The Nuba: the plight of a people dispossessed

Omer M Shurkian
Paris, 22nd April, 2000

Where does the word Nuba come from?
The term Nuba is linked with an ancient Egyptian word, nub, meaning 'gold'. It is possible that the ancient Egyptians, being aware that there were gold mines in this country, applied the name 'nub' to the whole of the region South of Aswan. The Copts, the descendants of ancient Egyptians, gave the name 'Anouba' (Anobades) to the people dwelling South of Aswan. Then the Arabs called them 'an-Nuba'.(1)

During their chequered history in Northern Sudan, these Nubian people built a civilization and renowned kingdoms - namely, Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia - along the Nile, and as far as the present day Khartoum. The gnawing raids by Arabs from Egypt since 652 AD and the collapse of the Kingdom of Alwa (Alodia) within signaled the loss of Nubian independence, which they had been enjoying for centuries. Because of these foreign and internal factors, the Nubian people abandoned their original habitat and migrated southward and westward, covering both Northern and Southern Kordofan. The pressure of arabisation and islamisation was too much for those who settled in Northern Kordofan - namely, the desert hills - to resist, and they are now almost assimilated into Northern Arabo-Islamic culture.

The land and the people:
The Nuba people of Southern Kordofan, as we have just narrated, are one of the indigenous African groups of the country. The Nuba Mountains occupy an area roughly the size of Scotland. The land is a lush, fertile and oasis in central Sudan. The rainfall there is plentiful, and the good soil ensures sufficient food throughout the year. The inaccessibility of the mountains had kept the Nuba people protected from being entirely hunted down by the slave raiders of the North. The Nuba society is co-operative and egalitarian. Moreover, the Nuba Mountains have never been immune from external forces that have intruded into the Sudan and northeast Africa. The region's turbulent past is convincing enough evidence. Historically, the Nuba Mountains offered refuge to those displaced by episodic upheavals along the River Nile; this accounts, in parts, for the diverse ethnic composition of its inhabitants.(2)

The Nuba are sub-divided into over fifty different ethnic groups, or rather tribes and tribal sections. However, it is reported that Jos Plateau in Nigeria and the Nuba Mountains in the Sudan are perhaps the most concentrated areas of linguistic diversity. In both, villages only a few miles away from each other may speak a totally different language, and the speakers of each language may sometimes number only a few hundred. The Nuba population is estimated to be over two million people. One of the causes which contributed badly to the decimation of the Nuba population was slavery. In slave-trade days, some 200,000 Nuba had been removed in bondage to Egypt by 1839. Other thousands had been seized by Arabs of the surrounding plains and sold to native Arab merchants. Even to this day, Arab slavers are still at work in Southern Sudan and Mauritania, buying and selling black Africans. The corrosive effects of slavery, with its sheer brutality and its reduction of humans to a cash value, have built lasting flaws into African-Arab relations; and this remains the undisclosed factor in the current civil war in the Sudan. The inequalities perpetrated against the Nuba people today, by racist slurs and systems of discrimination, flow from the psyche of master-cum-slave mentality of Arab Sudanese.

Economic and cultural activities:
The Nuba do not show strict tendency towards economics in the sense of budgeting, banking and so forth. They are agriculturists for self-sufficiency and breed animals - though they are not nomadic. Their great ceremony of the Full Granary encourages industry in agriculture, but maintains a true democratic equality of wealth by arranging for its dissipation (distribution). The land in the Nuba Mountains is communally owned by a tribe, though plots of some arable land may belong to a family.

