The Crisis in the Nuba Mountains
Suleiman Musa Rahhal
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a great privilege to address this assembly on behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, one of the most downtrodden and invisible peoples of the world.
The Nuba of Central Sudan are one of the largest of many non-Arab groups in the Sudan and if one looks through the corridors of the history of Sudan as from the Kush Kingdom he will find that Nuba history and civilisation are well embedded along the course of the Nile valley.
In recent years Nuba were faced with a bloody "scorched earth" policy by the National Islamic Front Government (NIF), which mounted to ethnic cleansing and depopulating virtually most of the Nuba mountains areas. However, despite these years of onslaught, including repeated aerial bombing, the Nuba have succeeded to maintain and preserve their cultural identity of African origin.
The human rights violation in the Nuba mountains region is not solely something of today, it goes back to the early 19th century, several decades before Sudan independence in 1956. It started with the Turko-Egyptian rule (1821-1881) in Sudan, when the Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali Pasha, decided to conquer Sudan, primarily to recruit black slaves with the aim of building a strong army to drive out the Ottomans from Egypt and build his own empire. The slave trade then began to operate in Nuba Mountains as well as the South for several decades by three main forces: the Turks, the Private Enterprise and the Arab Traders from Northern Sudan.
During the Mahdyia era Nuba who fought with the Mahdi were later to be marginalised and were treacherously and cruelly treated. Their villages were raided and tens of thousands of Nuba people were massacred, and a large number were taken as slaves to Omdurman.
Like the people of the South Sudan, Nuba people had equally suffered tremendously from the policy of ‘closed district’ administration, which was imposed on them by the British Ruler. They were denied access to education, administration and development while the Arab in the North were better off. This unfair policy opened up a gap between the people of the North and the peoples of the peripheries, which eventually led to the civil conflict which has torn apart the Sudan for most of the last 45 years.
In 1956 Sudan had its independence after the British had an assurance from the northern Sudanese parties and the Egyptian Government that the constitutional Assembly will adopt a federal constitution as a system of governing for Sudan to safeguard the rights of the southern people and the other groups in the north, including the Nuba. However, neither Nuba nor many other ethnic groups apart from the South were consulted about the future of their country. Their political rights, including the right to self-determination since that time had been undermined. It is not surprising therefore to see today people of the South, Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile, who have been suppressed, marginalised, and dispossessed of their land to resort to armed struggle and call for their absolute rights for self-determination.
For the past 42 years since our independence in 1956, the Nuba have been oppressed and marginalised by all previous central governments that have ruled the Sudan. But the grave human rights crisis was committed with absolute impunity against the people of the Nuba Mountains, during this NIF regime. Over the years the governments has been pursuing a policy of a systematic persecution and dispossession of Nuba peoples from their lands, cultures, traditions and customs. Today the Nuba people have been denied their identity, the right to be Nuba.
The Upsurge in Violence
It is now nine years since the National Islamic Front regime seized power in Sudan. During these years the government has been carrying out ruthless and brutal war of genocidal nature with absolute impunity against the Nuba peoples, which has mounted to ethnic cleansing and depopulating the Nuba Mountains area. Today the campaign of eradicating Nuba identity and their culture has become central to the enduring NIF programme of transforming Sudan. Since the Nuba Mountains area has been sealed off from the rest of the world with only the presence of large contingents of government troops in the area. The only justification for this to wipe out Islamic and Arabic culture, and to have overall control over Nuba’s land.
1992 will be remembered as the darkest year in the Nuba history, when the National Islamic Front planned and launched its Jihad war in the Nuba Mountains and began the massive forced removal of the Nuba people from their ancestral homeland. At the time, almost nothing was known about these crimes in the outside world. Even for Sudanese, the war in the Nuba Mountains was hidden: the government said nothing, and the SPLA leadership was cut off from its Nuba forces. It seemed, in this darkness, that the Nuba would be consigned to oblivion. They were facing their genocide alone. A large number of villages were burnt and thousands of innocent Nuba civilians, mostly young educated and community leaders, were killed. Women and children were taken by Northern Sudanese families effectively as unpaid labourers. This splitting up Nuba families was aimed at eradicating the cultural diversity of the Nuba.
One of the government’s policies for the Nuba Mountains is to use food as a weapon of war. And For the past eight years it denied international humanitarian aid agencies, including UN Operation lifeline Sudan (OLS) access to the Nuba Mountains, to alleviate the sufferings of the Nuba people.
However, on 10th May 1998, the government accepted and for the first in eight years to allow the United Nations to send a mission to the liberated areas of the Nuba Mountains. This raised hopes that the international community might at last be about to take action to assist the Nuba. But it was not to be. As I speak, five months later, the UN has not even sent an assessment mission to the Nuba Mountains, let alone any humanitarian assistance. The agreement was only a trick by the government and a way to delay the UN visit, while the civil populations continued to suffer and die from hunger and disease.
