Averting Genocide in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan

By Alex de Waal
Published on: Dec 22, 2006


The counterinsurgency fought by the Government of Sudan against the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan during the early 1990s was not only exceptionally violent, but also aimed at depopulating the area of civilians. Not only did the government aim to defeat the SPLA forces but they also intended a wholesale transformation of Nuba society in such a way that its prior identity was destroyed. The campaign was genocidal in intent and at one point, appeared to be on the brink of success.

The war in the Nuba Mountains has a number of obvious similarities to the war in Darfur of a decade later. It was fought within the boundaries of northern Sudan. Local issues such as land ownership intersected with central government security concerns, and the conflict took on a distinct racial character. The war was notable for attacks on civilian targets with forced displacement, rape and killing. The principal instruments of counterinsurgency included locally-recruited militia, the regular army and the air force, under the overall coordination of Military Intelligence. However, there are also important differences. The Sudan Government succeeded in keeping its military operations and population relocations in the Nuba Mountains a secret for several years, and despite Sudan’s international ostracism at the time, there was no outcry until the area was opened up to international scrutiny by a joint BBC-Justice Africa mission in 1995.1  (Subsequently, a number of international organizations including Christian agencies became involved and gave the Nuba a high profile.) The Nuba resistance did not have an international profile and there was no international humanitarian operation. But perhaps the most important difference between the Nuba in the early 1990s and Darfur today was that the Nuba campaigns were mounted by a government at the height of its ideological fervor, were explicitly jihad-ist, and included an ambitious program of total social transformation for Nuba society. Population displacement in the Nuba was for essentialist reasons: it was pursued not just in pursuit of military objectives but also to create a new Islamist persona. A decade later, the government in Khartoum had become ideologically exhausted and its appeals to jihad were the product of habit more than true commitment. The population displacement in Darfur, proportionately just as massive as in the Nuba, is primarily instrumental: it is for the army to win the war and reward its militia allies with a land grab. If an argument for genocide is to be made, the Nuba during 1990-93 have a much less ambiguous case than Darfur in 2003-04.

The focus of this essay is how the violence in the Nuba Mountains came to an end. A ceasefire was negotiated between the Sudan Government and the SPLA in Burgenstock, Switzerland, in January 2002 in the first stages of the efforts to find a peace settlement to the long-running war between the central government and the SPLA. The ceasefire held, supervised by just two dozen unarmed ceasefire monitors, and the Nuba Mountains won special autonomous status in the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This is important, and ultimately provides the chance for the Nuba to escape its historic vulnerability to marginalization and group-targeted violence. But the specifically genocidal aspect to the violence had been reduced ten years earlier, to the extent that after 1993, the survival of the Nuba as a distinct people living in their own historic territory was not in doubt. The war after 1993 up to the 2002 ceasefire witnessed further burnings, killings, hunger and other atrocities, which were a subject of grave concern, but the genocidal force of the government campaign had gone. The main concern of this essay is the scaling-back of the government’s ambitions in the Nuba Mountains in 1993. Why did the genocidal onslaught on the Nuba end, only to be replaced by a lower-intensity ongoing counterinsurgency?

Background of the Nuba War

The Nuba Mountains lie in South Kordofan, a province (now a state) in the geographical centre of Sudan, chiefly inhabited by a cluster of peoples indigenous to the area. They are “black” and “African”, followers of Islam, Christianity and traditional religions, but their homeland is within the political boundaries of northern Sudan. They share South Kordofan with Arab cattle pastoralists, chiefly the Hawazma and Missiriya. Their skill at music, dancing, wrestling and body art has been celebrated by ethnographers and cultural tourists—but by the same token regarded as embarrassingly “primitive” by northern Sudanese elites, who are often candid about their “civilisation mission” to extend Arab-Muslim culture to the peripheries of their huge and diverse country. Long regarded as second-class citizens by the dominant classes of Sudan, the Nuba were discriminated against in the provision of education and development, and in the 1970s and ‘80s were also the victims of systematic land seizure. In the mid-1980s, many Nuba joined the Southern-led SPLA, and in 1985 fighting began. It escalated in 1987 when the SPLA despatched the “New Kush” division to the area.

