Interview with Jason Edward Matus

By Nanne op ‘t Ende
March 24, 2006

My name is Jason Edward Matus. Currently I am a senior technical advisor to the US Agency for International Development (US AID) on Sudan’s transitional areas [South Kordoan, Blue Nile and Abyei]. I have been working in the Nuba Mountains since 2000.

The first time I came in I was with a Nuba Food Security Working Group: a group of endogenous and international NGO’s. I was asked to help put together a welfare strategy, basically to prevent the Nuba from dying or leaving. It was a time when there was no United Nations (UN) access in to the area administrated by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and all the UN flights were being threatened. So we were working on a welfare strategy which was to prevent people from getting to a point where they might starve, or leave because they’re starving.

There was an SPLM committee, the Food Security Committee, that helped device the strategy. It was about fifteen people, maybe twelve, maybe twenty, I don’t know exactly because I wasn’t on the committee full time. It was headed by Musa Kaliker. They defined the criteria in terms of who should get assistance; they defined what that assistance should be.

It was mostly done through local purchase. We redistributed some of the food that was being produced in one part of the Nuba Mountains and brought it to another part. The only problem [of this solution] was that when there’s a bad year, there’s little food anywhere. So a lot of people just got their money, some of them just… They would get money if they moved over to the Government area, so they did.

Anyway, that was the food security program in 2000. I don’t know if it saved many lives, but if you want to talk about accomplishments: in 2001 the US Holocaust Museum put on a genocide warning on the Nuba area; there had been a number of successive famines and another one coming, and there was the blockade. Now when the US Government came to Sudan it had four tests to decide whether the two parties [the Government of Sudan and the SPLA] were willing to commit to peace. And one of the tests was the Nuba Mountains cease fire. A lot of that came out of the work of all the people here: in terms of raising awareness; making it an agenda issue.

I think it was because it’s quite a specific area as well. You have to admit it: the Nuba had the world know about the Nuba. The situation was dire: people were starving and there was no UN access. The cease fire stopped the fighting; allowed the famine to be addressed and moved the Nuba issue - together with Blue Nile and Abyei - towards the top of the peace talks’ agenda. Right now you have an agreement that reflects the importance of the Nuba area: it’s recognized as a model of solving the problems in Sudan.

The work that was done, and the attention put on the Nuba – really… we have saved a lot of people, in many ways.

There was another thing that had a big impact here: the Nuba Mountains Program for Advancing Conflict Transformation (NMPACT). It started a year before the cease fire was signed. NMPACT is basically the UN, indigenous and international NGO’s, all recognizing that the program here had to be aware of, and be sensitive to the conflict.

Trying to build confidence, trying to make sure that interventions were fair in terms of sending equitable amounts to both sides. And for the first time in Sudan both parties sat and met; they agreed on joined plans in Sudan; that had never happened before. Like everything: some things work and others don’t and some agencies work with NMPACT, some don’t, but is has been the first cross line initiative.

In the early days, just by being here, people felt that they were recognized, that they were not being left alone. Of course the late Yousif Kuwa was a very strong spokesman: he was not just very clear on what the Nuba didn’t want, but also on what they wanted.

How do you perceive the impact of Yousif Kuwa’s death?

Abdelaziz [Adam el Hilu] had more of a military background, but when he first came in he respected Yousif’s vision very much. He kept his kids in school here, his tukul was still a hut of stone and mud with a grass roof, and he never dressed himself any different from anyone else. He was definitely a strong leader. He came in at the time when the government launched what probably was the second largest wave of offensives into the Nuba Mountains.

I was here in 2000 when the South [was attacked]: Brham County, Western Kadugli; a lot of people were displaced. Then there was the attack in 2001. I wasn’t here, but I heard that the government army hit at about eight different places. And then the cease fire happened and it held everything kind of where it was. The next year could have been worse; it was actually building up to be worse.

When I heard that the parties had agreed on a cease fire, I felt this was the rescue of the SPLA in the Nuba Mountains. They wouldn’t have lasted much longer.

Many people think so. As an SPLA area it really was an island in the middle of Sudan.

The cease fire was observed pretty well, and the Joint Military Committee (JMC) seems to have done a great job monitoring it.

Well, early on a few of us were quite critical on how they were operating, and on their treatment of the two areas. We had questions on the maps they were using; on how they were organized. It could have been better. But looking back you have to be honest and say: “their job was not to solve the conflict, but to prevent fighting while the peace process was sorting out the issues of the agreement.”

