By Dr Omer M Shurkian
The second phase of Sudan’s civil war, which began in 1983, drew in new forces from the marginalised regions of Sudan, including the Nuba Mountains. Consequently, two sorts of struggle existed: reformist, to be avoided as only alleviating and rectifying the sufferings of the masses; and revolutionary, whereby the masses could assume control over their destiny. The former was a characteristic struggle of the Anya-Nya (1955 – 1972), while the latter was adopted by the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and persuaded the masses that the construction of a New Sudan required the destruction of the old one. The Nuba’s decision to join the armed struggle was evoked by several factors. Local as well as national, these factors were historical, political and social. The grievances are now augmented by ideologically bankrupt politicians, who have ruled, and continue to rule, the Sudan since independence in 1956. Certainly among the Nuba, many of what were local, sullen resentments were converted into national aspirations, and a nationalist struggle developed. In part at least, what appears to be construed as a process of inexorable domination in which the grip that the central Government has held over the country for some decades is being profoundly challenged. For the Sudanese people to live in peace and prosperity among themselves, their leaders should believe and recognise that people are different but equal. This can be attained by convening a National Constitutional Conference in which they can reach an agreement on issues like the country’s identity, cultural recognition, power-sharing, equal distribution of national wealth, even development, to mention but a few. Not only will this tackle the Nuba Question, but it will also solve the Sudan Question as an integral entity. On the other hand, if the leaders fail to achieve this, then the country is doomed to witness protracted civil war with new regions getting involved and possible break up of Sudan into mini-states.
This paper touches briefly on Nuba’s historical oppression, modern grievances that have led them to the substitution of peaceful protest with armed struggle, though they paid a heavy price of this shift in the mode of struggle in terms of gross human rights violations, which were meted out on them by successive regimes in Khartoum. The paper ponders and analyses the antecedent events that led to civil strife in the Nuba Mountains, and argues with plausible examples and assertions what material, political and psychological reasons that can drive a people to opt for such extreme measures to change the way they have been forced to live. It is also vitally important to touch on what it means to be a Nuba, or why the Nuba see themselves in a unique identity within the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious Sudan, and why they were obliged to go to war to preserve it.
II. The legacy of slavery
The Nuba people of Southern Kordofan are one of the indigenous African groups of the country, who live in the Nuba Mountains: a region that occupies an area roughly the size of Scotland. The land is a lush, fertile and oasis in central Sudan. The rainfall there is plentiful, and the good soil ensures sufficient food throughout the year. The inaccessibility of the mountains had kept the Nuba people protected from being entirely hunted down by the slave raiders of the North. The Nuba society is co-operative and egalitarian. Moreover, the Nuba Mountains have never been immune from external forces that have intruded into the Sudan and northeast Africa. The region’s turbulent past is a convincing evidence of Nuba’s trials and tribulations. Historically, the Nuba Mountains offered refuge to those displaced by episodic upheavals along the River Nile; this accounts, in parts, for the diverse ethnic composition of its inhabitants.
The Nuba population is estimated to be over two million people. One of the causes which contributed badly to the decimation of the Nuba population was slavery. In slave-trade days, some 200,000 Nuba had been removed in bondage to Egypt by 1839. Other thousands had been seized by Arabs of the surrounding plains and sold to native Arab merchants. The corrosive effects of slavery, with its sheer brutality and its reduction of humans to a cash value, have built lasting flaws into African-Arab relations; and this remains the undisclosed factor in Sudan’s civil wars. The inequalities perpetrated against the Nuba people today, by racist slurs and systems of prejudice and discrimination, flow from the psyche of master-cum-slave mentality of Arab Sudanese.
III. Antecedents to Nuba armed struggle
One useful conceptual prism for examining the emergence of an insurrectionary potential is the sociological workhorse of ‘relative deprivation’. A deprivation that stems from change: actual or anticipated. It is where conditions decline by comparison with the present, and where shifts in the relative conditions of two groups occur. The sense of grievance must have a reference point. Similarly, the consciousness of deprivation has meaning only in terms of some vision or the recollection of non-deprivation. In the Nuba Mountains, we may suggest that not only a sense of deprivation is widespread, but it is also measured along three dimensions: in temporal space, in vertical social space between strata and in horizontal communal space among ethnic affiliation not within the region, but between the region and the centre.
The time dimension, to begin with, has its roots in the formation of Sudan as it stands today. In January 1956, the Sudan exercised its right of ‘self-determination’. In actuality, it was the urban elites of Northern Sudan who exercised that right in collaboration with the jallaba (petty Arab traders). The Southerners, the Nuba, the Ingessana and other marginalised people of the Sudan were not party to that formula which was consummated on January 1, 1956. To ensure the complete isolation of the rest of the country, the Northern elites exclusively held the right to carry out legal framework, power wielding and all pre-independence arrangements, including the inheritance of posts from the colonialists. On May 13, 1951, Ibrahim Badri delivered a concise memorandum to a Constitution Amendment Commission. On the ‘Problem of the South’, Mr Badri was quoted as saying:
When I say the South, I do not mean the inhabitants of the three Southern Provinces alone, but also those of the Southern Fung, Blue Nile Province, as well as some of the inhabitants of Dar Fur and of the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan. As already mentioned, all of these people neither profess Islam nor speak Arabic, they can hardly understand each other; there are no traditional, religious, linguistic or cultural ties between them and the Northerners; the only tie is a territorial one which can be traced back to the [Turco-]Egyptian conquest in 1820.