The early period of the war was marked by militia massacres and extra-judicial executions by military intelligence. In a mixture of reprisals and counter-insurgency, some of it pre-emptive, a coalition of military officers and local militia commanders escalated violence against the Nuba. The first step was the arming of local Arab tribes by the government, initially as a panicked response to an SPLA attack in the region in 1985, and in 1989 they were formalized into the “Popular Defence Forces.” The militias committed the worst massacres of the war, driven not only by orders from their paramilitary command, but also by their own search for cattle, loot and cheap labor.

The June 1989 Islamist coup brought a very brief period of respite to the Nuba, followed rapidly by an escalation of violence. In October 1991, the government sealed off South Kordofan, prohibiting travel by foreigners. This was the first step in an unprecedented military assault, accompanied by a radical plan for population relocation. The idea of planned displacement and the concept of “peace camps” for the relocated had existed for several years, but this was the first time that the government was envisaging its use throughout an entire region. In addition, mass rape appeared as an instrument of policy. The intent was to wholly clear the Nuba Mountains of Nuba people. The campaign was justified by explicit reference to jihad.

Death squads targeted community leaders in rural areas, while intellectuals in the towns were rounded up by Military Intelligence and “disappeared.” The rationale was explained by Khalid Abdel Karim al Husseini, formerly head of the security in the Office of the Governor of Kordofan (and younger brother of the governor), until he left Sudan and sought asylum in Europe in 1993.2  He said that the government was “taking the intellectuals, taking the professionals, to ensure that the Nuba were so primitive that they couldn’t speak for themselves.”

The resettlement of the Nuba out of the mountains was what marked the jihad as being more than another military offensive. The government announced plans for the resettlement of 500,000 people, the entire population of the insurgent area, and by late 1992 had relocated one third of that number, many of them outside South Kordofan. Had this program proceeded, the Nuba Mountains themselves would have been denuded of their inhabitants.

Rape was ubiquitous in the campaign. This was not just soldiers’ license. There was an official policy of segregating men and women in the “peace camps.” Khalid el Husseini explained: “the reason for the men and women being distributed in different camps is to prevent them marrying, the reason being that if the men and women are together and get married and have children, that itself is contrary to government policy….The members of the Arab tribes are allowed to marry them in order to eliminate the Nuba identity.”3   The phrase “allowed to marry” amounts to “encouraged to rape” in the context of the absolute power held by the camp officials and guards over the females in their charge.

Government forces followed a policy of famine. They disrupted trade and closed markets, destroyed farms and looted animals. Raiding, abduction and rape prevented any movement between villages and to markets. Thousands died of hunger and disease, while the flow of basic goods (including soap, salt and clothing) to the rebel areas almost completely dried up. The Nuba Mountains went back in time: people wore home-spun cotton or went naked, could no longer use currency and so instead reverted to barter, and relied upon traditional medical remedies.

The policy was genocidal in both intent and possible outcome. Why did it not succeed? There were three reasons: the limits of the jihad-ist project, the resistance of the SPLA, and the opposition of bystanders.

The Jihad-ist Project and its Limits

The project of jihad failed in significant part because of its internal contradictions. It failed to obtain a political consensus across Sudan’s ruling elite. Its military and political weaknesses became exposed as its architects sought to implement it. A narrative of the attempted genocide is complex, because there was no single centrally directed conspiracy, but rather an interplay between ideology, greed, war strategy, political competition and personal ambition.

The origins of the genocidal project lay in the vision of the total social transformation of Sudan into an Islamic state, under the guidance of the National Islamic Front. This involved “curing” what were identified as social ills and pathologies, including the allegedly “un-Islamic” practices of groups such as the Nuba, and creating a new Muslim “persona.” The language of “healing” was explicit here and elsewhere in Sudan.4  Given that large sections of the Sudanese citizenry, including many Nuba, were in armed revolt against this socio-cultural project (as well as its accompanied political oppression and economic exploitation), this led to a merger between social transformation and counter-insurgency. In turn this logically led to a project of destroying those groups who resisted, either by physically eliminating their members, or by eradicating their cultures and assimilating the survivors. Along with forcible resettlement in what were named, with Orwellian aptness, “peace camps,” this entailed a policy of rape, as a measure intended both to destroy the fabric of the targeted communities and to create a new generation with “Arab” paternity. This agenda was justified by reference to the SPLA insurgency that was already in process, and neatly converged with the economic enticements of expropriating farmland and transforming its erstwhile owners into a servile agricultural proletariat. It was a deformed moral project.

