The Nuba Predicament
A paper to be presented by Suleiman Musa Rahhal at the Italian Forum Sudan: "Peace Perspectives in Sudan. A rebirth of Civil Society", which is to be held In Milan, Italy between 17-18 September, 1999
Mr. Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen
On behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, one of the most downtrodden and invisible peoples of the world, I would like to thank the Italian Forum Sudan for inviting me to participate in this conference.
The Nuba are one of the largest of the non-Arab groups of Northern Sudan. They have lived in Kordofan, in the geographical centre of Sudan, for thousands of years - occupying, according to the historian H.A. MacMichael, "the greatest part of Kordofan with the exception of the northernmost desert". But because of repeated attacks by tribes controlling the Nile Bank, the Funj and finally Arabs in the 16th century, the Nuba retreated to the mountains of South Kordofan which became their permanent homeland and which now carry their name: the Nuba Mountains.
The Nuba live in an area that covers some thirty thousand square miles, an area roughly the size of Scotland. They speak more than forty dialects which the eminent Nuba scholar and linguist Professor Roland Stevenson has grouped into ten main languages - all of them of African origin. Professor Stevenson, who lived among the Nuba for more than thirty years, described them as "hill people of good physique, much independence of mind, strong in traditions and fighting qualities."
Today, the Nuba are key players in a nation-wide rebellion designed to bring justice, equality, freedom and democracy to Sudan. They have been fighting on all active fronts in the war: not only in southern Kordofan, but in Southern Sudan, Southern Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. Their suffering has been great - both on the battlefield and off it as a result of government retribution.
The Nuba initially took up armed struggle to fight against the discrimination inflicted on them by every government that has ever held power in Sudan, in the sure knowledge that their suffering is likely to continue into the next century unless there is a just peace and a comprehensive settlement in Sudan.
Since independence in 1956, the Nuba have confronted policies of persecution, suppression, marginalisation and neglect. All central governments, civilian and military, have worked to impoverish and undermine Sudan's marginalised peoples - prime among them the Nuba. The riverian, Arab culture of central and northern Sudan has reigned supreme, imposing its own linguistic, cultural and religious norms on all other groups in an attempt to create a single, artificial Sudanese culture.
These policies, aggravated by the centralisation of power in the hands of a northern elite, have led to armed resistance and ethnic tension between Sudan's Arab and African populations. Some of the non-Arab peoples of northern Sudan - principally the Nuba, the Beja of eastern Sudan, the Darfurians of western Sudan and the people of Southern Blue Nile - joined the southern Sudanese who took up arms in 1983. Their opposition to the government created what is known as the North-North conflict - a conflict of Arab against non-Arab and Moslem against non-Moslem which the Government of Sudan denies exists.
Human Rights Abuses
Human rights violations in the Nuba Mountains region are not a new phenomenon. They are dated back to the Turco-Egyptian rule of early 19th Century, many decades before independence, when Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt set out to conquer Sudan in order to recruit black slaves for an army that would drive the Ottomans out of Egypt and forge an empire of his own. For several decades after that, three main forces - the Turks, the Private Enterprise Company of Zubeir Pasha and individual Arab traders from northern Sudan - seized slaves both from the Nuba Mountains and Southern Sudan.
During the Mahdiya era, Nuba who had fought with the Mahdi were treacherously and cruelly treated. Their villages were raided, tens of thousands of their people were massacred and large numbers were carried off as slaves to Omdurman.
Like the people of Southern Sudan, the Nuba were the victims of the 'closed district' policy enforced by the British administration - a policy that was designed to protect Sudan's African population from Arab encroachment but that had the effect of condemning them to underdevelopment. As a result of the Closed Districts policy, the Nuba, like the southerners, were cut off from the education, administration and economic development affecting the rest of the country. This opened a gulf between the people of northern Sudan and the peoples of the peripheries and lies at the root of the civil conflict that has torn Sudan apart for most of the last 45 years.
Under the present regime of the National Islamic Front, which operates with complete impunity, human rights abuses against the Nuba have reached new depths. A pitiless "scorched earth" policy has brought ethnic cleansing to the Nuba Mountains, tearing the Nuba from their land, cultures and traditions with the intent of eradicating their cultural identity. Denied the right to be Nuba, with all their rich political, religious and cultural diversity, the Nuba have been pushed to the margins of Sudanese society.
