"Life is a school and with great lessons": Kuwa

AFRICANEWS Issue 61 - April 2001
Interview by Stephen Amin

On April 2, the former Governor of Southern Kordofan Province in Sudan, Yusuf Kuwa Makki, died of cancer in the UK. In October last year, two months before he left for treatment, he spoke with Africanews about his political experiences and the Sudanese conflict.

Amin: Can you give us a brief account of your early childhood?
Kuwa: I am the first born in a family of five boys and two girls. Since time is a weak issue among the Nuba people, it is difficult for me to trace my exact date of birth. However, I was born in late 1945 during the rainy season, so it is anytime between June and September. It was in Mirri, a large village close to Kadugli town in the Nuba Mountains. My father was a soldier in the colonial army, so during my birth he was not present. But he came shortly and left and he returned after ten years in 1956.

Where did you receive your education?
I started my primary school in Al-Geziera in Northern Sudan, and then moved to Mirri and Dilling respectively. However, in 1957, I left for Malakal in the south to consult my father, who was working there, about my studies. This forced me to repeat a class at Sinkat till I was taken to Tijaria (commercial high school) where I sat for my Sudan Secondary School Certificate Examinations (SSSCE). I did not score well and I joined the teaching profession at Deein and Nyala in western Sudan. I repeated the SSSCE at Kadugli and secured a place at Khartoum University in 1975. I graduated with a BA degree in Political Economy in 1980 and started working in 1981.

Most of the time you keep repeating that "not very long ago I used to believe myself an Arab … being a Muslim…" But that changed. Can you tell us some of the entrenched experiences that made you change and become Nuba-centric politically and culturally?
Life is a school and with great lessons. When I was in primary school, I was almost sliding to Islamic fundamentalism. I was passionate in my religious classes and the faith in general, and I was one of the top scorers in Islamic education. But one early experience that made me take a contrary stand was a story given to us by our Islamic religion teacher. The topic was mostly about "the agonies of the tomb," in which he explained what a dead person undergoes. In his story, he said if the dead person is a Muslim, a light-skinned angel directs you to paradise, and if you happen to be a Kaffir (non-believer), a black-slave angel takes you to hell. I wondered whether there is a slave angel. I further wondered why is the slave-angel was black. These questions disturbed me but I did not share them with any person.

The second incident was in 1964 during the same Islamic religion class. That time we were debating "women's political rights." The teacher asked our opinions, but in the course of the debate he emotionally stated that only Nuba women do domestic duties in the city. I felt bad, and this later led me to revise my religious and political beliefs. The change became clear in my attitude. I started writing complainatory poems in which I questioned God about the black people's fate. In a poem entitled "An appeal to God," I wrote: "Slave, slave, because we are black. Have you created for us masters because we are black?"

Tell us about your university experiences.
Before joining the university I was already involved in politics. In 1964, I was with the General Union of the Nuba Mountains and between 1965-66 I campaigned with Atron Attia, a prominent Nuba politicians those days. In 1975, the university became a fertile ground for my early political activities, as it was also the first time that a huge number of Nuba students joined the University of Khartoum. We were thirty-five and we started building new structures for the Nuba Students Union. As a start-up we held a four-day conference, the Political Determination of the Nuba, which later developed into a clandestine. It was known as 'Komolo' and it is this 'Komolo' which later delegated many Nuba intellectuals to the SPLA (Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army).

How did Komolo delegate you to the SPLA?
When the SPLA was formed in 1983, we as members of Komolo were keen about its mission. We read its manifesto and saw it was in congruence with our objectives. We had a conviction that the SPLA was the political mechanism that could definitely make us achieve our political objectives. So we joined instantly. It was a new political venture but we saw it as an efficient avenue to gain political determination for the Nuba people.

What political position were you offered by the SPLA?
It is worthy to mention that I was highly respected and was immediately ranked in the High Command, which is a central committee for political planning for the SPLA.

You are a politician by experience, yet you are now a military man. How did you gain the military experience to hold such a high military position?
After joining the SPLA I was immediately sent to Cuba for military training plus courses in political orientation between October 1985-December 1986. After my formation, I left for Bonga in Ethiopia to head the 'Volcano Unit' to the Nuba Mountains. This was a special military unit opened in the Nuba Mountains in 1987 to recruit local people for the SPLA.

Being in the bush is not easy. What were some of the problems that stressed you in the bush?
I'm not biased to say that harmony among my forces existed till 1989. Those days I did not have many problems within my units. But when Dr. Riak Machar defected from the SPLA in 1991, problems started though these were not severe. Like in any revolutionary movement it was a disagreement of opinions and policies.

What adjustment measures did you take?
The political success of any revolution is embedded in the people's support. To that end I called for a meeting on October 10, 1992 during which I openly stated that I was responsible for all the shortcomings that occurred. I also indicated that I was ready to delegate duties so as to avoid similar incidences and also aid in the transition of power. We formed an Advisory Council for the Nuba Mountains under Capt. Musa Abdelbagi whose main duty is to oversee the political development in the areas populated by civilians. In that way, the people become the leaders of the struggle and hence can be held accountable of anything.

What have you done at the national level to heal defections from the SPLA by some southerners?
When Riak Machar and Lam Akol defected to form the Nassir Faction in 1991, most of the people thought that these two had a point, that the SPLA is not democratic and does not accommodation dissent. Partly that was true and so there was a need for reform in the movement. I came up with the idea that the SPLA should have a convention in which we were to discuss how to set up civil and legal systems in areas we control. It is something I had done in the Nuba Mountains, and from that experience I was made the chairperson of the preliminary committee that met in Chukdum, Eastern Equatoria Region in 1994. I was later made the chairperson of the organizing committee.

Being a leader requires you to have a political ideology and a role model to guide your political attitude. What is your ideology and who is your role model?
I believe in Marxism as a political ideology and communism for political support to our struggle. That is why the SPLA benefited from aid from former Communist states. But that has changed with the collapse of the Communist world forcing the SPLA to reflect on the whole issue. The late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere was my role model.

What is the connection between socialism and the political situation in Sudan?
I must say that socialism advocates for human dignity, justice and rights. Do you not see that we are fighting for these values? As an ideology, socialism has no boundaries, which is why it will be invoked whenever there is a quest for human rights, justice and dignity. It is not therefore surprising that communists and socialists give a lot of help to up-lift liberation causes everywhere.