Sudanese assistant to the President, Ibrahim Mahmoud, recently declared that the attempts to incite struggle in Sudan over the past 27 years have failed. Paradoxically, his statements have been followed by repeated calls by the Nuba Mountains Liberation Council for the right to self-determination—echoing similar calls that were made just a few years ago, and which resulted in the secession and establishment of the Republic of South Sudan.
The Nuba Mountains are located in South Kordofan, on the borders with South Sudan, which secured its independence in 2011 through a popular referendum. This came against the backdrop of a peace treaty between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the late John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army at the time.
Signed in the market town of Naivasha in Kenya in 2005, the peace treaty declared the right of the South Sudanese people to self-determination.
That the rebels of NMLC are politically and militarily affiliated with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) explains how the Nuba people, alongside the movement, have been battling the Sudanese government forces for years in the Nuba in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile provinces.
In light of the similarities between the South Sudanese and the Nuba people, fears over history repeating itself are increasing. Further exacerbating this are the ties between Juba and the SPLM-N, as Khartoum repeatedly accused Juba of offering support to the Nuba rebels.
Political analyst Youssef Kafy Kawa says that the Nuba people cite ongoing grievances regarding the oppression that they have historically been subjected to. These grievances previously fueled the residents of the Nuba peoples’ support for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and today, they nourish their support for the group’s northern offshoot.
As the Nuba peoples of Sudan's calls for the right to self-determination grow louder, could another secession be in play?
Will the history of South Sudan repeat itself with the people of the Nuba Mountains?
Kawa tells Raseef22 that some of these grievances include marginalization, as well as the attempt to impose an Arabist-Islamist model on the area, which is largely populated by African tribes. Moreover, he cites the exclusion of the Nuba people from positions of influence, as well as restricting them to blue-collar jobs, such as craftsmanship and the military, noting that such grievances are adequate cause for rebellion in the region.
Kawa further notes that the authorities consider many of the Nuba’s beverages and carnival rituals to be in violation of the Islamic Shariah, though the majority of the Nuba peoples are Muslims. Meanwhile, as for the minority of Christians, they are often accused of paganism.
Moreover, the Nuba peoples residing outside of the Nuba Mountain area fear that the oppressive policies espoused by the Sudanese government will lead to the extinction of their culture.
Kawa mentions the police campaigns against the Nuba villages and the arrest of their people on accusation of brewing marisa (a Sudanese millet brew) as glaring evidence of disrespect for the principles of diversity enshrined in the Sudanese constitution. He explains that marisa is brewed from millet, and is considered a main source of food for the indigenous Nuba Mountain population, and not an intoxicating substance, as it is labelled in Khartoum.
For decades, the Nuba Mountain region, which covers approximately 30,000 square miles, fell outside of the central Sudanese jurisdiction, and was autonomously governed by the Nuba people.
At approximately 50,000 feet above sea level, its mountainous topography provides the Nuba rebels with a major strategic advantage, as the government lacks an air force, thereby allowing the indigenous population to rebuff repeated ground offensives.
Tutu Kinda, a Nuba soldier in the SPLM-N, says that the Nuba people have long been known as powerful fighters; a quality fostered by their difficult geographical conditions and local culture.
He further notes to Raseef22 that their intimate knowledge of the passageways between the mountains of the region means that any attempts by other brigades to enter the region would effectively amount to suicide.
According to Kinda, the Nuba make up approximately 80% of the base of the SPLM-N.
It is pertinent to note that the Nuba refers to a collective group of various tribes and ethnicities living in the Nuba Mountains region. Each tribe has a distinct language or dialect, and their own belief system.
The area is divided into peaks inhabited by tribes of African origin (the indigenous residents of the Sudan), and the slopes, which are inhabited by Arab, pastoral tribes. Between the two are various tribes that relocated there from West Africa.
Researcher Taj Al-Sir Fadlallah says that among the most significant causes for the Nuba rebellion is the attempts to take over their sizable wealth of minerals, as well as their fertile land. This is further compounded by the attempts to forcibly impose Khartoum’s culture there.
Fadlallah tells Raseef22 that the arming of Arab tribes during the era of Sadiq al-Mahdi (1986 to 1989) led to the settling of numerous disputes through the use of weapons. This in turn led to extreme polarization, and the mountain tribes subsequently also armed themselves, leading to a rupture in the political sphere.
Fadlallah further emphasizes that the “divide and conquer” policies employed by the British colonizers, in which they sequestered the indigenous mountain people through Closed District ordinances, contributed to widening the gulf between the Arab and African tribes. Later on, faulty national policies gave rise to the growing sense of injustice among the Nuba people.
The primary incentive, however, for the Nuba people to demand the right of self-determination relates to the promises of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which has recruited many among them, to restore their political and economic rights.
Strategy or Tactics?
This begs the question, at this juncture, as to whether the Nuba calls for secession are strategic, or whether they are being used as political tactic.
Kawa explains that treating these calls as tactical is an oversimplification. He contends that the African Union’s attempts to arrive at a peaceful settlement in the conflict at the expense of the Nuba people is an unacceptable prospect for the rebel movement. This can be attributed to a reluctance to disarm, amid fears that Khartoum might renege on its commitments. As such, he says, the Nuba peoples perceive no other option than to call for their independence.
Meanwhile, Afaf Tawer, a leader in the ruling National Congress Party, claims that the Nuba people are acting as fodder for the agendas of the leadership of the SPLM-N, who are infatuated with the idea of secession. She further notes that this same leadership previously contributed to the secession of South Sudan, using the same banners and slogans that are currently being espoused by the NMLC.
Conversely, political analyst Hamed El-Khair believes that the Nuba’s calls for self-determination are likely no more than a tactical move to raise the bar during future negotiations with the Sudanese government.
He moreover warns again the repetition of the secession of South Sudan in the majority-Muslim Nuba Mountain region, fearing that this will ultimately lead to the dismantling of Sudan into various independent statelets.