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Sudan: the Nuba Identity

The Nuba Question in South Sudan’s Imminent Independence

For the past few weeks, much attention has focused on the independence referendum in South Sudan, a historic vote that rounds off the Comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 by Sudan’s central government and the Southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) to end a protracted civil war that claimed over two million lives.
Preliminary results show that the South Sudanese have chosen to secede into a new country. Images of elated Southerners celebrating this imminent break from the bloody past are fast becoming a news staple, but one glaring aspect has remained missing from this coverage – the fate of the people of the Nuba Mountains, a region sandwiched between Sudan’s North and South, and which fought alongside the Southerners during the civil war.
The late SPLM Chairman, John Garang, visited the Nuba Mountains for the first time in December 2002. He met hundreds of delegates under the shade of a vast mango thicket in Kauda, a small town in the heart of the SPLA-liberated areas. The occasion of his visit was to attend the All Nuba Conference, a democratic political institution unique to the Nuba Mountains during the long civil war, in which representatives of all Nuba communities and the nomadic Arabic tribes used to meet and deliberate on issues related to the survival of the Nuba people. Yusuf Kuwa, the charismatic Nuba leader and high ranking SPLA commander, had convoked the All Nuba Conference for the first time in 1991, after the Khartoum regime had unleashed a merciless repression and a Jihad against the Nuba. Kuwa asked the Nuba people if they wanted to continue their rebellion or surrender. The overwhelming answer was for the continuation of the rebellion against Khartoum.
It was a decision with no return. Since then, the Nuba sided fully with the SPLA and bore years of forced resettlement, destruction, bombing, killings, never wavering in their determination to stand with the South.
Unfulfilled Promise
Before these delegates in Kauda, Garang promised that “the SPLA will not let you down. Whatever agreement we reach… we will include you.” It was a solemn promise to the Nuba that they would be considered in the peace agreement that was then being negotiated in Naivasha. Two days after Garang spoke, I wrote in my notebook the comment of Adam, an old Nuba friend who had stood firm in his homestead in Kauda: “Now we are sure. Garang has spoken. We will go with the South.”
It was not to be. The solemn promise was not kept. The Nuba – who had mandated the SPLA to guarantee that the principles of self-determination, fair distribution of power, wealth and especially land would be kept during the negotiations, and that their fate would be strongly linked to the fate of the South – were to be bitterly disappointed. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was finally signed in Nairobi, the Nuba discovered they had not even won the right to participate in the independence referendum.  In the CPA, the SPLA/M accepted the principle that the Nuba Mountains, officially a part of Southern Kordofan state, would remain a part of the North. The same fate was decided for the people of Southern Blue Nile, another contentious territory close to Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. The two territories shared in the suffering of the civil war years but are now excluded from sharing in the fruit of self-determination. It is only in Abyei, a small border area that did not shown any particular will to fight alongside the South during the civil war, that the people were granted the right to chose where they wanted to belong. The people of Abyei however have a distinct advantage: their area is rich in oil reserves.
The Nuba are the first people who are ethnically and culturally African that you encounter as you travel southwards from Khartoum. The geographical location of their homeland (with a desert to the North and swamps to the South) has always kept them isolated, and throughout the centuries their determination to stick to their ancestral culture and religion had been an obstacle to the spread of the Arab and Muslim culture to the area now known as South Sudan. Only at the beginning of last century were some inroads made. Yet, it was in the Nuba Mountains that, as early as 1965, a Nuba Anglican priest, Philip Ghabbush, formed the General Union of the Nuba Mountains (GUN) and started campaigning for political self-determination.
At the end of the 1980s, the Nuba leadership mantle was taken up by Yusuf Kuwa, a younger, charismatic man born into a Muslim family. After several failed attempts to achieve a political guarantee for the recognition of the Nuba rights – especially their right to the lands that were taken from the Nuba and allocated to companies and people from Khartoum to start “mechanized farms” – Kuwa joined the SPLM/A in the armed struggle and became the point of reference for all the Nuba.