Although the warning was stark, the then political leaders, who were hankering after power, took no notice; instead, they wallowed in sloganeering, uttering: at-Tahreer qabl al-Ta’ameer (Liberation before Development). The independence was marred by bloodletting in Southern Sudan, marking the beginning of a protracted armed struggle that ended in 1972. For the Nuba, who opted for a peaceful means to address their political grievances, it was only a matter of time before they could realise that this process of peaceful protest was not working. The Khartoum governments, as well as the Northern elite, have continued to make the Sudanese believe that the so-called the ‘Problem of Southern Sudan’ was largely attributed to the legacy of colonial rule and missionary policies in the South: the ploy makes the mind boggles. If that was supposedly the case for the South, then what had the nationalist governments done to ameliorate the socio-economic prospects of the people living in the peripheries?
Not long before Sudan’s independence in 1956, a group of ‘Negroid but detribalised’ people in the national capital, Khartoum, organised themselves into what was then called al-Kutla al-Sawda (the Black Bloc) in 1938. The bloc, under the leadership of Dr Mohamed Adam Adham, drew its members from ex-slaves and their descendants from Western and Southern Sudan who were residing in Khartoum. The assault on the bloc, which elected Dr Adham to guide them through the thicket of Northern politics, was too hard to sustain. Firstly, the bloc suffered from a heavy blow that came from nascent sectarian parties and the colonial administration, which was just recovering from a stroke it received from ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Latif’s White Flag League in 1924. More importantly, the bloc was a continuation of the political message the White Flag was preaching. The Umma Party co-operated, or rather exploited the bloc, to its end-use. Secondly, the bloc’s branch in Wad Medani, the Black Liberals, strongly objected the bloc’s co-operation with the Umma Party, which had succeeded to create a rift in the bloc and, therefore, sowing the seed of self-demise. Having outlived its usefulness to the Umma Party, the bloc was dubbed a racist movement. The coup de grace came when the bloc was banned from engaging in political activities by the colonial administration.
The social stratification dimension of ‘relative deprivation’ refers to the development, after independence, of areas in Northern Sudan in access to material rewards between those able to move into the formerly colonial-occupied roles and those who lacked opportunities for status mobility. Stratification of the Sudanese society is primarily on ethnic prestige, language, religion and education bases. The Nuba Mountains region is an Arabo-Islamic fringe area; and, from the perspective of the urbanised Arabo-Islamic culture of the centre, is also an uncouth hinterland: a frontier. These elements play a significant role in mobilising the Nuba against the domination of Northern urban elites, and fighting to preserve their identity and cultural merits.
The emergence of the General Union of Nuba (GUN) Mountains in the 1960s was meant to pick up the wand from where the bloc had stopped. In spite of its fair and just cause, the union was always stigmatised as a racist, anti-Arab movement. Under the leadership of the redoubtable Philip ‘Abbas ‘Ghabboush, the union campaigned for the improvement of social services in the Nuba Mountains. The region was not a non-productive area that the central establishment might have complained that it was demanding too much for nothing. The region became famous for the production of short staple cotton in the 1940s and 1950s in addition to other cash crops. Revenues from the sales of these products should have been earmarked for the economic development and the promotion of social services in the area, but to no avail. Combined with increasing socio-economic disparities, the Nuba were left in a situation that has led to increased cases of malnutrition and lack of hygiene, culminating in endemic and epidemic diseases – such as, leprosy, malaria, yellow fever and so forth. In mid-1960s, a wide spread discontent among the Nuba citizens, in particular, engulfed Heiban and ‘Abri localities where violence ensued, resulting in attacks on Governments institutions and burning of some official properties. Swift courts were held, and the accused Nuba received severe sentences. This incident left bitter psychological effects among the natives in the area and the surrounding villages. In the 1960s, two vestiges of colonial rule were still pursued in the Nuba Mountains by the post-independent governments: the levying of dignia (the poll tax) and the unpaid communal work for roads repair. Through a sustained campaign by the GUN, the Nuba people from western mountains marched towards Dilling Rural District, forcing the authorities to succumb to their protest and consequently abolished the poll tax. However, both the poll tax and the vice tax were replaced by the hut tax. In 1965, the leadership of the GUN issued a statement in which it demanded, inter alia, the abolition of the poll tax paid by every individual in Western Sudan to the Government. The GUN planned to carry out the following steps:
- To change the union into a political party immediately in order to carry out the heavy burden entrusted upon it by the people.
