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The History of conflict in the Nuba Mountains: (1984 – 1996)


By Omer M Shurkian

March 9, 2013 -The History of Conflict in the Nuba Mountain: (1984 – 1996) – or, as it can be transliterated as Tareikh al-Sira’a fi Jibal al-Nuba – is an MSc thesis by Siraj al-Din ‘Abd al-Ghaffar Omer in the African Studies Centre at the International African University (formerly the Islamic African Centre) in Khartoum, and supervised by Dr Hassan Makki Mohamed Ahmed, who also wrote the preface. Dr Ahmed stated that there was a few research works on South Kordofan – namely, the Nuba Mountains belt, and most of the work was carried out on the subjects of Nuba origin, their languages and their relations with other Sudanese linguistic clusters. He then proceeded with a classic Islamist diatribe against the Western world and Christendom, alleging that the international campaign against ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Nuba Mountains was because of the spread of Arabo-Islamic culture among the Nuba population. Dr Ahmed’s atavistic critique against what he referred to as the Christian design for the Sudan was exhibited in a book by the same title. However, Dr Ahmed claims that the desirable, social change is the one, which glues the society together by closely drawing its individuals and organisations, using the Islamic culture as an auto-mechanism of this change. This hypothesis has been proved to be false in the Nuba Mountains region. After a militaristically proselytising campaign by the central regimes since the 1980s, the social fabric in the Nuba Mountains area is currently in tatters; the population are no longer in rapport with themselves as Islam has now become the main factor of schism, destroying the previously harmonious co-existence among Christians, Moslems and the worshippers of Noble Aspects (African religions).

In a complete contrast with Dr Ahmed’s explanatory remarks on the peaceful spread of Islam in the buffer zones, the reaction has been a bloody episode in Africa at a certain span of time, specific places and particular peoples. The antiquated Kingdom of Nubia fought ferociously to repel the Arab invaders in 621 AD, and, in the modern history, the Zanzibarians revolted in an uprising against the exploitation of Arab settlers in the island in 1964. The Nuba resistance today is the reincarnation of Sudanese history at its worst. There is a constant reference to the Nuba Mountains region in the book as an ethnic kaleidoscope: the Nuba and the Arabs may exist in one homeland, while maintaining rival nationalism. The former are the indigenous population, but the latter began to trickle in in the sixteenth century. Because of his ill-thought views against indigenous African cultures, Hassan Makki has been accused of sanctioning research that aims at combating negritude. In his preface, he deliberately chose to ignore the unbearable stories of cruelty, gruesome horrors, the burning of villages and villagers alike by marauding jihadists, pillaging, gang-raping of women and the extra-judicial killings of everyone suspected of being a sympathiser of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Pursued as a counter-insurgency policy, this was all executed in a frenzy of anti-Nuba hatred and revenge by the Government army and their aided and abetted militias.

The study was conducted by using a ‘triangulation’ research methodology; this is a term borrowed from land surveying, and means simply that you get a better view of things by looking at them from more than one direction. In a medium size, the book was compiled in five chapters. The first chapter is a comparative study of the history of conflict in the area between Islam, on the one hand – represented by the Mahdist Revolution (1881 – 1898), the Kingdom of Tegali and Muslim evangelists – and Christian missionaries during the Condominium Rule (1898 – 1956), on the other hand. As an instrument of wreaking havoc, pillaging and enslavement, the Mahdist period was, and is, a byword for the breakdown of law and order in the Nuba Mountains. The repercussions of this tragic era are still being felt and talked of as a subject of infamy in the area. Comparatively speaking, the Christian missionaries during the colonial rule were charged with purveying social services: they built and ran schools, recorded Nuba languages and culture, respected their spiritual beliefs and provided clinical treatment to eradicate endemic diseases – for instance, Nyakama Leprosy Settlement. They were aware of the importance of recognising that these so-called ‘primitive peoples’ had elaborate cultures, which could be destroyed by the supposedly civilising influences of the British empire.