A group of militant Islamists and security officers sought to carry out the project. They garnered the endorsement of the highest level of the state apparatus for the concept of a jihad, and mobilized very considerable resources, including aircraft and foreign military advisers. However, while they were fighting their jihad, they were also engaged in an internal power struggle with others within the government and army who wished to pursue a less radical approach, including some who (even at that date) sought a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. The radical Islamists’ problems were compounded by the weakness of their social analysis of the region. Their historically and sociologically simplistic view of the conflict and the ethnic factor horrified their compatriots, including fellow political leaders and military officers, who were more familiar with the complex ethnic and political realities. This sociological naiveté was an inevitable result of the beguiling simplicities of Islamist theory. It meant that the commanders of the genocide trusted in quick success, but in fact were unable to sustain the political consensus over the longer period of time required to complete their project. 5

The concept of jihad was developed in the Arab and Islamic Bureau, a quasi-official entity chaired by the Islamists’ leader, Hassan al Turabi. The Bureau was responsible both for the international policy of the Islamists, for example offering hospitality to Usama bin Laden and other international militants, and also for key components of domestic policy. Turabi served as supervisor of the Bureau, claiming credit for its successes and disavowing its failures. A number of very senior Sudanese Islamist militants were responsible for its domestic activities.6  The Bureau instructed the Vice President, General Zubeir Mohamed Saleh, to conduct the Kordofan jihad. It organized support to the military campaign in the form of international mujahidiin, 7who helped train the local militia,  and instructed the religious leaders of Kordofan to issue a fatwa in its support.

A series of meetings was held in the regional capital, el Obeid, in March and April 1992. In the first conference, local Arab leaders were mobilized as mujahidiin and given titles, weapons and vehicles. This took the militia policy to a new level of legitimacy and mobilization. They clearly understood that non-cooperation would have its price. General Zubeir presided over the meeting and personally directed the major military assault that followed, named Bishayir al Kheirat (“Expectation of Blessing”). 8 President Bashir attended the final rally, taking the title imam al jihad and bestowing lesser jihad-ist titles on the tribal leaders. Shortly afterwards, six ulama (Muslim clerics) issued a fatwa in support of the campaign. Its most notable clause was one that excommunicated the rebels, on the grounds that fighting the Sudan Government was equivalent to rebellion against Islam:

The rebels in South Kordofan and Southern Sudan started their rebellion against the state and declared war against the Muslims. Their main aims are: killing the Muslims, desecrating mosques, burning and defiling the Qur’an, and raping Muslim women. In so doing, they are encouraged by the enemies of Islam and Moslems: these foes are the Zionists, the Christians and the arrogant people who provide them with provisions and arms. Therefore, an insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them according to the following words of Allah…9

This is a disturbing document. One of its clearest sequelae was that government troops destroyed mosques in the SPLA-controlled areas. The fatwa has been interpreted by some writers as a universal charter for jihad and as nothing less than a precursor of Usama bin Laden’s declarations of war.10  Closer scrutiny suggests otherwise. When el Husseini initially called the senior imams and sheikhs of Kordofan for a meeting and demanded that they issue a fatwa, the region’s most senior cleric, Sheikh Abdel Rahim al Bura’i of el Obeid, refused. Other ulama joined him in pointing out that many Nuba are Muslims and cannot be the target of a jihad. The Governor instructed another government cleric in the regional capital, Sheikh Mushawar Juma Sahal, to write the fatwa. At first he also refused, but later on, certainly under serious pressure and possibly with inducements offered, accepted the task. Sheikh Sahal and the government mufti of Kordofan, Sheikh Musa Abdel Majid, were the only senior persons to sign the fatwa. All the others were second-rate provincial ulama.11  It was an embarrassingly amateur attempt at Islamic theology, and was made public only after the President had left el Obeid.