- The union approached the Southern Front with a view to co-ordinate their policy for unity and to build a solid front for the following reasons:
- No difference exists between the region of the Nuba Mountains and the three Southern provinces. Their habitats, customs [and traditions] are very close and the way of living is also similar.
- Characteristics in race are similar. They have the same Negroid blood, their appearance is one and both have the real African outlook. What is more important is that they are the real owners this land.
- The Nuba, like the Southerners, have suffered a great deal: both have been discriminated due to their racial appearance, because they are, in fact, the true Africans.
These points served as a political manifesto for co-operation between the Nuba people and their counterparts in Southern Sudan. The core policy statement alarmed the authorities and, among other reasons, triggered the assassination of William Deng Nhial, the President of SANU. His message was well received especially in Western Sudan, the strong hold of the Ansar and the Umma Party. Nhial’s political activities in the marginalised areas, and his message to the people of these areas, had a tremendous effect on these people.
In 1965, a decision was taken by the GUN leaders to contend parliamentary elections. Consequently, a tract was publicised outlining their opinion on some of the issues of the day as envisaged by the organistion. Their stance was revealed in their electoral programme as follows:
- Since the representatives will be elected to form the Constituent Assembly that will promulgate the Permanent Constitution of Sudan, the Nuba are demanding to be represented by individuals from the Nuba Mountains area, who will adduce to their point of view on the system of governance that will be implemented in the Sudan.
- Calling for a regional system of governance based on national, presidential model in order to suit the multifarious status of Sudan.
- Calling for a Socialist, Materialist system that will nationalise big industrial institutions and privatise agricultural schemes, as well as converting them into co-operative societies.
- The Sudan should adopt Afro-Arab line in its foreign policy, and should support the Non-Aligned Movement.
- The regional Members of Parliament should adopt the policy of the GUN, because this policy was drawn by a number of qualified personnel after a long, careful thought.
Perusing these points will give a glimpse of the aims and objectives of the GUN. The first point had, and has, a great significance to the Nuba as a people, because the type of constitution that was about to be introduced – that is, the Islamic Constitution – would have an adverse effect on them religiously, economically, socially and politically. The Nuba, especially the Christians and the believers of Traditional African Beliefs, invested so grand an effort in the issue of the Constitution and they canvassed for the Nuba intellectuals who could stand up against those who were calling for the introduction of Islamic Constitution in the Sudan. Like other regional groups, the Nuba were convinced beyond doubt that their social, economic and political underdevelopment was due to the centralised system of governance. Based on this self-persuasion, the Nuba argued – correctly so – that centralisation had concentrated power in the hands of political elites from central Sudan, leaving the regional population barehanded. As a result, they had no opportunity to assume the role of decision-makers in the state in which they had been living since time immemorial. Against this argument, the Nuba called for a regional system of governance under national, presidential model. This point of view brought on board the Beja people in Eastern Sudan, who were demanding an autonomous arrangement for their region.
On the issue of identity, the GUN’s call for Afro-Arab approach to Sudan’s foreign policy was either meant to strike a reconciliatory tone to the Arab world or to soothe the emotions of the Arabised and Islamised Sudanese. In spite of this balanced appeal on Sudan’s identity, the GUN members were not immune from the accusation of racism. In April 1966, The GUN held a general conference in Kadugli and passed a decision that the Sudan should adopt, in its foreign policy, an African line. Not only was the GUN striving to represent the Nuba’s aspirations and hopes regionally, but it was also airing out its views on national, regional and international issues.
Since the Nuba were fed up with the traditional and sectarian parties, they saw in the GUN their future as it succeeded in mending inter-tribal relations unlike the traditional parties which were doing too little to harmonise inter-tribal and Arab-Nuba relations. In actuality, they were dividing the population on Arab-African lines, Muslims and Christians, party loyalists and opponents and so forth. In Southern Kordofan, the Baggara Arabs are Ansars (the traditional supporters of the Umma Party) and the jallaba are the die-hard stalwarts of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leaving the Nuba bestridden between these two sectarian parties. Against this background, the GUN contended the 1965 elections and won eight seats out of fourteen allocated to Southern Kordofan. The names of their candidates are listed in the Table: 1 below.
Table: 1 The GUN MPs after the 1965 Constituent Assembly Elections
No. | Candidate | Constituency No. | Registered electorate | Electors
- Zakaria Isma’il | 191 | 5512 | 3969
- Attroun ‘Attiyya | 190 | 6125 | 3840
- Gamar Hussein Rahma | 213 | 5692 | 2393
- Kabbashi Osman | 192 | 2579 | 1217
- Bahr Karia | 193 | 3327 | 1189
- Ibrahim Kuku | 194 | 1345 | 964
- Philip Kalu Ramadan | 195 | 2280 | 864
- Philip ‘Abbas ‘Ghabboush | 257 | 1148 | 396
Source: Hassab Allah, I M, Tareikh Jibal al-Nuba al-Ijtima’i wa al-Siyasi fi Qarn (1885 – 1985), Khartoum, 1998.
