Statement by the African Studies Association (US) concerning the recent suspension of Professor Taban Lo Liyong from the University of Juba

March 3, 2020

The African Studies Association (US) is deeply concerned about the recent suspension by the University of Juba of academic and writer, Professor Taban Lo Liyong. Professor Lo Liyong was suspended over an opinion article he had written in a local South Sudanese newspaper, “The Juba Monitor,” commenting on political developments in South Sudan. The op-ed was written as an open letter to the head of a US special delegation to South Sudan, Tibor Nagy.

Professor Lo Liyong has a teaching position in the School of Education at the University. Taban Lo Liyong was born in what is now South Sudan in 1939 and is one of Africa’s leading writers, poets and literary critics. He was educated at Howard University (BA) and the Iowa Writers Workshop (the first African to graduate from its MA program). He has taught at universities in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, the US and Japan. His outspoken political views led him to leave Uganda and Kenya.

On January 29, 2020, Professor Lo Liyong wrote an article on “the issue of states and their boundaries,” an issue, according to Human Rights Watch, that is still the subject of negotiations between by South Sudanese political leaders before a Unity Government can be formed. Edward Lado Ayira, the director of the human resource management at the university, informed Professor Lo Liyong of a directive from Professor John A. Akec, Vice Chancellor of the University of Juba, that Lo Liyong’s article “has gone over the right of self-expression,” amounted to “incitement of ethnic hatred” and “bringing the name of the University of Juba into disrepute.” As a result, the university suspended Professor Lo Liyong without pay from February 10, 2020. A committee would be set up by the university to “look into the case.”

For more on the case, see this dispatch by Human Rights Watch.

In a letter to to Professor Akec, group of 28 US-based academics, including a number of South Sudanese who are alumni of the University of Juba, have expressed their opposition to the suspension: “Having read Professor Lo Liyong’s open letter carefully, we find that the assertions given are without merit or basis, and amount to mere bullying and intimidation of a distinguished member of the University of Juba community.”
Professor Lo Liyong’s suspension is a threat to academic freedom in South Sudan and a regressive step in South Sudan’s public life. Human Rights Watch points out that two other academics were suspended by the University of Juba or harassed by the police respectively for their critical comments on South Sudan’s government. Human Rights Watch concludes that Lo Liyong’s suspension is “… emblematic of the government’s repression of basic freedom of expression, where any form of dissent or criticism of government policy is dangerous.”

The African Studies Association urges the University to reconsider the suspension of Professor Lo Liyong.