More seriously, the fatwa failed to obtain the public endorsement of the Islamists’ leader, Dr. Hassan al Turabi, who was abroad at the time, and who studiously avoided publicly invoking jihad. Most probably, Turabi wanted to back both sides. His own Arab and Islamic Bureau had initially called for jihad. Now, he was waiting on the sidelines to see if the jihad would succeed or not. Had it done so, he would have claimed the victory for himself, and embraced his acolytes who had planned it.

The Kordofan jihad is most closely associated with the Governor of Kordofan, the newly-promoted Lt.-Gen. Sayed Abdel Karim el Husseini, and his notably zealous Commissioner for South Kordofan, Abdel Wahab Abdel Rahman Ali. They were assisted by many others, such as the head of Military Intelligence in Kadugli, Major Ahmed Khamis. Their motivations were mixed. El Husseini did not have a record as an Islamist. He was a career military officer who seized the openings offered by the Islamist government, and who opportunistically tried to prove both his loyalty and his new-found Islamist credentials during the campaign. Abdel Wahab Abdel Rahman was a more typical middle ranking civilian Islamist cadre with a background in Islamist social mobilization. The most ideological of the three, he lacked rank in the Islamist hierarchy: he too was trying to prove his credentials. Major Ahmed Khamis was a military officer who had acquired a reputation for unusual cruelty since been promoted to his post in 1987. He personally figures in the testimonies of almost all Nuba who were imprisoned in Kadugli between 1985 and 1995, holding the power of life and death over those in his charge. His career illustrates how those with a penchant for decisive and unflinching violence can thrive during a protracted counter-insurgency war.

The military campaign was designed in Khartoum and Vice President Zubeir directed the major assault personally. It was the largest offensive of the war, but it suffered weaknesses in planning. The most serious of these was an underestimation of the tenacity and skill of the SPLA forces. Ideologues are often let down by their neglect of practicalities, and especially tend to overlook the need for contingency planning when things go awry. The planners also paid little heed to the gap between the moral purity of the ideal jihad and the tawdry realities of counter-insurgency. Theoreticians of jihad such as Sayed Qutb stress that the moral fervor of the mujahid is essential to secure victory, and that dying in the path of jihad is the most noble death for a Muslim and a sure path to paradise.12  Qutbist theory insists that victory is solely in the hands of God, who will deliver it based on the faith of the mujahidiin. Although he may use all practical military means available, the true mujahid is thereby encouraged into a spirit of self-sacrifice that may, in purely military terms, be wholly futile.  The Nuba jihad contains many examples of the triumph of faith over caution, for example the propensity of the mujahidiin commanders to alert the SPLA troops of imminent attacks by insisting that their troops cry “Allahu akbar!” as they leapt out of their trenches. Some of the foreign mujahidiin reportedly refused to fight when they arrived at the front and realised that many of the Nuba were Muslims.

Without a quick victory, the realities of protracted war against a wily enemy drowned out the spirit of jihad. The jihad-ist language was reduced to mere formula, cited by officers in their reports for the benefit of superiors. There was neither heroism nor combat in the service of God, just a dirty little war, involving dejected and frightened soldiers killing poor and frightened villagers.13

The government was united in support of the 1992 military offensive, but not the policy of relocation. Vice President Zubeir appears to have opposed the relocations, and sought to undermine his erstwhile protege, el Husseini. Just before the announcement of jihad, Zubeir removed Abdel Wahab Abdel Rahman as Commissioner of South Kordofan (by dint of “promoting” him to be regional minister of health—an ironic appointment if ever there was one) and put in place a rival officer, Mohamed el Tayeb Fadl. On his arrival in Kadugli, Mohamed el Tayeb found the town divided and distrustful of the government. With Zubeir’s mandate, he negotiated a ceasefire with the SPLA at a small town called Bilenya, and froze the relocations policy. However, he was outmanoevered by el Husseini, who dispatched him on a pilgrimage to Mecca. El Husseini went personally to Kadugli to start the relocations program, and then brought back Abdel Wahab Abdel Rahman. The ceasefire was rescinded (and many Nuba civilians who had taken the opportunity to visit towns were detained and relocated to peace camps). Subsequently Abdel Wahab was dismissed again, Mohamed el Tayeb briefly brought back and then removed, and a new Commissioner appointed.