Jihad War in Nuba Mountains
The declaration of Holy War in Nuba Mountains is proof of the NIF's manipulation of religion for political ends. Ironically, and tragically, the majority of the Nuba killed in this Holy War were themselves Muslims.
1992, the year in which the NIF launched its Jihad in the Nuba Mountains and began forcing the Nuba out of their ancestral lands, will be remembered as the darkest year in Nuba history. At the time, the outside world knew almost nothing about these crimes. The war in the Nuba mountains was hidden even from the Sudanese: the government said nothing and divisions within the SPLA cut the SPLA leadership off from its Nuba forces. In this darkness, it seemed that the Nuba would be consigned to oblivion, facing genocide alone. A large number of villages were burnt and thousands of Nuba civilians were killed. Educated Nuba and community leaders were systematically eliminated. Women were raped. Children were abducted and taken to special camps for indoctrination before being sent to fight against their own people. Some were used as unpaid labourers - if not on the mechanised farms that were once Nuba land, then in the homes of northern Sudanese.
On 27 April 1993, a Fatwa or Islamic decree was issued at an Islamic conference held in el-Obeid, in the north of the Nuba region, to legitimise the Holy War against the Nuba. The conference was attended by Moslem Imams, leading Sufi sheikhs and religious teachers. It was held in the full knowledge and with the blessing of the government. It decreed, infamously, that the Nuba were "infidels... deserving of death."
Aerial Bombardment of Civilians
In an attempt to destroy the Nuba rebellion in South Kordofan, the Sudanese army has attacked not SPLA positions - but civilian villages in an attempt to break moral and deprive the Nuba SPLA of recruits. Antonov bombers routinely bomb villages and schools, killing civilians with little or no reaction from the international community. On 17 July this year, for example, Antonovs dropped 10 bombs on Kauda school, killing eight schoolchildren - seven girls and a boy. The attack merited not a single line in any newspaper in Britain. Once again, the government of Sudan got away with murder.
This year the government has made repeated efforts to close down the rudimentary airstrips that are the Nuba's only access to the outside world. The airstrips have been attacked, time and time again, with planes, tanks, artillery and infantry. But the government has failed to close them down. Such is the Nuba's determination to resist - no matter how great the price.
Today the Nuba live under the permanent threat of Antonov attack. This barbaric killing of non-combatants must be stopped.
In recent years, the government of Sudan has added anti-personnel mines to its armoury, mining those areas of the Nuba Mountains that it captures but cannot hold. As a result, scores of civilians have suffered injuries that have forced amputation in the rudimentary first-aid clinics that we have succeeded in building up in the middle of war. Most of the victims are women - for it is women who collect water and food in the Nuba Mountains and who are, as a result, most at risk. Many other civilians whose villages, wells and fields have been turned into minefields have found themselves condemned to a life of permanent displacement, unable to return to their homes except at risk of life and limb.
Sequestration of Land
In the early '70s it was believed that Sudan could be the breadbasket of the Arab world. With petrodollar loans freely available, mechanised farming expanded to most fertile areas of South Kordofan, beginning in 1982 with the government-controlled Mechanised Farming Co-operation - more commonly known as the Habila scheme. This type of farming, however, had a disastrous impact on the Nuba, their land and their lifestyle. Not only were their farmlands seized and they themselves evicted - without compensation - but the sustainable agriculture they had always practised was replaced with over-intensive farming that has degraded the thin soil of the region - possibly for generations to come.
Under the NIF regime, the number of mechanised farms has tripled. In addition to Habila Agricultural Schemes in the northern part of the Nuba Mountains, which were conceded to wealthy Arab merchants, fertile lands in the eastern part of the mountains were confiscated from Nuba farmers and sold to wealthy businessmen and retired government figures. Many Nuba became impoverished labourers on the farms of absentee landlords.
Food as a weapon of war
In the course of its war against the Nuba mountains, the government routinely uses food as a weapon of war, burning and looting crops and killing and looting animals in order to force Nuba out of the rebel-held mountains and into government-controlled territory where hundreds of thousands are held in "peace camps". This is a cruel misnomer: these "peace camps" are in reality prison camps where torture, rape and death are commonplace and where Nuba are Islamised and Arabised.
