South Sudan’s University of Juba has suspended a renowned academic and writer from his teaching position over an opinion article on the issue of states and their boundaries – a controversial issue that has yet to be addressed by South Sudanese leaders before a Unity government can be formed. Taban Lo Liyong’s article, the university said, amounted to “incitement of ethnic hatred” and is “bringing the name of the university…into disrepute.”
This action is emblematic of the government’s repression of basic freedom of expression, where any form of dissent or criticism of government policy is dangerous.
In recent years, South Sudan’s universities have taken steps to limit political freedoms on campus, requiring students and staff to obtain permission from the National Security Service (NSS) for planned activities. Undercover NSS agents are also said to pose as students to keep tabs on critical voices.
Lo Liyong is not the first academic to be silenced. In January 2017, two academic staff were arrested and detained by the National Security Service (NSS) for leading staff protests and salary negotiations.
In October 2015, Dr. Luka Biong, Associate Professor of Economics, was suspended from Juba university after organizing a public dialogue on the controversial creation of new states by President Kiir. Threatened by the NSS, he fled the country and remains in exile.
The same year, the late Dr. Leonzio Angole Onek, former Dean of the College of Applied and Industrial Sciences at the University of Juba, was picked up by armed NSS officers from his faculty residence. He was accused of supporting rebels and held in solitary confinement but released five months later without charges.
The intimidation and harassment have led to self-censorship and have a corrosive effect on research and publication.
Ensuring freedom of expression and the academic freedom to test and contest ideas, however, is essential to building South Sudan’s universities as bastions and safe places for learning and intellectual exchange. “How else would you be able to be innovative and build the minds of the future generation in South Sudan?” the late Dr. Onek had pointed out when I met him in May 2019.
The university should immediately reverse Liyong’s suspension and ensure students and faculty can engage in uninhibited dialog on matters of public importance.