A program to destroy the Nuba identity

A brutal government repression ensued in the Nuba Mountains. It went unnoticed and unchallenged for more than a decade, and with international attention focused on the conflict in southern Sudan, Khartoum sealed the region off from 1991 until 1995. From 1991, the Nuba, cut off even from the southern SPLA, fought alone without resupply, dependent solely on local support. Yet, with Kuwa’s leadership and in the  middle of a three-year famine, they established a working civilian administration and judicial system that incorporated traditional law. Kuwa stood firmly for religious tolerance and under his leadership the Nuba never experienced the inter-tribal fighting that plagued the SPLA in other parts of the South. These accomplishments did not always play in Kuwa’s favour however. Many Southern leaders were clearly annoyed by his raising popularity by the time he died in March 2001.
At its height, the civil war in the Nuba Mountains was not a mere fight to defeat the rebels who had taken the SPLA’s rebellion from the “African” South and into the “Arab” North. As it has been noted by Julie Flint, a British journalist who was the first outsider to visit the Nuba in 1995, “It was a programme of social engineering designed to resettle the entire population from insurgent areas into camps that would eliminate the Nuba identity. In the early 1990s, army and government paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF) killed 60,000–70,000 Nuba in just seven months. Massive military offensives were dignified in the name of jihad. Humanitarian access was denied. Community leaders, educated people and intellectuals were detained and killed to ensure that the Nuba couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Thousands of Nuba youth travelled to the South, risking their lives, to fight in the SPLA forces. Their contribution to the long running struggle was not always fully recognized. Now, with the imminent proclamation of independence of the South, the Nuba will find themselves isolated inside North Sudan, under a government that just a few years ago meted out genocidal actions against them, and they may not be able to get any support from the South. “Once more,” – one disconsolate Nuba tells me – “we have been treated as an exchange commodity in the ongoing confrontation between Juba and Khartoum.” The prospect that President Omar al-Bashir of North Sudan could become even more religiously intolerant to the extent of applying Sharia law does not augur well for a democratic future and is flatly scary for the dozens of thousand of Nuba people who have since become Christians. Reports of the military movements are not positive either: very reliable sources say that the military presence in South Kordofan has risen from 15,000 to 45,000 heavily armed troops, most of them deployed along the line where the southernmost part of the Nuba Mountains –  and of the Northern state – borders with the South.

Uncertain future

Today, as the Nuba join their Southern brothers and sisters in celebrating the birth of a new nation, their fate is very unclear. A 2008 report by the International Crisis Group described the Nuba Mountains as the “next Darfur”, because of its marginalisation, political uncertainty and potential for conflict. What the CPA foresees for the Nuba and the Southern Blue Nile area in the immediate future depends on what are termed “popular consultations”. The separation between North and South Sudan will be completed on July 9 this year; there should be a popular consultation before this date to determine the fate of the Nuba. The terms of this consultation are not very clear in the CPA, the normal interpretation being that there will be a gubernatorial and parliamentary election in May or June 2011, with the elected leaders indicating the way forward. If the new governor and the majority of the local parliamentarians come from the SPLM branch in the Nuba Mountains, there is a vague chance that they could demand for a referendum to choose on whether to secede with the South or remain in the North. If not, the game is over and the Nuba will remain part of the North for the foreseeable future, and due to their marginalized situation, the possibility of election rigging by the North are extremely high.
One can only hope that the will for peace and reconciliation will also prevail in the North and that the Khartoum regime, having learned some lessons from the long confrontation in the South and in Darfur, will commit itself to addressing the longstanding issues that have always informed the Nuba struggle: firstly the recognition of the Nuba dignity and their right to have a degree of autonomy in the administration of their area, then the depredation of natural resources and the policy of Arabization and Islamization alongside the sustained efforts to eradicate the indigenous Nuba culture.

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