Monday, July 13, 2020

Rebranding of the University of Juba

By John A. Akec

Eagles inspire humans in many ways. They soar up in the sky and defy the gravity to steal a broad view of the earth. We can only look and wish we were eagles to enjoy such a feat. What’s more, as popular story goes, when an eagle hits the age of 40 years, they go up the mountains and spent months shedding their old feathers, and putting on new once, before coming down invigorated to live for another 30 years. Biologists dismiss this story as a myth. But nevertheless, it’s a story that has inspired many a CEO for millennia.

The University of Juba has already passed its 40th year since the teaching began in October 1977. And it is absolutely important to ask ourselves the hardest questions: how are we being perceived by our stakeholders and the general public? In other words, how does our brand name stands today, and how may we maintain our brand name long into the future?

Foremost, we need to remind ourselves that a good brand name is not what you think you are, but what your public believes you really are, be that good or bad. And since our inception, the University of Juba has stood for “Excellence, and Relevance”, and we still do stand for those important values. Yet in changing world and context, we had to rebrand and find a new battle cry some six years ago. Namely, “Inventing the future, transforming society.

Gone are the days when our prime mission was to train civil servants for the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan. Now, our mission in the context of an independent South Sudan has changed and grown to encompass, among other things, a full commitment to “national economic empowerment and social transformation through provision of quality education, pursuit of relevant research, promotion of innovation, facilitation of technology transfer, revival of national cultural heritage, protection of the environment, and service to community.”

This broad mission statement, however, does not mean we want to become all things to all people, but to stand to be counted when tackling pertinent national socioeconomic challenges through research and innovation; as well as providing high quality education to our students, and being of service to the communities in which we are embedded. It should not be a mere  lips service, but a lived reality.

The above goals need to be reflected in our brand. Our brand image and our actions should be in complete harmony.  In the age of social media which has empowered and placed the public in the centre of power, if an institution of higher learning like us does not give them a good story  to to tell, they will give us their own story reflexive of how how they perceive our brand. And that calls for universities to have activity and consistent web presence.

As pertaining to maintaining our image, we have embarked on improving the looks and feel of our campus’ landscape, our entrance gates, our lecture halls, our libraries, our laboratories, and our student spaces. However, we did not stop at the improvement of the physical environment but have contracted KAVIBE, a Kampala-based branding company, to critique the design of our website and propose improvements, review and revamp our logo, and design for us the material for marketing and advocacy. These include University prospectus, flyers, and pull ups.

Yet more importantly, we as University of Juba need to stand for something. This will position us high in the minds of our prospective students and their future employers relative to other institutions of tertiary education, nationally and regionally. We can do this by identifying areas of strength and comparative advantage and strive to excel in them.

The question is: do we want to be known for our high quality research and teaching in engineering, in medicine, in law, in economics, in business, in education, in agriculture, in music and arts, in urban planning, in mathematics, in sciences, in computing? In one or two or all of above? And when we say we are “inventing the future and transforming society”, does our actions match our words?

I do believe that the answer lies in the action of each dean, head department, and lay academic. In short, it depends on all of us making our own contributions and pulling our institutional boat into the shores we want.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Adapting Our Teaching Methods to the 'New Normal'

The current Covid-19 pandemic has led to closure of schools and universities in most but few countries. As a consequence, there is a temporary loss of education for 70% of the learners globally, accordingly to recent a UNESCO report. The WHO also warned its member states that the pandemic is going to be here for sometimes, and that countries need to learn to live with it. Thus, by implication, universities are required to adapt their teaching methods to allow distance and online learning to take place, if they are to remain viable in the age of lockdowns and social distancing imposed by the pandemic. Hence, this ‘new normal’ does place an enormous pressure on the University of Juba’s staff to rise up to the challenge. Our academic year was scheduled to start in May 2020, but was suspended indefinitely due to Coivd-19 lockdown that came into effect in March 2020.

After much waiting without a clear direction from the government’s High Level Taskforce on Covid-19, the Deans’Board at the University of Juba met on Friday 29th May 2020 for consultations, and agreed a road map and options for providing alternative education to our students through a variety of strategies and approaches. These include but not limited to smaller group face-to-face teaching, halving instructor-students contact time, provision of distance learning through a variety of online learning digital platforms such as MOOCs (massive open online courses), and distribution of learning materials electronically. Furthermore, we need to consider broadcasting of our lectures through radio and television, and the use of internet video conferencing and communication technologies such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Zoom as substitutes to face-to-face teacher-and-student interaction. A technical working group has been established to assess our institutional readiness, identify opportunities and challenges, survey different digital learning platforms available and to make their recommendations to advise the University on technological solutions that can be adapted that can work in the South Sudan context.

