This paper is based on research by Suleiman Musa Rahhal.


The North-South conflict of the Sudan is one of the longest conflicts in Africa and likely to continue into the next century. More recently, the marginalised people in the North joined the armed struggle; creating another conflict in the North, a "North-North" conflict between centre and periphery. The Government in Khartoum and some opposition members within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tend to play this down.

Northern Sudan is a land of minorities. From the outside it may appear to be a land of Arabs, but closer scrutiny shows a patchwork of literally hundreds of different groups, some of them practically invisible to anyone except the most socially sensitive observer. Today there are eight major groups of marginalised people in the North, including: the Nuba, the South Blue Nile people, the Beja, Darfur, the Nubians, the Baggara, Fallata and Southern/Western displaced peoples settled around major towns and cities. All of these have a different standing with regard to the claim for self-determination. However, because of scope of this paper we will discuss four main groups of marginalised people, all of whom have resorted to armed struggle. These are:

  • The Nuba;
  • The people of Southern Blue Nile;
  • The Beja;
  • The people of Darfur.

The other groups either have made no claim for self-determination, or are attached to a group that has made such a claim (e.g. the Southerners displaced in the North).

The right to self-determination can be argued historically and juridically, on the basis of a history of separate statehood and experience of persistent human rights abuses and discrimination by governments. In each of the cases mentioned, the details are different. One major factor in self-determination however is: do people want it? In the cases of many of these groups, the overriding factor in deciding whether they warrant self-determination in any form is the simple question: have they been asking for it and struggling for it?

In recent years, self-determination has re-emerged as a burning issue in international conferences as well as in the Sudanese political arena, and can no longer be ignored.

The first part of this paper will look into the concept and the philosophy of self-determination in both the Sudanese and international context. The second part it will argue that some Northern peoples such as the Nuba and South Blue Nile people have an irrefutable claim to self-determination while others have a weaker claim. This paper will also argue that the interest of the marginalised people of the North who have taken up armed struggle will be best served by preserving a united Sudan, a fact that most of the marginalised people know already. They will therefore vote for a united Sudan. However, for the Nuba and South Blue Nile, the right to self-determination is an essential guarantee on their rights. Secession is a weapon of last resort, in case a future government in Khartoum persists in its refusal to grant them their rights.

Background to Self-Determination

The concept of self-determination goes back more than a century. It first appeared during the European bourgeois democratic revolution in the eighteenth century. During the time of Lenin it gained recognition and developed into a positive principle with the declaration of ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ which the Soviet Union was the first country to adopt. It was observed in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People’, which proclaimed the independence of Finland, the evacuation of troops from Persia and freedom of self-determination for Armenia.

In 1918, United States President Wilson issued a statement in recognition of self-determination (W. Wilson, War Aims of Germany and Austria 1918). He affirmed the right of self-determination of colonial territories, which later appeared in the General Assembly Resolutions in December, 1960 declaring that:

  1. The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is a contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and impediment to the promotion of the world peace and co-operation.
  2. All peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development and every state has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.

The Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial countries and peoples was adopted on 14 December 1960 in Assembly Resolution 1514, accelerating the acceptance of self-determination as a legal right. The Resolution builds upon Articles 1, 55 and 56 of the Charter which call for immediate steps to be taken to achieve independence in accordance with the principle of self-determination.

Article 73 of the United Nations Charter protects colonial states and the right of self-determination. The subsequent development of international law in regard to non-self-governing territories, as enshrined in the Charter has made the principle of self-determination applicable to many colonial cases. Namibia is a case in point: there was no doubt in the minds of U.N. member States when they resolved to proclaim the legitimacy of the struggle of Namibian people. Namibia was later granted self-determination. Many other African countries have had to win their independence through a bitter struggle. More recently Eritrea has won its independence. No major foreign power supported its case until the EPLF was able to create a de facto situation on the ground 1991, having liberated the whole territory by force of arms. This exceptional case indicates that political factors are paramount in recognising the right to self-determination. Many indigenous peoples around the world are today fighting to gain the right to self-determination and independence, but because they lack the military capacity to succeed on their own, and do not have an international consensus behind them, and are strongly opposed by a locally dominant power, their chances of success are low. Examples include: Western Sahara, East Timor, Tibet, Palestine and Kashmir.