Culture traits occur in varying degrees of similarity or diversity. The Nuba are an exogamous society - that is, marriage within the clan is being forbidden. It is one of cultural phenomena the Nuba are so desperately struggling to preserve against the tide of islamisation and arabisation the central governments are poised to implement. Nuba cultural activities and events cam take a kind of sport due to their physical performance. There is sibir (festival, or memorial celebrations); some people argue that it is an excuse for the Nuba to consume marisa (locally brewed beer a staple diet in the Nuba Mountains). There are other sports like wrestling - though a Nuba-wide sport, Korongo and Nyimang are the best wrestlers; bracelet-fighting - mainly in Kau and Fungor; stick-fighting - in Moro Masakin areas; and hockey. Dancing and music - including, lyre-playing, flutes, blowing horns, drums beating, gourd trumpets - play a significant part in the Nuba daily life and entertainment. This way of life is now in danger of being submerged by the Arab North. In a new approach to Nuba cultural renaissance, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) administration has banned stick-fighting because it is fatal; campaigning against female circumcision, scarification and tribal customs that discriminate against women. Study of a Nuba language by every child is introduced.(3) Added to Nuba linguistic diversity are newer differences in religion. Some have been attracted to Islam, others to Christianity, but many to neither religion in particular who are content at the moment to follow traditional ways.

Political development and local authority:
In the past, the Nuba existed as an acephalous community. Apart from the Kingdom of Tegali, the Nuba lived in tribal sections with no renowned leader. But when it comes to war, there is always someone somewhere who would come out of the mist and lead them through thick and thin. Like any indigenous people in the Sudan, the Nuba suffered from the depredations of wars, slavery and oppression during the Turco-Egyptian rule (1821 - 1885) and the Mahdist Rule (1885 - 1898). Realising the Nuba's military prowess, the Mahdi travelled to the Nuba Mountains to implore the Tegali King's assistance. The riverain Sudanese were sitting on the fence and doubting the Mahdi's victory over the Turco-Egyptian army; and, at a certain stage, opposed by influential, spiritual clerics. In addition to the people of Western Sudan, the Mahdi then solicited the support of the Beja in Eastern Sudan and the fugitive slave traders in Southern Sudan. He mustered his troops from both the oppressed and people with vested interests in the change. In the twist of events, the very Tegali King, one Adam Um Dabalo, was to die in shackles under the yoke of the Mahdi.

For almost five decades, the Anglo-Egyptian administration (1898 - 1956) tried to subdue the Nuba. Unlike the Northern Sudanese who fought pitched battles against the Anglo-Egyptian forces before capitulation and joining the new regime, the Nuba resistance continued until 1945. Although such courageous strife can give a boost to self-pride, the process may have played a role in delaying the extension of education, transport lines and social services to the Nuba Mountains - if other factors, such as racial motives, are eliminated. Until quite recently, the ghost of slavery discouraged the Nuba to send their kid to school lest they fell prey to the marauding Arab nomads. Instead, they were taught martial arts and self-endurance. It is the Nuba tradition of manliness that has led so many of them to serve in the army and the police; and, better still, to contribute so notably to the military traditions of the Sudan.

The Nuba Mountains region was ruled by the Condominium Government as a separate province between 1913 - 1929, with Talodi as a provincial capital. The province was divided into three administrative areas: Western Jebels (mountains), Eastern Jebels and Southern Jebels. This process was later modified, and the Native Administration was introduced in the Nuba Mountains in the 1930s. The region was divided into Tegali District (1935), including Awlad Himeid and Kawahla (of Kalogi), Eliri District (1937) and Talodi Omodia (1945). Koalib-Heiban and Otoro-Tira became a unified district in 1938. Heiban was transferred to the Otoro-Tira administration in 1942, and they joined Southern Nuba Confederation in 1947. Nyimang Confederation was created in 1939, including Mandal, Karko, Wali, Katla, Julud and Temein. Ajang Confederation (Hill Nubians) was formed in 1940, including Dilling, Ghulfan and Kadaru. Ajang Confederation and the Koalib administration were amalgamated in 1955. Finally, Southern Nuba Confederation was introduced in 1947, including Miri and Kadugli.(4) Although it had been argued that the federation represented an essential step in the political evolution of weak, small native groups towards self-government, the process did not provide the Nuba with proper education, social services and community development.