And there is no question that our academic and administrative staff are going to be obliged to fuly embrace communication technologies in their teaching and day-today-work in order to keep their jobs. It will be a do-or-die situation for those who have not until now embraced the digital technologies as part of their professional productivity toolkit. The University of Juba Administration will do whatever possible to assist those facing challenges in integrating communication technology into their teaching by providing some training. However, individual efforts to climb the digital ladder will be inevitable if one wants to succeed.

Furthermore, we would like the public to know that our short and medium term strategy for reopening the University will be to reduce the physical contact hours significantly in order to reduce the risk of spread of coronavirus. For example, a 2-hour lecture will be halved to 1 hour during which students are given handouts or instructor prepared notes, and are then quickly taken through by the instructor through the main points, and given opportunity to ask questions. The students then go away to study and explore the subject on their own at home, and communicate any further questions to the instructor by email or WhatsApp or any agreed electronic communication channel.

Finally, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of delivering education in the era of Covid-19, my colleagues and I at the University of Juba are thinking that it is an opportunity for universities and the country to embrace digital technologies in teaching and at work. And so, the way forward is to improve the digital infrastructure at our institutions by devoting more resources and budgets for that purpose, and by reaching partnerships with relevant bodies in the public, private, and NGO sectors.

Education is the light into a better future for the millions of our children and young people. And hence, it cannot wait. The ‘new normal’ is to learn to thrive despite the hazards posed by the pandemic to our world. All that is required of us is to shift gears and up the game.

I am pretty certain that we will manage just fine.

Monday, May 04, 2020

South Sudan: Rethinking Covid-19 Response

By John Apuruot Akec*

Given the speed of the virus, there is a need to review our national Covid-19 response strategies in order to accelerate our readiness and gain a head start on the virus.

Just in one month, our country has moved from 4 Covid-19 cases to 49 cases, and still increasing. And judging by the steep rise in numbers of Covid-19 cases elsewhere, such as seen in Somalia, where the number of cases shot up sharply from just 4 cases and no deaths at the beginning of April, to 722 cases and 32 deaths by the first week of May 2020; one can estimate that South Sudan could see the number of cases rising to 4,600 by June, and possibly 460,000 by August or September 2020 (if ever we are able to test and report them). This calls for a pause and rethinking of our current strategies for combating coronavirus pandemic.

Firstly, in order to measure the level of prevalence of the virus in the community, there is a clear need to move quickly to widespread testing of at least 500 cases per week at selected clinics and primary health care centres across Juba city. This was agreed by the High Level Taskforce on Covid-19 some three weeks ago. Once the 500 tests per week target has been attained, the testing needs to be expanded to include screening of healthcare workers, UN agency employees, and members of the organised forces. This will ensure that members of the above institutions that are actively engaged in providing essential services during the lockdown, do not themselves become the vehicles of transmission of coronavirus in the community. The realisation of widespread testing calls for mobilisation of resources for purchasing vital equipment, expanding lab testing capacity, provision of protective equipment for frontline health sector workers, and and hiring of additional healthcare staff.

Lack of equipment and personnel may be partly blamed for the delays. However, chronic institutional incapacity, challenges in the allocation of scarce resources, and questions regarding transparency within and between key stakeholders could be undermining the trust in and effectiveness of the High Level Taskforce. Moving forward, these hindrances require addressing in order to remove the bottlenecks.

Second, there is a need to develop clear guidelines for the management of positive cases and quarantining regimes and protocols in a way that speaks to our different scenarios and circumstances. Current quarantining practices involving compulsory removal of positive cases for isolation away from their families are creating fear and stigma in the community. Increasingly, people are getting discouraged to report Covid-19 cases, and many suspected individuals tend to reject testing for fear of social consequences and fear of mistreatment in the hands of authorities.  It is becoming more apparent that current procedures are a result of adoption, in ad hoc manner, of quarantining procedures that are nothing more than mechanical mimicry of what the developed and highly resourced countries are pursuing, while stopping short of transparency culture prevalent in those jurisdictions that are being uncritically emulated.

