What is really happening in Sudan's Nuba Mountains?

An early morning scene from Nuba Mountains, via Sudan Forum

The piece below, about the conflict brewing in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, had been contributed by Dan Morrison and Matthew LeRiche.

The ongoing fighting in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan state is not just another chapter in Sudan’s seemingly-endless history of conflict. It is the most recent flashpoint for debate over a prevailing narrative that critics say reduces news from Sudan to a simplistic, even childish, contest of good versus evil. This conversation is made no less interesting by its clean predictability.

The dominant story line coming out of Southern Kordofan is, in its broad strokes, more than familiar. It goes like this: With the secession of South Sudan just weeks away, the Sudanese Armed Forces on June 5 went on the attack, seeking to crush both ethnic Nuba fighters of the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a font of potential (and actual) armed opposition to the government in Khartoum, and supporters of the northern wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who will form an important opposition party in Sudan now that the south has seceded.

If reports by actors including fleeing civilians, the United Nations, and foreign and local humanitarian workers are to be believed (and we think they are), Khartoum’s operation in Southern Kordofan has followed a well-worn pattern, including aerial bombardment of civilians, murder of citizens based political affiliation and race, and the ongoing denial of humanitarian aid to displaced persons. The Nuba Mountains in the 1990s were the scene of a bona-fide attempted genocide by the same government that today rules Sudan -- a true and actual attempt, driven by twisted financial and cultural imperatives on the part of Kharotum’s ruling class, to annihilate a people.

So it’s not surprising to see the G-word appear with frequency, even promiscuity, in the recent writings of journalists and advocates. Nor, given the history of Sudan’s north-south civil war and the conditions of access and advocacy during that 22-year conflict, should it be unexpected that a narrative of black African victimization and Arab predation quickly asserted itself. These narratives largely overlook the struggles of other groups in Sudan, indeed, of Arab Sudanese themselves, for a kinder, more pluralistic country.

Informed critics with less inclination (and less incentive – they’re not journalists or activists) to engage the news and opinion media have in private taken exception to the clichéd manner in which the fighting in Southern Kordofan has been framed. Part of their annoyance appears to be a carry-over from some of the rhetoric and activism of the Save Darfur movement and its young supporters, whom the critic Mahmood Mamdani notably likened to new Western breed of “child soldiers.”

The blogger Amir Ahmad, who is certainly no fan of the bloodstained government in Khartoum, sums up many complaints about the Save Darfur movement in this recent post. And the journalistic response to Darfur gets the academic treatment at the Africa Arguments blog.

Many complaints about Darfur’s portrayal in the news media are now being applied to coverage of South Kordofan, and Sudan in general. We hope in this post to articulate some of these points, so they might be heard by a wider audience, and to address them. We’ll also demonstrate – unintentionally – the depth of complexity in the Sudan and the many lenses through which any issue there can be viewed.

First, here are some of the stronger points that make up the Southern Kordofan counter-narrative (or corrective-narrative). We’ll follow with some general thoughts on these overlooked facts and where they may fit in the broader context.

* The SPLA started it: The fighting began with a series of provocations by Nuba SPLA fighters who were refusing to disarm. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement requires all armed actors to join either the Sudan Armed Forces in the north or the SPLA in the south. It would be insane for Khartoum to accept a standing rebel army in its territory: And Southern Kordofan is indisputably northern territory.

* Elections were certified by the Carter Center: Abdel-Aziz Al Hilu, the longtime commander of the Nuba fighters, has claimed he was cheated out of the May election for governor of the state. But observers from the Carter Center certified the election as “peaceful and credible.” Abdel-Aziz was defeated, by a margin of 6,500 votes (201,455 to 194,955), by Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Despite the ruling National Congress Party’s past record of election fraud, the Carter Center’s endorsement indicates that, rather than being robbed, the SPLM was out-hustled by its opponents.

* Casualties are likely inflated: Advocates have claimed thousands of deaths in the recent fighting. But there is no evidence to substantiate that claim. The Guardian newspaper reported that half a million people have been made homeless. The UN says the number is 73,000 – a lot of people, but a less compelling headline.

* Nuba anger should be directed south, not north: Abdel-Aziz and the Nuba fought on the side of the south and the SPLA, and it was the leader of that movement, John Garang, who signed the treaty that left them high and dry in the north. It’s not Khartoum’s fault if Abdel-Aziz’s patrons sacrificed Nuba self-determination in the course of obtaining peace.

* * * *

All of the above is true. And yet, taken together, they give the impression that this violence is about clauses and sections of treaties, and the relative effectiveness of opposing parties’ grass roots political operations.

It really is not. The Nuba, as has been the case for more than 20 years, are fighting for their land and their cultural survival. The fact that their southern allies left them in the lurch by choosing to secede doesn’t change that.