If Gen. Zubeir was opposed to the relocation policy, why could he not remove el Husseini and definitively halt the genocidal project? First, he was personally and publicly committed to the success of the military offensive, which he had agreed to lead. Second, there were other military imperatives—the SPLA launched big attacks on the southern capital Juba in June and July 1992. Third and most important, the military officers who were formally at the apex of the state were not in full control. Equal or greater power was wielded by the militant Islamists in the Arab and Islamic Bureau, and the government remained in place, provided the two groups were ready to accommodate one another.

Divides reached right down to the provincial level. Military intelligence in Kordofan, commanded by Ahmed Khamis, was fervently in support of extreme measures, including eliminating large numbers of educated Nuba.14  A handful of Nuba chiefs were also ready to collaborate, anticipating absolute power within their fiefdoms. For example, Chief Kafi Tayara Bedin was an outspoken supporter of relocations, and ran a private prison in collaboration with Ahmed Khamis. But the army relied on Nuba soldiers and NCOs for many of its troops, and as stories of the excesses of the jihad spread, there was an upsurge in discontent within the ranks. On 11 April 1992, 101 Nuba army officers and policemen were arrested, accused of planning a “racial coup,” which in Sudanese political-speak means a mutiny by ethnic minorities. Although the plot was suppressed, discontent remained a serious problem. The Kadugli Security Committee also supported the ceasefire and opposed the relocations, and conspired to weaken el Husseini and remove Abdel Wahab.

El Husseini and his allies, meanwhile, could probably have prevailed if their specific brand of jihad-ist practice had enjoyed the unambiguous imprimatur of the Islamist leadership. If Turabi had supported them directly, their extreme version of social planning might have gone ahead. Turabi’s tactics are often inscrutable, and it was notable that he decided to go on a foreign tour just as the power struggle over the Kordofan jihad was at its peak. Perhaps Turabi was already aware of the limits of his project for creating an Islamic state. Or perhaps he thought that the time was not yet ripe.

The Nuba jihad resembles many Sudanese counterinsurgencies, from the earliest days of the war in 1985 until the Darfur offensives of 2003-04, in the identity of the architects, the use of local militia, the scorched earth tactics, and the impunity enjoyed by military officers in an ethics-free zone. It differs in the prominence given to Islamist ideology. Driven by a radical and simplistic ideology that was unable to cope with the demands of real politics, the jihad was always liable to collapse under the stress of its internal contradictions. But could it be sustained for long enough to achieve its goals nonetheless? It is at this juncture that the resistance of the intended victims became key.

SPLA Resistance

The resistance of the SPLA was the second major factor in halting the Nuba genocide. With their backs against the wall and facing collective annihilation, the Nuba in rural areas supported the SPLA resistance with remarkable unanimity and persistence. At the very nadir of their struggle, the Nuba found new reserves of determination, and debated in a consultative council whether to surrender or fight on. Not trusting the government to keep any promises, they voted to continue to fight. Their resilience bought time: by slowing down the advance of the government troops, they ultimately defeated the genocide.

By 1992, the SPLA troops in the Nuba Mountains were battle-hardened and knew their strength. When they confronted the mujahidiin columns, they were confident, knowing the inexperience of the latter. Nonetheless the attack on Tullishi Mountain was one of the most sustained and ferocious battles of the entire war, with day-and-night bombardment of the mountain, followed by massed infantry attacks. More than 40,000 troops were involved at the height of the campaign. Assaults continued for four months, often day and night. They did not succeed. The defence of the mountain, led by Alternate Commander Mohamed Juma with just 970 men, was one of the most remarkable military feats of arms in the entire war, although because of the remoteness of the area it was fully five years before it received any recognition.15

Juma’s small force beat off repeated attacks, despite receiving no reinforcements during the entire battle (an attempt at re-supply failed), and so had to provision itself from what it could capture. The terrain helped the defenders, who hid in caves and used the escarpments as their bulwarks. The Nuba fighters were highly motivated, defending their own homeland with the encouragement of the local population. In May the Government finally declared it had captured Tullishi mountain and withdrew. But the SPLA forces were still in control.