The 1966 Kadugli conference was characterised by two things: the co-ordination between the Southerners and the Nuba, and the vividness in which the Nuba presented their case. As a result of South-Nuba co-operation and co-ordination, the Southern Front was represented in the conference by Hilary Logali. He delivered a speech in which he was quoted as saying the Southerners and the Nuba were, in reality, one body because of their shared land. What they had in common was in the form of natural circumstances and similar tragedies; they were both struggling against illiteracy, poverty, hunger and marginalisation. Further co-ordination between the Southerners and the Nuba came about when Fr Philip ‘Abbas ‘Ghabboush, deputised by William Deng and Hilary Logali, was chosen to lead the African parties in the Constituent Assembly, provoking the authorities beyond forgiveness.
Not only did the GUN manage to delineate its cause effectively, but it also provided convincing solutions. The subjects discussed at length and tackled in this conference were school subvention, promotion of health services, economic development, general policy, local councils, taxes and Native Administration Rule in the Nuba Mountains. Such a feverish campaign by the GUN representatives in Parliament and their co-ordination with other regional forces - namely, the Southerners, the Beja Congress and Dar Fur Development Front – forced the Government to act, though sluggishly. It earmarked some money for solving the water problem in rural areas in the 1965/66 annual budget, formed the Committee of Underdeveloped Areas and adapted new approaches in its political plans towards the peripheral regions. The traditional and sectarian parties worked tirelessly to sabotage these successes. This became evident when the GUN split into two parties, that is, Fr ‘Ghabboush’s mainstream group and Mahmoud Hasseib’s breakaway faction. The latter was in cahoots with the May putschists and was instrumental to this military change as it was later revealed; his reward with a ministerial portfolio and governorship posts after the success of Nimeiri’s coup d’?tat in May 1969 was a telling proof. Despite all what he did for Nimeiri and his co-plotters, Hasseib was assassinated in June 1984 in daylight and in cold blood in Khartoum, while working as the Chairman of Abu Haraz Satellite Station. The plots against the GUN proved too much and, in the 1967 parliamentary elections, the GUN won only three seats.
The advent of jallaba, and their alliance with district councillors, created an impervious power base in the Nuba Mountains. The interests of jallaba have to coincide with those of local officials, because they entirely depend on each other. This alliance, in addition to the policies of central Government, became so powerful a factor in confiscating – without compensation – the Nuba’s fertile lands when Mechanised Agriculture Corporation was introduced in the Nuba Mountains in the 1970s. This has affected both the local economies and people’s lifestyle in the region. The dominant exploitative relations in production, distribution and commodity exchange are unjust ones, which have always worked to the detriment of the Nuba people.
The jobs reserved for the Nuba are the degrading ones, to say the least. In the absence of modern sewage facilities in many Sudanese towns during the early years of this century, human waste was gathered in buckets which were removed from latrines by conservancy workers at night. Such jobs used to be filled by ex-slaves during the colonial era but, after Sudan’s independence in 1956, they were exclusively carried out by the Nuba until as late as 1969 when Nimeiri’s regime abolished them. Nimeiri’s political decision was felt only in the capital, as the Nuba continued to carry out these menial posts outside the capital until the late 1970s. The Nimeiri Government also removed an allowance called badal ragig (slave allowance) from the Sudan Civil Service benefits for senior officials, which had remained long after the country’s independence.
In the 1960s, the sectarian parties were bullied by Dr Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamic Charter Front into the espousal of Islamic Constitution in the Sudan, despite the country’s multi-religious nature. The move was drummed up by agitating the spiritual emotions of the Muslim populace. This heresy, thanks to the army officers, was prevented by Col Nimeiri’s coup d’état in May 1969. But, ironically, the Islamic Penal Code was implemented in September 1983 by the same man, that is, President Nimeiri, who launched a military putsch to put an end, inter alia, to the Islamic Constitution. Each time the Islamisation of politics appears in the Sudan, the issue was vehemently opposed by the Nuba and the Southerners. The idiosyncratic nature of Nimeiri is an epitome of the Sudanese leaders who have ruled the country since independence in 1956. The Islamic Shari’a advocates, in their own peculiar interpretations, were also to get their comeuppance. Sadiq al-Mahdi made fuzz against these laws and was thrown into jail to languish there for sometime. In a vehement opposition to these laws, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, the spiritual leader of the Republican Brothers, threw his trust in a divine providence, and paid the price in his own life. The issue of Sharia’a has a pernicious influence to national unity.
