Spaces of Resilience in South Sudan: Higher Education in a New State’s Foundations

At Juba University, the lush green Jebel Kujur looms in the near distance through steam rising from the saturated land that mixes with wisps of cloud, forming a veil over the university. The last of the sky’s rain falls on tin shed stalls set out in the grounds by recently graduated students, in the red earth, with the green mountain as their backdrop. One sells refreshments and another is a print shop. The students running the shop who are still looking for work support other students with printing and photocopying, resourcefully using a laptop and phones to run a few printers with scanners for a very low fee. There is a community feel as we walk around the law school and politics department. Upstairs in the cafeteria we sip black spiced ginger coffee, a Sudanese drink. Outside in the hallway of the law school, next to one of the lecture rooms rainwater leaks through a hole in the roof.

Throughout my time in South Sudan, I often heard people saying that in everyday life there was little to no visibility of public services in return for the high taxes people pay; whether infrastructure, healthcare, education or livelihood support.

I heard this from a range of people during my time in Juba, from staff at the hotel, our driver, to other local researchers and university staff. The university staff seem engrained in the fabric here, not just as teachers but as stewards to the student community, experienced political figures who have lived through and witnessed the country’s struggles, both with Sudan and latterly with itself. They know well the value of these spaces from which they advocate, provide guidance, and publish papers, often working through weekends on other research projects to attract more resources and research opportunities to the university. All of this they do alongside acknowledging that government support for higher education has almost completely ceased to exist, with investment in overall education diminishing more broadly since the onset of the civil war in December 2013.

Before this, annual education spending by the state was still small, at between five and eight percent of the national resource envelope. By 2021 much of the funding was coming from international donors, and was predominantly aimed at ‘basic and secondary’ education. To address the lack of government allocation of funds and the consequent cycle of educational gap, international organisations have partnered with the UN on forward-thinking programmes as part of an integrated approach to peacebuilding to try to sustain primary and secondary education. At the same time, international funders held on to the notion that if their funding to the new state’s leaders was sustained, it might eventually filter through to areas like education, in turn helping to enhance the legitimacy of South Sudan’s leaders in the eyes of the public thus rebuilding some part of a social contract. In reality however, state funding did not arrive under the new transitional government and higher education continued to face fundamental resource and access challenges, with groups marginalised by costs; including women, low-income and geographically ‘out-of-state’ students travelling to attend university in the urban centres.

Beyond the question of resource and cost, had education become a foremost priority of the new state with the help of international donors, how could a main pillar of social cohesion have materialised in an equal way? In a way that transcended the many social and political conditions that pre-existed and were consequently aggravated by the conflict? This kind of delivery would have involved policies that, for example, could navigate the intersection between societal norms and embedded inequalities that were shaping access to education prior to 2011. This would have involved engaging the women and girls who were challenging the existing gender norms restricting their access to higher education.

As I walk around the building, in the grounds and in the cafeteria, many of the small and large groups of students having discussions or working together on their papers are young men. Whilst these university spaces are ones of resilience, they are also spaces that are partial and fragile and require more intentional policymaking, otherwise they risk continuing cementing non-inclusion and inequality for women and girls.

Layered into this, how was education to be conceived by people during the upheaval of state formation and alongside the range of other pressing social issues that developed after 2011? A decade of civil war, two outbursts of severe country-wide violence, a constant reshuffling of public figures and ministers and latterly the formation of the Revitalised-Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGONU) in February 2020.

In the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement (R-ARCSS) there were provisions addressing both access to education for conflict-affected groups and transparent and accountable management of revenues for public services by R-TGONU. A 2022 PeaceRep National Survey on Perceptions of Peace in South Sudan, whilst not generalisable or reflective of the country as a whole,* suggested that 79% of respondents had little or no confidence in the ability of the R-TGONU to implement the overall agreement; leaving education somewhat lost among a range of issues.

Around the building, there is a reassurance in the strong characters here, their presence provides a sense of assured calmness. We meet a former local governor and as we tell them we are here looking at local peace processes, the conversation briefly turns to the election planned for 2024. They reflect on the challenges of going on political campaign in some of South Sudan’s most remote local areas. Figures like the former-governor-turned-lecturer and the collective student presence help create a feeling of civic space. Yet, this space is also not immune to the pervasive nature of conflict cycles in the country, the effects of which have a reach that extends over these walls and into the grounds.

I meet another lecturer who provides a stark reminder of this. They tell me that as part of the practice of misspent public funds and the sidelining of public services like education, countryside conflict cycles are continuously sustained by political elites as they send trucks of weapons out of Juba to their affiliated ethnic groups and militias in the countryside. The recipients of these small arms are often the same age as the students here. A part of South Sudan’s youth demographic is being mobilised by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO), and by the other armed parties, including the SPLA. The lecturer describes the practice as a normalised part of the fundamentally disjointed politics here in the capital. They ask me how we can we talk of a peace process and elections while these practices are taking place, and when at the same time part of Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) opposition party walks out of parliament? This had happened on 18 September 2023, just a few days before my arrival.

The lecturer tells me that when they visit the countryside and ask groups where they got the weapons, they reply, ‘Don’t ask us, you in Juba gave them to us’. Not only does this elite practice drive ethnic divides and deep-seated inter-communal tensions, the ethnic divisions they fuel are also dividing youth more broadly, preventing them from unifying, associating and working collectively, according to a 2018 Conciliation Resources (CR) report. In the CR report, University of Juba students said that not only did small arms ‘reduce youth productivity’, but that the ethnic divisions these arms fuel also permeate university spaces, where they have ‘forced [youth] to align their views with youth from the same ethnic group’ fuelling overall mistrust between student groups and shaping how they group and communicate. For those who cannot go to university or choose not to, ethnic divisions also generated ‘perceived inequality’ between different ethnic youth bases around issues such as accessing employment. Unsurprisingly, peacebuilding officials in the country have argued that part of reducing elites influence over youth should involve creation of sustainable livelihoods.

Reflecting on the lecturer’s story, it seems clear that the effects of cycles of violence can reach into these educational spaces. Beyond these walls, there is also a wider truth involved in the kind of signalling by elites that results from the behaviours described by the lecturer, both in the environment these small arms practices foster and the civic perception this helps to create. Our PeaceRep survey found that 26% of respondents viewed security as the second most important issue for R-TGONU after implementation of the R-ARCSS peace agreement. There was then a significant gap between security and other priorities, with only four percent of people in the survey viewing education as being among a set of ‘second tier’ priorities.

Driving back through Juba, small white rusted lorries carrying blue tanks labelled ‘clean drinking water’ rock back and forth as they navigate the rocky surfaces of the roads and side streets, rolling over dried out copper-coloured riverbeds, their water dripping into the dust as they blend into the flow. Many of the best road surfaces here lead to and run around government sites; the main military barracks, the national security headquarters, the presidential palace and the central bank. Bags of charcoal stacked precariously stand in the middle of the road, leaning against each other in the rush to form a makeshift roundabout. Hardened-looking international security personnel drive a giant white United Nations lorry that seems to float through the stream, towering over the rush, protruding from the flow.


Robert Wilson is a Research Fellow and Policy Co-ordinator with PeaceRep. His research explores local peace processes, examining the impact of inter-group dynamics on processes and the agency of traditionally marginalised local groups.

* The survey randomly sampled urban, rural, and displaced populations in the vicinities of Aweil, Bentiu, Bor, Juba, Malakal, Pibor, Wau, and Yei; so the survey can be viewed as generalisable to these locations rather than the wider country.

Explore all PeaceRep South Sudan research.