Although Edet was taken to a nearby forest after the attack, she was rescued by police two days later during a shootout with the kidnappers. According to SAR, this attack occurred in a context in which kidnappers frequently target university students in exchange for money.
In South Africa, on January 6, 2023, unidentified assailants attempted to assassinate the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Sakhela Buhlungu. Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, was killed in the attack outside the vice-chancellor’s home. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for Buhlungu’s efforts to combat corruption at the university.
Incidents related to threats against students’ freedom of expression were reported in various African countries during the period under review. On December 5, 2023, Kenyan police shot dead Machakos University student Brilliant Anusu during a protest.
Students were protesting the lack of security on campus following a violent criminal attack on a student.
Furthermore, in Zimbabwe, on October 17, 2022, police arrested six students who were preparing to deliver a petition to the management of Great Zimbabwe University. The petition, according to the report, was related to the increase in tuition fees at the university and the students were taken to court and charged with criminal nuisance and ordered to pay a fine.
Unfortunately, although students are frequently victims of violations, the report cites one incident in which students themselves violated academic freedom.
In this regard, on July 8, 2023, Betungura Bewatte, a law student at Uganda Christian University, was killed during violent clashes between supporters of different parties during the rival student government’s campaigns at Makerere University . According to the report, Bewatte died from injuries sustained after being stabbed with a broken bottle.
Nonetheless, students continued to experience violence at the hands of state actors, such as in the case of Malawi where, on September 23, 2022, police responding to a student protest at the University of Malawi fired tear gas at students and university residences after students presented a petition against the university’s decision to schedule a five-month vacation.
In Kenya, on March 20, 2023, police shot dead William Mayange, a student at Maseno University in Kisumu, during a protest. Students had gathered on the main campus as part of the nationwide protests and blocked a road near the campus.
“Although it is unclear what sparked the clashes when the police exhausted their tear gas reserves, fired live ammunition at the students and many students were injured,” the report notes.
Indeed, killings, violence, kidnappings, wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions, loss of academic positions and travel restrictions imposed on dissident academics and students continue to threaten the foundations of democratic societies and social progress in Africa. and beyond.
As Quinn pointed out, during the year under review, government repression against academics and students in many countries around the world has not only suppressed freedom of expression, but also reinforced a culture of fear and self-censorship in academia.
The report, published on October 31, will be officially launched on November 9.