The Nuba dilemma

By: Kaff, Tony

March 1, 2002 (New African)

Years of isolation for Sudan's beleaguered Nuba people are hopefully coming to an end. A six-month cease-fire that came into force in the rebel-controlled enclave since January appears to be holding. For many, it was their first taste of peace after almost two decades of suffering, caught in the middle of the country's long-running civil war.

The cease-fire, agreed on 19 January after a week of secret US-sponsored negotiations at the Swiss resort of Bergenstock, allows full humanitarian access and civilian movement, but only applies to a strictly defined part of the Nuba area.

It specifically excludes the country's war-torn South, where another two million people currently depend on outside food relief, yet Khartoum refuses to end bombing of civilian targets.

"This agreement will make it possible for the Nuba people to receive international assistance," said Commander Abdel-Aziz Adam El Hilu, leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army in the region. "But until and unless a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict in the Sudan is reached, the conflict in the Nuba Mountains is far from resolved."

The Nuba are a million and a half-strong group of African tribes straddling the border between north and south Sudan. About a quarter of them continue to hold out in the most inaccessible areas of their mountainous terrain, while the rest have been displaced into government peace villages or the shanty towns of Khartoum in a campaign of bombing and starvation.

The Nuba make up a quarter of Sudan's 4.5 million displaced people. The UN's World Food programme estimates 157,000 people require urgent assistance in the area cut off for over a decade. A once proud people have been driven to destitution and their culture virtually annihilated while the world looked away.

With the immediate threat of starvation lifted, the Nuba themselves are now demanding the right to decide their own future, concerned by the underlying secessionist ambitions of the southern rebels and fearing further isolation if the country breaks apart.

Suleiman Rahhal, editor of Nuba Vision, is worried by the lack of political debate in the implementation of the humanitarian cease-fire.

"Of course everyone is delighted at the prospect of a temporary peace. Now we must get together to discuss our future. We need the same right to self-determination as our brothers in the South, we are entitled to a say in our future and our right to be Nuba, but if we don't act soon we risk being overlooked once again."

Few outsiders understand the Nubas' dilemma. Situated at the geographical centre of Sudan, their aspirations fit in with neither north nor south.

Unlike the southerners, most Nuba are Moslems, although they fervently cling to their traditional customs and beliefs. They exercise a tolerance of other religions virtually unknown in this polarised nation.

Nuba SPLA soldiers often stop to pray towards Mecca, despite being at the receiving end of a government-declared Jihad. Arabic is the lingua franca amongst the 50 or so local dialects, rather than English used in the south.

Most Nuba have been so integrated into northern life they fear they would be marginalised if they were incorporated into the south, yet would never agree to living in a consolidated Islamic state in the north.

The secrecy surrounding the negotiations has fuelled suspicions, and Nuba on all sides are calling for a conference on the political status of the area.

Although they had previously been excluded from international assistance or recognition, living north of Sudan's north/south divide, the future of the Nuba and similar "marginalised people" is critical to any long term settlement of the conflict.

MPs of the Nuba's Alliance Party declared: "We have been deliberately excluded from all previous discussions on our future. We need to get together with our fellows in the SPLA areas and the wider diaspora for a round table conference in a neutral setting so we can determine our fate before others do it for us."

Since September 11, Khartoum has done everything it can to co-operate but America refuses to lift sanctions. Just before the New York bombing changed the face of international relations, George Bush appointed former Senator Jack Danforth as his special representative for Sudan. He has since been attempting to ameliorate the worst effects of the conflict.

However, few observers believe that Khartoum would ever concede the "Nuba strategic zone" and its adjacent oil fields. The SPLA, for its part, wants to include the "marginalised areas" of Northern Sudan within the southern portion of a proposed confederal state.

Rebels unite

January also saw the reunification of the warring factions in the South and the public reconciliation between Dr John Garang and Riak Machar, ending 10 years of infighting that allowed Khartoum unimpeded exploitation of the South's vast oil reserves.

Their agreed war aims include options for both unity and separatism, but suggest that the Nuba and other minorities should be included in a Southern entity.

Their Nairobi Declaration calls for the administration of the Sudan as a Confederal/Federal United Secular Democratic New Sudan during an interim period, as a form of an interim unity; and for self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan, including Abyei, South Kordofan, Southern Blue Nile and other marginalised areas.

The end of factionalism greatly strengthens the rebels' position. If they remain united, they stand a far greater chance of shutting down Khartoum's oil exports and thus the ability to finance the war. Sudan has just completed a $400m deal to purchase advanced MiG fighters, in exchange for Russian involvement in oil exploration.

Garang warned the oil companies they were operating at their own risk: "We are determined to close down the oil fields using whatever means we have at our disposal."

The SPLA's strengthening hand, combined with growing international pressure on Western companies to dis-invest in Sudanese oil, appeared to yield results when the Canadian Lundin Oil company subsequently announced it was suspending exploration operations.

Washington's hope is that the cease-fire should be gradually extended to comprise all the contested areas of Sudan. Khartoum will only agree to halt bombing civilians in the South as a part of a complete cessation of hostilities but the rebels still feel they have everything to fight for. They will only agree to a full cease-fire as part of a comprehensive peace deal, which still appears as far away as ever.


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