Some observers may argue that what is deadly wrong with the Islamic legislation that it remains a stumbling block in Sudan’s body politics? There are two cardinal reasons why the obtrusion of religion on politics is so harmful a factor to national unity. First and foremost, under no circumstances will the indigenous population, who have been Sudanese since time immemorial and not since the arrival of the Arabs to the Sudan, accept being treated as second class citizens in their own country. For those who are aware of the extent of racial, social and religious discrimination in the Sudan not only in personal law, but also in court testimony and holding an office, it would be suicidal to accept the intrusion of religion in political life. Secondly, the introduction of Shari’a Law in multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country like the Sudan has been, as we have witnessed, applied on racial basis: thus the non-Arab groups have born the brunt of it. The Shari’a Law, we have witnessed, turned into an instrument of oppression against the masses in which hands and feet were chopped off for fairly minor offenses, and executions were carried out in public. And not to mention the lethal recipe of police and prosecutorial misconduct, defence ineptitude and judicial indifference. This is the same Sudan whose constitutions, transitional or permanent, have stated that no discrimination shall be attached to any Sudanese by reason of ethnic origin, sex or religion. In spite of its multi-ethnic character, the Sudan is a country deeply submerged in a sea of racism. Racism there takes different shapes: either openly by the use of media to promote and exploit hatred towards particular racial, ethnic or religious groups, or subtly by the telling of a tasteless joke. Some people insult those who politically disagree with them by questioning their ethnic origin – for example, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Latif and the sectarian leaders in 1924 when they questioned his ethnic and social background. This trend of highly derogatory, socio-racial remarks tends to obscure important facts about the real issues in question, and they are frequently used to demean the entire groups of people from which the Nuba are not immune.
Next to religion is Arabisation, which has provoked the most extreme passion in the Sudan. Arabism in the Sudan, it seems, has its roots in ‘the politics of difference’: the tendency of groups outside the mainstream to found their identity on their status as outsiders. For the Sudanese, Arabisation is extricably bound up with the conflicting visions of the country’s cultural identity. Culture, however, has been but the basic driving force behind human behaviour. A succession of authoritarian central governments in the Sudan, uneasy with pluralism and eager to shore up their nationalist credentials, discouraged vernacular languages at school, and promoting Arabic as the master language that should dominate all aspects of public and cultural life. In reality, the cultural consequences which emanate from public schools are proved to be brutally distorting. The students are Africans who speak their own African languages, yet there is no appreciation of their mother tongue and no attempt to use them as a base for learning. Instead, in the effect to create a national unified language, the school system operates in Arabic, with almost no reference to nor appreciation of their mother tongue, which was frequently seen as a cultural embarrassment beside the Arabic language. Such are the self-denying - and, worse still, self-distorting - decisions that the ruling clique’s notion of nation-state is bequeathed to their posterity as a national culture. These policies pursued by the ruling oligarchy, are driven by two motives: ideology, because they implausibly believe that they stand for some splendid idea that others should be coerced into accepting it, and Arab race - however impure it may be - that makes them feel that the rest should be at their beck and call. The fundamental source of conflict in the Sudan is not primarily ideological or economic; the dominating source of conflict is culture. Cultures are what people think of themselves as part of. So if the Southerners, the Nuba, the Funj and the Beja people do not think of themselves as part of Arab culture, then it will be rather futile to force them into embracing it.
In addition to the political parties, the People’s Armed Forces play a pivotal role in political life in the Sudan. The politicisation of the army commenced at the inception of Sudan Defence Force, the nucleus of the modern day Armed Forces, by the Anglo-Egyptian rule (1898 – 1956). Candidates for the Military School in Omdurman, thanks to the colonial policy of recruitment, were exclusively drawn from the sons of sectarian leaders and tribal chiefs in Northern and central Sudan, especially after the crush of ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Latif’s revolt in 1924. The Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) later on, through furtive measures, managed to infiltrate the army and recruited a number of officers. The ruralists, including the Nuba and the Southerners, succeeded to win the hearts and minds of a handful of officers, but a large number of NCOs. It was these officers and NCOs who launched a number of abortive coups d’état, which were always dismissed as racist movements, despite the cosmopolitan nature of them.
One of the most unfortunate attempts to take over power by army officers was that of Lt-Col Hassan Hussein Osman on September 5, 1975. The majority of those who participated in the coup attempt came from Western Sudan. Western Sudanese looked with envy on the South’s autonomous status and the fact that it was the recipient of Government and international aid, while Western Sudan remained as undeveloped as ever, especially the Nuba Mountains. The putsch was swiftly and mercilessly crushed by none other than Nimeiri, and the ringleaders were either cashiered or executed, including the execution of Cpl Hamad Iheimir, who saved Nimeiri’s life from the SCP coup in July 1971. That Iheimir should be among the protagonists of the coup against Nimeiri, only four years after he had fought for his life, was an indication of the level of disenchantment in some quarters of the army, especially those who came from the Nuba Mountains.
The seeds of Osman’s coups d’état were sown in mid-1972 after the establishment of Sudan National Front (SNF), which comprised Dar Fur Development Front, Misseiriyya, Hawazma and Rizeigat People’s Union and the Nuba people. After a meeting in Mutasim al-Tegalawi’s office in Khartoum on June 13, 1972, the participants – namely, Mr Tegalawi himself, Mohamed Adam al-Tayib, al-Shareif Mohamed Abu Bakr and Mohamed Moumin Amin – outlined the objectives of the movement. They called for the division of Sudan into five geographical regions, a just power-sharing, equality, the development of marginalised areas, putting an end to bloodletting in Southern Sudan, combating the spread of drought and eliminating poverty and illiteracy.