Third, preparedness in terms of raising testing capacity, and capacity to treat critical cases, is on standstill. At best, some preparations may be taking place behind the scene in an atmosphere bereft of transparency. This is a point of departure from the western systems that are being copied. Citizens and stakeholders deserve to be furnished with all facts on how the country is preparing to fight the pandemic, including highlighting areas of challenges.

Finally, coordination and distribution of roles (the role of High Level Taskforce on Covid-19, technical committees of the Taskforce, the Ministry of Health, other line ministries involved, NGOs, business community, academia, and civil society all need to be clearly defined. While contributions are streaming in cash and in kind, few know how much has been contributed overall, and whether or not there are gaps in provisions.

In addition, the High Level Taskforce currently spends much time approving the daily cargo flights for different organisations, instead of delegating that role to the relevant public institutions, NGOs, and civil society. Left unchecked, the work of the Taskforce could unwittingly combine the roles of the lawmaker, prosecutor, judge, and jury. The role of a government body such as High Level Taskforce on Covid-19 is to make high level policies and delegate their implementation to executive agencies within and outside the government, which is in line with the principle of separation of powers. Furthermore, social policies requiring empathy and compassion are best outsourced to civil society, organised interest groups, and non-profit sector for implementation.

To conclude, the work of High Level Taskforce on Covid-19 could be improved immensely by considering and removing the bottlenecks enumerated above.  

*Professor John Apuruot Akec is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, South Sudan; and the Chair of University of Juba Covid-19 Response Committee.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lets’ marshal our collective resources to combat COVID-19 pandemic in South Sudan

By John Apuruot Akec*

“My heart is in Africa. I am worried. The only reason why the reported cases of coronavirus disease in Africa is low now is most likely because there has not been wide testing of people. The disease is going to bite hard on the continent. I see dead bodies in the street of Africa,” Melinda Gates told CNN’s interviewer two weeks ago. And she is right to be worried.

For once, Mrs. Gates is worried like countless other voices are, because of the well known dire state of health care and social protection systems in most African countries. These weak systems will not easily cope with the pandemic of scale of COVID-19 that has overwhelmed even the health care services of the more technologically advanced and financially resourced countries. And worried we must all be.
The recent scenes of people having to store the bodies of their loved ones at home for days, before their burial in Ecuador in Latin America, as well as the long queues at the cemeteries due to COVID-19 fatalities, serves as a horrific warning to us all about what might be in store for many countries of Sub-Sahara Africa, if nothing is done to prepare these countries to fend off the pandemic.
And when COVID-19 finally breaks out in Africa, as Mrs. Gates, the World Health Organisation, the UN, and analysts fear is going to materialize in the next few weeks and months, the fatalities from COVID-19 pandemic will be like nothing we have experienced in our lifetime.

The new SARS-coronavirus-COV2, shortly referred to as COVID-19, was first reported in Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. By Sunday 19th April 2020, it has spread to 208 countries and territories, infecting 2,331,099 and causing the death 160,952 people globally, and still counting.
But the history of pandemics is rife with scary tales and horrible statistics.

For example, by 2012 HIV/Aid claimed 35 million lives in its 30 years of spread, mostly in Africa. HIV/Aids epidemics was preceded by the Spanish influenza that broke out in the US in 1918, just at the end of the First World War. By 1920, it had infected 500 million individuals and killed 50 million people globally, three times the casualties of the the First World War. Before that, was the Third Plague in 1855 that killed 10 million in India. This was also preceded by Black Death which ravaged the world for 7 years from 1346 to 1353, and killed a staggering 200 million people, equivalent to half of the population of the world which was 400 million at the time. Hence, we have every reason to be scared, but above all, to act in order to reduce fatalities in our country. 

Poor infrastructure, weak bureaucracy, and undeveloped health care system in South Sudan will pose multiple threats to lives in the face of impending COVID-19 pandemic. According to credible sources, the number of beds in Juba Teaching Hospital does not exceed 40. That 90 percent of health care in the country is provide by NGOs and private clinics. Many of these private clinics are under resourced in terms of equipment, staffing, and bed capacity.

Every year, universities graduate over 100 medical doctors, but very few of these graduates are employed by the Ministry of Health due to inadequate budgetary allocation and poor planning. And those few employed by the Ministry of Health are underpaid, and eventually get poached by international NGOs that offer better remuneration. Donor medical assistance to the country is channeled through NGOs because of the perceived incapacity of public heath care system to manage funds and deliver services to donors’ satisfaction. If COVID-19 breaks out, neither the Ministry of Health, nor private clinics, nor NGOs will be equipped enough to manage and treat serious cases that require hospitalisation. The consequences will be catastrophic for the country.

