Not Forgetting the Nuba War
The intense war in the Nuba in the late 1980s and early 1990s is an important piece of Sudanese modern history. The memory of this all-too-recent trauma, which culminated in an government attempt to destroy Nuba identity, is alive in South Kordofan. Confidence has not been rebuilt and the leadership in Khartoum ignores the deeply-felt Nuba fears at its peril. Militants who wish to tear up the CPA””or who anticipate its collapse””can easily feed the insecurities of the people of South Kordofan.
Many Nuba feel that their story is untold, their suffering unrecognized, and that denial in Khartoum means that they are doomed to repeat the dreadful experience of almost twenty years ago.
In 1988, scores of educated Nuba were detained and executed. For several years the militia carried out massacres of villagers. In 1992, the Sudan Government launched what was almost certainly the most ambitious campaign of forced social change in modern Sudanese history. It was proclaimed a jihad. The scale of the military assault on the Nuba was larger than anything seen before or subsequently in the Sudanese wars. The battle of Tullishi was fought around the clock for almost four months. The ambition of entirely emptying the Nuba Mountains of the Nuba people, and forcibly relocating them to “˜peace camps’ away from their homelands, had no parallel. The aim was nothing less than the complete relocation of the Nuba and the eradication of their traditional identities. The policy of separating men from women and preventing the Nuba reproducing by “˜marrying’ the women to Arab men was also something unique. Of all the cases in which activists have debated whether to use the word “˜genocide’ in Sudan, the Nuba case is the most compelling instance.
Those wishing to learn about the Nuba case should begin with the African Rights report, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan.
It is important to disaggregate the violence. Chapter 2 of the report documents the history of the war from the first SPLA incursions in 1985 up to the end of the jihad in 1993. The biggest massacres were carried out two-to-four years before the jihad campaign, either by locally-recruited militia which burned villages and slaughtered their inhabitants in reaction to the first SPLA incursions into the area, or by a notably zealous military intelligence unit in Kadugli, which rounded up Nuba leaders and had dozens of them executed. The bigger campaigns of 1992 were characterized by mass forcible displacement rather than large-scale massacre.
The second half of chapter 3 is entitled “˜A policy of rape’ and includes, among other things, parts of the transcript of the testimony a young woman who had been abducted by militiamen, held in a garrison against her will for over three months, and raped several times each night by different men. There are many, many such accounts. Thirteen years on the report is still painful to read.
It is also informative to understand how the Nuba jihad ended. When Julie Flint and I visited the Nuba Mountains in 1995, we soon realized that the imminent threat to the survival of the Nuba as a people had passed. The campaign of 1992 had failed, to be replaced by a thoroughly nasty, if lower-level counter-insurgency””the “˜Secret War’ of Julie’s film. I used the term “˜genocide by attrition’ in the report””not because the government still harboured genocidal intent, but because the outcome of the war, continued indefinitely into the future, would have been the elimination of Nuba identity. For the same reason we called the report “˜Facing Genocide.’
Why did the jihad fail? My investigations found three main reasons. First was Nuba armed resistance. Second was division within the Sudan Government””the militant jihadists who wanted a campaign of ethnic cleansing could not prevail over those who wanted to defeat the rebellion and leave it at that. Most army officers, for example, supported the war but not the forced displacement to peace camps. Third was outrage among ordinary Sudanese citizens, especially the residents of towns in Kordofan who had Nuba people literally dumped on their doorstep. The international role was entirely marginal. The head of the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Eliasson raised the Nuba issue in Khartoum, as did U.S. officials, but their efforts had little impact.
Subsequently, the level of violence dropped further. Julie’s BBC film and our African Rights report played a big role. Our early warning system for government attacks on villages was effective. We started a low-profile humanitarian airbridge in support of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation, with a handful of NGOs that were ready to operate in a discreet way, foregoing publicity in order to promote Nuba ownership of their programs. A year or so later some high-profile religious NGOs began operating in the Nuba Mountains, and several years later the UN and USAID provided assistance. Eventually in 2002 a ceasefire was signed. As Julie Flint describes in her posting, the situation today is very precarious. As Hafiz Mohammed notes, a new rebellion is already underway.
Beginning in 1995, African Rights ran a human rights monitoring program. One of the saddest pictures I ever saw was a photograph taken by our deputy chief monitor, Simon Noah, of a young couple laid in their grave, side by side. A few green leaves had been placed on their blood-spattered bodies before the earth was shoveled in. They had been caught by a militia patrol and wantonly shot. The woman was still alive when the nearby villagers found her, crying “˜My children! My children!’ But she was too badly injured to survive and there was no medical care available anywhere at that time. A week later Simon himself was caught by a patrol and shot dead. His was a random killing. But there were also targeted assassinations carried out by death squads, and we lost two other staff members murdered by them.