The cease fire did a lot and I think the JMC were surely instrumental in it, but there was a critical element people don’t talk about enough: the two parties were on their best behavior because the Nuba cease fire was a test for the overall peace process. The impact of a problem in the Nuba Mountains could lead to the collapse of the negotiations, so there was a huge incentive to see this thing through. Having that kind of pressure on the parties of the wider implications of failure was significant, and did a lot to make the cease fire successful.

Abdelaziz was very strong [as the governor of the SPLM area] and actually supportive of what the JMC did. The JMC was able to monitor widely and to manage conflict, which was quite effective. Now we’ll have to see whether the UN will do the same thing. In Abyei the UN is monitoring widely; flying around with helicopters, dropping people to the scene [when there’s something going on] – they’re doing things a bit like the JMC. But here I still haven’t got my head around what they’re actually doing.

I’ve heard from a lot of Nuba people that the UN is not half as effective as the JMC used to be. There have been a lot of incidents since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), in which people were wounded or killed. Just a couple of days ago Shanabla camel nomads were harassing people near Kalkada. Now many Nuba complain that the UN doesn’t do anything to prevent this kind of violence.

One of the problems is that there is no effective police force. The kind of incidents you mention seem to fall under civilian activities; [they fall outside the mandate of the UN, which is supposed only to ensure that the government army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) won’t violate the CPA]. So you need a police force to address these incidents: it would act as a buffer to prevent the military from getting engaged.

This area is still important nationally, like some of the other states and the other transitional areas, because they are the front line, and the likelihood of conflict escalating and drawing in the two armies is very high. So the way to prevent the escalation of conflict is to have a recognized joined police force that can strongly deal with these issues. Right now it’s still the police of one party: the national police force that is [perceived to be of the former] government, and that has nothing to do with an integrated police force. So unfortunately it seems only a matter of time before certain things get out of hand.

You were an observer to the negotiations for the CPA.

After the cease fire they started off with talks for the three areas [Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei] and I was an observer for the US on these talks. After that I followed it of course. The CPA was reached under a lot of pressure. For the Nuba Moutains and for Blue Nile, the SPLM compromised a lot on the demands they put in. I think in a sense [they did this to have] greater gains in Abyei and in the South.

Progress is one thing the Nuba had. What they didn’t get obviously is for them to join the referendum with the South. That was one of their core issues. But what they did get was a lot of the grievances that they had enlisted to be resolved in the peace agreement. Well, not directly resolved in the agreement, but deferred to a series of complex political processes like a constitution and legislation. And then there’s a thing called a Popular Consultation, which is an indirect consultation done mainly through the elected representatives in the State Parliament.

The elections are in about two years from now, so the candidates need to run on a platform of outstanding issues that they want to negotiate. There are two important things that are recognized by the agreement: one is that there are models for solving the problems around Sudan; and second is that the agreement is not a final solution until it has a final endorsement of an elected parliament. Therefore, like everything, rather than providing an instant answer to the problems here, the CPA is a work plan that will eventually lead to a lasting solution.

Right now there are a lot of people that expect something to happen. They do get a lot of help, but they really need to work hard to make things happen. I think it’s fair that the agreement shouldn’t be final until it’s been tested by the representatives of the people, so that’s fine. But it leaves many issues open, like the land issue and the recognition of customary rights; religion and state; education, which is seen as an institution used to enforce a kind of religious, cultural homogeny. A lot of these things are not directly resolved [in the CPA], so they have to be addressed now. It’s either done in the State Constitution, or, when the parliament can enact laws, that will get it in.

To me the biggest problem seems to be that 55% of the seats in the South Kordafan Parliament are for the National Congress Party (NCP), and 45% is for the SPLM. Everything the two parties can’t work out together in parliament has to be taken to the Presidency.

Exactly. What’s happening now is that they are taking everything to the Presidency because of the slow implementation and the different interpretations or – as the SPLM sees it – the re-interpretation or misinterpretation of the CPA. The agreement has a lot of things open for different perspectives, so they’re taking it back to the Presidency.

In the South the SPLM has 70% of the official posts: they have a clear majority so they can do a lot of what they want to do. They have enough people. And yet of course they are underdeveloped; very underdeveloped. But it’s really theirs to do. Let me say it this way: there in the South the SPLM has a clear chance to demonstrate what they want. In the North, because the opposition, including the SPLM, is such a minority, they really don’t have much of a chance to demonstrate, but more to articulate their opposition: changes they want to see.