To the Nuba, all these injustices were adduced to explain what brought out resentments that had been festering for years. Soon after the emergence of the SPLM/A in May 1983, the Nuba pondered the options available to them in order to revamp the situation of their people. Having disposed of peaceful opposition because it was tried and did not work since the country’s independence, the choices at hand were: conventional war, insurrection, coup d’état or protracted people’s war. Before launching a military campaign in a bid to change the political structure of governance in the Sudan, the SPLM/A must have ruminated over these options. For the Nuba people, like the Southerners before, the most appropriate method to confront the establishment was armed struggle as a means and, if possible, an end.
IV. Economic and cultural activities
The Nuba do not show strict tendency towards economics in the sense of budgeting, banking and so forth. They are agriculturists for self-sufficiency, and they do breed animals, though they are not nomadic. Besides short staple cotton which was introduced in the area in 1923 – 1924, the Nuba Mountains region is well known for the production of cash crops – for example, gum, sesame, groundnuts, sorghum, okra hibiscus and so forth. In the 1960s, the region produced plenty of fruits, especially mango and lemon, and Abu Jibayha, Abbasiyya and al-Feid Um ‘Abd Allah became famous for that. Their great ceremony of the Full Granary encourages industry in agriculture, but maintains a true democratic equality of wealth by arranging for its dissipation (distribution). The land in the Nuba Mountains is communally owned by a tribe, though plots of some arable land may belong to a family. In summer season, the Nuba youth travel to towns and cities where they are employed in building construction, street sweeping, domestic chores and all kinds of menial jobs, including human waste removal.
Culture traits occur in varying degrees of similarity or diversity. The Nuba are an exogamous society – that is, marriage within the clan is being forbidden. It is one of cultural phenomena that the Nuba are so desperately struggling to preserve against the tide of Islamisation and Arabisation the central governments are poised to implement. Nuba cultural activities and events can take a kind of sport due to their physical performance. There is sibir (festival, or memorial celebrations); some people argue that it is an excuse for the Nuba to consume marissa (locally brewed beer, which is a staple diet in the Nuba Mountains). There are other sports like wrestling. Although a Nuba-wide sport, Korongo and Nyimang are known to be the best wrestlers; bracelet-fighting is mainly performed in Kau and Fungor; stick-fighting is practiced among the Moro and Masakin Nuba; and hockey is common among them. Dancing and music – including, lyre-playing, flutes, blowing horns, drums beating, gourd trumpets – play a significant part in the Nuba daily life and entertainment. This way of life is now in danger of being submerged by the Arab North. Added to Nuba linguistic diversity there is a religious diversity too. Some Nuba have been attracted to Islam, others to Christianity, but many stuck to neither religion in particular who are content at the moment to follow traditional ways.
V. Political development and local authority
In the past, the Nuba existed as an acephalous community. Apart from the Kingdom of Tegali, the Nuba lived in tribal sections with no renowned leader. But when it came to war, there was always someone somewhere who would come out of the mist and lead them through thick and thin. Like any indigenous people in the Sudan, the Nuba suffered from the depredations of wars, slavery and oppression during the Turco-Egyptian rule (1821 – 1885) and the Mahdist Rule (1885 – 1898). Realising the Nuba’s military prowess, the Mahdi travelled to the Nuba Mountains to implore the Tegali King for logistical assistance. The riverain Sudanese were sitting on the fence and doubting the Mahdi’s victory over the Turco-Egyptian army; and, at a certain stage, he was opposed by influential, spiritual clerics. In addition to the people of Western Sudan, the Mahdi then solicited the support of the Beja in Eastern Sudan and the fugitive slave traders in Southern Sudan. He mustered his troops from both the oppressed and people with vested interests in the change. When he captured al-Obeid, the Mahdi summoned the Tegali King, his family and his advisor to meet him. In the twist of events, the very Tegali King, one Adam Um Dabalo, was to die in shackles under the yoke of the Mahdi while marching to Khartoum.
For almost five decades, the Anglo-Egyptian administration (1898 – 1956) tried to subdue the Nuba. Unlike the Northern Sudanese who fought pitched battles against the Anglo-Egyptian forces before capitulation and joining the new regime, the Nuba resistance continued until 1945. Although such courageous strife can give a boost to self-pride, the process may have played a role in delaying the extension of education, transport lines and social services to the Nuba Mountains – if other factors, such as racial motives, are eliminated. Until quite recently, the ghost of slavery discouraged the Nuba to send their kids to schools lest they fell prey to the marauding Arab nomads in the area. Instead, they were taught martial arts and self-endurance. It is the Nuba tradition of manliness that has led so many of them to serve in the national army and the police; and, better still, to contribute so notably to the military traditions of Sudan.