We must now turn to an analysis of the Nuba leadership and the social contract that it forged with the Nuba people. The SPLA commander in the Nuba Mountains, Yousif Kuwa Mekki, played a remarkable role in leading the resistance. A schoolteacher and cultural activist, Yousif Kuwa helped mobilize the Nuba for political representation and then as part of the SPLA.16 Yousif Kuwa (who died in 2000) was close to his people, full of enthusiasm for their culture, and ready to share their hardship and suffering. His personal charisma and wide network of support among the Nuba was pivotal in building the resistance in the mountains, and keeping the core of it intact during the hardest years, when the SPLA was in retreat.

The bare facts of the Nuba resistance are these. The defense of Tullishi mountain was probably the finest feat of arms of the SPLA during the entire war. At that point, several SPLA attempts to re-supply the Nuba Mountains were unsuccessful, due to attacks by the government army, internecine conflict among the SPLA in the South, drought, floods and the corruption of an SPLA officer en route. There was no humanitarian presence in the region at all. There was no news coverage, and in any case the people in the mountains had no batteries for their radios. The Nuba felt forgotten by everyone. With nothing but themselves to rely on, they found the necessary determination and reserves of energy. The critical moment in this was a meeting called by Yousif Kuwa in September 1992. He formed an “Advisory Council” of representatives from across the region, to discuss the single question of whether to continue to fight or to surrender in order to avoid the devastation of indefinite resistance. Yousif Kuwa opened the meeting by recounting the history of the struggle up to that point, and concluded his presentation with the remark that while he took responsibility for everything that had happened so far, from now on the decision would be collective. There was a long and vigorous debate—one of the commanders who argued for making a deal, Telefon Kuku, later handed over his home town to the government forces without a fight and was subsequently imprisoned by the SPLA17—but the meeting eventually voted to continue the struggle. It also made a number of supplementary decisions concerning education, social services and religious tolerance.

Normally an abstraction, the “social contract” was made real by this encounter. It was a rare situation in which a political leadership has to rely entirely on the willing support of its constituency for its own survival. In this case, Yousif Kuwa recognized the challenge and responded, and the Nuba were the beneficiaries of the outcome. Over the following years, the Nuba guerrillas fought on with resourcefulness and determination, while the civil administration opened schools and clinics. All this was accomplished with no budget and no external assistance.

When international agencies began to operate in the Nuba Mountains in 1995, they were at first impressed with the self-reliance and pride of the people. Subsequently, the demoralization and corruption so often associated with a philanthropic intervention in poor communities arrived and began to spread. Christian missionary activities provided material support and encouragement but some of the more radical Christians also proved divisive. The military and political malaise within the main command of the SPLA also spread to the Nuba commanders, who lost much of their energy and cohesion, with some of them defecting to Khartoum and others becoming more concerned with their personal wellbeing.


A supplementary reason for the defeat of the genocidal project was wider opposition in Sudanese society. The leaders of the Kordofan jihad tried to keep the real nature of their activities secret. But, by relocating destitute and starving Nuba civilians to the outskirts of northern Kordofan towns, the authorities brought their activities to wider attention. Shocked by what they were witnessing, the citizens of these towns began to bring food and medicine to the Nuba dumped on their doorstep. They were still more shocked when the security forces stopped their charitable activities. The groundswell of popular disgust, expressed through social networks rather than openly, contributed to the retreat of the militants.