Following the increasing concern about the threat of pandemic, South Sudan took a series of preventive measures since 23rd March 2020, that included: closing the Juba International Airport to international passenger flights, closing of international border crossings to movement of people except cargo. Subsequent circulars followed which included the reduction of official working hours by half, closure of shops with exception of those selling food, medicines, or fuel. As of 14 April 2020, air and land passenger transportation between capital Juba and states, and between states and other states were suspended.

On the other hand, the University of Juba has formed a COVID-19 Response Committee with the goal of contributing to national response against the pandemic. The Committee made a presentation to the High Level Taskforce on COVID-19 on 7th April 2020 expressing University of Juba position, and making several recommendations to government Taskforce on how the national response to COVID-19 can be improved.

The first recommendation is that lockdown policies need to be informed by South Sudan’s unique socioeconomic conditions, cultural values, and demographic patterns. For example, the fact that 70% of South Sudanese population are below 30 years of age, and that 81% of our citizens live in rural areas can be used to design targeted epidemic control policies. The University of Juba has undertaken a rapid socio-economic impact of COVID-19 study, and will soon share the results with the High Level Taskforce.

Second recommendation is that social distancing and lockdown policies are mere mechanisms to delay the transmission of COVID-19 in the country and “flatten the epidemic curve.” But these measures are not the only means of combating the pandemic. Inevitably, the rates of infections are going to rise; and if our health care system cannot support large number of the critically ill patients, hundreds and thousands of lives can be lost.

The University of Juba preliminary position paper urged High Level Taskforce on COVID-19 to mobilise adequate resources as early as possible for tracing, testing, and treating the cases when the outbreak occurs. The report estimates that South Sudan needs at least USD 60 million to prepare for the outbreak. This preparedness budget includes building makeshift emergency hospital facilities with a capacity of 1000 beds, 1000 ventilators, 100 intensive care units, 3000 protective gears for frontline health workers, among others. It also included the cost of hiring 50 medical consultants, 300 mid-level and junior doctors, 500 nurses, 200 lab and support technicians, and 50 staff for managing COVID-19 emergency response centre.

Thirdly, that the government needs to mobilise all government ministries, commissions, UN agencies, international and national NGOs, business community, academia, and civil society; and pool the available resources, as well as repurposing all institutional capabilities in order to jointly fight the virus.

Here, the High Level Taskforce is urged to pursue this goal with vision, heightened sense of purpose, transparency, and urgency. Right now, every organisation and institution in South Sudan, including international NGOs, development partners, and UN agencies are pursuing their separate COVID-19 responses. This will lead to duplication of efforts and waste of resources, while achieving nothing significant.

As Mark Twain once noted, the best way to get ahead is to get started. For COVID-19, a time wasted in inaction means thousands of lives will be needlessly lost. We have seen how in the most resourced countries, government foresight and taking action in a timely manner, contributes immensely to reducing the death toll due to the pandemic. We wish we acted earlier, is a common sigh of regret heard, time and again, coming from key political decision-makers around the globe. We do not want to be on that list.

Thankfully, it has been agreed last week by the High Level Taskforce on COVID-19 to divide Juba into 5 zones, and that in each zone, selected clinics will test patients showing flu-like symptoms for COVID-19. This will allow the country to test up to 500 cases of COVID-19 in one week. This will assure us there are no active COVID-19 cases in the community, or otherwise. Let us then mobilise human resources to implement this plan. Next, let us open a COVID-19 account that will be prudently and transparently managed so that the citizens, businesses, and well wishers can deposit their contributions towards the response in that account. Next, let us ask for medical doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and laypersons from all walks of life, be that in the country or outside the country, to register their interest in joining the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. 

The University of Juba is going to get that organised during this passing week. Next, let us agree on the salary and financial support package for our health workers who will be the foot-soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Furthermore, lets us think about health workers and medical personnel’s protective gear, their mobility, their accommodation, their sustenance, and the equipment they will need to successfully manage the deadly and contagious virus. And equally important, let us think about how we are going to materially support the hundreds of volunteers that we will need to assist us to defeat the epidemic. In other words, thoughtful, targeted, comprehensive, and prompt action will speak louder than words.

