Yousif Kuwa

The lost leader of Africa's persecuted Nuba people, he tempered armed resistance with justice

Julie Flint

Wednesday April 4, 2001

In the days before he died, at the age of 55, Yousif Kuwa wanted two things: to see the latest biography of Nelson Mandela, and to publish an open letter to the United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan on behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, whose struggle for survival Yousif led for 16 years. The letter asked why, despite all its promises, the UN continued to abandon the Nuba to the depredations of the fundamentalist generals who rule Sudan.

Yousif's death has robbed Africa of one of its most visionary leaders. It has robbed the Nuba, long perceived as an underclass in Arab-ruled Sudan, of the man who gave them a new pride and confidence in their Africanness. And it has robbed the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of a commander who demonstrated that armed struggle is not incompatible with respect for human rights and civil society.

A teacher by vocation, with a longing to farm once the struggle was over, Yousif fought all his life for a just peace - not only for the Nuba, but for all Sudanese, regardless of race, religion or sex. For him, there was no alternative to resistance in the Nuba mountains of central Sudan, sealed off from the world since the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989.

But he respected those who chose to flee to government garrisons where they were promised - but seldom given - food, clothes and medicine. He was that rare thing in any society, especially in an impecunious society under arms: a leader who was loved.

Yousif was born into the Miri tribe, one of more than 50 ethnic Nuba groups. In the days before Sudan's rulers began enforcing an Arab-Islamic identity down the barrel of a gun, his parents were happy to raise him as a Muslim, and gave him an Arab name in preference to that traditionally given to first-born Nuba boys, Kuku. Yousif grew up believing he was an Arab. "If you told me otherwise," he once said, "I would hit you."

All this changed in second- ary school, when his headmaster stopped teaching him, saying: "What is the use of teaching Nuba who are going to work as servants in houses?" "What's a Nuba?" Yousif asked.

He discovered the answer as a political science student at Khartoum University, immersing himself in Nuba history. At the house of a Nuba friend one evening, he was dismayed to hear one child say to another, "You are a good singer. But, unfortunately, you are black." In that moment, he said, "I started to reject assimilation. I said, 'I will build my civilisation, and then I will forgive anyone who humiliated me before.'"

While still at university, he helped create the Komolo, the first political organisation of Nuba youth. In 1981, he was elected to the Kordofan regional assembly, but found himself accused of racism whenever he spoke of the Nuba. Despairing of political change, he joined the SPLA.

For him, liberation meant respect for the rights of all. He sought self-determination in its original sense - for the Nuba to have the right to choose what kind of government they would have, and with whom.

Yousif's years as SPLA governor-commander in the Nuba mountains set new standards of rebel behaviour. He refused to tolerate abuses, and brought some indisciplined soldiers before firing squads. He built a civil ad ministration that was unique to SPLA-controlled areas, and let the Nuba freely choose between resistance and surrender. They voted, overwhelmingly, for resistance.

Yousif was the embodiment of the traditional Nuba values of political and religious tolerance. He fathered a renaissance of Nuba culture, and gave the Nuba a self-confidence that was their strongest weapon when Khartoum declared holy war against them in 1991. Encouraged by him to be self-reliant, the Nuba fought Khartoum's blockade by creating a teachers' training college and a nursing school, despite having almost no educated class.

I n 1993, after two years of famine in which thousands died unseen, Yousif found his way to Europe to seek help for his people. He returned almost empty-handed, disappointed by his first encounter with the west. "We are like a sinking man in the river, and they are standing on the bank shouting encouragement," he said. "We do not fear bullets, but we feel bitter when a lot of people - especially children - die because of malaria."

Told he had bone cancer 15 months ago, Yousif had one wish - to see a just peace before he died. That was not to be. With the exploitation of oil by foreign companies, which have suddenly overcome their abhorrence for Khartoum, peace seems further away than ever.

He is survived by his three wives - Fatima, Hanan and Imm Masaar - and 14 children.

Yousif Kuwa Mekki, Nuba resistance leader, born August 1945; died March 31 2001