More than Darfur

By Peter Moszynski, The Financial Times
Thursday September 2nd

While the UN discusses what further protection can be offered to the long-suffering civilians of Darfur, people in other parts of Sudan are also seeking international guarantees.

All of Sudan's outlying regions, from southern Sudan to Darfur in the west, the Beja region in the north-east, the Ingessena region in the east, the Nuba region in the centre and Nubia to the north, are inhabited by non-Arab tribes who cling fiercely to their traditional cultures and beliefs.

They all resent what they see as their marginalisation by an unrepresentative élite that maintains its power through repression and a dubious claim to be defending Islam.

During the 1990s, the people of the Nuba Mountains experienced atrocities "chillingly similar to those now occurring in Darfur", whilst cut off from the outside world by a ten-year humanitarian blockade, says Suleiman Rahhal of the campaign group Nuba Survival.

"Khartoum unleashed a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing - carried out by Arab militias accompanied by air force bombers and helicopter gunships - and sanctified by a fatwa, declaring it a Jihad. Muslims were labelled 'apostates' - a capital offence under Sudan's current Islamic constitution"

Mr Rahhal explains that Islam came to most of western Sudan, including the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, from West Africa - before the Arabs established a conservative Wahhabi tradition in the capital, Khartoum. The people of these regions therefore subscribe to a much more liberal version of Islam.

Ustaz Mahmood Mohamed Taha, leader of the Republican Brotherhood, a moderate Muslim sect in northern Sudan that challenged the ultra-orthodoxy of the Muslim Brothers, was executed for apostasy in 1985 for declaring it possible to interpret Islam in accordance with present day realities.

The attorney general responsible for his execution, Hassan al Turabi, was the éminence grise behind the 1989 military coup that allowed the Islamists complete control of the state. Mr Turabi is currently in prison following a split in the ruling National Islamic Front - now renamed the Congress Party - but still the political wing of the Muslim Brothers.

The currently stalled North-South peace initiative offers various guarantees for the mainly non-Muslim south, but few assurances for the people of northern Sudan, who, despite being predominantly Muslim, are frequently so in name only.

Many otherwise firm believers take a tolerant view towards traditional customs such as the consumption of alcohol, and towards traditional beliefs such as the power of local magicians.

Attitudes to religion are so relaxed in some areas that one can often find Muslims, Christians and followers of traditional religions in the same family under one roof and participating in each others' rituals and festivals.

Such behaviour does not go down well with the ideologues in Khartoum determined to maintain a strictly Islamic constitution across the whole of northern Sudan.

Reports of atrocities in Darfur do little to convince people in other marginalised areas that their future is safe in the hands of a government that continues to devastate entire populations rather than allow any form of democratic participation in the peace process.

Mr Rahhal says the crisis in Darfur has raised profound doubts about Khartoum's future behaviour and serious anxiety that Nuba concerns will be overlooked.

"Although there is now a ceasefire, the current peace process envisages that the Nuba Mountains are to be returned to the control of a government that is now conducting a similar scorched earth policy in Darfur.

"Can the international community give any guarantees that our rights will continue to be respected or are we to be sacrificed as a compromise that allows an opt-out from Sharia law for the South but leaves us in the hands of a military dictatorship...?"

Whatever the Security Council decides to do about Darfur, it is worth remembering there are numerous similar problems across the country that still need to be addressed.

With formal ceasefire negotiations for the south currently deadlocked as the protagonists await decisions on Darfur, peace is not a foregone conclusion in the rest of the country.

Peter Moszynski, aid worker and writer on Sudan