Twilight of the Nuba
Is the Sudanese regime embarking on another war of extinction?
As Southern Sudan prepares for its final split from Africa’s largest country on July 9, the northern soldiers who aided its battle for self-determination are refusing to be left behind. In the state of Southern Kordofan, located in the center of the country on Sudan’s contested internal border, fighters from the Nuba Mountains are putting up a tooth-and-nail fight to avoid being crushed by the Islamist government in Khartoum.
At least 73,000 people have fled the current fighting, according to the United Nations. As Sudanese bombs continue to fall and activists issue familiar warnings of genocide, the Nuba people face a lonely fight.
The Nuba, a diverse collection of black African tribes — Muslim, Christian, and animist — have long resisted the aggression of Sudan’s Arab rulers in Khartoum. The government tried to eradicate them during the 1990s in a campaign of murder, starvation, rape, enslavement, and land seizure that killed as many as 200,000. During the north-south civil war, an estimated 30,000 Nuba joined the Southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was fighting to transform the whole of Sudan into a multiethnic democratic state.
In 1992, in the midst of the 22-year war, the government went so far as to declare a jihad in the Nuba Mountains. The official fatwa that declared the war made no distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim, stating, "An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them." The campaign included the use of chemical weapons (dropped by pilots from Saddam Hussein’s air force) against the civilian population.
The 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war has led only to the imminent secession of the south. Southern Kordofan, a northern state whose residents largely supported the rebel cause, did not receive the right to self-determination. Instead, the state was given the sop of a "popular consultation" in which voters could express a desire for limited autonomy. Even that exercise never took place. For months now, the Nuba have felt Khartoum’s noose slowly tightening.
While the government claims it is justifiably squashing an armed rebellion, it has maintained a naked focus on ethnicity and religion, with distinct echoes of the jihad era. Last year, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey obtained and released parts of a January 2009 memo from Sudan’s Defense Ministry ordering militia commanders to re-enlist soldiers who had defected to the Southern army. "Get back all those who joined the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]," said the memo, "whether in the south, Nuba Mountains or elsewhere … to defend their religion and their Arabism." After the south secedes, Southern Kordofan will be the sole remaining oil-producing state in northern Sudan.
As northern forces and armor began encircling their villages this year, many Nuba fighters left their bases in the south and returned to defend their homeland. Then, two weeks ago, a series of provocations by the Nuba fighters helped spark a furious bout of shelling, aerial bombardment, looting, and murder by northern Sudanese forces.
An estimated 3,000 Nuba men and boys are missing. Advocates fear they’ve been executed. One refugee, Abdul Mutalib Suleiman, told the banned news station Radio Dabanga that as he fled Kadugli, the state capital, with his family, they saw "a man wearing military uniform shoot at one civilian who was on a motorbike and he died immediately."
The soldiers, Suleiman said, "were calling out ‘Allah Akbar.’" On June 21, Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, issued a statement condemning attacks against civilians and the "targeting of people along ethnic lines."
For now, the Nuba fighters, led by their commander, Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, are holding their own. They’ve retaken key parts of Kadugli and have seized at least one weapons convoy meant for the Sudanese army, a haul that included anti-tank and possibly even surface-to-air missiles. (Last month, Abdel-Aziz lost the election for governor of Southern Kordofan state to Ahmed Haroun, a trusted lieutenant of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Despite Abel-Aziz’s claims that the vote was rigged, observers from the Carter Center certified it as "peaceful and credible." Like Bashir, Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.)
But without an air force or tank corps to stand up to the well-armed northern forces, recent gains by the Nuba fighters will likely prove to be short term. In the near term, salvation can come from only one of two unlikely sources.
The first is Juba, which next month is slated to become the capital of the independent Republic of South Sudan. While Khartoum holds a strong superiority in air power and armor, the Southern army boasts a much larger infantry. The Nuba battling in Southern Kordofan are a part and parcel of the former rebel army that helped liberate the south, and ties between the two regions are strong.
The Southern Sudanese officer corps is keen to help its colleagues north of the border, sources in Juba say, but there is slim chance that Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir will risk losing his shot at a peaceful separation on their comrades in the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba can’t expect to see brigades of Southern soldiers marching to their assistance.
Bashir has begun massing his forces on the north-south border as a warning to his Southern rivals. "We told our brothers in the south, do you want peace? Everything we’ve done is for peace," he said this week. "But if you want war, you can see what’s going on in Abyei and in Southern Kordofan, and these are all lessons." (Northern forces overran Abyei, another disputed region, last month, displacing more than 100,000 members of the Dinka tribe. On June 20 Khartoum agreed to withdraw its soldiers from Abyei, which is to be secured by Ethiopian peacekeepers but is now firmly under Khartoum’s control.)
The Nuba’s other chance at victory is even more far-fetched. Their representatives are pleading for an internationally enforced no-fly zone to ground Sudan’s MiG fighters and Antonov bombers. "The UN Security Council must institute a No Fly Zone in Nuba Mountians [sic]/ South Kordfan to stop the aerial bombardment of civilians," one organization, the Sudan Democracy First Group, said in a written statement last week. On Monday, June 20, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein warned that the Nuba are trying to create "a second Benghazi" — the rebel capital of Libya — as a precursor to Western-backed regime change in Khartoum.
Calls for a no-fly zone over Sudan are even more dubious today than they were six years ago, when the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was advocating one to stop ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
Back then, the United States was embroiled in two conflicts in Muslim lands. Today, with the ongoing NATO campaign in Libya, it’s three. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently expressed what many less powerful taxpayers have felt for years: Americans are tired of wars of choice.
So the Nuba, and other northerners fearful of Khartoum’s ethnocentric agenda, are on their own. Even as Southern Sudanese escape to an uncertain future in their own sovereign state, the north can still free itself from the blood-stained ruling clique in Khartoum. The route probably won’t be Gandhian. Recent peaceful protests in Khartoum, inspired by successful people-power revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, have all been crushed.
As it was for the people of Southern Sudan, the people of Southern Kordofan may conclusively decide that violence is their only path to freedom. In the face of rigged elections, ethnic cleansing, and torture, armed rebel groups in Darfur could join forces with the Nuba, with partisans in Blue Nile state, and with disaffected Beja tribesmen of eastern Sudan in an armed movement to topple Bashir.
It’s a dismal scenario, after more than 2 million dead in the last civil war and hundreds of thousands of others killed in Darfur. Whatever the means, however, northern Sudanese are going to have to free themselves. No one else is riding to the rescue.