With Talodi as its provincial capital, the Nuba Mountains region was ruled by the Condominium Government as a separate province between 1913 – 1929. The province was divided into three administrative areas: Western Jebels (mountains), Eastern Jebels and Southern Jebels. This process was later modified, and the Native Administration was introduced in the Nuba Mountains in the 1930s. The region was divided into Tegali District (1935), including Awlad Himeid and Kawahla (of Kalogi), Eliri District (1937) and Talodi Omodia (1945). Koalib-Heiban and Otoro-Tira became a unified district in 1938. Heiban was transferred to the Otoro-Tira administration in 1942, and they joined Southern Nuba Confederation in 1947. Nyimang Confederation was created in 1939, including Mandal, Karko, Wali, Katla, Julud and Temein. Ajang Confederation (Hill Nubians) was formed in 1940, including Dilling, Ghulfan and Kadaru. Ajang Confederation and the Koalib administration were amalgamated in 1955. Finally, Southern Nuba Confederation was introduced in 1947, including Miri and Kadugli. Although it had been argued that the federation represented an essential step in the political evolution of weak, small native groups towards self-government, the process did not provide the Nuba with proper education, social services and community development.
Not long after Sudan’s independence in 1956, the Southerners were excluded from the spoils of colonial rule on the grounds that they were not educated. When they later became educated, the Northerners brought in the Islamic Shari’a (code) to bar Christians and non-Muslims alike from holding key positions in the Government. We now wonder if the Southerners and the Nuba were to convert into Muslims en masse, the Arab ruling elite would bring in another ploy, probably they would ask the Africans to become Arabs: an impossible proviso even in the era of cloning. Although ethnically different from Arabic-speaking parts of Northern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains region has not been involved in the so-called ‘Southern Problem’ (1955 – 1972). So after the signing of Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 which ended military operations in the South, the Nuba, having seen the Southerners reaping the fruits of their armed struggle, realised that the only method to achieve political, economic and social goals in the Sudan was through the muzzle of gun. The two sectarian parties – namely, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Umma Party, which have dominated the Sudanese politics since independence – are solely responsible for the decadence and failure of Sudan’s governments to secure stability, economic development and progress. Even military dictatorships are the making of these parties, and in this accusation, the leftists of all hues were culpable as well. The Nuba representatives in the Constituent Assembly in the 1950s and 1960s demanded basic requirements for their people back home. They were asking the authorities to dig wells, build bridges, construct schools and dispensaries and vaccinate their animals against epidemic diseases. Although their demands were legitimate, civic rights that were asked in a peaceful way, the successive governments, which were supposed to relent to their demands without ado, contemptuously dismissed their grievances.
Ever since the 1960s, the fertile plains of the Nuba Mountains have been taken over by vast, and hugely profitable, Mechanised Farming Schemes, the property of the businessmen who dominate the Sudanese state. These schemes are ruinous to the environment, to the nomads who graze their herds on the plains and to the Nuba who have lost their most fertile farms. Those who have refused to give up their land have been harassed, imprisoned and murdered.
As it has been widely publicised, land tenure has been recognised as a major source of conflict in the Nuba Mountains. This had all started in the 1960s when the Mechanised Farming was introduced in the area, infringing on the tentative relations of the population structure – economically as well as socially. In 1968, the Mechanised Farming was established as a result of funding by the International Monetary Fund to oversee this scheme in the different parts of the Nuba Mountains. Numbering nearly 650 schemes and with the average area of 422 hectares, these plots were licensed to absentee landlords after forcibly confiscating them from their local owners. Established in 1970, the Nuba Mountains Development Corporation was meant to modernise the traditional methods of cultivation in the Nuba Mountains. This policy had earmarked 37% of agrarian land to the Nuba, 45% to Arab tribes and 18 % to Fellata Housa and Bergo. At Habila alone, there are 200 projects which were distributed as follows: 191 for individuals outside the Nuba Mountains region, including traders, civil servants, retired army officers from Northern Sudan and Gezira; 4 co-operative projects for native residents. Some of the provocations generated by the policies of the authorities included the imprisonment of Mak Hussein al-Iheimer of Dallami Rural District in 1978, because he refused to surrender the natives’ lands to the Mechanised Farming Schemes, which belonged to Jellaba (petty Arab merchant) traders. In 1981, the village of Fayo in Dallami Rural District was encircled by Mechanised Farming Schemes, which were owned by a certain, Jellaba trader, who never bothered himself to visit the area. By 1984, all the villagers’ lands became his dominion, but when the natives protested, law and force were used to chase them away from the zone of agricultural schemes. The Nuba were outraged to see their kith and kin being flogged in controversial courts favouring Arabs, the authorities and bureaucrats.
In the early 1992, the authorities in South Kordofan State announced that they had laid their hands on serious corruption regarding land leases in the state, and, consequently, 712 agricultural schemes were confiscated at Kurtala, Habila, Rashad and Abu Jibeiha. These confiscations were carried out on allegations that the lands were leased to under-age owners, and others were either illegally sold or rented. But, in fact, these lands were redistributed to militia leaders and Arab chiefs as a reward for their participation in military operations against the rebel SPLA.