The Nuba of the early 1990s””with starving naked people squeezed into cattle trucks and transported en masse to camps hundreds of miles away, with “˜combing’ operations that left no living thing in their wake, with women rounded up and forcibly “˜married’ to their captors, and with day-and-night military operations against the SPLA in its military stronghold of Tullishi mountain””was a threat of a different order of magnitude to anything in Darfur today. Documenting it, we were tempted to make comparisons with great historical evils, but chose not to.
Commentators on Sudan are tempted to compare Darfur today and Rwanda or Nazi Germany or Argentina. Comparisons with recent Sudanese history are more informative.
Some Sudanese commentators are tempted to gloss over the history of atrocities on the grounds that now peace has been made, it is time to forgive and forget. But one lesson from Darfur stares us in the face: if the leaders of the Sudan government are not ready to acknowledge the sufferings of the people and allow their stories to be told, to apologize to the people and make recompense, then they may face wider international outrage with consequences they cannot control. As South Kordofan faces the prospect of a new rebellion, the Government of National Unity should consider a process of truth and reconciliation, taking the time to listen to all the people of South Kordofan, to build the confidence needed for lasting peace.
Alex, i repeat the same thing to you as i said to Julie Flint’s contribution about the Nuba mountains: it is time to move on. Yes, we Sudanese realise the Nuba suffered in the N-S civil war: everybody did – north, south, east, and west. But the war has thankfully ended, we have peace – and it’s a durable one too; sure a few minor and two major (Malakal and Abyei) skirmishes between SAF and the SPLA – but no Sri Lankan-style complete and sustained breakdown. Why don’t you celebrate this achievement , and many others since the signing of the CPA – like the majority of us Sudanese are doing? Or the booming Sudanese economy (?), which is much more than just another oil-story, and still without development aid to the non-South of Sudan (i.e the majority of Sudanese) or debt relief from Western donors i hasten to add?? (Remember: economic growth is most effective anti-poverty reduction weapon that humankind has at its’ disposal – see China, India and the other south/south-east Asian economies) . As I mentioned before, every country has the right to move beyond its history (hence its term – past events), and we, the majority of Sudanese, will decide when its time to move on (as we have already decided to do so by de facto supporting the CPA, which contains no Truth and Reconciliation clauses) not international ‘Sudan’ activists and their woefully misinformed “outrage”. That’s nothing special (a nation’s people deciding when to leave their history behind) that’s being demanded by Sudanese – it’s a birth-right of all people and all nations: East Timor, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Vietnam, Nicaragua…the list is endless. In other words, durable peaces can be made without the current Western activist penchant for truth and reconciliation commissions. We Sudanese want to look to the future; do we need permission of the international community to do that?? I’m sure both you and Julie have met some in the Nuba mountains who want their story heard. But a few swallows don’t make a summer – and the vast majority of Nuba and other Sudanese are squarely focused on securing their (long ignored or neglected by Western policymakers, activists, and academicians) economic human rights: the right of access to opportunities for health care, schooling and other basic services, economic advancement and the right to a dignified life: hardly compatible with the US and other Westen nations’ policy of stringent economic sanctions designed to suffocate public finances (and, in turn, severely handicap the ability of the (non-south) Sudanese state to discharge its economic development, security, and public welfare duties); thank heavens we, Sudan, got oil revenue in significant quantities from 2005 onwards (yes that recent) . Indeed, the “elephant in the room” that escapes the attention of Western policymakers and civil society is that Sudan’s “problems” are economic that have manifested themselves politically (civil strife in some, but not the vast majority, of Sudan), and not the other way round as is the starting point for all modern US and other Western ‘analysis’ of Sudan. Put simply, the legacy of US and (de facto) Western European sanctions on Sudan (not a cent from the IMF since ’85, last IDA credit in ’93, paying back an ave $52 million in late interest fines to the IMF) on an (until all too recently) extremely poor, export earnings ave $300 million p.a., ramshackle agricultural economy meant that there was no money to develop Kordofan, Darfur – or any part of Sudan; remember even Khartoum up till ’01/’02 was like current-day Zimbabwe with queues for everything a way of life – and for near on 12 years!! In other words, Sudan’s “problems” don’t stem from deliberate malign economic neglect of the periphery; there wasn’t any money at all; i.e. “show me (where) the money (was supposed to come from)?? Concurrently, the inability (as opposed to the Western re-spin of unwillingness) of the Sudanese state to make even a modest or significant stab at economic development and public welfare in all of Sudan (Khartoum included) from circa ’89 till ’05, caused (logically) older forms of identification (tribe, kinship religion, area ties etc) to solidify or re-crystalise throughout this period. Hence the impatience/extreme thirst in Kordofan and other parts of Sudan for (unrealistically) rapid and transformational economic development: they all want to be like Khartoum yesterday. Yes, a