Not long after Sudan's independence in 1956, the Southerners were excluded from the spoils of colonial rule on the grounds that they were not educated. When they later became educated, the Northerners brought in the Islamic Sharia'a (code) to bar Christians and non-Muslims alike from holding key positions in the Government. We now wonder if the Southerners and the Nuba were to convert into Muslims en masse, the Arab ruling elite would bring in another ploy, probably they would ask the Africans to become Arabs: an impossible proviso even in the age of cloning. Although ethnically different from Arabic-speaking parts of Northern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains region has not been involved in the so-called 'Southern Problem' (1955 - 1972). So after the signing of Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 which ended military operations in the South, the Nuba, having seen the Southerners reaping the fruits of their armed struggle, realised that the only method to achieve political, economic and social goals in the Sudan was through the muzzle of gun. The two sectarian parties - namely, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Umma Party, which have dominated the Sudanese politics since independence - are solely responsible for the decadence and failure of Sudan's governments to secure stability, economic development and progress. Even military dictorships are the making of these parties, and in this accusation, the leftists of all hues were culpable as well. The Nuba representatives in the Constituent Assembly in the 1950s and 1960s demanded basic requirements for their people back home. They were asking the authorities to dig wells, build bridges, construct schools and dispensaries and vaccinate their animals against epidemic diseases. Although their demands were legitimate, civic rights demanded in a peaceful way and the successive governments were supposed to provide them without ado, the demands fell on deaf ears. Ever since the 1960s, the fertile plains of the Nuba Mountains have been taken over by vast, and hugely profitable, Mechanised Farming Schemes, the property of the businessmen who dominate the Sudanese state. These schemes are ruinous to the environment, to the nomads who graze their herds on the plains and to the Nuba who have lost their most fertile farms. Those who refused to give up their land have been harassed, imprisoned and murdered.

As we have just seen earlier, the Nuba intellectuals reached a conclusion that they were squandering time on peaceful talks with the authorities in Khartoum.(5) The appearance of the SPLM/A in Southern Kordofan in 1985 was welcomed by the Nuba. It was no surprise, bearing in mind the suffering of a people weighed down by poverty and worn out by injustice. This turn of events meant two things: the movement of Nuba struggle from Khartoum (centre) to the homeland (countryside), and the transformation of struggle from a peaceful tussle to an armed one. The SPLM/A was building on the two basic factors which had charcaterised Southern grievances: the sharing of political power, and the distribution of national wealth or, to be precise, the uneven development between the centre and the countryside. In addition to these agenda, newly contentious issues arose. They included the scrapping of the infamous Islamic laws from the book, or what would be known at later stages as the separation of religion from state. For the Nuba, these demands compatible with their age-long aspirations, and were convinced than ever before that the SPLM/A was addressing the Sudan's problem and not the so-called 'Southern Problem'.

Although the supporters of Sharia'a insist that it does not affect non-Muslims, in reality, the Christians and the worshippers of African religions in the Sudan have been victimised, oppressed and marginalised. Rarely do the Islamic authority allocate lands to Christians to build churches. Existing churches are routinely destroyed by Muslim fanatics without the state coming to the rescue. For example, in 1999, a Moslem sect attacked a church in a northern suburb of Khartoum. These churches, which are built by war-displaced Christians from Southern and Western Sudan in shanty towns, are used as schools and sometimes as health centres. A number of churches had been set on fire by Moslem fanatics, and others destroyed by Government town planners. The Government has been arguing that it does not prevent the construction of the churches, but in order for a church to be built in a particular area, the people of the area must give their consent.(6) Such a condition is not applied to building a mosque. An example of religious persecution is the case of Mekki Kuku. Mr Kuku, a primary teacher from the Nuba Mountains, converted from Islam into Christianity. He was arrested in June 1998 by security officer and taken to Khartoum's Islamic Faith Centre - an Islamic indoctrination centre - where he was placed in solitary confinement and tortured. He was promised financial and social rewards to induce him to renounce his Christian faith. His life was saved by the intervention of Abel Alier, a former Vice-President during Nimeiri's regime. Following Alier's intervention, he was transferred to Omdurman prison pending trial on charges of having violated Sudan's apostasy law.(7)