As we have just seen earlier, the Nuba intellectuals and political activists reached a conclusion that they were squandering time on peaceful talks with the authorities in Khartoum. The emergence of the SPLM/A in Southern Sudan in 1983 was welcomed by the Nuba population, because the SPM/A’s manifesto was appealing to them as well as other disgruntled people of Sudan. Its manifesto reiterated that: ‘Although the Movement has started by necessity in the South, it aims eventually at engulfing the whole country in socialist transformation; ‘[t]he SPLA is fighting to establish a United Socialist Sudan, not a separate Southern Sudan.’ It was not expected, bearing in mind the suffering of a people weighed down by poverty and worn out by social injustice, to see the Nuba staying aloof from the developing politico-military events affecting the country. This turn of events meant two things: the movement of Nuba struggle from Khartoum (centre) to the homeland (countryside), and the transformation of struggle from a peaceful tussle to an armed one. The SPLM/A was building on two basic factors which had charcaterised Southern grievances: the sharing of political power, and the distribution of national wealth or, to be precise, the uneven development between the centre and the countryside. In addition to these agenda, newly contentious issues arose. They included a call for scrapping the infamous Islamic laws from the book, or what would be known at later stages as the separation of religion from state. For the Nuba, these demands were compatible with their age-long aspirations, and were more convinced than ever before that the SPLM/A was addressing Sudan’s problems and not the so-called ‘the Problem of Southern Sudan’.
VI. The right to justice and to be different
Nuba’s problems are inseparable from that of all marginalised people of the Sudan. These problems, to mention but a few, include: power sharing, equal distribution of national wealth, settling the issue of national identity, cultural recognition whereby all Sudanese compatriots do enjoy the right express and promote their traditions, customs and vernacular languages and civic rights that are based on citizenship and not religion and. If these points are adequately addressed, the Sudanese people may begin to live in comfort. Wealthy or comfortable people are usually reluctant to go to war, though poor or angry nationalist ones may, as history has shown, be much less reluctant, because they have nothing to lose anyway. In fact, by war, they may gain something if they come out of it triumphantly. Instead of tackling these chronic pitfalls, the Northern leaders continued to concentrate their efforts on party bickering, corruption and politico-economic mismanagement.
The Northerners should have disposed of traditional attitudes and parochial analyses. These involved changes in the Northern thinking that had been gestating since the 1950s in which they had been attempting, with no success, to assert political control over cultural identity by military means. Furthermore, if the Sudanese long for a successful multi-ethnic society, which is possible, then citizens must be able to feel that they are more than one thing at once: to be Nuba and Sudanese, Southerners and Sudanese, Darfurians and Sudanese, Beja and Sudanese, Arabs and Sudanese, and not merely of Arab stock of whom the majority are not. Divisions of race, language, class or religion can be tolerated and even enjoyed; they add to the complexes and the possibilities of life, provided that one section of society is not encroaching on others. But when one group is racially, religiously and economically distinguished from another, this will act as a recipe for political crises. Societies with such self-divisions seem not to stand up well to internal shocks.
VII. Trends and prospects
The political history of the Nuba Mountains can then be explained by the geographical concept of history that has played a pivotal role in shaping the life and fate of the Nuba people within the Sudan. This historico-geographical evolution of Sudan could be understood as an outcome of several factors, which was characterised, at some stage, by slavery and exploitation, and then followed by marginalisation. Over years, on the one hand, the victimisation of the Nuba people has fuelled the Nuba struggle to attain self-confidence, cultural recognition, social justice, political representation and freedom, without which humanity is incomplete. On the other hand, these factors have led to the growth of politically and economically advantaged elite, who live in urban areas in Northern and central Sudan and monopolise political and economic power in the country. Like the other marginalised citizens of Sudan, the grievances of the Nuba people are inextricable from theirs. The Nuba have become malcontents as they continue to receive no social development in their homeland, nor are they given a share in key government posts. As the indigenous people of Sudan, they are entitled to enjoy the spoils of power like everybody else. Furthermore, they oppose the social culture drawn solely from Islam as a religion and Arabic as a language, because they are multi-faith society and non-Arab group. The Islamic term umma (nation) is mainly meant to designate an Islamic society and, were the Nuba to accept the Muslim term of reference, they would find themselves aliens in their own country.
Thus, the Nuba’s struggle at its very core was aimed at relocating themselves in a place of values and cultural diversity. It was a struggle against extreme mis-orientation, where many of the Sudanese people had been made to believe that they shared the same history and fate as the Arabs. The whole issue at the zenith of Nuba struggle was not intended to replace all things that are Arab, but to expand the dialogue to include everybody in the country, regardless of their ethnic background, creed, colour, gender, culture or birth place. In order to have a stable society, countries must respect difference, because difference does not necessarily mean hostility. The underlying social and psychological rationale is that only when the Nuba feel secure in their own culture and identity can they feel open and charitable towards a hitherto dominant, Arab culture.
The author of this paper, as of other works in Arabic and English, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org He is currently the Principal Representative of the SPLM-N in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.