But Nuba and Blue Nile are kind of in the middle here; and Abyei as well. 45% - 55%: it’s kind of like they’re half-half. So they’re expected to deliver. And it’s very hard to deliver for the SPLM because they’re being a minority while neither party has an overwhelming majority. So there’s the expectation that they can deliver, while in reality there are two parties that have lived in conflict for twenty years who are trying to put together a common approach.

The benefit of the SPLM is that their positions in general seem popular. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether they’re popular or not, but whether people have a choice down the road between different positions. So the benefit the SPLM has – from what I’ve seen – is that their positions on some of the core issues are popular: on education, on land… But they are a minority: 45%. And their biggest challenge is that their capacity to build an actually functioning government is minimal.

It’s not just 35 seats in parliament that they are trying to fill; you have to think of the heads of the counties, localities – it’s probably 8.000 government jobs here, could be 7.000, could be 10.000. So the SPLM needs to find, say, 3.000 people. They don’t have them. So it’s really about having patience and trying to make it to the elections.

I think the best part of the peace agreement so far is that people can move up and down freely.

Since the cease fire they had quite a few years to move back and forth quite freely. But the cease fire wasn’t a peace agreement: nobody said it was a peace agreement; people didn’t believe it was a peace agreement. So you had a few hundred thousand, half a million, whatever people outside the area, but then you had the majority of the people within the area also displaced.

What we’re seeing now is not just people coming back, but people moving from the hills down into the plains. They’re moving out their farms, things are changing, and now there’s peace, people are more confident. But expectations are massive, just massive. The only real question now is progress: progress in terms of what people can see in their lives, as opposed to building a few buildings in the centre – although Kadugli doesn’t look like anything outside of what the UN did…

Well, there’s a lot more water; schools are coming up; health clinics are coming up – but not at the pace that you would imagine: it’s really slow. Anyway, key thing is to make sure that the little that does come goes to both sides. As things start to scale up, as they start to get bigger, it becomes more important that the development goes to the right places first. I think that is one of the big issues: to make sure the development of this area is balanced.

The speaker of the State Parliament, Ibrahim Bellendia, is from the NCP; his deputy, Sadiq Monsur, is from the SPLM. I met them separately and they don’t seem to agree on anything, except that they both want the NGO’s to come to the parliament and explain what they are doing. They both say the NGO’s are not doing their job properly.

Right now, the biggest influential player is the Government of Sudan: it has the money. Then there’s the multi-donor trust fund, which is money shared between the internationals and the government – and then there’s the NGO’s. The Government and the big international organizations have drawn up their priorities together. The present frustration comes from no one knowing where the money is. They keep asking people: “where’s this money, where’s that money?”

NGO’s are probably part of it but to me – if it’s true that that’s what they’re focused on – they look at some of the smallest part of the formula. The really big issue is to form a State Government – an x number of thousand people; you need to get that working and then you need too put the money into the places.

The money is there?

Well, they say it is: we’ll see. You can’t get a straight answer on how much money they’ve got for their 2 %; how much they’re going to get… no one knows. The multi-donor trust fund: everybody’s saying: “why is the money going to these areas?” The European Community is supposed to bring in money that is supposed to go to these areas here. And to me… They’ve got money; they’re a government: man, let’s see it; let’s have it!

The NGO’s... People have too much faith in… They think… Yes they are important, but not as important as they should be. But if that’s what they’re going to agree upon, it’s a bit of a… Are you sure they were not just saying that because they thought you were NGO-focused?

I clearly told them that I am not working with any organization; that I’m just moving around on my own to work on my book about the Nuba Mountains. I even said to Sadiq: “why are you talking about the NGO’s? They shouldn’t be your priority; it looks like you’re taking out your frustration on them.”

Well, yes, exactly. Generally it’s very hard to know what’s going on. Even for someone like myself who might move around between Khartoum and Nairobi and Juba and here: it’s still hard to get a handle on what is going on. So to be here, it is incredibly isolated, and right now things are slow so everybody’s trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s definitely a combination of a lot of things and it is impossible to weigh it and to say that the big issue is this, the second issue is that and the third issue is this.

Especially when people don’t know what is causing the problems, they are starting to look for someone to blame. The start blaming people locally; they’re blaming NGO’s; they’re blaming local officials; they’re blaming the new government of the state; they’re blaming the government in the North; the parties. I haven’t heard from people… It really isn’t the time the Nuba to collapse amongst themselves

This is a time to just join hands and work hard to make things happen.

Yeah, I think you’re right.

You said you are also working in Blue Nile and in Abyei: is the process there similar to here?

