The Nuba and the Sudan Peace Prospect.


A paper presented by Suleiman Musa Rahhal at the Panel Discussion on “The Sudanese War and The Nuba people” held at Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, Washington DC, USA on 28 February 2003.

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great privilege to address this assembly on behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, one of the most downtrodden and invisible people of the world today. Mr. Chairman, if you allow me, I would like to thank Woodrow Wilson Centre for organizing this important meeting on “The Sudanese War and The Nuba people”. I would also like to pay tribute to the United States Government, in particular to Senator John Danforth for his relentless efforts to end the long conflict of the Sudan and also for achieving ‘cease-fire agreement’ for the Nuba Mountains.



As an introduction to the Nuba people, who are they? The term Nuba came from the word “Nubia” which was first used by the Greek anthropologist, Eratosthenes in 200 B.C. to describe people living in the South of Egypt. Today, it is commonly used to describe the indigenous inhabitants living in more than eighty hills situated in the geographical center of the Sudan. Little is known about the ancient history of the Nuba. However, if one looks through the corridors of the history of Sudan as from the Kush Kingdom of the 8th Century he will find that Nuba history and civilizations are well embedded along the course of the Nile valley. The traditions and historical linguistic have shown that the Nuba are indigenous to Sudan. Mac Michel in his book titled (The Tribe of North and Central Kordofan 1967) he described, “That in the earliest days and for thousands of subsequent years the ancestors of Nuba held the greatest part of Kordofan with the exception of the Northern most desert”. But because of successive attacks by the Arab invaders they retreated to the mountains in Southern Kordofan which became their permanent home and it carried the name “Nuba Mountains”.

The Nuba people do posses extra ordinarily rich and varied cultures and traditions. Their cultures have a tradition of tolerance and diversity which shows that they are truly African people, who are proud of their rich tradition and cultural heritage. In 1984 Late Professor Ronald Stevenson, the famous linguistic who was my teacher at Katcha Intermediate School, classified more than fifty Nuba languages and dialect clusters into ten separate groups, which means that there are more linguistic diversity within the Nuba Mountains than the entire rest of Sudan. The Nuba practice a mixture of Islam, Christianity and tribal religions and beliefs. Music, dancing and wrestling are also central to the amazing cultural diversity and richness found among the Nuba tribes.

The Nuba live in a well-defined territory called Nuba Mountains, which was a separate province during the British rule in Sudan (1896 -1956) with its own administration and capital in Talodi until 1929 when amalgamated into a large Kordofan. The Nuba Mountains region covers an area of some 30,000 square miles (roughly the area of Scotland), which have been the homeland for Nuba people for many centuries. They are first and foremost agricultural people and there is a strong association among the Nuba between the land, agriculture and culture. The Nuba traditional cultural ceremonies follow the agricultural cycle. Our agricultural system makes the best use of the delicate environment in which Nuba live and they are custodian to the land. Their lands are fertile and rich with natural resources including oil, which has been discovered recently.

The Conflict

A). Nuba  and Baggara Arabs Relation

For many centuries, the Nuba have shared the region with the nomadic Baggara Arab tribes, who usually migrate through the area with their cattle twice a year. Although in the past the Nuba have suffered from the Arab raiding and slavery. However, during most of the early part of the last century the two communities managed to resolve their dispute peacefully and they were able to live together side by side in relative peace, mutual trust and understanding. This good relationship was maintained by local chiefs who were wise and competent enough to solve any conflict without resorting to violence. For example: in the past disputes over land and water were resolved at annual conferences which usually takes place on a neutral ground, and this was during British rule but nowadays laws to prevent tribal disputes.

