Creating devastation and calling it Islam: the war for Nuba, Sudan.

By Alex de Waal

The war in Sudan is conventionally mis-described in terms of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) "fighting for more autonomy for the mainly Christian and animist South." This is wrong on several counts. First, the SPLA is fighting for a "new Sudan" in the whole country, and includes significant groups of non-Southerners among its forces. The Nuba people of southern Kordofan are prominent among these. Second, there are Muslims serving in the SPLA, including the late Yousif Kuwa Mekki, the charismatic Nuba leader who died in March 2001, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Adam al Hilu. Third, there are no animists in Sudan: followers of traditional religions are mostly theists--"noble spiritual believers" in the apt and sensitive terminology of the now-replaced 1973 Constitution. An even more egregiously wrong characterization of the conflict is "Christian rebels" against a "Muslim government." The war in Sudan is fundamentally about greed and identity. And religion has become an integral part of the contested identities of Sudanese, nowhere more so than in the Nuba Mountains.

Caught in the middle are a diverse group of peoples who give name to the mountain range in the center of the country: the Nuba. Celebrated by anthropologists and photographers for their dancing, wrestling, and body painting,(FN1) the Nuba are facing the possible demise of their culture. The Nuba peoples number approximately 1.5 million, however, they comprise more than forty different ethnic groups with a variety of languages, united by the fact that they are black Africans distinct from their Sudanese Arab cattle-herding neighbors. The Nuba include followers of Islam, Christianity, and traditional religions. Neglected and discriminated against by successive governments in Khartoum, many Nuba sympathized with the Southern-led rebellion of the SPLA in the early 1980s. In 1985, civil unrest ignited in the Nuba Mountains between units of the SPLA and local Arab militia. Since then the region has been one of the fronts in Sudan's civil war.

For the first ten years of the conflict, the rest of the world knew nothing of what was happening there. Army and militia forces burned swathes of villages, and hundreds of Nuba chiefs and educated people were detained and murdered by security forces. In 1992, the government launched one of its largest military campaigns, aiming to clear the SPLA from the region, partly by forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of Nuba away from their villages to "peace camps" around army garrisons, in some cases hundreds of miles away. The campaign failed, but the war continued, characterized by violence against civilians: killings, burnings, and rape.(FN2) Throughout this period the mountains were sealed off, and no humanitarian assistance was permitted.

In 1995, following documentation of the war and human rights abuses by the British NGO African Rights and the BBC, outside attention was belatedly drawn to the Nuba predicament. A small relief airlift was established into the SPLA-held enclaves where about 300,000 people were living. While the opening up of the Nuba Mountains has allowed the international community to witness the suffering of the Nuba, it has not translated either into a large-scale relief program (the United Nations has yet to deliver on repeated promises to activate a significant relief effort) or into political action to achieve peace. There have been serious government offensives every year since 1996,(FN3) as well as well-publicized incidents of aerial bombardment of schools and hospitals.(FN4).

The war has many dimensions. The Nuba conflict is part of the wider Sudanese war, which is being fought for state power, for control of the nation's resources, and for ideology. It has its local aspects: merchants and government officers in Kordofan State (which contains the Nuba Mountains) covet the rich farmland in the valleys between the Nuba hills. Sudan's oil fields lie immediately to the south of the mountains; clearing the roads and pipeline routes has dictated government strategy in the last two years. Increasingly it has become a Nuba-Nuba conflict, as the Sudanese government uses militias and army units drawn from the Nuba as its principal forces against the SPLA. This paper will focus on the religious dimension to the conflict, asking what the Nuba war tells about the possibility of political Islam peacefully coexisting with diverse cultures and religions.


