No Way Back

Preface to book Proud to be Nuba, by Nanne op 't Ende (2007)

Sudan is a country that consists of many peoples, with distinct languages, cultures, traditions and beliefs. They live together in many different tribes and clans, with different economic lifestyles, competing for scarce resources, in particular land and water. Sudan is not only the largest country of Africa; it is also the country with the greatest diversity amongst people. It is one state with many nations.

One of these is the Nuba people. They live in the Jibal al-Nuba, the Nuba Mountains, in the Southern Kordofan. They are differentiated amongst themselves. They do not all share the same language and traditions. They have different backgrounds in early history. However, since long they share a common place to live.

People in the Nuba Mountains have suffered greatly. Living as farmers they had to protect their land against Arab nomads, trekking from the North to the South and back in order to graze their camels. Slave raids followed. A bloody occupation of by the Mahdi regime took place towards the end of the nineteenth century. A policy of Arabisation and Islamisation was carried out by the regime in Khartoum which ruled the country since its independence in 1956. All in all the Nuba people have been victims of oppression, forced eviction and neglect.

In the sixties and seventies of the last century people of the Nuba Mountains rose against the injustices they underwent. They tried to form alliances with other peoples of Sudan who rebelled against the regime, in the South, the East and in Darfur. All of them rebelled for different reasons, reflecting the economic, religious and tribal differences in the country. Their political objectives were not the same. Some wanted separation, others a greater regional autonomy or a more equitable sharing of power in the new nation state Sudan, or to take over power in Khartoum. But all of them had one common objective: to be able to express their own identity, defined by them.

What is the Nuba identity? Who are the Nuba? The answer can only be given by the Nuba themselves.

Nanne op 't Ende has travelled several times to the Nuba Mountains in order to take pictures and to record the stories of the Nuba people. He has brought together many of these pictures and stories in this book Proud to be Nuba. It contains stories of leaders like Youssif Kuwa Nekki, widely regarded as the man who inspired his people to fight the oppressors and who has personally led that fight for decades. There are also stories of other leaders who joined the rebellion and who presently are politicians and administrators in Southern Kordofan. They hold such positions since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan, signed in Nairobi on 9 January 2005, has brought peace to Southern Sudan and to the so-called special areas Abyei, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, all of them located somewhere between the North and the South.

The CPA and its predecessor - a cease-fire agreement that had been reached a couple of years earlier, has indeed brought peace, though it is a relative peace, for the time being. Will it last? That will depend on many factors. Since its inception peace has not brought much development to the people of South Kordofan. Poverty prevails. This could very well result in a feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration and in an inclination to take up arms again. The future status of South Kordofan has not been unequivocally established in the CPA. Will it belong to the North or to the South, after the people of Southern Sudan will have used their right of self-determination in the referendum foreseen in 2011?‚ The people of Southern Sudan have been granted the right to vote for separation as well as for the continuation of the present status quo: 'two systems, one country'. The outcome of the referendum cannot be foreseen. Any outcome will have to be guaranteed by the international community, because the CPA is the result of much international pressure and has been endorsed by the Security Council. However, if the people of Southern Sudan will vote for separation, there is a great risk that the Khartoum regime will attack the newly independent state. The people in the Nuba Mountains will fall between two stools, because the CPA has only stipulated that their future status should be determined by a consultative process. When? Between whom? How? Nobody knows.

Are the Nuba people better off when the present situation continues, as a special region between North and South? Yes, better than during a war. But in that case too the perspective is bleak. Pressure from Khartoum will continue and can only be resisted if the SPLM regime in Southern Sudan supports the people in Southern Kordofan.‚ They have done so during the civil war of the nineteen eighties and nineties, when the SPLA had a stronghold in the eastern part of the Nuba Mountains. However, since the establishment of the government of national unity the Southern support for the aspirations of the Nuba people has weakened. The SPLM seems to have withdrawn to its own territory. That may be understandable, because the problems in Southern Sudan are still very large. It is also important to be on the alert against possible Khartoum inspired efforts to destabilize the South. Dealing intensively with the affairs of South Kordofan and two other special areas may seem beyond the capacity of the leaders in Juba. However, a policy of withdrawal would be short sighted.‚ Peace in Sudan is indivisible: war in Darfur, renewed violence in the Nuba Mountains or insurrection in the East will affect the whole of Sudan, not only as long as it is one state, but also when the country would split into two nation states. Tribal and family ties across borders will transfer a local conflict to other places in the country, also across borders.

This means that the long-term hope for the people of South Kordofan rests on the prospects of peace and democratisation in Sudan as a whole. The new constitution for Sudan, adopted in 2005, offers such a perspective, but so far only in theory. The regime in Khartoum continues to violate human rights. Opposition parties are stifled. Dissenting voices are weak. The media are voicing some criticism, but only up to a point. Sudan is one state with many nations, but it is not a multi-national state in which the various communities fully respect each other and co-exist on equal footing. On the contrary, Sudan is actually still a national security state, despite its fine Constitution.

Much will depend on the attitude, aspirations and doings of the young people in the so-called new Sudan, the new generations throughout the country as a whole. Those new generations should be willing to stay in the country rather than opt for migration abroad. They should aspire towards common objectives, respecting each other's desires to express their own chosen identity. They can only do so if they are aware of their own history, while at the same time accepting the need to connect their destiny with that of others.

Voices of opinion leaders, politicians, new administrators, rebel leaders, students and intellectuals speaking out and listening to each other are important in this respect. A free and open debate between all of them is essential. As important are the voices of the common people. They have been the ultimate victims. They were evicted from their land, forced to take sides, denied adequate services. They have shown resilience. It is them who have to make the real choice, because it is their life, their land, their destiny.

In Proud to be Nuba Nanne op 't Ende has recorded many voices of common people in the Nuba Mountains. They are expressing all sorts of emotions: anger, bitterness, disappointment, frustration, uncertainty, but also hope and dedication, self-confidence and pride. Listening to these authentic voices is important. They tell us that the Nuba people exist, that they are proud to exist, that they claim the right to exist and that they should not be forgotten anymore, unlike during the secret war of the 1980s and 1990s.

Listening to the stories of the Nuba people will make us understand that there is still a long way ahead. But there is no way back.

Jan Pronk

Khartoum/The Hague, December 2006

The book Proud to be Nuba can be ordered at
Some pictures have been reproduced on this website