Yousif Kuwa Mekki

By Nanne op 't Ende
5 April, 2001

Thoughtful is the first word that comes to mind: despite his responsiblitites as a military commander who often had to make tough decisions, Yousif Kuwa always payed attention to the needs of those around him. And the needs of the Nuba people came in the first place.

As a boy Kuwa didn't concider himself to be a Nuba: "In the Nuba Mountains, you just knew your own tribe. We for example were Miri. So if we were asked: 'Who are the Nuba?' we would say: 'The other tribes - but not us.' Only when we came out of the Nuba Mountains we learned that we are all Nuba." He always told anecdotes of the discrimination he experienced in his youth, like the one about the headmaster in primary school who refused to teach Nuba children, saying it was no use. "This feeling of being disregarded," Kuwa said in one of his last interviews, "certainly affected my political career."

Yousif Kuwa tought for six years at primary schools in Darfur before applying to the University of Khartoum in 1975. "Studying politics and antropology really opened my eyes," he said. Kuwa was strongly influenced by the ideas of Tanzania's first president Nyerere, especially by his concept of African Socialism. In the library Kuwa read about the African history of Sudan and about the Nuba cultures. "There had been highly developed cultures and powerful kingdoms in the Sudan before the Arabs came; why did we never learn about these cultures?" Together with other Nuba students he formed Komolo: the 'Youth' movement. The young intellectuals wanted to strengthen cultural and political awareness among the Nuba. "There were two things we wished to tackle, because they wouldl always work against us: religious differences and tribalist differences."

After graduation in 1980 Kuwa turned to teaching again, in Kadugli Higher Secundary School. "It was a chance for us to recrute the young Nuba intellectuals." One year later, Kuwa was elected deputy speaker of the parlement of Kordofan Province. He hoped to do somethig about the deprived situation of the Nuba. "In comparrisson with any other part of the country, our area was backward. We wanted some equality, some services, so that the Nuba people could feel that they were belonging to the same country." But even discussing the problems of the Nuba was impossible. "Whenever you talked, you would be described as a racialist, a seperatist."

Kuwa and his fellow campaigners became dissapointed; in 1984 they joined the SPLA, after reading its manifesto: "It talked about fighting for a united Sudan, for equality, share of power and economy, freedom of religion, speach and practicing culture. That made us join the SPLA."

Yousif Kuwa commanded the SPLA forces that overran most of the Nuba Mountains in 1989. The population received him enthusiastically: "I can only compare it with films about the Roman Empire, when the legions, after winning a battle, come to Rome in triomph. It was fantastic." Relentlessly Kuwa walked the Mountains, explaining to the Nuba what the SPLA was fighting for and asking for their co-operation. Soldiers abusing civilians risked the firing squad. In 1990 Kuwa introduced self-government, letting the people elect their village leaders, district representatives and county administrators.

Unable to defeat the SPLA in direct confrontations, the Government army directed its violence against the civilian population and sealed off the Nuba Mountains. Poverty, displacement and starvation were the result. Faced with the suffering of his people, Kuwa in 1992 called an Advisery Council. "I take full responsibility for all that happened before, upto this day," he told the 200 representatives: "But from today on, it will be us to decide. Whether we continue fighting or we seek peace with the Government: it will be our decision." After two days of heated debates the Council voted to continue the fight.

Politically Kuwa's finest hour probably came in 1994, when he prepared and chaired the first meeting of the National Liberation Council of the SPLA, in Chukudum. The Council voted to implement a civil adminstration throughout the liberated areas that was very similar to the one he had introduced in the Nuba Mountains.

The isolation of the Nuba continued to be one of Kuwas main concerns. In 1994 the first plane landed clandestinely in the SPLA controled part of to the Nuba Mountains. Journalists and human rights activists started to reveal the attrocities commited against the Nuba population. Meanwhile Kuwa helped to form a Nuba relief organisation, the NRRDO. Several NGOs were prepared to support it, but the amount of relief that the NRRDO could fly in never matched the need. In 1999, when the Government agreed to a UN relief program, ten years of suffering seemed to end. But upto today, the parties can't agree on the location from where the relief should be flown in.

Those who have visited the Nuba Mountains since 1994, were able to see and often experience themselves the harsh conditions the Nuba endure. They have seen the hungry, the sick, the displaced, the orfaned, the maimed. But most of all they have seen, time and again, a people inspired with pride and determination by the example of Yousif Kuwa.

Kuwa was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. Initially succesful treatment allowed him to return back to work in the Nuba Mountains. In July 1999 he participated in peace talks in Nairobi, but by the end of 1999 the disease had returned. The last thing Kuwa could do for his people was to look for a worthy successor. He found one in Abdel Aziz Adam al Hilu, his long time friend with whom he worked together since the days of Komolo. Abdel Aziz was Kuwa's adjutant during the first years of the war in the Mountain; now he is back, to continue the struggle Yousif Kuwa dedicated his life to.

Yousif Kuwa is survived by three wives and 15 children.

Yousif Kuwa Mekki, teacher, politician and commander; born 1945; died 31 March 2001