Notwithstanding the recent split between President Omer al Bashir and his mentor, Hassan al Turabi, for the last twelve years Sudan has been ruled by the National Islamic Front (NIF) in coalition with the armed forces. The NIF represents a minority constituency in northern Sudan. It gained less than 10 percent of the votes in the last free election, which were held in April 1986, and is aware that it is likely to gain little more in any future electoral contest. Its organizational talents and skillful use of political Islam gave it disproportionate influence even before it attained absolute power through a military coup in June 1989. While in power, the NIF leadership has attempted to change the nature of Sudanese society in fundamental ways. Most discussion of political Islam in power has focused on the question of the shariah and the implications of religions law for human rights, especially those of non-Muslims. But the requirements of an Islamic state in practice are more far-reaching, especially in the hands of Hassan al Turabi and his lieutenants, including Ali Osman Mohamed Taha (currently vice president of Sudan, and seen by many as the most influential figure in government).

During its years in power, the NIF has regularly changed the slogans under which it has ruled introducing and then abandoning concepts such as self-reliance, "return to the roots," "Islamic social planning," and "the comprehensive call to God." Most recently, under the pressure of internal and external opposition, the government has introduced the idea of tawali, which has no exact translation and is perhaps best paraphrased as "the way ahead," a form of low-intensity pluralism where a limited degree of political choice is permitted within the structure of an Islamic state. Meanwhile, several terms have remained in common usage, but are simultaneously open to various interpretations. Among these are jihad, tamkiin (the hegemonic control of Islamists over all aspects of society), and the Islamization of economic life.(FN5).

In many ways, the project of an Islamic state appears as an attractive riposte to the globalization or Americanization of social and economic life. It appears like a shelter that can protect distinct cultures and social ethics in the face of a seemingly unstoppable global force. As with many phenomena in modern Sudan, there is an immense gap between the sophisticated analyses of the Khartoum ideologues and the rural realities, especially in the war-affected areas of the South, the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, and the East. But these rather brutal realities are not an aberration or an error of implementation. In the multi-ethnic, plural Sudan, a homogenous Islamist enterprise can ultimately only be implemented by coercion, and coercion is always ugly.

The NIF's extremist Islam is an almost wholly alien phenomenon to Western secular or Christian audiences (not least because the NIF, in its English language statements, restricts itself to rather anodyne claims). It is nothing less than an attempt to redefine the nature of a state. This involves collapsing conventional secular distinctions between state and civil society, private and public, secular and religious, charitable and commercial, and civil and military. Hassan al Turabi has written eloquently about his vision:.

An Islamic state cannot be isolated from society because Islam is a comprehensive, integrated way of life. The division between private and public, the state and society, that is familiar in Western culture, has not been known in Islam. The state is only the political expression of an Islamic society...

The ideological foundation of an Islamic state lies in the doctrine of tawhid--the unity of God and human life--as a comprehensive and exclusive program of worship. This fundamental principle of belief has many consequences for an Islamic state: first, it is not secular. All public life in Islam is religious, being permeated by the experience of the divine. Its function is to pursue the service of God as expressed in a concrete way through the shariah, the religious law.(FN6).

In short, it no longer makes sense to speak of a boundary between "governmental" and "non-governmental" functions and organizations. The distinction between state action and voluntary citizens' action becomes meaningless. They are together in a common project of creating an Islamic society. This gives a flexibility and strength to the NIF rule that was lacking in other authoritarian systems, such as the monolithically centralist communist systems.

Among the key concepts for putting these ideas into policy are "Islamic social planning" and the "comprehensive call to God" (al Da'wa al Shamla). Islamic social planning was the brainchild of Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, now vice president of Sudan. It has been described by a prominent NIF academic in the following terms:.
The idea of Islamic Social Planning means a continuing revolution for the remoulding of the human being and the institutions in society in accordance with Koranic guidance...

Islamic Social Planning aims to achieve:.
1. A complete and comprehensive remoulding of the Islamic personality with a view to making it a living, honest and conscious characterisation of Islamic concepts, values and teachings.
2. Building and reconstructing all state institutions on principles derived from the Koran.
3. Establishing an Islamic society formed on the basis of Islamic principles and rules without coercion.
4. Establishing an Islamic state to propagate right, justice, spread peace and security in all fields and actualise solidarity, compassion and support among all people, especially Moslems.
5. Establishing an international Islamic civilisation and a new international order based on justice and fairness and the recognition of the cultures of others and their cultural, religious and ethnic distinctions.(FN7).