This endorsement of self-determination by the United Nations came at the insistence of the Soviet Union. But, it did not appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was not reflected in international law until 1966. The recognition of the self-determination principle came primarily in the context of decolonisation in which the United Nations played a key role.

Under established principles of international law, all peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right peoples may determine their political, economic and social status. Many argue today that self-determination should no longer be tied to colonial or ethnic criteria, but rather should be used in the context of ensuring "democratic" practices within existing states. The democratic element within self-determination is key: The right is only meaningful if exercised in a democratic way and leading to a democratic form of government. Historically, self-determination has been associated with the overthrow of despotic regimes, as in French and Russian revolutions.

U.N. Resolution 2878 of 1971 recognised the legitimacy of the struggle of colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise their rights to self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.

It further urged all states and specialised agencies to provide moral and material assistance to all people struggling for their freedom and independence, and in particular to the national liberation movements in their struggle against colonialism. However, it took a long debate in the United Nations for dependent countries to obtain independence without bloodshed and in some cases independence only came after a better struggle. For example: Kenya, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

In the former Soviet Union many problems have arisen. The first stage of self-determination after the collapse of the USSR was for the former Soviet Republics to gain sovereignty and then political independence, in accordance with the existing republic boundaries. The second stage is more controversial, arising from a range ethnic groups which are minorities living within the boundaries of the new independent states, who have taken up armed struggle to determine their own identity. These include: Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh and Chechenia. These are interesting cases because they challenge the territorial boundaries established by the former Soviet Union. In the most dramatic case, that of Chechnya, a compromise has been reached in which the Chechens enjoy de facto independence, but are not formally recognised by other states.

Self-Determination and current International Law.

The right of indigenous peoples to self-determination has gained increased international recognition, since 1993, the United Nations International Year of indigenous peoples. Article 1 of the Draft Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples was finalised by the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations which declared that the right of the indigenous peoples to self-determination be submitted to the U.N. General assembly for ratification.

At the UN’s 50th Anniversary a debate was held on self-determination. It heard that, "there is a strong argument under international law that indigenous peoples have certain rights, such as self-determination and control of their own natural resources. The right to self-determination is stated as an inalienable right and it is not to be exercised to the prejudice of the territorial integrity of states that comply with U.N. Charter. The document does not confer a general right to secession, though does not rule it out in the cases of states that do not comply with U.N. Principles."

The Organisation of African Unity was established around the principle of self-determination for colonised peoples in Africa. However at the same time the OAU founding charter declared that inherited colonial boundaries should be considered sacrosanct. These principles are often in direct contradiction. In practice, the OAU meant that ‘self-determination’ applied only to Africans under colonial or white minority rule, meaning the right to political independence for the amalgam of all peoples living within a colonially-defined territory. In independent Africa, the principle of territorial integrity was paramount, thereby denying the chance of minorities to secede from independent African states. The clearest case of the application of this principle was the OAU’s steadfast refusal to consider the re-unification of the Somali people, split five ways by colonial frontiers, within the Republic of Somalia. Since the independence era (approx 1956-74), all territorial changes have been justified with reference to colonial borders. Eritrea’s 1993 independence from Ethiopia was justified with reference to the colonial border established by the Italo-Ethiopian treaties of 1900-8. The self-declared Republic of Somaliland has justified its claim to independence on the basis of the separate colonial status of British Somaliland up to 1960. For this reason, self-determination for Southern Sudan within the colonial borders (i.e. the border established on 1 January 1956) will be most acceptable within the context of the OAU.

Newly-independent African states also began exercises in ‘nation-building’, namely trying to achieve a sense of unified nationhood out of disparate ethnic groups. In Tanzania for example it became illegal to make a public speech in any language other than Swahili or English, the two national languages. One of the reasons for this stress on ‘nation-building’ was to counter the argument that ethnic or tribal groups represented ‘nations’ that had a legitimate claim to self-determination.

The constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia marks a sharp break with tradition in Africa in that it grants the right to self-determination to all nationalities within the frontiers of the state. This right includes the possibility of secession, but only through certain constitutionally-defined processes. There can be no secession if there is democratic rule at the centre: rather, the right to self-determination is a final guarantee that the federal government will respect the rights of Ethiopia’s constituent nationalities. In practice this is how it has worked: there has been a considerable devolution of power to the regions, which as a result have remained within the federal state. In the international context the most controversial aspect has been the granting of self-determination to domestic nationalities. Within Ethiopia, the practicalities of defining what is a ‘nationality’ and who belongs to it, and insisting that every citizen belongs to one or other ‘nationality’ (and cannot be just ‘Ethiopian’) has been equally controversial. In addition the internal boundaries between the regions have been controversial. The Ethiopian model is attractive to many repressed ethnic groups across Africa, including in Sudan.

The new Ethiopian constitution may be seen as the purest expression yet of the principle of self-determination. But this principle is a long way from being widely accepted as a guiding principle of international law.

Self-determination has become a fundamental right for all people and it is now enshrined in international laws under the Human Rights Charter to which Sudan Government is a signatory. Therefore this right should be accepted by the government and political leaders of Sudan. This principle applies to certain minorities in northern Sudan. Two contrary principles stand in the way. One is the inviolability of colonially-inherited frontiers. The second is the question of whether these minorities have ‘nationhood’ or whether Sudanese ‘nationhood’ is stronger and therefore overriding.

What does the term Self-Determination mean?

After the First and Second World Wars the definition of Self-determination was understood as a political principle which applied to all peoples without distinction, which refers to:

  • A people living as a minority (or even as a majority) group in one state, ruled, however, by another people.
  • People living as minority groups in more than one state without their own statehood.
  • A people living in a minority group in a state but perceiving itself as part of the people of a neighbouring state.
  • A people or nation forced by external power to live in separate states.
  • A people living as a majority (or even as a minority) group within the limits of a territory with a special status under foreign domination. This means that the principle of self-determination of peoples relates to ethnic minorities living together within the limits of a given territory inside a pre-existing state or empire.

Many definitions and interpretations of the term "self-determination" are found in international documents and text books yet it has never been explicitly defined. Its political connotations have precluded this since many states fear the political implications of self-determination. self-determination therefore remains ambiguous and complex issue.

For example, Richard De George in 1991 gave more than one definition for self-determination. In his first definition, the term collective self-determination refers to a claim on the part of any group of people to determine their collective actions. In this sense the right of collective self-determination is a right claimed against a state or other groups for the given group to carry out its chosen activities free from outside interference. The right of self-determination in this sense, for instance, is used to defend the formation and activities of voluntary associations, such as labour unions, religious groups, cooperative societies.

The second definition is that collective self-determination refers to the right of people to choose the form of government under which they live. In this the right is extended to all people individually, or as a whole, or to all or certain groups or subgroups within a given state. If the right extends to all groups, then minority groups would have the right to establish a state against the wishes of the majority.

The third definition self-determination is a purported right of a people of a given state to determine for themselves how they will be governed when they are in conditions that they and others consider to be violations of that right.

Many African states were formed not on the basis of homogeneous peoples but by agreement among colonial powers or by conquest without respect to the indigenous populations. This was the case of Sudan. When Britain colonised Sudan, it brought together all the indigenous communities, each one with its own form of government, and fused them into modern Sudan. Sudan within its modern borders was only created in 1916 with the joining of Darfur, and now encompasses diverse people of various ethnic origin, culture, religion and languages.

The term self-determination is today used frequently in Sudanese political discussions, but with more than one meaning. It is often used simply to refer to the possibility of Southerners choosing independence at the end of the interim period, opting for a separate state with a capital in Juba. The different aspects of social and cultural life in the South make it a strong possibility that Southerners will vote for separation. If they do not, at least there will be no Sharia in the South and Southern culture will be maintained.

Self-determination also means the right of the people to establish their own political system from top to bottom. This cannot happen overnight. It needs far more than a referendum; a genuine democratic process is required. True "self-determination" is to be found in the people themselves taking control of political decisions. The most important thing is not the outcome: it is the process. It must be democratic and participatory.