No, it’s different. In Blue Nile they’ve already agreed on a constitution; they’ve established the tops of the government. The Governor, the Deputy Governor; it’s the opposite to here, so the Governor is NCP and the Deputy is SPLM. SPLM has four out of nine ministries and two of the five commissions. There’s the advisors to the Governors office… in total it’s about thirty positions of possibly 7.000 positions that they need to devide amongst them. So thirty isn’t much [it’s the same as in South Kordofan]. And then the frustration over the finances is there. It’s a smaller area, so it’s a bit more manageable, but still there’s a lot of frustration over the lack of progress, where the money is and so on.

In Abyei the President, of the NCP, hasn’t implemented the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission yet, so there’s no progress. It’s a different agreement of course. Abyei get’s to vote in a parallel referendum; they’ll have a choice to stay with the north or to join the South in case the South secedes. During the time of the agreement they have a special status: they’re both member of this state – Southern Kordofan – and of the state below them, which is Bahr al Ghazal. They’re under the Presidency as well and they have a lot of protection. Probably the largest percentage of the population displaced was in Bahr al Ghazal. They’ve got a very good agreement but it is very hard to implement.

There are a lot of things to keep pushing away. The SPLM will have a conference soon, they haven’t met since the agreement. On the NCP side I don’t know what’s going on. Because the SPLM were the ones asking for reforms, it’s really up to them to introduce them – that’s the way the NCP looks at it. But with the weak capacity… Even the NCP says they have to build the capacity of the SPLM, so they can be a partner, an effective member of the government.

The referendum in the South: as far as I can tell they’re heading straight for independence. They’re not even considering unity.

Let me try to separate the issues a bit: I would say that if you took a poll today to the people in the South the majority would opt for independence. So that’s one thing. I think the Southern approach should be implementing a national agreement from Khartoum, not from Juba. If the South tries to isolate itself, and counts out its six or five years from now, they will have a really hard time actually seeing a referendum.

Things are being confused: the peace agreement is not a referendum. The referendum is an incentive for the two parties to make unity attractive. And the critical part of the agreement is the elections in a few years: that’s the test of the whole thing. If people want change, then they have to vote for the changes that they want. And that’s about a real national process. The SPLM needs to present itself as a national party, show what it’s got to offer. Right now a lot of Southerners are staying in the South, and there are a few others staying in Khartoum, trying to implement the agreement. But the agreement calls for elections, for national reforms; not just Southern things.

If you look at the key ministries in Khartoum: Oil; Finances; Interior: none of them went to the SPLM. When I asked people in the SPLM why the movement agreed to give all these important posts to the NCP, their usual answer is: “it’s just for six years”.

Well, it’s worth talking to Abdelaziz, who’s now secretary of the SPLM in the North. [Abdelaziz has been in the United States for almost a year now; he has not been officially replaced, but few people believe he will return to Sudan to take up his post again, NotE] I think John Garang defined this as a national struggle, not a Southern struggle. The agreement reflects national concerns. It doesn’t provide so many changes to the way the North is run. Khartoum gets a bit more than the other Northern states. But it’s still a national agreement – put aside Dr. Garang’s specifics. It doesn’t do enough for Darfur, maybe not for the East, but until you have elections and you have a government that has been tested to represent a giant country like this, then you can start to comb through the issues and hopefully resolve them.

We’re not talking about one country, two systems: it’s really one country five systems. You have the central government; then for the periphery you have the Government of South Sudan; you have South Kordofan and Blue Nile; you have Abyei which has it’s own agreement – that’s four already. You have the Northern states: that’s five, and then you have Khartoum that has its own system also. And now Darfur is negotiating for another. That amounts to an unmanageable and ungovernable level of complexities.

You have five or six different types of devolved authority, and it’s very hard to find the unifying element in it. I think there are two: one is that the two parties have an agreement that reflects a central state. The other one is the fact that there are going to be national elections. I can’t emphasize it enough: the agreement itself is not a lasting solution; implementing it blindly doesn’t do it. It’s the quality of the implementation.

What is the agreement trying to get at; what does it do in trying to solve the problems in Sudan? It’s in a few things: there are some reforms on wealth; there are some reforms on power, but the main reform on power is the elections. And the main reform on wealth: they made a formula that’s fair – and if it’s not fair you can bring it back later to the new government.

There will be three years between the elections and the referendum. You will have a government that has a public mandate just by being elected, and from there you can start to talk about other problems in the South. But if the South doesn’t commit itself to a genuine democratic process, if it doesn’t engage itself nationally… The Government of South Sudan: it’s hard to see where they’re going to. The elections are the real test.

Interviewed in Kauda, March 24, 2006


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