In many ways this is an attractive philosophy that has succeeded in mobilizing the energies and commitment of many Muslims. In the light of the perceived failures of Western models of development and political organization in Africa and the Arab world, such radical alternatives should be taken seriously. However, in the case of Sudan, this project demands close and critical attention. These concepts' philosophical foundation is an idea of "community" or "society" that assumes no diversity. Islamic society in this mode requires consensus around a wide set of values. This does not correspond to the reality of any modern country, let alone Sudan, which is highly heterogeneous, with different religions including different varieties of Islamic belief such as Sufi traditions. The project of an Islamic state and its components such as Islamic social planning entail at best the promotion of a particular viewpoint at the expense of others, and at worst the imposition of a politicized, extremist ideology. Sadly, Sudan has experienced the latter. The military power of the state has been necessary not just to promote the Islamist agenda but also to maintain the regime in government. Although many NIF ideologues would deny it, jihad becomes the ideological backing for total war. In this context, the Islamist project has become a charter for war, repression, and human rights abuses, which has corrupted and discredited the lofty principles of the enterprise itself.


The very existence of the Nuba people within the borders of Sudan--and especially within northern Sudan--impugned the Islamist project. Here were a people who embraced diversity and tolerance, for whom the right to practice their cultural traditions was highly valued and seen as quite compatible with following revealed religion. Many specific Nuba practices, such as public nudity and various forms of dancing, were seen as "primitive" and "uncivilized" by Sudanese Muslims from Khartoum, and especially so by Islamists. In peacetime, a slow process of cultural change was evident, especially among the educated Nuba and townspeople: they were adopting "Sudanese" dress and manners. But, notably in the southeast of the region, the Nuba in the hills defiantly continued to reject assimilation into "Sudanese" culture. Particularly vexing for Islamist leaders was the readiness of Nuba Muslims to continue to adhere to many customary practices, including intermarriage with followers of other faiths, respect for rainmakers and other traditional religious leaders, dancing, and consumption of alcohol.

Government hostility towards the Nuba began in 1986 under the elected government of Sadiq el Mahdi, which exhibited many of these Islamizing tendencies. For many Nuba, there is little distinction to be made between these "civilian" rulers and their parties, and the military government of the NIF. For both the Sadiq el Mahdi and Omer al Bashir governments, however, the key factor in the repression unleashed on the Nuba was the fact that the SPLA forces there represented a real military threat. The first major SPLA units entered the mountains in 1987, well-trained and well-armed, and made rapid progress in securing the south-eastern hills. In 1989, the prominent Nuba leader Yousif Kuwa Mekki arrived as SPLA governor and military commander and within two years the SPLA forces were threatening to overrun major towns. Most Nuba welcomed the SPLA fighters as liberators, and Commander Yousif was a popular leader. A former schoolteacher, elected member of the regional parliament, and leader of a cultural-political movement known as "Komolo," Yousif was active in building civil administration and encouraging the Nuba to revive their cultural traditions. Yousif was a Muslim, as are the majority of the senior Nuba SPLA commanders.

The religious dimension to the conflict is thrown into sharpest profile by the 1992 jihad. In April, a conference of religious leaders sponsored by the government issued a fatwa, a religious edict, in support of the jihad in the Nuba Mountains. This was not only directed against Christians and traditional believers; it also targeted Muslims. It instructed government forces to treat Muslims in the SPLA-controlled areas as non-believers and heretics. Government troops wantonly destroyed not only churches, but also mosques and Islamic books. This is most shocking, since the government claims to represent Islam.

Ismail Omer Damri, the imam of Kodi Ba Mosque in the SPLA-controlled areas of south Kordofan, describes a government attack in 1995:.
The government troops came from two sides at about 5.00 a.m. Some on this side, others on the other side, from Mendi garrison. Those on this side were burning houses. I ran and climbed those hills. I couldn't see them. Others were watching from the hills. The soldiers left the same morning, about 10.00 a.m., and then we came down from the hills.
When I came I saw everything was finished. The books, everything, was burned or taken. There were six prayer mats gone. Everything was black. Many books, 17, 18, 20 books were gone. They had written us a message and left it: 'If you want to pray, come and pray in Mendi. .
We decided to build another mosque. This new mosque was built after one month.
They say, they are Moslems. But at the same time, a Moslem cannot do this to a Moslem mosque. If they were real Moslems they could not burn the mosque which is the house of God and they could not burn the book which is sent from God.