In addition, the government has for the past eight years denied international humanitarian aid agencies including the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan access to the Nuba Mountains. A UN assessment mission finally gained access to the mountains in June this year. But two days before it set out, President Omar Bashir vowed that he would never permit relief to reach the Nuba.
The long blockade of the area and the use of as a weapon of war, is a crime under the international law. This had led to thousands of Nuba being perished from preventable famine, ramping disease and displacement.
The Nuba have sharp cultural, linguistic and other differences with their neighbours. They live in a well-defined territory - parts of which are shared with Baggara Arabs - and speak more than forty different dialects unique to them. They have rich cultures, traditions and forms of social organisation that are specifically Nuba. Until amalgamated into the larger Kordofan in 1929, during British rule, the Nuba Mountains region was a separate province with its own administration and a capital at Talodi.
This persuasive argument for self-determination, for which many Nuba have fought for the last 15 years, is only strengthened by the Nuba's long history of abuse and discrimination at the hands of their Arab rulers. They have long been denied their full civil, political and economic rights.
The Nuba are not only the neighbours of the southern Sudanese, whose right to self-determination has been recognised; they have fought on all fronts where the SPLA is active, including the South. If self-determination is to be granted to the South, it cannot be denied to the Nuba. Watered-down self-determination, such as the right to decide what form of local administration they want, is by and large not acceptable to the Nuba, who fear that any concessions made by a Khartoum government can be rescinded at any time. They argue that after so many years of struggle, any rights that are granted to Southern Sudan must be granted to the Nuba too. Difficulties will certainly arise in drawing the boundaries of the 'Nuba' area and in defining the status of the non-Nuba groups (particularly the Baggara) who also inhabit the area. But with goodwill on all sides these are not insuperable difficulties.
Despite their desire for self-determination, most Nuba are staunch unionists. They see their best interest in a secular, democratic and united Sudan, which grants them a considerable degree of regional autonomy. The great majority of Nuba will vote for unity. Only if the South votes for separation will the Nuba face the painful dilemma of whether to join a 'greater South' or remain in the North--both of which are second-best options.
It is now 43 years since Sudan won its independence. Yet the people of Sudan have never had peace and have never enjoyed freedom or the fruits of independence. Indeed, the experience of the Sudanese people over the last four decades has been disastrous. The country has been reduced to a shambles. Our leaders and politicians have failed to meet the challenges that confront them with sufficient courage, dedication and determination. They have not shown the leadership qualities required to tackle the problems of Sudan. As a result, these problems have grown until they reached the explosive state of armed conflict, which we see today.
For generations Sudan has been living with a North-South divide - a divide which is now deeply rooted in Sudanese society. In more recent years, a North-North divide has also emerged despite attempts by the Sudan Government and some members of the opposition National Democratic Alliance to play it down. The fundamental causes of this conflict are complex, but include economic exploitation, monopoly of political power, racial and religious discrimination, and disputes over natural resources, political weakness and a lack of democracy. All this has been exacerbated by the philosophy of the NIF government in Khartoum - a government that pursues the creation of a conformist, extremist Sudan regardless of cultural diversity and human rights.
For the past four decades, the Nuba have been subjected to a high degree of discrimination in all aspects of national life - in education, economic development and political power. It is abundantly clear that successive governments have been interested only in pursuing a political and economic agenda that reflects the narrow interests of a small group of Arabs with close ties to the Arabian peninsular and little concern for their fellow countrymen.
The Sudan government does not recognise the rights of the Nuba. It has made clear that it considers the Nuba Mountains part of the North and that it will not negotiate on this point. The government's only interest in the Nuba region is in the land of the Nuba. It has no concern for the people. Even defectors like Mohammed Haroun Kafi, who went as far as to sign a peace agreement with the government, have been marginalised and abandoned on the sidelines.
But the Nuba's civil and political rights are not only overlooked by the government of Sudan. They are also low on the agenda of the National Democratic Alliance - or NDA. This became clear in the Chukudum Agreement of December 1994 between the SPLA and the Umma Party and in the June 1995 Asmara Declaration of Principles which granted the right of self-determination to the South but not to the Nuba.