 *Professor John Apuruot Akec is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, South Sudan; and chairman of University of Juba COVID-19 Response Committee.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Expanding Our Nation’s Lab Testing Capacity in the Era of Pandemics

By John A. Akec*

The Future Begins Now, is the name of an Ohio-based US organisation that offers scholarships to young people. This is an echo of what was attributed to Mahatma Gandhi  that: the future begins in the presence. This saying makes great sense and applies to many contexts. The future prosperity of nations and individuals depends on the type and quality of investments they commit their resources to (in form of time and money) at the present. That is why our new motto at the University of Juba is: “inventing the future, transforming society.” The motto is a constant reminder to us that universities worldwide, not just in our country, are there to assist their nations navigate their ways into a safer and prosperous harbors that are still unknown. 

With the current Coronavirus pandemic, nations with lab capability are assisting their governments face the challenge posed by covid-19 to their populations. South Korea, for example, is among the countries that has been praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its success in reducing community transmission of the virus through massive programme of testing, isolation, and tracking of the suspected cases. Thanks to South Korean past investment in its education system in the 1960s that has prepared their country to face up to the threats of covid-19 virus in 2020.  

The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, has urged all countries to test, and treat every case of coronavirus. “No nation can fight coronavirus blind-folded,” he warned. This is one of the worst pandemics in living memory since the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918. The Spanish flu that followed at the heel of the end of the First World War I (WWI) is reported to had infected 500 million and taking the lives of 50 million people worldwide, three times the number of deaths in the WWI. Hopefully, coronavirus will be contained before it reaches anything like Spanish influenza infection and death rates.

A report that was authored by epidemiologists from Imperial College and London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and published this week, warned that the pandemic could result in death of more than 250,000 people in the UK alone if serious measures are not taken to slow down the spread of coronavirus through the population. Amongst report’s recommendations included isolating people with cough and temperature at home for 14 days, quarantining of all members of families if one member shows the symptoms of the virus, social distancing through reduction of normal social contacts by three-quarters, social isolation of over 70s, and closure of schools and universities. 

As we go to press, there are 691,867 confirmed cases and 32,980 recorded deaths worldwide, which works out as 4.6 percent of confirmed cases. This virus is truly catastrophic and has stretched to the breaking point the capacity of even the well resourced of countries.

 Bill Gates has warned that the spread of the virus in Africa could be prove devastating. South Sudan is amongst a score of African countries that the WHO has categorised as lacking the capacity to test its population for coronavirus. This is shocking, but not surprising. We as a country had not done much to prepare our health system for minor epidemics, let alone the pandemics of covid-19 scale.

The University of Juba has joined the fight against COVID-19 pandemic by setting up a technical committees of experts and stakeholders on coronavirus that will make recommendations to University of Juba Community (students and staff), and the government Taskforce on COVID-19, based on emerging global understanding of  COVID-19 pandemic and the experiences gained elsewhere.

Mark Twain once said: “the secret of getting ahead is to get started.” And while we might not be best prepared as a country for the current coronavirus pandemic, we need not be caught up in the same position of unpreparedness in the future. And that is why we as University are planning to launch a School for Medical Laboratory Sciences in the academic year 2021/2022. We are doing this by partnering with Omdurman Ahlia University in Sudan to develop our curriculum and allow us to learn from their experience through staff and student exchange programme. Equally important, we have stepped up our efforts to expand our academic programmes into public health and nursing and other health allied sciences.

All the above is in line with our strategic goals of expanding quality higher education, transfer of know-how to key strategic sectors, and serving communities. In short, we want to invent the future and transform the society we live in by building our nation’s capacity to deliver quality medical services. So help us, O God.

*First appeared in Juvarsity, a Monthly News Bulletin of the University of Juba, Published by the Directorate of Planning, Innovation, and Quality Assurance. Vol 2 Issues No. 9, April 2020

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

When Many Go Ahiding

By John A. Akec
When many go ahiding,
I am standing

When many guns go silent
Mine is firing

When many wheels are stopping
Mine is turning

When many a voice go quiet
I am roaring

When many a tree go tumbling
I am bouncing

When many wells are drying
Mine is overflowing

Who is this?
You are wondering?