B). The root causes to the conflict

The conflict in the Nuba Mountains cannot be separated from the long-standing conflict in the wider Sudan. Throughout the history the Nuba people have been cheated of peace. They have suffered at the hands of Arab slave traders during the Mahadiya Revolution era and all national governments that ruled Sudan since independence 1956 have suppressed and marginalized them. In unprecedented scale the present regime in Khartoum when it seized power in June 1989 embarked on a systematic genocidal campaign, declaring “Jihad war” in 1992 against the Nuba. And a bloody “scorched earth” policy has been carried out in the region which mounted to ethnic cleansing and depopulating most of the region.

The Nuba are central to the conflict, having pursued the arm struggle side by side with the SPLA for more than eighteen years, fighting in all fronts where SPLA is active. Today they are central in this conflict in many ways, as they hold the key to the vital questions of land and resources, ethnic rights and religious tolerance. These are the core elements to the conflict in Sudan today, which need to be redressed for the benefit of the whole country. Therefore, the Nuba political rights can no longer be ignored or compromised.

It is often said that the underlying cause of the conflict in Sudan is religion but that is not true. Religion is one of the many factors that had fuelled and contributed to this conflict. These factors can be summarized as follows:

.           Political and economic marginalization.

.           Ethnic, religious and cultural discrimination.

.           Dispossession of lands, traditions and customs

.           Poor educational, political and economic opportunities and that   

             since independence.

.           Recent discovery of oil in the region.

.           Availability of modern weapons and encouragement of the Arab

              tribes by the state to invade Nuba and other non-Arab tribes.  

Human Rights Violations in Nuba Mountains Region

The human rights violation in the Nuba Mountains is not solely something of today but it goes back to the early 19th century, several decades before Sudan independence in 1956. It started with the Turko-Egyptian rule in Sudan (1821-1881). The Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali Pasha, decided to conquer Sudan, primarily to recruit black slaves with the aim to build a strong army and it was for this reason the slave trade began operating in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur as well as in the South for several decades by three main forces: the Turks, the Private Enterprise and the Arab Traders from Northern Sudan namely Jellying tribe.

During the Mahdiyya era Nuba who fought with the Mahdi were later marginalized and were treacherously and cruelly treated. Their villages were raided and tens of thousands of Nuba people were massacred, and a large number of them were taken as slaves to Omdurman.


Like the people of the South Sudan, Nuba people had equally suffered enormously from the policy of ‘Closed District Administration’, imposed on them by the British rulers. As they were denied access to education, administration and development while the Arab in the North were better off.

The present regime in Khartoum records for human rights violations against the Nuba people are considered to be the crime of the century. Several international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Right Watch, Africa Rights, Survival International, Sudan Human Rights and Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad and many more, all have documented these grave human rights abuses in Nuba Mountains. Dr. Gaspar Biro, the UN Special Raporteur for Human Rights in Sudan in his reports to the United Nations Assembly condemned Government of Sudan (GoS) more than four times for its appalling human rights records.

Political Rights

The Nuba have neither enjoyed the fruit of the independence of their country nor do they have peace. Since Sudan’s independence, the Nuba have been oppressed, discriminated and marginalized by all central governments that ruled Sudan up to the present Government in Khartoum. In addition, these national governments have embarked on similar policies, to impoverish the Nuba and push them to the margin of the Sudanese society, to become second class citizens in their own country. Today under this Islamic Government the Nuba have been denied their cultural identity, freedom of religion expression and practicing their customs and traditions.


 For the past six years the Nuba have been raising constantly the issue of self-determination at the region and international level. We know that self-determination has now been accepted and recognized as basic rights for the people of Southern Sudan but this fundamental right still yet to be recognized for the Nuba people and others, who are fighting a just war and claiming it. The Nuba held the key to any peaceful solution in the Sudan and without full acceptance of their political right there can be no peace in Sudan. They demand the right to self-determination, to be exercised immediately after the interim period when the people of Southern Sudan had voted at the referendum and had chosen to opt for an independent Southern state.

