Interview with Ismael Khamis Jelab, Governor of Southern Kordofan

By Nanne op 't Ende
Kadugli, March 13 and Khartoum, April 15

Major General Ismael Khamis Jelab fought the Government of Sudan for nearly twenty years as an officer in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Now he is Governor of Southern Kordofan State, that embraces the Nuba Mountains where Ismael Khamis originates from. He talks about the challenges he's facing in his new position.

Ismael Khamis Jelab speaking at the All Ajang Conference in Werni

Can you sketch the road that led to your appointment as Governor of Southern Kordofan?

It's a long history, that started even before I joined the SPLA in 1985. I was an officer in the Sudanese Armed Forces when I was arrested for mutiny and making a coup in Khartoum. The situation in Sudan was very complicated and it was a political decision that drove me first to participate in that coup and then to join the Movement (Sudan People's Liberation Movement).

As soon as I was released from prison I went to South Sudan, where I joined the Movement in the area of Aweil. From there I went to Ethiopia for military training and official registration as a member of the SPLM/A and I met our late leader Dr. John Garang in Boma in 1986.

Then in 1987 it was the first time we came to the Nuba Mountains, with the Vulcano Battailion. At that time I was leading a company and our mission was to recruit Nuba people for the SPLM/A. The mission was a succes and the same year we returned to Ethiopia with the recruits.

After two years we came back to the Nuba Mountains, in 1989. This time we stayed and fought against the Government. I was commanding the Tegali Battalion, which was active in the western area of Dilling and Lagowa, untill I was transferred to Koalib in 1991. Then to Brham in the south and finally I came to the Head Quarters in Changaru as second in command to Yousif Kuwa Mekki.

After the Chukudum Convention of 1994 I became commander of the 4th front - the SPLA forces in the Nuba Mountains - and at the same time I was appointed Deputy Governor to Yousif Kuwa. After his death in 2001 I kept the office as Deputy to Abdel Aziz Adam alHilu, right up to the sigining of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, after which I was appointed Governor of Southern Kordofan State.

How about the peace in Southern Kordofan? Has the violence actually come to an end?

In general the cease fire is well respected by the SPLA and the Sudan Armed Forces. We managed to give security and freedom to the people in the whole state. They are moving and talking freely, without fear of harassment. We improved the human rights record and we are seriously addressing the rights of women and children. These are the positive things done so far.

Unfortunately there are still minor violations here and there by individuals from either side. The latest violation took place in Fama, where elements of the SAF killed two soldiers of the SPLA. It happened the second of March. The soldiers were part of a Joint/Integrated Military Unit; they went to visit their relatives in the area and unfortunately they were shot bij SAF elements.

We managed to control our forces and our supporters - to keep them from breaking the peace agreement. It is well known who killed the two soldiers and they are now under investigation by a joint team of the UN mission, SPLM and the police. They will be taken to the court. But we know their intention is to provoke us, the SPLM/A, to retaliate in a big way, so they can accuse us of violating the CPA.

After the signing of the CPA, and specially since I became Governor, it is a system of trying to change the government in Sudan in general and in Southern Korodofan specially. And you will find those who resist this change. They do whatever they can to take people back to war. These incidents are not random: there is a plan behind this killing of SPLA soldiers. I know it was their intention; they knew them as SPLA soldiers - they themselves gave them the permits to go and visit their relatives and despite that, they were killed.

Normally we have the conflicts between nomads and farmers, but this time they try to instigate people to make such problems and then it takes tribal and political dimensions. The violence is provoked by the politicians, specially of the National Congres Party and other groups. And this happens in different areas. The latest incident was in the Werni area - Werni are Nuba - with some Arab nomads. They mobilised Arabs from other places to attack the Werni. They burned houses, schools, two were killed from each side.

The most dangerous is the presence of weapons in the hands of the militias and the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) and the civilians. The government armed almost everyone here. The CPA includes a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program of the civilians and the military, but this program has not yet been started and it is difficult to disarm the PDF and the civilians when the two parties are not helping or intending to disarm.

Does the implimentation of the CPA in general progress well?

The protocol of solving the conflict in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan doesn't address all issues: it has several loopholes and there are so many questions unanswered regarding the Southern Kordofan. We had wanted it to be more like the protocols that address the issue of the South Sudan.

When we mandated our late commander, Dr. John Garang, in the All Nuba Conference that was held in Kauda in 2002, our objective was that the Nuba Mountains should have self-determination. Instead the CPA came with something called Popular Consultation - of which we are not even very sure what it means. It states that the elected parliament should see whether this Agreement is okay or not for the people of the Nuba Mountains.

This is one - and on the other side there is the issue of the SPLA: in case the South seperates from the North, it is not clear what will happen to the SPLA forces in the Nuba Mountains. In the CPA it is stated that if the South seceeds, all the SPLA forces will go to the South - but according to the same CPA Southern Kordofan is in the North, and not in the South...

The next question is: if the South seceeds, where should we belong? As Nuba People, as Southern Kordofan. Shall we go with the South - do we have the right to do it? Shall we remain in the North, are we to have our own entity? These issues are not clear and that gives me the feeling that our future is not clear. It is not settled.

We will try to answer these questions, but actually we are aiming higher: to set a solid and strong base for the democratic change of the Government system. And I think we are going well in that way. Even in a united Sudan we should have the right to chose what type of government or system we want.

The SPLM and the National Congres Party (NCP) share power in Southern Korodofan on a 45% - 55% basis. How is the cooperation?