I am a Southerner
I am Perseverence

Using Blogs, Humour, and Annecdotes to Influence Policy

By John A. Akec*
How can research insights be made accessible to broad sectors of society? This column cites examples of successful communicators of scientific knowledge, and highlights the potential role of humor and anecdotes. The author also outlines some of his own experiences, and what works and doesn't work in communicating research in the contexts of Sudan and South Sudan.
Most of the time, it would seem, researchers are preaching to the converted – their peers. Their findings have the potential to inform policy and, in turn, have a positive impact on policy outcomes. Yet this doesn’t happen often because most peer-reviewed articles are published in journals whose readerships are largely drawn from the same constituency – namely, the academic and research fraternity.
The knowledge is thus ‘circulated’ among the like-minded while the consumer – or rather, the policy-maker – is scarcely reached. This is almost always true for research carried out at universities and specialized national research institutes and centers.
Part of the problem is the inaccessibility of academic research publications for the average non-specialist reader. Most of journal articles are long and can sometimes run into tens of pages of text. They also tend to be heavily loaded with technical jargon, or communicated with high-powered mathematics, possibly to impress peers, but at the expense of the time-starved policy-maker.
Linking incentives and recognition, such as academic promotion, at universities and research bodies to peer-reviewed publications entrenches this status quo. Yet there are examples of better ways of disseminating scientific knowledge to a wider readership besides peer-reviewed journals.
These include writing popular science books to disseminate core research findings, opinion pieces in major newspapers, and editing special interest blogs. Here, humor and anecdotes, instead of heavy technical jargon, can be used to communicate important research insights effectively to a very wide audience, including policy-makers.
For example, the late Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, once noted in the introduction to his classic book, A Brief History of Time, that adding one extra mathematical equation to a book can reduce the potential readership by half. By writing in a way that non-experts can understand, Hawking was able to communicate some of the most difficult concepts in the cosmos, especially in relation to space and time, such as the Big Bang, black holes, dark energy, gravitational waves, and such like.
Hawking hoped to help a broad spectrum of his readers ‘catch a glimpse of the mind of God’. By leaving his ivory tower and using down-to-earth expressions, he must have persuaded many a cynical politician and chief executives of multinational corporations to increase the budget for ‘blue sky’ research; as well as inspiring young readers to enjoy science and consider studying science-based subjects at university. I even suspect that Hawking’s exposition of cosmological physics and its insights must have had a positive impact on the economic output of many countries by increasing appreciation of science in wider circles.
Moreover, examples abound in the social sciences of authors who have followed a similar approach to Hawking in making research insights accessible to broad sectors of society. They include Paul Collier, a development economist at the University of Oxford who in his book, The Bottom Billion, popularized the concept of the ‘resource curse’; or the negative impact of high-priced commodities, such as oil and diamonds, on national economies that depend largely on them for revenue. It became a ‘must read’ for both the activist and the keen policy-maker.
Another example is that of Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT, and James Robinson of Harvard University, in their book Why Nations Fail. The duo highlighted the importance of the nature of institutions, especially pertaining to economic and political governance as well as the rule of law, in the success or failure of countries around the globe.
These researchers-turned-authors and countless others, I believe, have accomplished their missions. Yet popularizing research insights through books is not the only way. There are other approaches.
The first is communicating research insights by writing opinion pieces (‘op-eds’) in media outlets, printed or electronic. This is challenging, especially when it implies restricting an article to just 800 words. I recall a painful, but necessary, experience six years ago of having to cut out important facts from an article I co-authored with Kathelijne Schenkel of Pax for Peace, which was published in Sudan Tribune.
The article summarized our research on oil revenue sharing with communities living in the counties of oil-producing states of South Sudan. It raised awareness and sparked enquiries from researchers interested in South Sudan’s oil sector and the role of China in developing it.
The second is blogging. For a good 13 years, I have written a blog bearing my name. My articles tackle all sorts of concerns, ranging from socio-economic development, to leadership, to governance, to education, to society and culture, mainly focused on Sudan and South Sudan.
Some of the articles appear simultaneously on the blog and in Sudanese national newspapers such as The CitizenKhartoum Monitor, and Juba Monitor; as well as in electronic media outlets such as University World NewsSudan Tribune, Global Observatory, and, among others. Eventually, at the behest of a publisher, a collection of the articles was compiled and published as a book in March 2019 under the title South Sudan: The Path Not Taken.
While the title may suggest that the views expressed in the book never received a fair hearing by way of implementation, it is now paradoxically apparent that a lot of the ideas have contributed to policy debates, as some of themes advocated are currently being implemented by the government of South Sudan. These include the adoption of a floating exchange rate in 2015, the establishment of a semi-independent South Sudan Revenue Authority in 2017, and the scrapping of fuel subsidies in June 2018, among others. I also believe that this publication is likely to be influential in shaping the development path of South Sudan for a long time to come.
From this personal experience, I would like to encourage fellow researchers and academics of all shades to use blogs and social media to communicate their experiences, interests, and insights to national and global audiences that include policy-makers, lay people, special interest groups, and peers.
They need to write in a lucid style that is filled with humor and anecdotes in order to maintain the interest of readers and help them to understand what can be hard-to-grasp concepts. Links to articles can be shared on Facebook, professional networks such as LinkedIn, mailing lists, and Twitter, to mention just a few of countless possibilities.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Sudan and South Sudan: The Tale of Two Economies