In addition, the Islamic relief agencies and the regional government were having difficulty coping with the sheer numbers of relocated people. Their plans for absorbing the boys into Islamic schools were simply too ambitious, and the food began to run out. As they were engaged in constantly reassuring international donors that they could cope with Sudan’s relief needs, the sudden crisis in Kordofan was an embarrassment. Many humanitarian professionals staffing Sudan’s relief establishment were personally appalled at what was happening. A comparison between this period and the preceding “democratic” period is instructive. The free press and competitive electoral system in place up to 1989 failed to protect the Nuba. The mechanisms that provided modest assistance during this “liberal” period were family and sectarian connections, plus the general humane concern of the Sudanese general public, which were the very same mechanisms that came into play under the dictatorship.

The diplomatic community in Khartoum and the UN gave the Nuba some attention but with modest impact. The international community was handicapped by its lack of reliable information, its lack of influence in Khartoum (which was already a pariah state), and the timidity of humanitarian agencies fearful of losing the government’s consent for their relief programs elsewhere in the country. The mixed motives of relief agencies and western diplomats were to be a constant hindrance to obtaining decisive action on the Nuba Mountains throughout the 1990s. Every time speaking out on the Nuba was suggested, the objection came that this would jeopardize humanitarian access in the South. The humanitarians’ argument can be paraphrased: why endanger a precarious but real relief operation serving needy people in Southern Sudan for what might be merely symbolic action over the Nuba? It was a real dilemma that cannot be lightly dismissed, but the suspicion must be that, until there was a practical interest by a sufficient number of international NGOs (in about 1997), the UN and major donors preferred timidity.

One gesture during the jihad period was a mention of the Nuba Mountains by the head of the newly-established UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Eliasson, on his visit to Khartoum in September 1992. However, the UN in Khartoum at that point was in one of its most acquiescent moods, and did precisely nothing. The second principal gesture was a U.S. Congressional Resolution in October that mentioned the Nuba Mountains in the context of condemning human rights abuses in Sudan (and specifically the disappearance of two Sudanese USAID employees, who had been murdered by the security forces in Juba). The latter served primarily as a morale boost to the Sudanese opposition. This attention was spurred in part by a newsletter from Africa Watch, written by this author, which was compiled from evidence obtained through Kadugli and el Obeid.18  At Africa Watch, we also lobbied Eliasson directly and drafted the Congressional resolution. In 1993, two British MPs, Tony Worthington and Robert Banks, visited Kadugli but were denied access to any peace camps or rural areas (which they duly noted in their report). The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, Gaspar Biro, also made a visit to Kadugli and filed a similar report. These small efforts reportedly made some difference: Nuba leaders in Sudan report that the government became marginally more circumspect.

The international community only became more than bystanders in 1995, with the African Rights-BBC mission to the Nuba Mountains, subsequent efforts by NGOs and solidarity groups, the belated engagement of the UN, and the ceasefire negotiations of January 2002.

Conclusions and Lessons

The phase of jihad ended with the transfer out of South Kordofan of the key militants and the down-scaling of the relocations policy in 1993. Although the threat of genocide was then averted, extremely brutal counter-insurgency continued. Without major attention, government forces perpetuated a high level of killing, burning, rape and displacement. The extremists in government had not achieved the goal of rapid and spectacular ethnic cleansing, but now had a policy that would achieve some of the same result, albeit more slowly and messily. During this phase the government subverted some Nuba leaders with a policy dignified with the name of “peace from within.” This abandoned the more overtly racist aspects of the jihad in order to make some Nuba leaders accomplices in their own oppression.

What can we surmise about the conditions that led to genocide being averted in the Nuba Mountains, and what general lessons do these hold? The two critical reasons identified are the incoherence of the genocidal project itself and the capacity of the Nuba people to resist. The Nuba case demonstrates how difficult it is to carry out genocide. The Sudanese political and military elites were united around the demand for fighting the war in a ruthless manner, but not upon population relocation or genocide. The ideological rationale for the destruction of the Nuba identity was provided by a particular interpretation of political Islam, but that interpretation was internally contradictory and lacked the tools needed to turn an ideal into a reality. And the Islamists’ sheikh, Hassan al Turabi, flinched.