Without Garang, the CPA was a lousy deal for the Nuba. No one knows what might have happened if the maximum leader had survived that windy day in the Inmatong Mountains nearly six years ago, but it’s surely possible, even probable, he would have been elected president of an intact Sudan, and that the south wouldn’t have seceded. Guessing how things would be different today makes a diverting parlor game for those of us who get to go home.

 

Meanwhile, the Nuba are left to what? Lament the bad deal struck by their compatriot, who died before he could make good on his promises?

 

There is a history in the Nuba Mountains that predates both the CPA and the second civil war. It is the air, water, and DNA of the current conflict. The Nuba who have taken up arms are not reacting against some fictional “boogie man,” but one that is real and will continue to be real. You can imagine the likes of Ahmed Haroun make the worst kind of enemy, one deeply embedded in the psyche of his opponents.

 

No one can, or should seek to, ignore the fact that all parties in Sudan’s civil war were complicit in atrocities, not least southern leaders. In 1991, forces under the command of the current southern vice president, Riek Machar, killed an estimated 3,000 southerners in what is known as the Bor Massacre. The late Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, one of the founders of the SPLA, was as responsible as any northerner for a 1998 famine that killed as many as 60,000. It is clear that Southern Sudan’s leaders, its people, and its nascent institutions will have to struggle mightily to prevent their new state from resembling the old Sudan in its approach to human rights, inclusivity, and rule of law.

 

Somewhere along the line, however, those framing and interpreting Sudan’s wars for a wider audience have to look beyond the political scrum of the Interim Period (the six years between the signing of the CPA and the south’s July 9 secession), and beyond individual incidents during the civil war, to the bigger questions that have motivated so many Sudanese, in almost every region of the country, to take up arms, at such great cost, against their government.

 

Whose land is the Nuba Mountains? Whose land is Abyei? The Nuba know where their home is. For centuries their ancestors have been buried there. How will the Nuba retain their homeland if they sit and accept the domination of a government that once declared them “enemies of God,” a government that put 173,000 Nuba into so-called “peace villages” where, in some cases, men and women were separated by barbed wire and many women were “married” off to Arab soldiers?

 

A media narrative has clearly been constructed along these old familiar lines. In this case, it’s because that larger narrative is true.

 

Elements of the narrative pushed by advocates inside and outside Sudan are clearly untrue. While chemical weapons were reportedly used against the Nuba in the 1990s, there is zero evidence that Khartoum has deployed them during the recent fighting. This didn’t prevent a steady stream of alerts and declarations, none backed by anything like corroboration, from filling the in-boxes of journalists and analysts.

 

It is still wrong -- despite a fatigued instinct towards realism, and despite the distaste with which many react to the morally compromised southern (or “African”) protagonist and its legion of uncritical fellow travelers -- to simply leave the Nuba and others in Sudan to their fate.

 

Should Omar al-Bashir get to control the Nuba? Does he get to invade the disputed territory of Abyei at the drop of a hat and do as he pleases along the border?

 

The south traded away its entirely-legal claims to much of Abyei in a failed quest for peace on the north-south border -- and was rewarded with a military rout there. Where does that fit into the realist analysis? President Bashir has proclaimed the identity of Sudan will be Arab and Islamic, and he sent an indicted war criminal to govern Southern Kordofan. What prominence do these facts deserve amid endorsements by foreign observers of an election that took place with low voter turnout and amid a backdrop of repression?

 

Sources say Abdel-Aziz’s people also cheated in the election. They were just out-cheated by the NCP. But that doesn’t mean the Nuba have any less of a right to defend their homeland -- and there is no disputing that this is their home.

 

During a recent meeting with foreign officials on the subject of border security, a community elder in an important front-line county gave a remarkable response to his visitors’ persistent advocacy of an open and fluid border between Sudan and the new Republic of South Sudan:

So this is my home. I have lived here for generations, and I have not gone north except when chased or forced due to famine and war. The nomads wander into my home and take what they want -- and it has always been movement from north to south. So I say, ‘OK, you can come, but I want to make some rules.’ But they say, ‘No, we have a right to come into your house, take what we want and leave.’

 

Are you telling me that I should allow that to continue? I think if it were your house and someone just started showing up and, because you were weak, you could not fight them off, you would call the police.

 

We have no police to call, so we must fight, and we did, in all kinds of ways. And now you say, “let’s have an open border,” which will give them the right to keep coming into my house as they please. I don’t think that makes sense and I think if you think about it in this way it will not make sense to you either.

 

And for those who talk about land being about resources and livelihoods alone, I feel bad that you have no land to call your home and to fight for. But that is why you are comfortable with the idea of an open border, because for you none of us 'primitive' Africans can own land. But we do, and I do not want wanderers coming into my home and taking what they want and leaving, whether Arab, European, or Chinese.

Dan Morrison is author of The Black Nile. Matthew LeRiche, a fellow at the London School of Economics, has been working in Sudan since 2004.