Self-determination is not simply a referendum that leads to one constitutional solution or another. It is a social contract, an enforceable commitment. It is a political process, the sort of political process that the Nuba have been going through in the SPLA-held areas of South Kordofan for the last few years. A referendum may provide a clear expression of the will of the people of the Nuba Mountains and South Blue Nile. But it depends on the process leading to that referendum, and the choices that it offers.

Who should exercise the right to Self-Determination in Northern Sudan?

This section discusses the four main peoples in northern Sudan who have a serious claim to self-determination. Of these, the Nuba and the people of Southern Blue Nile have a strong case based on culture, history, recent experience of human rights abuses, and a clear articulation of their claims. They have claims to ‘nationhood’ based both on their internal cohesiveness and distinctiveness, and on the fact that they have been denied full rights as members of the Sudanese nation. The details of their claims, and the implications thereof, will be examined in the following section.

1. The Nuba people

The Nuba have the strongest case for self-determination among any of the groups discussed in this paper. The Nuba have a history of suffering from abuse and discrimination. They have sharp cultural, linguistic and other differences with their neighbours. They live in a well-defined territory, although they share large areas of that territory with the Baggara Arabs and there are many other ‘immigrants’ living in the main towns. They speak more than forty different dialects which are grouped into ten main languages. They have rich cultures and traditions involving various forms of social organisations. The Nuba Mountains region was a separate province with its own administration and its capital at Talodi until amalgamated in 1929, during the British rule, into the larger Kordofan. It then remained a ‘closed district’ until shortly before independence in 1956.

Many Nuba have been engaged in armed struggle as part of the SPLM for the past thirteen years. Despite this a distinct democratic culture has emerged in 1990s in the SPLM-administered areas of the Nuba Mountains with its own parliament (the General Assembly), civil administration, judiciary etc. The armed struggle arose because of a long historical record of neglect, marginalisation and abuses against the Nuba. The Nuba have never been first class citizens within Sudan. During the war they have been subject to massive human rights abuses and systematic discrimination, bordering on the genocidal, which have strengthened their determination to achieve respect for their rights on terms they lay down themselves.

A large part of the Nuba claim for self-determination is based on their experience of struggle as part of the SPLM, and the fact they live adjacent to the South. Nuba have fought on all fronts where the SPLA has been active, including the South. If self-determination is to be granted to the South, it cannot in all justice be denied to the Nuba. Watered-down self-determination, such as the right to decide what form of local administration they want, is by and large not acceptable to the Nuba, who fear that any concessions made by a Khartoum government can be rescinded at any time. They argue that after so many years of struggle, any rights that are granted to Southern Sudan must be granted to the Nuba. Difficulties will certainly arise with drawing the boundaries of the ‘Nuba’ area and with the status of the non-Nuba groups (particularly Baggara Arabs) who inhabit the area, but these are not insuperable.

However, most Nuba are staunch unionists: they see their best interest in a secular, democratic united Sudan which awards them considerable regional autonomy. The great majority of Nuba will vote for unity. Only if the South votes for separation will the Nuba be faced with a painful dilemma of whether they prefer to be part of a ‘greater South’ or remain in the North--both of which are second-best options.

2. Southern Blue Nile

The people of Southern Blue Nile, including Ingessena, Funj, Uduk and many others, have a similar history of discrimination and marginalisation to the Nuba. They also have sharp cultural and other differences with their neighbours. Many of them, too have fought with the SPLM. Unlike in the Nuba Mountains, however, an authentic democratic tradition has not yet been able to develop in the the liberated area in South Blue Nile, because of the smaller liberated area and the shorter length of time that it has been under SPLM administration.

If self-determination is granted to the Nuba Mountains, it should logically be extended to the areas of the Southern Blue Nile inhibited by non-Arab peoples, with the same conditions. Similar problems will arise concerning the borders of the area and the status of Arab peoples living in the area.

