Yousif Kuwa: The lost leader of Africa's persecuted Nuba people, he tempered armed resistance with justice

By Julie Flint
The Guardian (UK)
April 4, 2001

In the days before he died, Yousif Kuwa Mekki wanted two things: to see the latest biography of Nelson Mandela and to publish an open letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. This letter was on behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, whose struggle for survival he had led for 16 years. It asked why the UN, despite all its promises, continued to abandon the Nuba to the depredations of the fundamentalist generals who rule Sudan.

Yousif's death at 56 has robbed Africa of one of its most visionary leaders. It has robbed the Nuba, long perceived as an underclass in Arab-ruled Sudan, of the man who gave them a new pride and confidence in their Africanness. And it has robbed the Sudan People's Liberation Army of a commander who demonstrated that armed struggle is not incompatible with respect for human rights and civil society.

A teacher by vocation, with a longing to farm once the struggle was over, Yousif fought for one thing all his life: a just peace not only for the Nuba, but for all Sudanese regardless of race, religion or sex. For him there was no conceivable alternative to resistance in the Nuba mountains of central Sudan, sealed off from the outside world ever since the National Islamic Front seized power in 1989. But he respected the decision of those who chose to flee to government garrisons where they were promised (but seldom got) food, clothes and medicine.

He was that rare thing in any society, but especially in an impecunious society under arms: a leader who was loved.

Yousif was born into the Miri tribe, one of more than 50 Nuba ethnic groups. In the days before Sudan's rulers began enforcing an Arab-Islamic identity down the barrel of a gun, his parents were happy to raise him as a Moslem and gave him an Arab name in preference to the name traditionally given to first-born Nuba boys: Kuku.

Yousif grew up believing he was an Arab. "If you told me otherwise," he once said, "I would hit you." All this changed in secondary school when his headmaster stopped teaching him, saying: "What is the use of teaching Nuba who are going to work as servants in houses?" "What's a Nuba?" Yousif asked.

He discovered that for himself as a student of political science at Khartoum University, immersing himself in Nuba history in the university library. At the house of a Nuba friend one evening, he was dismayed to hear one child say to another: "You are a good singer. But unfortunately you are black!." In that moment, he said, "I started to reject assimilation. I said: I will build my civilisation and then I will forgive anyone who humiliated me before."

While still at university, Yousif helped create the Komolo, the first political organisation of Nuba youth. In 1981 he was elected to the Kordofan Regional Assembly, but found himself accused of racism whenever he spoke of the Nuba. Despairing of political change, he joined the SPLA. For him liberation meant respect for the rights of all. He sought self-determination in its original sense: that the Nuba should have the right to choose what kind of government they would have, and with whom.

Yousif's years as SPLA governor-commander in the Nuba mountains set new standards of rebel behaviour. He refused to tolerate abuses and brought some indisciplined soldiers before firing squads. He built a civil administration that was unique in SPLA-controlled areas and let the Nuba freely choose between resistance and surrender. They voted, overwhelmingly, for resistance.

Yousif was the living embodiment of the traditional Nuba values of political and religious tolerance. He fathered a renaissance of Nuba culture and gave the Nuba a self-confidence that was their strongest weapon when Khartoum declared Holy War against them in 1991. Encouraged by him to be self-reliant, the Nuba fought Khartoum's blockade by creating a teachers' training college and a nursing school despite having almost no educated class.

In 1993, after two years of famine in which thousands died unseen, Yousif found his way to Europe to seek help for his people. He returned almost empty-handed, disappointed by his first encounter with the "civilised" West.

"We are like a sinking man in the river and they are standing on the bank shouting encouragement," he said. "We do not fear bullets, but we feel bitter when a lot of people - especially children - die because of malaria."

Told he had bone cancer 15 months ago, Yousif had one wish: "To see a just peace before I die." That was not to be. With the large-scale exploitation of oil by foreign companies who have suddenly overcome their abhorrence for Khartoum, peace seems further away than ever. Under a new governor, Abdel Aziz Adam el-Hilo, morale is rising. But the Nuba are still looking into the abyss.

Yousif is survived by three wives - Fatima, Hanan and Imm Masar - and 14 children.

Yousif Kuwa Mekki, teacher, born 1945; died March 31 2001.