Looking into the conflict in a wider perspective, the author gave a brief account of Sudan’s first civil war (1955 – 1972) and the collapse of the Addis Ababa Agreement that was signed in March 1972, virtually putting an end to fragile peace, which was hoped to make the seventeen years of fratricidal fighting a thing of the past. He also discussed the economic, social and political problems of the Nuba people, and it was in this section – viz., chapter two – that the author objectively narrated the history of Nuba peaceful struggle for justice, equality, liberty, education, healthcare, equal distribution of national wealth and power-sharing. However, his narration about the advent of insurgency into the Nuba Mountains was just a publication of Government propaganda and military bulletins of void victories. Not surprisingly, the author served as a South Kordofan correspondent of al-Rayah (the flag) newspapers, the mouthpiece of the National Islamic Front (NIF) during the short period of multi-party democracy between the years 1985 – 1989. Such a statement about the researcher’s own background is vital, since this is acknowledged to have an important bearing on the validity and the reliability of the research.

The adverse effects of civil war on economic, social and political development in the Nuba Mountains were covered in the spheres of roads, agriculture, education and healthcare. Given the chaotic situation of Sudan, the abundant tables, census and statistics included in the research cannot be independently verified. Thus, the three key concepts of social research – namely, reliability, validity and representativeness – are in doubt as these results and collected data may not be repeatable if this research were to be carried out by another scholar. For the Nuba, the important point is that these figures are produced by the state – that is, state-istics. The state is seen not as a neutral body, but as the key agency in the promotion of the interests and values of the ruling class in a theocratic society. These so-called statistics contribute to keeping the dominant class in power, by presenting information in ways which do not harm their interests.

In the concluding remarks, solutions and future prospects are suggested to end the conflict in the Nuba Mountains. In the political field, the study affirms the federal system of governance as an overdue prerequisite for the Nuba people and the Southerners, asserting that it should reflect the genuine aspirations of the peoples of respective states through an efficacious representation. Contrary to the presidential decree No 13 of 1995, the research adduces that the population of each state should nominate three candidates from whom the President of the Republic may choose one. Well, in a true democracy, the voters’ choice should be a final and an obligatory decision – that is, above everyone’s whims, including the president who should be an elected figure himself.

As far as peaceful co-existence is concerned, the research advocated the following points:

  • the restoration of defunct alliances and old covenants; this principle of restoring the situation to what it had previously been (restitution) will be unworkable without new modalities;
  • ridding the area of inter-tribal disputes – such as, pastoral clashes and the inefficiency of Local Administration;
  • joining up the Arab and the Nuba communities with common economic schemes and encouraging the establishment of co-operative societies;
  • tackling geographic and social inclusiveness by building a network of roads, developing media and information, enhancing education, promoting social interactions through marriages, ‘linear mobility’ and housing; and
  • getting rid of racial discrimination and harassment, claiming that [an Islamic] religion could be a uniting factor, which is not true.

In the economic development sphere, the study had alluded to the following suggestions:

  • the necessity of agricultural reforms and the redistribution of agrarian lands in the Mechanised Farming Schemes in the Nuba Mountains to achieve equality and justice;
  • the existing projects in the area should contribute towards developing local societies by earmarking a percentage of taxes to attain this goal;
  • empowering the Agricultural Bank in the region to provide loans to poor farmers with a small interest rate and the affordable conditions of repayment;
  • and giving priorities to the region as far as national development plans are concerned.

As for internal displacement, the vestiges of war and security measures, the author merely vented out the NIF regime’s programme of proselytisation, anti-Western campaign, the militaristic approach of executing the civil war and dealing with the Government victims of the conflict. The research’s approach to the issue of information and culture is somewhat objective. It urges the authorities to embark on the balanced modes of media, which aim at addressing all merits of the Sudanese society in a genuine and an unstoppable manner. This will be a cornerstone for ‘social integration’ and ‘healing’ the social rift. The work also champions developing local cultures, promoting vernacular languages, building bridges to communications and documenting the tragic effects of civil war for future generations.