3. The Beja

The situation of the Beja is similar to the Nuba and South Blue Nile in that they are historically oppressed and marginalised, non-Arab people who have taken up arms to fight against the NIF. But their armed struggle is much more recent than the Nuba’s and, unlike the SPLM, the Beja Congress does not claim the right to self-determination. The Beja were some of the first people to be incorporated into Sudan, centuries ago. They are divided between Sudan and Eritrea, with a small number in Egypt. They are unionists and do not seek either a separate Beja state or union with any neighbouring state.

Historical and political factors therefore make it very unlikely for a strong Beja claim to self-determination to arise. Beja political ambitions are for a united Sudan in which the rights of minorities will be respected. For this reason, in common with the Nuba and South Blue Nile peoples, they will vote for unity and will hope that Southerners also do the same. The Beja position will be weakened if the South separates, and will be further weakened should the Nuba and South Blue Nile people also opt out of the Sudanese state.

4. Darfur

Darfur is a mix of more than forty different peoples, the most numerous being the Fur (about 25% of the population), the Baggara Arabs, the Masalit, the Zaghawa and the Berti. Historically, Darfur was an independent Sultanate until 1916 when it was conquered by the British. Dar Masalit was incorporated by agreement in 1923. On historical grounds therefore, Darfur has a strong right to self-determination, comparable to that of many former Soviet Republics, former Yugoslavia Republics, or the Slovak Republic, which have all been granted independence in the 1990s. Darfur can also claim to be economically neglected and politically marginalised.

However, there is no organised political constituency in Darfur claiming the right of self-determination, only political forces arguing for democracy, human rights and a more devolved form of political authority. Darfur makes common cause with other marginalised peoples, hoping that a coalition of minorities can unite to further their common interests. A federal solution is backed by the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance which now has armed forces fighting in eastern and western Sudan. The SFDA’s position will be weakened should the South vote for independence, and weakened further should the Nuba and South Blue Nile people also vote to opt out of the Sudanese state.

Why should the Nuba and South Blue Nile people demand the right to Self-Determination?

The inhabitants of Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile (SBN) in Northern Sudan are classic examples of peoples who have a strong claim on right to self-determination. They are making this claim on the basis of both long historical factors and recent experiences. This claim cannot be ignored.

The substance of this claim has several facets.

1. Cultural Divergence

The cultural divergence between the African people of the Nuba Mountains and SBN and the riverain Sudanese Arabs hardly needs re-statement. The Nuba and SBN people have a wide range of traditional languages, cultures, religious practices etc that set them apart from the Sudanese Arabs. For the most part they also have markedly different physical features.

2. A Long History of Discrimination

The people of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile have suffered gross injustices over many years and their suffering is likely to continue into the next century without a just peace and comprehensive settlement in Sudan. They suffered profoundly from the policies of persecution, suppression, marginalisation and neglect followed by each government since independence in 1956. All successive central governments, whether civilian or military, have adopted similar polices towards the marginalised peoples, including the Nuba. Seen from the Nuba and Blue Nile perspective, these policies are deliberately intended to impoverish, undermine and create classless citizens without distinguishing culture or identity. In fact, these policies have reduced the Nuba and Southern Blue Nile people to the status of second-class citizens. If the Nuba and SBN people are to be second class citizens, why should they be citizens at all.

The discrimination can be summarised as follows:

  • political and economic marginalisation;
  • ethnic, religious and cultural discrimination;
  • dispossession of lands, traditions and customs;
  • poor educational, political and economic opportunities since independence;

Governments in the post independence era have not pursued policies respectful of ethnic diversity. For many years the riverain culture of central and northern Sudan has been supreme, to the extent of imposing linguistic, cultural and religious norms on other groups. This is attempt to create a single culture, national unity through acculturation, and has led to resistance and ethnic tension between the Sudanese Arab and African Sudanese. The centralisation of power and institutions in the hands of a northern elite has caused much frustration and resentment among the people of the marginalised areas.