In fact, the penal code in Northern Sudan has always had elements of Sharia'a well before 1983. But it was limited to personal laws like divorce and inheritance, and all criminal laws were covered by the secular code. What the proponents of Sharia'a had done since September 1983 was to expand its scope to include criminal laws, because, they argued, Islam was a way of life. With the introduction of Sharia'a, the question of the country's national identity presented itself in a sharp way. This is because Islam and Arab culture are always intertwined to the extent that they tend to override other religions and cultures; and, more importantly, a Moslem may find himself forced into denouncing his own customs, traditions and his motherland. Instead, he would - indeed - pay allegiance to the sacred sands of Arabia: the cradle of Islam. The disputable question of Sudan's identity sprang after independence and, despite the country's African majority according to the 1956 census(8), the political leaders of the day declared that the Sudan, regardless of Arab opposition, would be a member of the League of Arab States. This can be expounded by two factors: inferiority and periphery complex. Inferiority because the Arab Sudanese are not fully accepted as 'pure Arabs' as a result of their intermarriages with Africans, and periphery complex emanates from the fact that being a marginalised group in the Arab world urges them to attest their existence by all necessary means. This is why the Arab Sudanese erroneously think that they are more Arab than the Arabs themselves and more Islamic than the rest of Muslims in the Arab world.

Having outlined all the grievances, it can now be construed that the Nuba took to arms because they were denied power sharing and identity recognition, suffered from the seizure of their farms without compensation, subjected to religious persecution and socially marginalised in terms of health services, education, transport and communications. But the armed struggle, that would certainly bring them the recognition so often sought and never obtained through peaceful means, has continued despite a heavy price in terms of human loss, property disappearance and environmental deterioration. Under the pretext of counter-isurgency, a bloody chapter of human rights abuse was open in the Nuba Mountains.

The human rights violations and warfare:
The escalation of human rights violations in the Nuba Mountains, as a result of Sudan's civil war, can be traced to the Transitional Government of Gen Swar al-Dahab (April 1985 - April 1986) and the civilian Government of Sadiq al-Mahdi (April 1986 - June 1989). Under the pretext of counter-insurgency, the two governments supplied the Arab-based local militia with fire arms to murder the Nuba civilians and confiscate their properties. Reports released by the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, are full of gruesome cases of organised killing, systematic rape as an instrument of war and torture to death by the Government's soldiers and their agents. Prison cells in Kadugli, the provincial capital of Southern Kordofan, and Dilling were the scene of prolonged detention without trial. There were cases of kidnapping and disappearance of Nuba intellectuals and tribal chiefs suspected of supporting the rebel SPLM/A.

The advent of National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in June 1989 was a turning point in the life of the Nuba people. The NIF regime legalised the Arab militia, euphemistically called the Popular Defence Forces (PDF). Lt-Gen Omer al-Bashir's regime has surpassed that of Sadiq al-Mahdi in the militarisation of the Sudanese against their kith and kin, and the Nuba bear the brunt of such belligerent policies. No sooner had the Bashir Government assumed power than it laid a blockade against relief supplies to the Nuba Mountains in areas administered by the SPLM/A for over ten years. In contrast, the UN has long - though intermittent - overseen the supply of aid to SPLM/A-administered areas in the South under the auspices of Operation Lifeline Sudan. The blockade has proved one of the most effective weapons in regime's war against the Nuba. It has had severe repercussions on all sectors of economy, and in the provision of social services. With the seclusion of world media, the decimation of Nuba people continued unabatedly. Members of the Nuba communities were subjected to a campaign of terror to force them to abandon their homes. The fact that the Nuba territory lies in buffer zone makes them vulnerable to the Government assaults.

In April 1992, jihad (holy war) was declared against the Nuba; such a fatwa (religious edict) described the Nuba as infidels and, therefore, their lives should not be spared nor their wives, children or properties. There were occasional raids on villages, burning people alive, destruction of crops, looting of livestock, abductions, massacres and maiming of civilians, including the widespread use of landmines. Murder, usually following abduction and rape, was the second most common cause of female mortality. Forcible and massive displacement of the Nuba civilians was carried out by the Bashir regime in the early 1990 under the nose of international condemnation; the evacuees were put in the so-called 'peace camps' in Northern Kordofan. Children were separated from their parents, given Arab names and islamised against their will. Young men were given a semblance of military training and sent to operational areas as cannon fodder; women and young girls were taken by Government soldiers - who had unfettered sexual access to them - as concubines, and small girls were forced to undergo female mutilation: a practice which is not common in the Nuba Mountains. The appalling conditions, multiple rape, beating and arabisation were commonplace in these 'peace camps', to say the least.(9) The Government campaign against the Nuba people gave credence to what was dubbed 'ethnic cleansing'; such a campaign was deliberately targeting the elderly, women and children.

