South Kordofan: comments to the ICG report

Nanne op 't Ende
Tilburg, Netherlands
October 24, 2008

It was a bit of a strange experience to read the ICG report ‘Sudan’s Southern Kordofan problem: the next Darfur?’ released October 21, 2008.  I felt being warped back in time for about two and a half years, to the trip I made to South Kordofan in 2006, to see how the Nuba people were doing I had met during the war.

If you have read the ICG report and read the article I wrote upon my return home, you may understand why.

Another trip, in December 2007, caused me to doubt the conclusion of 2006, that ‘nobody wanted to go back to war’ but I did retain a positive feeling about the committment of the leading Nuba in SPLM to stick to the CPA and make the best of it.  

In August 2008, a Small Arms Survey report came out entitled ‘The drift back to war, Insecurity and militarization in the Nuba Mountains’. If you have read it, the ICG report sounds very familiar.

The similarity between the reports is not neccessarily the result of both having been written by the same people or having been based on the same information: the SAS report was researched by July Flint who did not leave the SPLM administrated areas, while the ICG report was researched by a team that did not venture far outside Kadugli and did not visit the SPLM administrated areas.

Both reports sketch a worrisome picture. Lack of progress; recurring violence; arming of militias; political rivalry; disappointed Nuba; disappointed Misseriya; frustrated SPLA officers; criticism of UNMIS; South Kordofan about to explode?

A problem with the SAS report was that its gloomy conclusions coincided with the first tangible signs that administrative and police integration might yet happen in South Kordofan. It would be nonsense to deny the problems in the state or dissmiss the report as running behind the facts all together, but I thought the significance of this development towards integration deserved serious attention.

I felt - and still feel - that NCP and SPLM in South Kordofan will continue to put each other to the test as political rivals, right down to the elections, but that they are not looking to escalate the situation. One of the indications was the joint approach against a new rebel group in Al Belola.

The ICG has included recent developments in the report under the chapter ‘real progress?’ but it is very careful not to be too enthousiastic. The emphasis of the report is on the disappointed peoples of South Kordofan who had their say in numerous interviews, the majority of which were conducted in February 2008.

This brings me to a second problem I have with both the reports: the stories of frustration have been exactly the same over the past three years, down to the regular statements by Brigadier Telephone Kuku (who does not seem to consider himself as ex-SPLA by the way).

Personally I don’t blame the people in South Kordofan to take every opportunity to complain to anyone from outside the region about the situation and to warn that war is imminent. There is plenty to complain about. International follow up on the peace process in South Kordofan has not been adequate, and both the NCP in Khartoum and the SPLM in Juba have not always been constructive.

And let's face it: in a country where only the force of the gun is respected and only violence and suffering attract the eyes of the world, the threat of a return to war seems a logical argument. But this logic leads nowhere.

Some weeks ago I met with a representative of the Nubian people who live in the far North of Sudan. They have their own issues with the central government. “And when our grievances are not met, we will turn Sudan into the next Somalia,” the spokesman said, looking at me as if he had just made a very convincing case. “I guess that will make you all feel a lot better,” I replied to his studied smile.

Granted, such a comment would not make much sense when you are doing research for the International Crisis Group.

Speaking of research... I have mixed feelings about the quality of the ICG report. It is hard to lose the impression that the report mainly conveys the messages the interviewed people want to get accross to the world outside, without providing an independent perspective.

What I miss most is a clear explanation, from the beginning, that not all the Nuba are allied with the SPLM, and that not all the Arabs are allied with the NCP, as they are being portrayed by the report. The divisions and the problematic co-operation in South Kordofan are hard to understand without taking into account that the Nuba have often fought each other during the war.

I also doubt whether it is constructive to introduce the Nuba as indeginous Africans, making the Arabs migrants to the region. Many of the Nuba peoples migrated to South Kordofan from elsewhere, be it that they arrived before the Arab peoples who came to South Kordofan around 1800 AD.

For an organisation that calls for conflict resolution, reconsiliation and intertribal dialogue, this one-dimensional aproach is curious. But most curious of all is the frontal attack on UNMIS.

The comparison between UNMIS and JMC has often been made (yes, also by me), and JMC usually gets better ratings. But is it fair to expect the same role of UNMIS when it operates in a very different situation, under a different mandate, and with a much more restrictive set of operational rules than JMC did?

Perhaps the ICG team could have discussed the role of UNMIS with its leadership, rather than just declaring it incompetent. It would not have been all that difficult: the UNMIS compound outside Kadugli is hard to miss.

True, it is not always that easy to verify stories one hears in Southern Kordofan, but there is a list of assertions presented as facts that are questionable or demonstrably false. For example:

- The Nuba did not take up arms in the early 1990’s but in the late 1980’s.

- The Nuba leaders in the SPLM do not blame the SPLM for not making sure they would also have a right to selfdetermination: they blame the Nuba leaders in the NCP who said they were not interested in self-determination.

- Yousif Kuwa did not appoint Abdelaziz Adam elHilu as his successor in 2002: Yousif Kuwa died in 2001 and John Garang appointed Abdelaziz.

- The SPLM delegation did not just emphasize the revival of Nuba culture and identity at the negotiations in Nayvasha: the negotiations nearly collapsed on the many tough political decisions that had to be made regarding Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan.

- 'Abyei lies North of the 1956 border'... If only things were that simple. Where is the 1956 border anyway?

- The report argues that the Nuba were trying to lay claims on the land as tribal or communal lands too quickly. Without understanding why the Nuba were trying to do this, you might think it really was just a matter of tribal identities and local commanders.

- Abdelaziz Adam elHilu returned to Sudan in January 2008, not late 2007.

- The Nuba in the SPLM did not fully participate in the census of April 2008. Deputy Governor Daniel Kodi called a boycot, which he revoked during the procedure – but the Nuba in the SPLM consider the census failed.

And I could go on like this for a while. Yet I said that I had mixed feelings. That is because some of the information considering the Misseriya is new to me and because the inside story on the corruption in the state finances is a nice piece of work

It is also because I agree with the basic assessment that political rivalry has prevented progress. It is what I expected to happen in 2006.

And without wanting to downplay the work of the many organisations already active in South Kordofan, I agree with the ICG that South Kordofan could use more international assistance, both in the form of helping to provide basic services to the inhabitants of South Kordofan – safe water; health care; education; roads etc. – and in the form of political attention to the process of improving stability and the administration’s capacity in South Kordofan.

I just don't know whether crying 'war' is the best way to get that assistance, or if it will mainly serve to confirm the frustrated people in South Kordofan in their anger.

The conclusion from 2006 was that if nothing changed in the rivalry between the parties and if none of the Nuba leaders would be able to transcend it, we could expect three more years of obstruction, three more years of frustration, increasingly tough political talk and - I feared - increasing violence.

Today the working relationship between the SPLM and the NCP is still very difficult, but it has changed fundamentally in the past months. Let's support that development and see the peoples of South Kordofan make it to the National and State elections.


The Nuba Mountains Homepage was made by Nanne op 't Ende.
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