Addressing the identity issue, the study urges the strengthening of the Sudanese-African relations, and sponsoring African issues, using the media to manifest that the Sudan is a bridge between Africa and the Arab nation. The work also calls for establishing popular and students’ organisations to campaign for African themes and expressing them in the form of carnivals and cultural weeks. The dispute over the Sudanese identity is, in fact, an intrinsic factor in the ongoing civil war, but the Khartoum regimes strenuously strive to find a scapegoat somewhere. Needless to say, the ‘externalisation’ of the conflict works in two ways: since time immemorial, the ruling parties in the country had assumed that the Sudan, without a national mandate, is culturally Arab and spiritually Islamic. The Sudan, accordingly, is defined in a way which excludes people unwilling to abandon their linguistic, cultural or religious background. As a matter of fact, a society that narrows its self-definition to a point where substantial section of its population is excluded will end up becoming Balkanised. For the bloody conflict in the country, the embroilment of Christian, Zionist and Western world is to blame, so they argue. By neutralising the central factor in the conflict – that is, Islam – and rendering it an ‘independent variable’ (controlled), all other ‘conflict attributes’ or the ‘dependent variables’ can be dealt with constitutionally. These attributes include: freedom of worship, freedom of expression, judicial justice, civil service, social rights, cultural affiliation and family planning, to name but a few. However, these elements have a negative effect on all of public security. They are strengthened demographically both by natural reproduction of Muslims and by the ruling elite, which reinforce their stubborn ethnic bias and their domineering nature. This is the world of Islam in all its contortions.

After all, some of Siraj’s research findings were not as thorough as they should have been if he was to make such claims, and even that his desire to reach the conclusions that he did made him see things as he wished to see them, rather than as they actually were. There is a vital section on the political and administrative guidelines of the NIF regime in the Nuba Mountains missing from the book; it is either a publisher’s error or rather a wanton act of censure by the author. Having publicised all the problems facing the Nuba people, however bias the work may have been, the question now is what next? The reasons for doing the research fall, generally speaking, into two groups: ‘pure’ and ‘applied’. In the first case, the principal objective is simply to add to the sum of human knowledge; in the second case, to find out how to do something about a particular problem. Description of social conditions is a preliminary task to political reform, because they expose the inequalities of society in order to change them. In the Nuba Mountains, social problems are now those aspects of social life that cause private unhappiness or public friction; and, therefore, social policy – or Government action – is needed to raise the standards of these deprived areas.

This leads to a more radical view, which says that it is not enough merely to help people have their say. This does not change the situation. What is needed is a sociological research that will show people, who are as oppressed as the Nuba, how to throw off their oppressors. It should be a committed sociology, whose intention is radical or intended to have a revolutionary impetus for societal change, and a fundamental change in power structure; in other words, committed to a particular value position.

*The reviewer of this book and author of other works in Arabic and English is the SPLM-N Principal Representative in the UK and the Republic of Ireland; he can be reached at shurkiano@yahoo.co.uk


  • See Omer, S A, Tareikh al-Sira’a fi Jibal al-Nuba (1984 – 1996); the International African University: Khartoum, 1996, Pages: 559.
  • Ahmed, H M M, Sudan: The Christian Design; The Islamic Foundation: Leicester, 1989.
  • Al-Rai al-Akhar, October 8, 2000.
  • See MacDiramid, D N, Life and Work in the Nuba Mountains; Australia: Melbourne, 1925; Spartalis, P J, To the Nile and Beyond; AZEA PUBLISHERS: Homebush West, 1981; Pickworth, M, It Came to Pass; The Book Printer, Globe Press: Blackburn, 1992; Crocker, E, God’s Will for the Mountains: the Life and Work of Will Lunn in the Nuba Mountains; Action Partners, Baulkham Hills, NSW, 1996; Conwell, R E, Miracles are Normal; Bethel Ministries: Brisbane, 2000 and Black, K, Saints and Patriarchs; Bethel Ministries: Brisbane, September 2001.
  • See the Constitution of the Republic of the Sudan, adopted in June 1998.

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