By John A. Akec

The two Sudans, both north and south, share a troubled history, fear of the present, and hope for a peaceful and prosperous future within and across their borders.

The events of the past months, weeks, and days in Sudan and South Sudan are a testimony to this paradox; and can best be described by Charles Dickens’ words in the Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was season of Light, it was season of Darkness, was spring of hope, it was winter of despair.”  

The people of two Sudans may live in two independent sovereign states, yet are bound by ongoing conflicts, civil wars, and economic awes. Both are struggling in their different ways to overcome these challenges and carve out a brighter future for their citizens.

Analysts agree that none of the two Sudans will ever make it alone without the assistance and support of the other. Together the Sudans will fall. And together they will stand. And stand, they must. However, without clear understanding of the brutal facts and factors underpinning the current unrest in Sudan, and prospect for peace in South Sudan, the political instability caused by economic challenges in the two countries may persist long into the distant future.


On 19 December 2018, a day that marked the 63rd anniversary of unilateral declaration of Sudan’s independence inside the Parliament (which took place on 19 December 1955), demonstrations broke out in Sudan. First in Atbara, Nahud, and Gadarif, and then spreading to engulf many cities, among them the capital, Khartoum.

“Enemies those who killed our son. Enemies those who divided our country”, went the revolutionary song in social media played in the background of demonstration images intended to whip up emotions of the citizens to rise up against Al-Bashir’s government. High prices and shortage of basic commodities such as bread and fuel were amongst the reasons that sparked the anger. As we begin a new year, the demonstrations have already entered their thirteenth day.

On their part, the Sudanese authorities responded with full force of the state, followed by political mobilisation of the ruling party support base, and massive deployment of special forces, locally called “rapid support forces” in order to protect property and bring the situation in the capital and the country under control. The government has also expressed readiness to address the concerns raised by the demonstrators and political forces behind them. A very positive step.

Then some 740 miles South of Khartoum, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, President Salva Kiir hosted a reception to celebrate Christmas day in which politicians, eminent personalities, and opposition figures queued up patiently to offer their greetings and well wishes to the President, expressing to the media their commitment to full implementation of the recently signed revitalized peace agreement, which was achieved with the assistance of Sudan government.

And to lend further credence to the intertwined politics of two Sudans, the war-displaced Sudanese, mostly from Blue Nile region and Nuba Mountains, and probably from Darfur; organised a peaceful march in Juba to express their solidarity with the ongoing demonstrations in Sudan.


The big question is what can we make of all this? We need to first acknowledge that the signing of Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 that allowed South Sudan to exercise the right of self-determination in a referendum, and subsequently, the declaration of its independence from Sudan on July 9th, 2011, was an important milestone in the long road to untangling and sorting out what Dr. John Garang called “the Sudanese problem.” It was not a mere impulsive decision by Al-Bashir government as as many Sudanese opposition figures would like us believe. However, independence of South Sudan was by no means the end of the Sudanese problem. This is evident from conflicts and wars that have continued to rage in both countries since 2012.

What is the lasting cure to the “Sudanese problem”, then? We may ask. To be brutally honest, I see no quick fixes, nor priceless solutions around the corner, apart from the exercise of true statesmanship to move the two countries to the next level. Still, one can engage in useful conversation that can assist us to discover the avenues to finding more sustainable cures.

Le us briefly then consider what Sudan and South Sudan governments can do individually and jointly in order to achieve peace and prosperity. This is by no means a comprehensive prescription, but in my view, an important contribution.