In 1995, a cease-fire was negotiated by former US President, Jimmy Carter, to eradicate the guinea worm and other diseases in Southern Sudan. Unfortunately, the project was not extended to the Nuba Mountains nor did the cease-fire include the Nuba region. In 1999, a UN assessment mission visited the Nuba Mountains to assess the needs of people there. On their arrival, the team were fired on by Government artillery, and went ahead only after an appeal to Khartoum halted the bombardment. The worst enemy of people in the war zone is the Russian-made Antonov An-24 transporter: a cargo plane that flies at high altitude, and rolling bombs out of its back on its targets. There were reports on the use of chemical weapons by the Government troops during the battle of Tullishi, Southern Kordofan, from February - May 1992, and on several occasions in Southern Sudan. In each case, civilians were killed as a result of raids by Government aircrafts using poisonous gas.

On Tuesday, February 8, 2000, the Sudan Government Air Force launched an aerial bombing of a school in the Nuba Mountains region, killing at least 14 children and a teacher and wounding 20 more people. Most of the victims were first grade students sitting through an English lesson under a tree. The picture of the headmaster trying to hold together the intestines of a boy whose stomach was ripped open by shrapnel shows 'that such egregious abuses against innocent Sudanese citizens have become commonplace.' Alas, the boy died minutes later. After its attack on Upper Kauda Holy Cross School, the Government plane dropped eight more bombs on two villages close to the school. The records available reveal that some 34 children and two teachers have lost their lives in similar operations between October 1997 and today.

Based on these testimonies, the Sudan Government is, therefore, guilty of waging a war of aggression and committing crimes against humanity in the Nuba Mountains as elsewhere in the war zone. Crimes against humanity, as defined by the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, consist of many of the following acts - 'committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group'.

The Nuba's demand is to acquire the means to enable them to exercise their right of individual and collective defence recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the UN. The international community is obliged by its moral standards and legal ground to exert pressure on the Sudan Government to cease all aerial bombardment and to refrain from further attacks on civilian targets. Full and immediate access for humanitarian organizations seeking to provide relief to war-raged civilians in the Nuba Mountains is also essential.

Trends and prospects:
The political history of the Nuba Mountains can then be explained by the geographical concept of history that has played a pivotal role in shaping the life and fate of the Nuba people within the Sudan. The history that is characterised, at some stage, by slavery and exploitation followed by marginalisation and war of annihilation. Over years, the victimisation of the Nuba people has become the glorification of others, and this has fuelled the ongoing Nuba struggle to attain self-confidence and freedom without which humanity is incomplete. The panoply of events has shown that the grievances of the Nuba are inextricable from that of all marginalised regions of the Sudan, but theirs have become worse by the destruction of human lives and the loss of properties since 1985, including the erosion of economic resources of both individuals and the community.

According to National Democratic Alliance (NDA) conference in Asmara, Eritrea, on June 15 - 23, 1995, the conference 'resolves that with respect to the Nuba Mountains and Ingessena Hills, a political solution to redress the injustice suffered by the people of these areas shall be sought by the Transitional Government and that a referendum to ascertain their views on their political and administrative future shall be organised and carried out during the Transitional Period.'(10) Given the scale of physical, psychological, social and economic damage inflicted on the Nuba, the wording of 'a political solution' is vague; and, more importantly, with the nature of corrupt and racist officials in Khartoum, the resolution is another chapter to deny the Nuba of their inalienable rights.

For any future settlement, the Nuba will have three options from which they can choose: either to join Southern Sudan in any form of government, remain as part of Northern Sudan or opt for forming an independent state. The decision either way is entirely a Nuba business after weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each option. As for the first choice, the common struggle of the Nuba and the Southerners against a common enemy has created an amicable working ground for both entities and, if such a congenial atmosphere can exist in the time of war, then it can continue in the time of peace. Furthermore, their shared history of slavery, oppression, cultural merits, religious belief and identity are all but a binding denominator.

