After 21 years of fighting, the Nuba feel betrayed

By Darren Taylor
Apr 6, 2005 (IPS)

As nations from around the world scramble to secure lucrative contracts to develop southern Sudan following the signing of a peace deal in January, one of the war-torn country’s minority groups is preparing for a fresh battle.

SPLM Cdr. Abdel Aziz Adam el-Hilo from the Nuba Mountains.
During the 21-year conflict between the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the Nuba people were anomalies: Muslim camel keepers who fought side by side with the black, largely Christian, cattle herders of southern Sudan against the repressive Islamic rulers in Khartoum.

Their homeland, the Nuba Mountains, is an isolated, arid wasteland in northern Sudan, on the border with the south, where only hardy brush, scorpions and tough nomads survive.

The government branded the Nuba ’’traitors to Islam’’ for allying themselves with the SPLM/A.

Yet the Nuba consistently refused to abandon the darker skinned peoples of the south.

For their ’betrayal’, Sudanese government Antonov aircraft and helicopter gunships showered the Nuba with bombs and bullets. Schools were razed; water supplies destroyed. ’’Many, many killed in explosions; many died of hunger and thirst,’’ said Saeed Anwar, an SPLM/A official in the Nuba Mountains.

The graves of Nuba people killed in government attacks line the region’s hillsides. Perhaps rumours of vast oil and diamond deposits under the desert sands were responsible for both the southern forces and the northern government claiming the area as theirs. In any event, the deadlock over who would rule the Nuba Mountains in peacetime had for years prevented agreement being reached, and war persisted.

But, under immense pressure from the United States especially, SPLM/A leader John Garang signed the deal Jan. 9 and, say analysts, effectively betrayed his erstwhile allies, the Nuba.

The praise singers point out that the peace agreement has won important concessions for the southern Sudanese: provision for wealth from resources such as oil to be shared by the previously opposing forces; the withdrawal of government troops from the south, and the right for southerners to vote, following a six-year interim period, for unity with, or secession from, the north.

But the document is also clear that the Nuba Mountains will form part of the north and its people will continue to be subject to the government and its harsh Islamic sharia law.

Daudi Mohamed, 46, a former SPLA guerilla living in exile in Kenya, lamented: ’’Our women will still be taken like animals to Khartoum to be stoned (for alleged adultery) and to work as slaves in Arab homes. Our men are still going to be forced to join the northern armies. Any one of us accused of stealing, our hands will be chopped (off) à I, like my people, am crying! "What have we fought for?" he shouted, his words cutting through the noise of a nearby metal grinder.

Mohamed was born, raised and taught how to launch rocket grenades in the Nuba Mountains. Instead of going to school, he went to war.

’’We have fought for nothing. Garang has sold us out,’’ he scoffed, slouching in the doorway of his sparse, oil stained auto spares shop on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Under the agreement, the Nuba, who fought alongside the SPLM/A for decades for self-determination and religious and economic freedom, will be denied the opportunity to vote for secession as the peace deal unequivocally defines them as ’northerners’.

And although president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his government have committed themselves to what the agreement terms ’popular consultation’ in the area, this would probably prove ’’meaningless because local government will be dominated by government delegates,’’ said John Ashworth, a respected human rights monitor who has worked in Sudan since the war erupted in 1983.

According to the deal, only a few token seats in the Nuba legislature will be reserved for SPLM/A officials leaving them with little political power.

’’This is a very bad agreement for the Nuba Mountains; they’ve really got very, very little out of it à When I challenged some senior SPLM people there about what they would do about the situation, they said: ’well, then we’ll go back to war’,’’ Ashworth stated.

The SPLM/A governor of the Nuba Mountains, Abdul Aziz Hilu, was not available for comment, but one of his officials told IPS: ’’Our leaders were sidelined in the peace talks. But the feeling in the end was: let’s sign the peace and see what happens. We can always rebel later. Let’s have an imperfect peace rather than no peace at all. If we continue to be oppressed we will rise up and continue to fight.’’

But Ashworth feels that should the Nuba return to arms, ’’they’ll be wiped out’’, because they can no longer count on Garang’s guerillas, and sympathy from the world at large for this tiny ethnic minority - who are estimated to number around 1.4 million - will also be ’’thin’’ as they will be seen as ’’rebelling against peace’’.

For a diplomat who has watched the peace process unfold for the past three years, the sidelining of the Nuba came as no surprise. ’’Garang has always acted primarily in the interests of his Dinka people (the largest ethnic group in Sudan). He has therefore sacrificed his minority allies in order to secure peace for the majority,’’ he reasoned.

Observers say the lesser ethnic groups of Sudan - most notably the Nuer, Shilluk and Beja - tolerated Garang for his ability as a fiery warmonger but are less likely to accept him as their political leader when he is confirmed soon as al-Bashir’s Vice-President.

Tribal animosities have simmered under the SPLM/A’s apparently united surface since the war began. The tension boiled over in 1991 when Garang’s deputy, Riek Machar - a Nuer - and senior official Lam Akol - a Shilluk - rebelled against Garang. The insurrection resulted in a bloody warûwithinûaûwar that almost destroyed the liberation movement. But it is the Muslim minority groups of SPLM/A’s northern allies, like the Nuba, who have been the biggest losers with the signing of the peace agreement.

’’We are alone,’’ Mohamed sighed. ’’We do not expect anyone to help us. It will be suicide to begin fighting again without the Commander’s (Garang’s) backing. We wanted to be part of the south; we wanted to feel the joy of voting for independence. But now we are back to being slaves.’’

And he returned to his spanners and drum of old oil.