Meanwhile, the Nuba Mountains and SBN have become economically crucial areas for the expansion of mechanised farming in Sudan. They are the focal point for rich businessmen, retired army officers and northern elites with favourable political connections who have come to the area, interested solely in gaining possession of its rich natural resources for exploitation. Indigenous farmers often end up as dispossessed labourers on lands which have been turned into massive mechanised agricultural schemes. Nuba land has been confiscated and indigenous land owners thrown out. This is an abuse not only of people and economic rights, but also of the fertile land on which the country depends. The Nuba and others have been victimised despite their adherence to Islam. Their conversion to Islam has not protected them from racial discrimination, gross human exploitation, and loss of their land.

3. Recent violations of the Rights of the Nuba and SBN People

Under successive governments since the outbreak of the current civil war in 1983, and its intensification in the Nuba Mountains and SBN in 1987, serious human rights abuses have been committed against citizens from these areas. These abuses have only confirmed that the Nuba and SBN people are second class citizens or worse under the current political system. The campaign of systematic eradication of Nuba intellectuals and community leaders, and the Jihad campaign of 1992-3 that included mass forcible relocation of Nuba civilian communities, verged on the genocidal. Severe abuses continue, although the government has recently turned to a policy of ‘divide and rule’, setting Nuba and SBN communities against each other. These abuses have been amply documented by numerous human rights organisations and will not be discussed here any further.

An additional point that cannot be overstressed is the extraordinary capacity for resistance of the Nuba. In 1992 and 1993 they faced the largest Sudan Government offensives and the most draconian counter-insurgency, and survived. This survival reflects an indomitable will. It is a political reality that cannot be ignored.

4. Political Processes within the Nuba

The Nuba are no mere victims of abuse. For many years the Nuba Mountains were completely isolated from the rest of Sudan and the outside world by a blockade enforced by the Sudan Government. In this isolation, Nuba communities under the leadership of SPLM Governor Yousif Kuwa Mekki have developed a remarkable and unique experiment in grass-roots democracy. The centrepiece of this is the South Kordofan Advisory Council, a Nuba parliament that meets yearly to decide on the most important matters of policy facing the Nuba. It is the supreme legislative body in the Nuba Mountains, and has the authority to overrule the executive (the Governor). Since the establishment of the Advisory Council in 1992, there has been a wider Nuba political renaissance, including the establishment of a functioning judiciary in the liberated areas, social services such as schools, an indigenous humanitarian agency (the Nub Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society), and other instruments of democratic local government. In addition, the Nuba abroad have been active in solidarity with their brethren inside.

These political processes mean that the most genuinely and practically functioning democratic political process inside Sudan is occurring in the SPLM-administered areas of the Nuba Mountains. In this area, people are able to discuss, debate and express their views in a free and organised manner. It is possible to sound out the collective view of the Nuba people in a way that is almost impossible for any other community in Sudan today. (The people of SBN, who are in many ways very similar, have not yet been able to develop comparable institutions.)

One of the Nuba demands that is repeatedly expressed is for equal and just treatment within Sudan. While the Nuba are overwhelmingly unionist in their sentiments, their suspicions of the abuse of power by successive governments leads them to seek the strongest possible safeguards on their position. That safeguard is the inalienable right to self-determination.

Another implication of the functioning democratic political process within the Nuba is that the exercise of self-determination is already underway. The first part of this paper elucidated the way in which one meaning of self-determination was collective democratic decision-making. Unusually for an oppressed people, the Nuba are in a position to exercise their right of political self-determination, to the extent of articulating their demands and continuing to debate their position and respond to changing circumstances. It is of paramount importance for the Nuba--and for Sudan as a whole--that this current democratic process is allowed to continue and expand. The political maturation of the Nuba Mountains General Assembly will be the practical exercise of self-determination.

Irrespective of any legal opinion of the Nuba’s right to self-determination, in a practical and irreversible way the Nuba people are claiming their rights. This is a political reality that cannot be ignored. It is unfortunate that, up to now, no northern politicians have visited the liberated Nuba Mountains to see this political renaissance for themselves: it is only by witnessing it at first hand that its remarkable achievements and capacities can be recognised for what they are.