Imagine that I have now five months in office and only two days ago I formed this caretaker Government (this was in March). That is simply because there is disagreemment between the SPLM and the NCP in our Legislative Counsil - the Parliament. And also at the beginning the NCP was hesitant in implementing the CPA: they were not cooperative. Only recently they accepted to submit their nominees for this Government and to participate in committees and so on.

After the long years of fighting against eachother, it is very difficult to come together. We need to build confidence to bridge that gap. We already installed joined committees to solve the problems that derive from that time [of war]; to try to narrow the gap and to build some kind of confidence between the two parties. We also work to disseminate the Protocol [on the resolution of conflict in Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile States] to the people.

When [I took up office] I found that the Government of Sudan had done nothing to explain the CPA to the people. So we organise workshops to train people who can then disseminate the protocols to everyone in the state. We will use the institutions we have - the parliament and the executive body - to bring people together and to educate them about the importance of peace. We even organise rallies, going to meet the people in the region... Those are the things we can do to convince the people.

We will also have a committee that will design a plan or a strategy for us as partners in the Government to work together. In general it was as if we had to start another round of negotiations, rather then to implement the CPA. But let's look at it from the positive side: we have formed the Legislative Body and we have a caretaker Government.

These are the first successes and now we are going to abolish the boundaries between the areas of the SPLM and the Government of Sudan. As you know we as SPLM control part of the Nuba Mountains and we set up an administration in these places - and now we need to integrate the police, the civil service and the administration. Southern Korodfan is going to be one integrated area and this will defenitely change a lot and give confidence and trust in eachother.

So, although I know there are still many challenges ahead, and there is resistance to change, we are implementing the CPA - be it in a very slow way.

Meanwhile the Nuba people look at you, the Governor, for change and development...

Actually I'm in a difficult position. The people expect quick changes; they expect the delivery of services and development and all these things - and they have a right: they have been in the war for a long time and even before the war this state has been one of the marginalised areas in Sudan. But the people are not aware of the difficulties I am going through to ensure [change and development]. When we delayed the formation of the government they were really dissapointed.

The biggest problem is the budget. The Government of Southern Kordofan depends on the Central Government in terms of salaries and in terms of development. Right now there is no income from taxes or natural resources. Unfortunately the implementation of the Wealth Sharing Protocol of this state is not going well: the 2% of the oil revenue that we should receive has yet to be determined and the same applies to the budget for development that should come from the Federal Ministry of Finance.

We can not use this money and a lot of what the donors pledged has not been released either. So development is very slow, and we still depend on the NGO's and UN agencies who are working in the State for many basic services. Then there is the issue of the Internally Displaced Persons who are returning after the war [without receiving support] - all these things make the people feel dissapointed and frustrated. Specially our supporteres, who expected that when SPLM came to power everything would change in one day. But you see all the problems we are facing: this process needs time.

I do think there is a potential for developing the area; we have our plans ready. As soon as the 2% of the oil revenues and the budget for development are released, I am sure in a short time we can change the life a positive way.

Is there a common ground for the Nuba? A common identity to be proud of, something that will unite the Nuba in the struggle for their rights?

This [Identity] is one of the reasons the Nuba people took arms against the succesive governments in Khartoum. The policy used and adapted by the succesive governments was to arabise and islamise the people of Sudan, including the Nuba people. But we - the Nuba - are proud of our culture and we are proud of ourselves. Actually we are one of the endegenous peoples of Sudan. In the history of Sudan we have the Nubian civilisation, the kingdoms of Kush and Meroe; we consider them to be part of our heritage.

For decades the policiy of arabisation and islamisation gave the Arab people a feeling that they were superior to other ethnic groups. At the same time it gave the Nuba people a feeling of inferiority, untill some politicians and educated people like late Commander Yousif Kuwa thought of restoring that precious history. They asked to be treated equally with the other ethnic groups and specially with the Arabs. [When this didn't happen] we took up arms.

In this context we thought of an All Nuba Conference, even before the signing of the CPA, with the aim of bringing all the Nuba people together. We now held two such conferences. It provides a forum for the Nuba to determine their cultural, social and political future as a Nuba people. It also serves to educate them about the danger of the policies working against them and to rally them behind the SPLM vision for the New Sudan.

The succesive governments in Khartoum have used religion as a tool to devide our people; to disseminate them and to take away their culture. As you know the Nuba have different religions: there are muslims and christians and some believe in traditional African religions. we work very hard to unite them despite of their different religions - that is why you find religious tolerance among the Nuba.

As Nuba, we are pressing the Central Government very hard to change the policies and the laws that were installed and used to disseminate our people and to whipe away our culture - like the Shari'a Law, which we believe are really against our culture in the Nuba Mountains. We encourage the cultural organisations to promote our cultures and even to bring back those who have abandoned it. In the schools we work very hard to teach the local languages where they have already been written down - and where this has not been done, we encourage the people to put it in writing.

There is another thing that threatens our unity: the different political parties. We are thinking of a Nuba-Nuba dialogue with Nuba people from different religions and from different political parties, to come to a common understanding of the Nuba interest. The intellectuals, the educated people and the politicians. On the side of the Arab nomads there is also an initiative - the Missiriya Forum - to unite themselves. So why shouldn't we Nuba unite and be proud of our culture?

The first Nuba-Nuba dialogue was held in Khartoum on April 16. All Nuba parties were present, except for the representative of the National Congres Party, who didn't participate despite an earlier promise to attend.

Five days later Governor Ismael Khamis Jelab faced fierce criticism at an SPLM conference in Kauda. He survived the political storm but the situation in the Nuba Mountains remains tense.


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