“The Nuba Mountains Region: An Inescapable Issue at Machakos”
The Khartoum regime has delayed, and perhaps ultimately aborted its participation in the most recent round of the Machakos peace talks. It has done so because it refuses to accept a decision by the peace process mediators that geographical issues must have a place on the agenda if a true and just peace is to be realized. The Machakos mediators have rightly decided that there can be no meaningful agreement that ignores the historically marginalized areas of Abyei, Southern Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. Twenty years of fighting cannot be ended by ignoring the fate of peoples who have allied themselves politically and militarily with South Sudan, and who feel themselves culturally at risk from the tyranny of Khartoum’s Islamicist project. The Nuba people in particular have recently expressed their determination to be part of any peace agreement, and have designated the SPLM/A as their representatives at the Machakos talks (as have the people of Abyei and Southern Blue Nile). There should be no mistaking the passionate resolve of these people to live in dignity, to see their culture preserved, and to exercise the right of self-determination.
Eric Reeves January 13, 2003
One reason that international optimism about Machakos has seemed excessive is that the difficulties of remaining issues, while recognized in general terms, have not been sufficiently appreciated in their particulars. Nowhere is this more the case than with the southern part of Blue Nile Province (Southern Blue Nile), as well as Abyei and the Nuba Mountains region of western and southern Kordofan Province. Though these areas have ended up in what was determined to be “northern Sudan” at the time of independence in 1956, this is little more than perverse historical accident, and fails utterly to take account of current political, ethnic, and cultural realities.
In the case of the Nuba Mountains, this history has been especially perverse. The people of the Nuba were not consulted during the process that led to Sudan’s independence from British and Egyptian condominium rule, and have never felt themselves represented by any of the governments that have come and gone since 1956. Though the Nuba people have made various political efforts to secure just representation, they have seen no success in these efforts. In the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972, the people of the Nuba were again without meaningful representation, and that deeply flawed peace agreement offered them nothing. War resumed all to predictably in 1983, in part because of Jafer Nimeiri’s imposition of the infamous “September shari’a laws” throughout Sudan, including the Nuba region (where Muslims and non-Muslims have historically coexisted peacefully). The people of the Nuba long ago decided to resist militarily the tyranny of Khartoum, joining cause with the SPLA in 1985. This resistance has only increased since the current regime—the National Islamic Front—came to power by military coup in June 1989.
The recent “All Nuba Conference” (December 2002) marked a consensus decision by the people of the Nuba to be represented by the SPLM/A at the Machakos peace talks. This sends a clear signal, and must not be ignored by those who understand the suffering that has defined so much of their recent history. Before the Nuba Mountains cease-fire was secured by the international community last year, the people of the region had been living under brutal humanitarian embargo for over a decade, denied all food and medical assistance, even by the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan. The most recent humanitarian assessment conducted before the cease-fire was negotiated revealed that Khartoum had brought many tens of thousands of people to the brink of starvation. This followed years of driving Nuban people from the fertile valleys to much more difficult and less productive mountainous areas.
Peace that excludes the voices of the people of the Nuba, and a recognition of their suffering at the hands of successive regimes in Khartoum, cannot be a just peace. It is thus difficult to imagine that the present Nuba Mountains cease-fire will survive in the wake of merely partial peace, one that leaves the essential geographical issues unresolved and ignores the voices of the Nuba. I recently had the privilege of hearing many of these voices during a lengthy discussion with regional leaders at Lwere, near Kauda. I was struck both by the passion and unanimity in what I heard—from Commander Ismail Khamis (acting governor of the SPLM/A-controlled region of the Nuba), Abais Ibrahim (Food Security Coordinator for the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Organization [NRRDO]), Mariam Yuhana (regional chair of the Nuba Women’s Association), Simon Kalo (regional director of education), Sodi Ibrahim (SPLM/A secretary for Rashad County), Mosa Abdualbagi (regional director of health care), Tia Tutu Tutu (assistant coordinator for NRRDO food security program), and Alamin DaHalla (secretary in the regional political office).
Again and again I heard the same words: to be consigned to a forced integration with Khartoum’s Islamicism and Arabism was death—and that resistance would continue if the international community attempted to foist such a resolution upon them. “Khartoum does not consider us to be human beings,” was a steady refrain amidst the anger and bewilderment over what is felt to be an all too obviously intolerable state of affairs. No Nuban has forgotten the deliberate denial of humanitarian access by Khartoum for over a decade, or the steady denial of agricultural land—efforts that marked a destruction that has widely been described as genocidal.
“We have no way out,” I was told. There is neither a political nor a geographical exit for the people of the Nuba unless it is achieved at Machakos. For as all those present in our discussion recognized, Machakos is a singular opportunity—as singular for them as for other parts of Sudan. If they area abandoned, or made part of an expedient compromise with Khartoum, they will have no recourse, no choice in their minds but to fight on for their own right to self-determination. They can no more concede this right than can the people of South Sudan.
“The 1956 boundaries have become irrelevant,” Commander Ismail told me. The historical vagaries that left this distinctive region of southern Kordofan as part of “northern Sudan” have long since ceased to have any relevance, culturally or politically. The deep resentment of a viciously tyrannical Islamicism and Arabism was never far from the surface in our discussion. Notably, in a comment that suggested to me that there is finally no parochialism in the Nuban point of view, Commander Ismail (representing Abdul Aziz, Governor of the Nuba region) said, “people should not talk in terms of geography, but in terms of politics.” By this he meant that it is not geography per se that is, or should be, the issue at Machakos; rather, the essential issue is the political and cultural realities of the people who are geographically located within the Nuba Mountains regions.
“The problem at Machakos is not the problem of Southern Sudan,” or the problem of the Nuba or other marginalized areas—“the problem is Sudan,” he continued. By which Commander Ismail meant that the essential problem is the National Islamic Front regime, which rules Sudan without support from any region of Sudan outside Khartoum. And of course there is resistance to the NIF’s tyranny even in Khartoum, though it continues to be harshly repressed.
The case of the people of the Nuba Mountains may be special in a sense, but it all too aptly crystallizes the essential challenge of Machakos. Either Khartoum is confronted forcefully, consistently, and with the sharpest moral focus, or the regime will delay, obfuscate, promise and renege, and delay further—continuing negotiations only in bad faith, calculating merely what best serves their survivalist desires. And if military victory should seem within reach—if resistance in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Sudan and other marginalized areas comes to be regarded as militarily vulnerable—then Machakos may overnight become irrelevant. The massive redeployments of offensive military power that have marked Khartoum’s activities since the cease-fire was agreed to on October 15, 2002 are a clear sign of this possibility.
But whatever the chances that remain for Machakos, what is represented by the people of the Nuba Mountains cannot be forgotten. To lose sight of their suffering will be an ominous portent of a much greater moral blindness.