Imam Ali Tutu Atrun, acting chairman of the South Kordofan Islamic Council, was also in Kodi Ba when the village, including the mosque, was burned:.
On that hill I could see everything in Kodi Ba very clearly. I took a good position and saw the Sudan Government forces moving towards the mosque in Kodi Ba market. They were running and spreading out across the whole village.
After they burned the area adjacent to the mosque I saw them moving towards the mosque itself. They entered the mosque with their boots on. They took some time and came out carrying books, chairs, a table and a carpet from the mosque. I saw six of them taking positions around the mosque's rakuba and library. The six soldiers pulled out matches from their bags and in minutes the mosque's rakuba and library were on fire. Then I heard a gunshot and saw fire at the top of the mosque. The mosque started burning from top to bottom. I couldn't believe my eyes.(FN8).

At that time, the motives of the jihad were arguably genocidal. The destruction of mosques was a reflection of a more far-reaching brutality and abuse that had the evident aim of destroying Nuba culture and dismantling Nuba society. The government certainly planned the relocation of most of the Nuba population away from their homeland, and there is evidence that it even encouraged rape as a means of tearing Nuba society apart and creating a new generation that was not Nuba.
Now the situation is somewhat different. The war is in many ways just as brutal as before. The government still has a strong Islamist agenda. But the ambitious plans of titanic Islamist social engineering have been abandoned--for now at least--in favor of the pursuit of a military victory in the Nuba Mountains and (especially) the oil fields of the Upper Nile and the south. Meanwhile, the prospects of the collapse of the NIF regime and the military victory of the SPLA have receded. While the government has allowed international agencies access to provide services in the areas it controls, humanitarian conditions in the SPLA-held areas are disastrous.
The fate of the Nuba still hangs in the balance: the continued war, without prospect of a settlement, spells abuse, hunger, and displacement. Peace on government terms rests on political marginalization and repression, and almost certainly absorption into the Sudanese polity at the expense of many of the customs and values that the Nuba have fought so stoutly to defend. A mediated settlement of the war cannot come too soon.

(Postcript: On May 17 the Sudanese government launched its largest military offensive in nine years. Eight thousand troops with artillery and helicopter gunships attacked on seven fronts with three aims: 1) closing off outside access by capturing airstrips; 2) capturing the SPLA headquarters at Kauda so as to declare victory in advance of the Nairobi peace talks on June 1; and 3) capturing the burial site of the late Commander Yousif Kuwa as a symbolic act. After ten days of intense fighting, the SPLA repulsed this attack. Despite the government's announcement of a halt of aerial bombardment on May 24, air assaults continued unabated. More than three years after the Sudanese government personally assured UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that humanitarian assistance would be provided to the Nuba Mountains, the UN is still denied any access.).

Added material.
Alex de Waal is Director of Justice Africa in London. He is author of four books on Sudan, the most of which is The Phoenix State: Civil Society and the Future of Sudan (2001).


1 Suleiman Rahhal, The Right to be Nuba: The Story of a Sudanese People's Struggle for Survival, (Trenton NJ: Red Sea Press, 2001).
2 Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan (London: African Rights, 1995).
3 A Desolate Peace: Human Rights in the Nuba Mountains, 1997 (London: African Rights, 1997).
4 See for instance, NAFIR: The Newsletter of the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad, issues from 1995-2000.
5 Food and Power in Sudan: A Critique of Humanitarianism (London: African Rights, 1997).
6 Hassan al Turabi, "The Islamic State," in John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York:Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 241-2, 243.
7 Zakaria Bashir Imam, "From the Laws of Dynamism in the Holy Koran: Social and Economic Planning," Al Inqaz al Watani, 30 May 1996.
8 Interview with the author.