A group of 50 or more autonomous and ethnically diverse communities, numbering some 3.7 million people, Nuba inhabit the mountainous Kordofan region in central Sudan. Nuba speak several dialects of the Cushitic group of the Hamito-Semitic languages. Some traditional religions survive but most Nuba have been converted to Islam or Christianity. These diverse peoples have found a common identity as ‘Nuba’ through their shared mountain homeland and a history of shared oppression.
Nuba migrated to the mountains for protection and improved water sources to cultivate beans, cotton, millet and maize, and to raise cattle, goats and sheep. Their traditional rivals, the cattle herding Sudanese Arabs known as Baggara, who live in southern Kordofan, often have been allies of central power in Sudan since the nineteenth century, while Nuba were long peripheral to the main currents of Sudanese politics, neither aligned with the Arab-dominated north nor belonging to the south.
Baggara, and their militia, the murahaliin, were armed by the transitional government in 1985–6, then by the governing Umma Party from 1986–9 and thereafter by the government of the National Islamic Front (NIF). After the NIF took power, the Popular Defence Act of 1989 gave legal status to the murahaliin militia as part of the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF) – a regime-created assortment of religious zealots, ethnic militias and press-ganged conscripts. The PDF stepped up its raids in the south, now in conjunction with the army. While the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) raided villages for food and conscripted soldiers, violence by the army and murahaliin escalated.
In February 1990, some Baggara leaders negotiated a truce with the SPLA to gain access to traditional grazing lands in SPLA-controlled Dinka areas of the southern region of Bahr el Ghazal. In response, the central government intensified its efforts to inflame Baggara historical competition with the Nuba with the objective of ridding Nuba land of its Nuba inhabitants and replacing them with Baggara Arabs.
The army arrested, tortured and executed Nuba leaders and confiscated their land, evicting entire communities. In January 1992 the Provincial Governor of Kordofan declared a jihad in the Nuba Mountains to root out the ‘remnants’ of the SPLA.
The attempt to destroy the Nuba people and culture, and their forcible conversion to Islam, is not new. Some local authorities prohibited ritual wrestling and stick fighting, which relates to some Nuba peoples’ cosmology and agricultural and religious practices. Prohibition of these rituals implies an indirect obstruction to the basic cultural traits and value systems which maintain and foster Nuba ethnic identity.
The imposition of Shari’a law has reinforced discrimination. The government has embarked on the ‘comprehensive call’ campaign, which aims at Islamicizing Nuba via the imposition of Islamic teaching, the intimidation of clergy, resettlement and torture. In reaction to policies from Khartoum, in particular far-reaching land confiscation in 1984, Nuba increasingly aligned with the SPLA.
In the NIF era, the situation for Christians in the Nuba Mountains has been particularly difficult. Churches have been destroyed and meetings prohibited even in their ashes. With the creation of Islamic schools, ‘peace camps’ have been part of an Islamicization policy.
In the 1990s, Nuba children from the Kadugli/Tulisci areas were rounded up by the PDF and sent to Libya and the Gulf countries. The Nuba Timu group that lived in the lower lands of the mountain ranges of Tulisci near Lagaw was virtually eliminated, as all males down to the age of 6 or 7 were massacred.
Nuba deportees were forced to work in the large mechanized schemes on agricultural lands which originally belonged to them before their distribution by the government to Jellaba (a northern Muslim mercantile class operating in the south) and Baggara. Indeed, from the 1970s onwards, land dispossession was a defining feature of the conflict in the Nuba Mountains.
Another example of abuse of power is the Habila mechanized project. The lands were taken from local communities, and the project ownership was given almost entirely to northern merchants and businessmen, while the previous Nuba land owners had to become labourers on their own lands.
In 2002 the humanitarian situation improved for the Nuba when the United States brokered a ceasefire. An All-Nuba Conference in December 2002 delegated to John Garang and the SPLA the negotiation of Nuba interests in the peace talks that culminated in the CPA in January 2005.
The CPA left the Nuba Mountains in an ambivalent position. As many Nuba fought alongside the SPLA during the war, there is an understandable sense of grievance at the outcome of the CPA. Many Nuba felt that they had been used as a bargaining chip between the two parties.
The persistence of many underlying sources of conflict, including the continued desire for greater autonomy in Nuba, contributed to the outbreak of renewed conflict in 2011 between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N). Since then, civilians have been subjected to thousands of aerial bombings, along with attacks by pro-government militias on villages, contributing to a humanitarian crisis in the region.
To make matters even worse, the SPLM-N was split in 2017 when then Deputy Chairman Abdelaziz El Hilu resigned. He was appointed as Chair by various groupings within the movement as well as allies, although Malik Agar also remained Chair. Battles between the two leaders’ factions have led to civilian casualties and displacement, for instance in 2018, when about 9,000 people had to flee to Wadaka area in El Kurmuk locality.
Updated June 2018