5. Self-Determination for the Nuba and SBN: The Position of the NIF and NDA

Two tendencies are prominent in the approaches taken to the Nuba and SBN by the dominant groups of northern Sudan. One tendency is to assume that the old processes of the marginalisation and suppression of the Nuba and SBN are likely to continue. The second is to continue to see the Nuba and SBN within a formalistic or legalistic framework, ignoring the extraordinary democratic political renaissance that has occurred among the Nuba. These two tendencies combine to make at best a rather patronising attitude towards the Nuba and SBN, a belief that these peoples’ future can be negotiated over with little or no input from the people themselves. At worst there is a readiness to trade the future of the Nuba and SBN for the wider interests of political forces.

The Nuba and SBN people fear that their rights have been traded away by both the NIF and NDA. For example both the 1994 Chukudum Agreement and the 1995 Asmara Declaration award the right of self-determination to the people of Southern Sudan only, giving the Nuba and SBN people only the lesser privileges of administrative autonomy. Marginalised people fear that, under whatever government, Northern politicians in power will continue to maintain the same policy of ‘divide and rule, Islamisation and Arabisation’ throughout Sudan. They fear that indigenous cultures will continue to be undermined and suppressed and that any guarantees for autonomy can be easily overruled and reversed. Their experience of ‘democratic’ governments in Sudan’s history has not been positive and they have good historical reasons to fear that a return of the same civilian rulers that controlled Sudan between 1985 and 1989 will not lead to an improvement in their situation. Regional parties have gradually gained strength during civilian rule, but none have yet gained a true share in political power in Khartoum. Minority rights are always jeopardised in a system that relies on majority votes, as Sudan’s history of parliamentary regimes amply shows.

There is also a widespread fear that politicians in both Northern and Southern Sudan are ready to trade the rights of the marginalised in order to achieve peace. Many Nuba and SBN people have fought side by side with the Southerners for fifteen years, in all the theatres of war including the South itself. But they fear that, given the option of self-determination for Southern Sudan only, Southerners will be tempted to take their chance and leave the Nuba and SBN to their fate. Should this happen it will be the worst outcome for the marginalised people. Without their natural allies in the South, they will remain second class citizens in an Islamic-Arabic state if Sudan remains united or in a Northern Sudan if the country is divided. It is unlikely that the people of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile (and indeed the Beja and Darfur people) will lay down their arms until their political rights are properly addressed. There is no logic in recognising Southerner’s right to self-determination while denying it to the Nuba and South Blue Nile people.

Many Nuba and South Blue Nile people would not be happy joining an independent South or Southern confederal state in which borders would be problematic. They would be still less happy to be put together with Southerners in a joint vote on separation or unity. People of Darfur would react similarly to a Western State. Joining the South is not an option for Beja, Darfur and other, northern minorities. The best option for the marginalised people of the North would be a united Sudan with each region enjoying self-government.

The Nuba and other marginalised people of the North demand the right to be first class citizens in their own country and to have same rights as all other Sudanese. Their cultural, social and economic rights must be recognised and past and current injustices redressed. The Nuba would like to develop their democratic experiment and to be able to participate fully and equally in democratic debate in Sudan. This is a minimum that the marginalised people will accept in any peace settlement. The question of the rights of the marginalised peoples in the north will not be resolved as long as northern politicians insist that Sudan is an Arab-Islamic country, ignoring that the majority of the country is not Arab.

Self-Determination: The Ultimate Guarantee on Rights

It is unlikely that either the Nuba or the people of Southern Blue Nile would vote for outright independence, as the resulting states would be small and unviable. It is possible that they would vote to join an independent, separate South. But much more likely is a vote for a union in a united Sudan.

However, the Nuba and the people of Southern Blue Nile will not accept unconditional union. They see self-determination as the guarantee that their rights will be respected by Khartoum; as it is the measure of their equal status in a united country. The Nuba and Southern Blue Nile people will therefore demand a range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. These rights cannot be denied; they are enshrined in international covenants agreed by Sudan. However these people will not put their faith in such treaties alone: they will want stronger guarantees. Holding the right to self-determination, up to and including independence in extreme circumstances, is a strong guarantee that these rights will be respected.

It is important to note that the right to self-determination does not imply merely a one-off chance for voting for independence. It is something more important and enduring. If the electorate votes for unity, then they are also entitled to retain a large measure of control over their political and administrative arrangements. And the right to self-determination endures. Any constitution adopted for Sudan will have to recognise that this right cannot be taken away once it has been granted.