Our past experience makes us fear that, under whatever government, Northern politicians in power will continue to maintain the same policy denying the Nuba their civil rights. Nuba also fear that their culture will continue to be undermined and suppressed, and that any grantees for autonomy can easily be overruled and reversed. Nuba past experience with the central governments has been a bad one and they have good historical reasons to fear that a return of the same civilian rulers that controlled Sudan since independence will not lead to an improvement in our situation. It is for this reason; we demand the right of self-determination in full because we have a strong case, which is based on our long historical records of suffering from abuse, injustice, discrimination and marginalization. These are the prime reasons made Nuba and others to resort to the armed struggle eighteen years ago and demand the right to self-determination.

The Peace prospect

The current civil war in Sudan has been going on for almost more than two decades. For all its victims, it has been a brutal and miserable experience. But among all the suffering people of Sudan, the Nuba stand out as a people who have been on the frontline for eighteen years, exposed to the atrocities of the Sudan government forces and the deprivations of famine without any respite. The Nuba also stand out as a people who have been ignored by the international community until recently. Their basic needs unmet, their cries for help unheard and their demand for political rights unrecognized. Last January Senator Danforth, US Special Envoy for Peace in Sudan, came for their rescue, and he succeeded to achieve cease-fire agreement for the Nuba Mountains which has now been renewed twice. Senator Danforth has addressed the immediate humanitarian needs of the Nuba people but a big challenge still remains, which is a political settlement. If this is not achieved, Nuba will certainly be left isolated and divided and hence unable to achieve their basic goals.

Among many peace initiatives proposed to end the conflict of the Sudan is IGAD which was found to be acceptable because it has declaration of principles.  During 1999, the IGAD PLUS FOUR (USA, UK, Norway and Italy) reinvigorated the IGAD forum to push the peace forward. This is due to the comments by the Western Partners to achieve peace in Sudan. However, the US initiative suggested creation of one Sudan but with two self-governing systems in the North and the South. We believe that such arrangement will not bring about a comprehensive peace settlement for the complex problems of the Sudan.  Sudan is a country of tremendous diversity in terms of religion, ethnicity, culture and languages and to be divided into two confederal states on the basis of religion and ethnicity will not bring a just and lasting peace for Sudan. Unity in diversity is what most of the Sudanese people want but within a secular democratic Sudan. IGAD PULUS FOUR should do their utmost best to safeguard unity of the Sudan, which is paramount. The majority of the Nuba people are staunchly units and they believe that their best interest is within the united Sudan. Their right to self-determination is an essential guarantee on their right. Secession is the last resort, in case there is a denial of their political rights.

Machakos Protocol

In the presence of IGAD mediators and western partners in Machakos, the GoS and SPLA/M signed an agreement known as “Machakos Protocol” on 20th July 2002, which supposedly resolved the two most contentious issues: separation of religion from state and self-determination for the people of Southern Sudan. However, Machakos discussed only the IGAD Declaration of Principles (DOP) but it did not discuss the Nuba issue nor the issues of the other marginalized areas in northern Sudan. It was hoped that the issues of the three contested areas in central Sudan “Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei) will be discussed in the next Machakos peace talks.

These three contested areas have resorted to arm struggle for more than eighteen years fighting alongside the Sudan people’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against injustices, marginalization, and the domination of the Northern elite over power sharing, wealth sharing and economic development since independence in 1956. It is highly important that the political issues of these contested areas should be settled within IGAD forum. IGAD scheduled a meeting in Kenya on 15th January 2003 and invited representatives from both GoS and SPLA/M to discuss the issues of these three areas in central Sudan “Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei” but the GoS refused to attend the meeting. It claims that 90 percent of these areas come under its territory. In addition, it claims that these three areas fall outside the mandate of the IGAD, the SPLA wants them to be part of the South because they are fighting alongside with the SPLA.

However, the Government refusal to discuss the issues of these three areas and the claim made by both sides over who should control these areas is not of significant important to the people of these areas. What important is what these people want? They want their voice to be heard and their political rights must be redressed. They want IGAD PLUS FOUR to invite their political parties and civil society organizations to the peace talks in Kenya. They need to be there to speak for themselves and decide their own destiny because they do not trust both sides.