The incoherence of an ideological project is not a knock-down argument against its capacity to inflict massive destruction including genocide. If flawed ideologies fell apart at the first challenge, there would have been no genocides in Germany or Rwanda. What made it possible for the Nuba to survive both physically and socio-culturally was their ability to resist effectively. The successful military defense of the mountains in 1992 was not a foregone conclusion. It was possible because of gifted leadership and the ability of society to come together at a critical moment and unite in self-defense. Those of us privileged to see the extraordinary self-confidence of the Nuba at that moment in their history and for a few years thereafter were hopeful that this social cohesion could be maintained. We were over-optimistic, but nonetheless the Nuba were able to find the will when it mattered. Quite possibly, the very fact that they faced their moment of truth alone and without external support, contributed to their success. Those who seek salvation from outside rarely find it.19  The oldest lesson of humanitarian action and political emancipation (as well as social and economic development) is applicable even at the extremity of genocide: do it yourself.

The international community played a minor role. During the critical period it knew too little and did too little to find out what was happening. It was handicapped by its own conflicts of interest, notably the humanitarians’ concern not to compromise relief access in Southern Sudan and the agenda of the U.S. religious right to demonize not only the Sudan Government but also Muslims and Arabs in general. But the Sudan Government was sensitive to international opinion, and ultimately it was this that ameliorated the vicious counter-insurgency.


1 African Rights, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan, London, July 1995; BBC, ‘“Sudan’s Secret War,’” July 1985.
2 Interviewed by the BBC in Switzerland, 13 June 1995. 
3 Interviewed by the BBC in Switzerland, 13 June 1995, see Facing Genocide p. 222.
4 African Rights, Food and Power in Sudan: A Critique of Humanitarianism, London, 1997, pp 202-3.
5 See Alex de Waal (ed.) Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, Indiana, 2004.
6 They included el Tayeb Mohamed Ahmed (known as Tayeb ‘“Sikha’,” the iron bar), Nafie Ali Nafie, Majzub el Khalifa and Qutbi el Mahdi.
7 Two Iranians were captured and killed by the SPLA, Facing Genocide, pp. 113-14.
8 Individual operations had names drawn from the early history of Islam, including Tayir al Ababil (‘“Birds of Ababil,’” from the battle, mentioned in the Koran, in which Allah sent birds to protect the Kaaba of Mecca) and Badr el Kubra, from the Prophet Mohamed’s biggest victory against the unbelievers.
9 Fatwa issued by religious leaders, Imams of mosques and Sufists of Kordofan State, 27 April 1992.
10 Youssef Bodanski, Bin Laden: The Man who Declared War on America, New York, Forum, 1999, p. 111.
11 Sahal was a member of the national Legislative Assembly and head of Islamic Affairs Bureau in Kordofan.
12 Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, Plainfield, IN., American Trust Publications, 1990.
13 A.H. Abdel Salam, ‘“On the failure and persistence of jihad,’” in Alex de Waal (ed.) Islamism and its Enemies in the Horn, London, C. Hurst, 2004.
14 He was transferred in April 1993.
15 NAFIR ‘“The History of the Battle of Tullishi Mountain,’” NAFIR: The Newsletter of the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad, 3.3, October 1997.
16 Yousif Kuwa Mekki, ‘“Things would no longer be the same,’” in Suleiman Rahhal (ed.) The Right to be Nuba: The Story of a Sudanese People’s Struggle for Survival, Trenton NJ, Red Sea Press, 2001.
17 Almost uniquely for a guerrilla force that has routinely executed those suspected of treachery, he was first imprisoned, then transferred to the South, and subsequently demobilised and given responsibility for a development project.
18 Africa Watch, ‘“Sudan: Eradicating the Nuba: Africa Watch Calls for the United Nations to Investigate Killings, Destruction of Villages and Forced Removals,’” 9 September 1992.
19 In this regard, it is interesting that the title of the Nuba magazine NAFIR, drawn from the Arabic nafir meaning a communal self-help party, was initially (1995) designed with the banner, ‘“Nuba Association for an International Rescue,’” but changed by the second editor (Suleiman Rahhal) to read instead ‘“The newsletter of the Nuba Mountains, Sudan.’”

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