Last May a famine has been reported to have hit the Nuba Mountains and over 100,000 civilians were facing starvation due to a combination of drought, government attacks and total blockade on relief flights.
In April the army launched attacks from three different fronts, destroying many villages, killing people, including an African Rights monitor and one member of the NRRDS board of trustees. Since then, the offensive has intensified with dire consequences for the civilian population and for the food situation in the Mountains.
Sequestration of Land
In the early seventies it was believed that Sudan could be the bread-basket of the Arab world, and with the freely available petrodollar loans it possible for the mechanised farming expansion to include most fertile areas in South Kordufan.
The introduction of Mechanised Farming Cooperation projects on the Nuba Mountains plains in 1982, appeared to have serious implications and disastrous effect on the Nuba, their land and their lifestyle. Their farmland was seized, they were evicted and driven out from their homeland without compensation.
Under the NIF regime, the expansion of the mechanised farms has tripled. Most of the fertile land in the eastern part of the Nuba Mountains has been allocated to wealthy businessmen and retired government figures. Many Nuba became impoverished wage labourers on the farms of absentee landlords.
The Nuba sustainable agricultural practices have been replaced by over-intensive farming of thin soils. Today the hunger for the Nuba land has not only brought suffering to the people but it has also brought environmental catastrophe and ecological disaster to the region. The clearing of forests, the intensive deep ploughing of the land, the lack of long term investment and the overall use of land for short profit, means that the land is subjected to serious environmental and ecological damage. Moreover, the expansion of mechanised agricultural projects in the Nuba Mountains has had an adverse effect on the livelihood of the Nuba people.
Prospects for Peace
Nuba civil and political rights remain low in the agenda of both the Government and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The December 1994 Chukudum Agreement between SPLA and Umma Party in which the right of self-determination was granted to the South but not to the Nuba. The June 1995 Asmara Agreement signed by the NDA opposition members denied Nuba from the right to self-determination. While the SPLA leadership continues to stress that it represents the Nuba, and that it is essential for the Nuba to be included on equal terms in all political and humanitarian agreements. This has not always been translated into practice. The SPLA has continue to agree to NDA polices that treat the South and the Nuba differently.
On the other hands the Government does not recognise the rights for the Nuba and it has made clear that the Nuba Mountains is part of the North and it is nor prepared to negotiate on that. The government is only interested on the fertile land and no Nuba people, which is clear to the way it treated Mohammed Haroun Kafi and his people who defected to the government and signed a Peace Agreement. They have been marginalised and neglected.
Currently, there is a proposal by the SPLA leadership for two confederal states: North and South States, with the Nuba and South Blue Nile being within South during the interim period. Many Nuba are skeptical about this and they believe that they should be given equal and full rights to self-determination as the same one given to the people of the South. They need to be free to decide their own future without any external influence, and whether vote to be with the North or South states or even form a confederal state jointly with blue Nile and Darfur if the it the country is to be divided on these lines.
In the last two IGAD Peace Talks self-determination for the South has been accepted by the Government, following increased pressure on both sides to reach a peace agreement. Many attempts were made through IGAD Partners by inviting both the government and the SPLA to meetings in Germany, Spain, Holland, Italy and lastly in Poland to bridge the gap between the two sides on the issue of self-determination for the South within the borders of 1956; which will exclude the Nuba and Southern Blue Nile.
The Nuba also remain absent from the international agenda. United Nations agencies appear to have been willing to trade the Nuba off against more established institutional interests, such as maintaining humanitarian access to the South through OLS, or keeping developing programmes going in the North.
The international community no longer has the excuse that it does not know. Journalists and human rights workers have all been to the Nuba Mountains, and have witnessed the struggle, the democratic and judicial institutions that function there, and the relentless abuses perpetrated against the people.
The future of the Nuba people still hangs in the balance. The days when the Sudan Government could contemplate completely eradicating the Nuba, or removing them from the Mountains altogether, are now gone. But the danger still exists that the Nuba political future will be sold away; that a future constitutional settlement in Sudan will leave the Nuba without guarantees for their rights, or as second-class citizens in their own country, with only some nominal ‘regional autonomy’ as a palliative.
To conclude, at this moment, the Nuba have two main demands from the international community.
One is that our right to self-determination should not be abandoned or traded away. We all hope and pray for peace in Sudan, and for many people peace cannot come too quickly. But a lasting peace cannot be built upon injustice and on abandoning the rights of the people.
The second is that the Nuba people are in a critical humanitarian situation. Our people are still dying of hunger and disease, as well as government attacks and aerial bombardment. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan made a solemn commitment to bringing UN relief to the Nuba Mountains in May this year. But today, nearly half a year later, and after many more innocent people have died, his promise has not been kept. The world may have forgotten about this commitment: the Nuba have not. Please do all you can to ensure that the United Nations keeps this promise.