The second Nuba choice is, however, a re-enactment of the past and the status quo in even more abhorrent manner than ever before. In the span of time since Sudan's independence in 1956, the Nuba have learnt by trial and error that their interests can no longer be entrusted to the Northern elite, because what drove the Nuba to take up arms against the central Government can happen again. There are already brewing issues that can act as a raw material for another internecine war between the Nuba and the Khartoum Government in future; for instance, oil exploration and exploitation in Southern Kordofan and the demarcation of states in which parts of the Nuba territory were 'cut and pasted' to Western Kordofan. Should the Nuba choose to remain as part of Northern Sudan, they have to do so with new conditions of equal partnership. However, the guarantee for the sustainability of their achievements can be assured only by keeping their military forces separate and intact, that is, no more tricks such as merger, redeployment or disbandment.

The lessons of Addis Ababa Accord of 1972 that ended the North-South schism and the unilateral abrogation of the federal status of Eritrea by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1962 ought to be learned. Another vital precursor is the economic independence. In this aspect, Southern Kordofan should be equipped with a treasury through which the people can administer their own financial resources. Unlike the limited financial control already granted to Southern Kordofan, the full measure of this fiscal self-administration provides training in self-government, purchasing school materials, delivering health-care, paying for police and various institutions of administration.

As for the last resort of electing to be a separate state, the Nuba have already undergone a severe experience of survival without access to public fund, social welfare nor services. The Nuba are today perhaps more conscious, that is, more conscious of themselves as a regional entity, desirous of having their proper share of education, employment and economic progress and, more consciously, aware of their need to have a voice in the nation's affairs. Once they are convinced of this, they may be ready to take the next step and go beyond their regional concerns to think much more of the welfare of the country as a whole. The new-found co-existence between the international NGOs and the local ones are a good starter, and the Nuba's acceptance of international human rights monitors has enhanced their image abroad.

-1 For more information, see al-Jamal, S, Tareikh Sudan Wadi al-Neil, Cairo, 1969; Vantini, G, Christianity in Sudan, Bologna, 1981; and Stevenson, R C, The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, Khartoum, 1984.
- 2 Howes, A, Life before the war, The Guardian, March 3, 2000; also see Davidson, A P, In the Shadow of History: The Passage of Lineage Society, London, 1996.
-3 Flint, J, Fighting for their lives, The Independent Magazine, April 10, 1999.
- 4 Stevenson, R C, The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, Khartoum, 1984.
- 5 For more information on post-independence Nuba struggle in Northern Sudan, see Ghabboush, P A, Africa Today, No 3, 1973.
- 6 Vigilance Soudan, 2nd and 3rd quarters 1999.
- 7 Vigilance Soudan, 2nd quarter 1998. In Islamic Sharia'a apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Dr Hassan 'Abd Allah al-Turabi's public lectures and his personal views that run against all the orthodox schools of Islamic law on the status of women, the court testimony of non-Muslims and the law of apostasy are in contrast with the practice of Islamic Sharia'a in the Sudan. Dr Turabi, the ideologue of Bashir's regime which took power in June 1989, was President Nimeiri's adviser when Ustaz Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was executed on charges of apostasy in 1984. Turabi did not raise a finger to oppose such an execution.
- 8 According to Dr Hassan Makki, writing in the daily al-Khartoum, February 19, 2000, in the national capital, Greater Khartoum, the majority of population are Africans. in the 1955 census, the Arab population in the capital were 390,000, the Westerners (people from Western Sudan and Africa) were 22,000 and the Southerners were 13,000, while a few thousands were classified as others. Now, the Arabs are around 1.5 million, the Westerners 2 million and the Southerners more than one million.
- 9 The full account of what took place in the Nuba Mountains was given by the African Rights report, Facing Genocide: the Nuba of Sudan, 1995, the US-based Africa Watch, the US Committee for Refugees and several reports by Amnesty International.
- 10 From the resolutions of the NDA conference in Asmara on June 15 - 23, 1995.