The Nuba are at the very center to this conflict and they hold the vital key to the solution to the Sudan’s conflict. They will be pivotal to any peace settlement. We believe that if there is to be peace and just solution to Sudan’s perpetual conflicts, the Nuba must be among the key players rather than sitting at the peripheral of peace talks, as advisors or observers or giving a mandate to the SPLA leader to speak on their behalf. The Nuba will not settle for an agreement that does not guarantee their rights in full. It is not a question of justices but it is a question of power, wealth sharing and the future of the country.


In our view the underlying cause of Sudan’s conflict is due to many complex factors but religion and ethnicity are considered to be the two main factors. However, the concentration of power and economic wealth and development all have been in the hands of the northern elites and these also have contributed significantly to fuel this long war of Africa today. In addition, the recent formation of Arab and Islamic movements in the Sudan and dragging the country more towards the Arab world as Sudanese identity is virtually became Arab and this of course made difficult and if not impossible for the non-Arab Sudanese who represent 61% of the total population and are the majority in the country to accept to become Arabs. We believe this dichotomy of Arabism and Africanism is likely if not resolve the Sudan can never be one country to embrace all the diversity in our country. The people of Sudan have historically shown a remarkable degree of religious tolerance, especially in the Nuba Mountains, where more than one religions is commonly practiced within a single family. What we are experiencing today is an abuse of Islam for economic and political gain far removed from Islamic values.

The prospect for peace in the Nuba Mountains depends if there is to be a genuine solution to whole conflict and the acceptance the rights of the others to power sharing and the wealth share. Most importantly is the transformation of the Nuba Cease-Fire Agreement to peace through vigorous rebuilding and development of the Nuba Mountains as part of Sudan’s comprehensive peace settlement under IGAD peace forum.  

Finally, we must remember that a peaceful and democratic solution to Sudan’s conflict can only be achieved if there is a genuine and comprehensive settlement to the whole conflict in the country, which recognize the rights of all the people of Sudan. Therefore, no-one can afford to ignore the rights of the Nuba people. It is clear that without a just solution to the Nuba and to the people of other marginalized in Northern Sudan there can be no peace in Sudan, as a workable peace cannot be built on injustice


We appeal to the United States Government, and to the American people to help Nuba in their struggle to achieve a just and lasting peace in the Nuba Mountains and to ensure that the Nuba civil rights are achieved too including the following issues:

  1. 1. The people of the Nuba Mountains demand the right of self-determination within the new united, secular, democratic Sudan, to be exercised immediately after the people of the Southern Sudan had their referendum after the six-year transitional period and had decided to opt for an independent state.
  1. 2. The Issue of the Nuba Mountains and other marginalized areas in the Northern Sudan should be settled within the Framework of Machakos Protocol under the auspices of Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD).
  1. 3. The representatives from the Nuba political parties and civil society organizations should be invited to IGAD peace talks in Kenya.
  1. 5. During the six years transitional period the Nuba Mountains should be administered separately from the north and the south and under international supervision and have the right to self-governing. They should also be represented in the Broad National Government and share equally the political power, the wealth of the nation and the oil revenue.
  1. 6. IGAD Secretariat, Western Partners and the Parties, namely the GOS and the SPLA/M should immediately agree on the date for discussing the issue of the three contested areas within IGAD and under a separate IGAD Forum.
  1. 7. The Six-month Nuba Cease-Fire Agreement which has been renewed twice now should be transformed into a permanent ceasefire as part of Sudan’s comprehensive peace settlement of the Nuba issue under IGAD Forum. And the international community, the UN-Humanitarian Agencies, NGOs and the GoS should now be involved in the Nuba program of resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction and redevelopment of the Nuba Mountains as part of the Burgenstock Cease-Fire Agreement.