vast, vast number of Sudanese have/are only able to posit their lack of local economic development as deliberate neglect by the central government. That’s understandable – most Sudanese (70% of adults are illiterate) and wouldn’t once stop to think: “maybe the cupboards were bare.” But Western policymakers, journalists, activists and academicians do have easy access to the extent and degree of Sudan’s financial and economic isolation from the West since the early ’90s – yet mystifyingly never factor in the socio-political consequences of suffocated public finances in their analysis, preferring the sexy premise of “deliberate economic marginalisation” of the Sudanese periphery. Amazing. Moreover, I’ve yet to see a country where equitable economic development across the board exists. So in sum, rather than trying to provide moral justification for current or looming acts of violence by Sudanese of the periphery (an ugly Western term, i hasten to add), Western academicians like yourself and US and other Western policy makers need to drill down into the (ongoing) effects and legacy of US and other Western financial sanctions on the social fabric of Sudan. Moreover, scrambling to find moral justification for Kordofanis, Nuba and other ‘peripheral’ Sudanese use of the principle of Clausewitz (war as a continuation of politics by other means) against the Sudanese state is hardly the best thing to do in a country that has just come out of Africa’s longest-running civil war. Sudanese must – no excuses – finally learn to bring attention to, articulate, address, and negotiate their grievances (invariably centered on acute sanctions-induced economic underdevelopment) with the state peacefully. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you heard one US or other Western policymaker, journalist, activist, academician say that???? We Sudanese have had enough of war – no justification, no excuses. solves absolutely jot. Talk may not be cheap, but greviances in Sudan can – and must – be addressed without resorting to guns or scaremongering.
I absolutely agree with you that grievances in Sudan must be addressed without resorting to guns or scaremongering. But I am unconvinced by the implication of what you write that the reason for the poverty of the peripheries is that there was never enough wealth in Sudan, so that everyone was poor, and that it is western commentators who have invented a deliberate marginalization of the peripheries.
One of the scholars who most influenced my analysis of Sudan is Fatima Babiker Mahmoud, whose book “The Sudanese Bourgeoisie: Vanguard of Development?” (1983–but based on research done in the 1970s) provided a superb critique of how the imbalance in wealth and resources, inherited from the British imperial rule, was sustained in the first two decades after independence. She tracked not only the concentration of investment in the centre but also the capital migration from the provinces to the centre. Her analysis prefigured the “Black Book” by 25 years. The critique of marginalization and the insurrections that began in the South, Blue Nile and Kordofan all occurred at a time when Sudan was a darling of the west, a bulwark against Communism, and one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance in Africa. The Bashir-Turabi government of the 1990s cannot be blamed for any of that…
I am also unconvinced that sanctions and isolation were the main culprits for Sudan’s disastrous economic performance. The first economic shock was in 1978, as a result of Nimeiri’s mismanagement. Sudan didn’t climb out of that economic hole for more than a decade, and in fact the Sadiq al Mahdi government repeatedly baulked at making the economic reforms necessary. The first two years of the Bashir-Turabi government saw the most acute economic crisis in the country’s history. But the economy then began its turnaround, seven years before the first drop of oil was pumped. There is an interesting history of countries that were under sanctions being forced into improvisatory self-reliance (Cambodia and Rhodesia are other examples) and actually doing well–albeit for relatively short periods of time. Clearly the economy only took off when oil revenues came onstream, but it was in recovery mode–despite the precipitous fall in foreign assistance–before then.
I am with you that the economy is Sudan’s salvation, and I have long advocated economic engagement with Sudan and investment in Sudan as a means of stimulating the economy and bringing political stability. I encourage the divestment groups in the U.S. to focus on responsible investment rather than punitive divestment. As the debate on urbanization on this blog has shown, it is the Sudanese cities that are the motor of the economy. Increasingly, I believe, Sudanese politics will become urban politics–and one of the most remarkable realities in Sudan is the social peace that has prevailed in the cities.
I wish it were true that the past, and memories of past grievances, could be easily brushed aside in a common embrace of the future. But I fear the legacy of past injustices will haunt Sudan for years to come. Better, I argue, to address these experiences through civic dialogue than allow the grievances to fester and an embittered minority to take up arms. It only takes a few men to start a war, but it takes a whole nation to stop one. I fear for the possibility of a new war in the Nuba Mountains, despite the wishes of the majority for peace. Had the government heeded the advice of the former head of the African Union, Alpha Konare, offered exactly four years ago, to allow an African panel of eminent persons to examine Darfur and make recommendations for resolving the crisis and establishing justice and reconciliation, then the case would not have been referred to the ICC. To move forward, it is often necessary to acknowledge the past.