There are currently two proposals for a peace settlement. One originates with the SPLA; the other with former Vice President Abel Alier. Both propose that Sudan should be divided into two confederal states - a northern and a southern state - if the regime in Khartoum continue to reject the idea of a secular state. In the SPLA proposal, the Nuba would be part of the South during an interim period. Abel Alier's proposal makes no reference at all to the Nuba or any other marginalised people of northern Sudan.
Many Nuba are sceptical about this and believe that they should be given exactly the same right of self-determination as the people of the South. They believe they must decide their own future without external interference; that they must be free to vote either to join a northern or a southern state or even to form a confederal state with the people of Blue Nile and Darfur in the event that the country is divided.
The recent Egyptian and Libyan initiatives of reconciling between the NDA and the Government is at its early stage yet, though the Government had accepted all the conditions put forward by the NDA at the Tripoli Declaration, on 3 August 99, but one fears that this could be again another "cat and mouse" game of buying time.
The Nuba are also absent from the international agenda. United Nations agencies have been willing to trade the Nuba off against more established institutional interests such as maintaining humanitarian access to Southern Sudan through OLS or keeping long-established programmes going in the North.
Like other may war affected populations in Sudan, the Nuba are entitled under international law to protection from famine and gross human rights abuses, including the threat of aerial Bombardments and land mines. The international community can no longer plead that it does not know what is going on in the Nuba Mountains. Journalists and human rights workers have now borne ample witness to the war in the Nuba Mountains and have testified to the democratic and judicial institutions that function there as well as to the relentless abuses perpetrated against the people who live there.
Peace-making is not an easy business. Since 1992 there have been several mediations by Nigeria and later by heads of states of the Horn of Africa and more recently by Egypt and Libya. The most serious attempt made so far is that of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a group which is composed of the heads of state of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea. For the past six years, IGAD mediators have been trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. But Khartoum continues to reject secularism and key aspects of self-determination.
We must remember that a peaceful and democratic solution to Sudan's conflict can only be achieved if there is a genuine and comprehensive settlement that recognises the rights of all the people of Sudan. No-one can afford to ignore the rights of the Nuba and other marginalised peoples in northern Sudan.
In order for there to be a comprehensive peace settlement in Sudan, all parties involved in the peace process must make an absolute commitment. They must dedicate themselves to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. This war has been allowed to drag on for too many years with the loss of too many lives - in all, more than one million. The country has been devastated, and fragmented, by the war. I believe it is high time for the Sudanese to act positively and to be serious about making peace. Unless they are, they may wake up one day to find there is no country left to govern - that they have become another Somalia.
The future of the Nuba hangs in the balance. It is entirely dependent on whether a genuine and comprehensive peace settlement can be found for the country as a whole. But I believe that the days are gone when the Sudan Government could contemplate wiping the Nuba out or removing them from the Mountains altogether. There is still a danger that the Nuba's political future will be traded away and that a constitutional settlement in Sudan will leave the Nuba without guarantees - either as second-class citizens in their own country or with nominal regional autonomy as a palliative.
The Nuba's experience with successive Khartoum governments of all shades has been so uniformly negative that they will not be content with promises. They need a much stronger guarantee that their collective rights will be respected.
Given the fact that Southern Sudan has been granted the right to self-determination, the Nuba will settle for nothing less. They too should be awarded the right of self-determination - not only a referendum on their political future, but an enduring right to determine their future up to and including independence should they ever demand it. If these rights are granted, then there is a real possibility that Sudan may achieve peace and unity.
To conclude, the Nuba at this moment have four main demands of the international community:
The first is that our right to self-determination be recognised - not ignored or traded away. We all hope and pray for peace in Sudan. Peace cannot come too quickly. But a lasting peace cannot be built on injustice. There can be no workable peace without justice.
The second is for humanitarian relief. The Nuba are in a critical humanitarian situation, dying from hunger and disease as well as from ground and air attack. A year after it promised Kofi Annan humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains, the government finally allowed an OLS assessment mission into the Nuba Mountains on 21 June 1999. The Nuba are still waiting for the fruits of the report in the shape of humanitarian intervention to alleviate the suffering of the civil population.
The third demand is that the aerial bombardment and the land mines used by the Sudan Government to kill innocent civilians be halted - no matter what it takes to achieve that.
The fourth demand is that the international community should play a greater and more meaningful role in resolving Sudan's conflict and finding a just and lasting peace for Sudan.