Schools an ideological battleground in Sudanese strife, scholar says

Oct 27, 2010

Education is often heralded as an engine for peace and prosperity, but in the fifty-year civil war that has gripped Sudan, schools have played an important role in deepening the country's divisions. That's the conclusion of Anders Breidlid, a professor of international education and development at Oslo University College. His research on education in Sudan is published in the November issue of Comparative Education Review.

Since taking power in northern Sudan in 1989, the Arab-dominated National Congress Party (NCP) "targeted the Ministry of Education to conduct their 'Islamic crusade,'" Breidlid writes. "President al-Bashir announced in 1990 that the national education system on all levels should be based on Islamic values." Arabic was decreed as the medium of instruction, and texts took on a strong Arab orientation, with few, if any, references to South Sudanese history, religion, and culture.

The Arabization of the education system alienated the people of South Sudan, who are largely Christian or adherents of indigenous religions. Interviews conducted between 2002 and 2004 by Breidlid and his team of researchers capture the depth of southern resentment. "Recently [the Khartoum government] said that they wanted to impose Islamic education on us with no concessions to Christians," one interviewee said. "I told them, if they do, this is why the war broke out in the South. You know that this community doesn't belong to the Muslim community! We are supposed to have rights. We are talking bitterly to them. … We have the right to practice our Christian faith! I just told them: 'If you want to kill me, it's OK, but I want to die as a Christian.'"

Breidlid argues that the educational discourse in liberated areas in the South was ideologically different from NCP's Islamic education discourse. Southern schools pursued "a modernist, secular educational curriculum and used a local language (or English) as the medium of instruction for the first 4 years of primary school," Breidlid writes. English became the medium of instruction from grade 5 onward. The curriculum stressed science and a more Western perspective. While this shared educational vision served to unite disparate factions within Southern Sudan, it deepened the rift between the North and South.

"While the southern schools are not necessarily abused for war propaganda purposes, they signal an epistemological position that is in conflict with the Islamic educational discourse in the North," Breidlid writes. "It is the complexity of this situation, where the educational discourses reflect the political discourses on the macro level, that makes the North-South conflict so intractable and that dampers hope for a complete resolution to the conflict and a united Sudan. These are the issues that southerners will have to consider when they vote in the referendum scheduled for [January] 2011."

Explore further: Election surprises tend to erode trust in government

More information: Anders Breidlid, "Sudanese Images of the Other: Education and Conflict in Sudan." Comparative Education Review: 54:4

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