For a starter, good economics makes for good politics. And despite the impressive expansion of the Sudanese economy in the last two decades, majority of Sudanese increasingly feel disenfranchised and impoverished. And as pointed out earlier, high prices and acute shortage of basic commodities are behind recent Sudan’s unrest.

To give credit where it belongs, the expansion in higher education since 1990s has improved Sudan’s institutional, technical, technological, and administrative and managerial capacity. It also empowered women as demonstrated by the number of female university graduates exceeding that of males by June 2011. The expansion has also immensely increased country’s absorptive capacity for foreign direct investment. Sudan tops China’s investment priority destination in Africa, according to recent reports.

And like it or not, Sudan has attained a significant level of a functional state that includes monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and administrative control of its territory as well as increased diffusion of ICT and communication technologies throughout its economy. 

However, the unintended consequences of the new economic structure are that it left a great majority of the Sudanese citizens worst off, especially those working in the public sector. The level of unemployment amongst graduates is staggering although no study has been carried out to know the precise rate of unemployment. This is a ticking bomb, and what we saw in the past two weeks is nothing but a mere taster, if nothing is done to avert it.

Areas of economic reforms include, among others: embracing flexible exchange rate policy, as well as lifting of subsidies on fuel and wheat flour. While these subsidies may give an appearance of benefiting the poor, they are actually subsidising the rich while placing enormous burden on the government, preventing it from funding targeted social policies that can benefit well defined sectors of the Sudanese society. What’s more, subsidies provide arbitrage opportunities for extortion and self-enrichment by those connected to the system, especially by elements of national security apparatus.

The savings from subsidies can be used to increase public sector pay and improve social services such as education and health. This will improve citizens trust and allow national economy to adjust because consumers will rationally shift to local and cheaper substitutes.

The government also needs to adopt a more progressive tax policy with the aim of fairly redistributing the national cake between the very rich few and the very many poor in such a way as to raise median incomes across the board. In medium to long term, these reforms will move Sudan to middle income country within a decade.

Moreover, Sudan could upgrade its successful Students Support Fund policy to a Student Loan Scheme like one in Kenya. That means, students can contribute to funding their higher education without placing undue burden on their families.

In addition, Sudan can establish non-discriminatory Enterprise Fund to support young entrepreneurs. It would be an uphill battle changing attitudes towards subsidies. Done transparently and honestly, these reforms can make huge difference to Sudanese economy.

Finally, Sudan needs to adopt an equal opportunity employment policy in both public and private sectors, and must include key strategic government institutions, and get away from current employment policies that are perceived as partisan and sectarian. All Sudanese need to feel that their government is working for them, irrespective of their religion, ethnic background, region, or political affiliation. This will enhance citizens’ trust in the government. This, is in short, is a call for a new, just, fair, and more comprehensive social contract in Sudan.

South Sudan is starting from a different baseline, as one may expect, and therefore its priorities are different from those of Sudan and very basic in nature.

And right now, South Sudan priority is to consolidate peace and stabilize its economy through the recently launched 3-year National Development Strategy 2018-2021.

The success and credibility of the strategy is tight to South Sudan’s ability to reform its grossly underperforming civil service through competitive recruitment and training, adoption of a centralized planning regime, improvement in coordination amongst and between different levels of the government, enhancing revenue mobilisation through taxation, investment in human capital formation through education and skills training, and a more aggressive investment in basic infrastructure (electricity, water, communications, and roads).

 Like Sudan, there is need for government to commit itself to floating exchange rate policy as opposed to current ‘managed float’ which is really a reversion to old “fixed exchange” rate policy; as well as adopting inflation indexed pay structure in public and private sector. South Sudan should avoid following the example of Sudan which has allowed national security personnel to muddle in economic institutions and policies that are the domain of civil servants.

In addition, the government of South Sudan should manage its oil revenues in more transparent manner and eliminate fuel subsidies. It should also review and estimate the cost of medical treatment and officials travels abroad for purpose of regulating and redirecting the savings to better state-building goals.

The governments of the two countries should collaborate to resolve outstanding issues in the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement that include Abyei, and conflicts in South Kordofan, South Blue Nile, in addition to Darfur and Eastern Sudan.

Sudan must also end its self-imposed trade embargo on South Sudan and that the two countries negotiate fair terms of trade for their mutual benefit.

All in all, there is room for much improvements in the economies and governance of the two countries.