Respecting the rights of the Nuba and Southern Blue Nile people implies political change in Khartoum. Such change will ensure that other northern minorities including displaced people in the outskirts of Khartoum are respected as full citizens. These groups will need to organise to protect their rights. If the Khartoum government refuses to respect these rights, then these groups may also struggle for self-determination. Darfur has a right to self-determination based on history, but it is unlikely to demand to exercise that right in the foreseeable future. But they are fighting to have equal share in political and economic power. The Beja people at present do not demand the right to self-determination but they like people of Darfur demand a share in political and economic power.

The Issue of Territorial Integrity

Granting the right of self-determination to the Nuba and SBN will involve violating the territorial integrity of Northern Sudan and rejecting the colonial boundaries inherited at independence in 1956. This is a move that will be controversial not only within Sudan but more widely in Africa. All African states exist within colonial frontiers, and in some cases--notably Ethiopia and Eritrea--disputes over these borders have led to armed confrontation. Many countries have minorities that would be attracted by the option of secession. African states will be deeply concerned at the precedent set by self-determination for the Nuba and SBN. This would be less of a problem if the Sudan Government were to grant these rights unilaterally (as was the case within Ethiopia for example), but to award these rights under the eye of the international community (e.g. as part of the IGAD peace process) is something more threatening.

But the issue will not go away. Southern Sudan has been awarded the right of self-determination. The Nuba and SBN people are fighting and will continue fighting until they achieve their rights. Their struggle has been waged without external support and if any in the international community believe that it can be halted by international pressure, they are mistaken. Moreover, as this paper has argued, the Nuba and SBN people warrant the right of self-determination on all grounds.

The territorial integrity of Sudan has one important safeguard: the Nuba and SBN people are unionists by preference. But this unity cannot be legislated or imposed: it can only be decided democratically. Hence, while self-determination is an essential guarantee for the Nuba and SBN people, secession is a last resort, to be exercised only when all other options have failed. In these circumstances, the principle of self-determination has no conflict with that of territorial integrity and the inviolability of colonial borders.


The question of the right of self-determination for the marginalised peoples of northern Sudan has arisen because:

  1. Sudan has never managed to achieve ‘unity in diversity’, that is a political culture free from racial and cultural discrimination;
  2. Southern Sudan has a clear and uncontestable right to Self-Determination, and once this right has been acknowledged, by implication and justice it cannot be denied to similar people who have fought alongside the Southerners for similar aims, who live in the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

Once it has been raised, the issue of self-determination for the Nuba and SBN will not go away. These peoples are now sufficiently well-organised, and have resisted so much for so long, that they will continue to press their claims. But their overriding aim is equal treatment in a united multi-cultural Sudan, i.e. ‘unity in diversity’. If this aim is achieved, then the question of self-determination will be resolved in favour of unity, and the possibility of secession will not arise. Unity in diversity can only be achieved if:

  1. The rights of the marginalised people of the Northern Sudan are respected.
  2. There is political power sharing, economic development and more equitable distribution of wealth.
  3. Decentralisation of power and positive involvement of marginalised in running their own affairs.
  4. The question whether the Sudan is an Arab or African country is resolved once and for all, in favour of a recognition of Sudan’s African character.
  5. The international community exerts pressure on the Transitional Government to abandon discredited old approaches and find a genuine settlement to the problems of Sudan.

However, the historical experiences of the Nuba and Southern Blue Nile people with Khartoum governments of whatever shade, civilian and military, has been so uniformly negative that they will not be content with mere promises, legislation or administrative formulae. A much stronger guarantee that their collective rights will be respected is needed.

Given the fact that Southern Sudan has been granted the right of self-determination, the Nuba and SBN people will settle for nothing less themselves as their guarantee. It follows that the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile should be awarded the right of self-determination. This not only entails a referendum for the Nuba and SBN people on the political futures of their areas, but an enduring right to determine their political futures up to and including independence should they demand it at a future date. If these rights are awarded, then there is a genuine possibility of Sudan achieving peace and unity