Land Alienation and Genocide in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan

The current situation of indigenous peoples in the Sudan (and probably elsewhere) is the result of the independent state's adoption of land and other policies identical to those introduced by colonialists more than a century ago. The Sudanese state has unwittingly maintained some colonial coercive institutions and brutally deployed them against its indigenous peoples. In the process, the relationship between Sudan's mainstream society and the indigenous peoples has developed in a manner identical to that which existed during the colonial period between colonizer and the colonized (albeit with minute differences).

The case of the Nuba peoples typifies the most common features of indigenous people's struggle to reclaim their land and resources that have been under sustained attack by the Sudanese state and its Muslim Arabic-speaking allies. Indigenous struggles in rural Sudan, (except the war situation in Southern Sudan), are often hidden by the more visible struggles of other oppressed Sudanese who operate within a politically vocal urban milieu.

Nuba political aspirations are influenced by the structural pattern of political and economic dominance exercized against them by the Sudanese state. The state allied itself with and used the dominant ethnic groups to brutally pacify Nuba resistance and struggles. By using these dominant ethnic groups, the Sudanese state created tribal militias entrusted to oppress the Nuba and other indigenous peoples. The Sudanese state has also rewarded the dominant ethnic groups which supported its policies and military campaigns in kind, i.e. Nuba land and natural resources. Land alienation, including forcible land evictions and joint military raids by the Sudanese army and the tribal militia became the most prominent form of state engagement in the Nuba Mountains.

Who Are The Nuba Peoples?

The Nuba claim that they are the indigenous inhabitants of the Nuba Mountains region which occupies the central part of South Kordofan Province, Kordofan State (or Region prior to 1991) in Sudan. According to the 1955 population census, the Nuba represent about 6% (572,935) of the total population of the Sudan. With a growth rate of 2% to 2.8% per annum, modest estimates and population simulation results put the total number of the Nuba today at approximately 1.615 million. (These figures are consistent with a proportion of 5-6% of the total population of the Sudan-about 30 million -- as published by the government in 1993.) Although the Nuba represent about 70% of the total population in the Nuba Mountains, they constitute a political minority due to their social and economic marginalization.

The Nuba are indeed the indigenous peoples of the Nuba Mountains; they have the strongest ties to their lands and have lived in this region since or before colonization. The Nuba are now dominated by other groups with markedly different cultures. Like other indigenous peoples, the Nuba were not incorporated into Sudanese's mainstream political culture. Furthermore, the Nuba do not accept Islam as their religious ideology or `Arabism' as their racial ideology. These two notions of exclusion are often used by the state to justify the oppression and appropriation of Nuba lands and natural resources.

Like other indigenous societies, Nuba culture is diverse -- ethnically, culturally, religiously (animists, Muslims, and Christians), politically (with various ethnic and cultural affiliations) and economically. Although the Nuba have marked linguistic and cultural differences among themselves, they use their collective name, `Nuba' to distinguish themselves from the Baggara and Jellaba. The Baggara and Jellaba are Arabic-speaking Muslims who migrated to the Nuba Mountains, in several waves since the turn of the 17th century, for slave raiding and trade. There is also a large number of Fellata (West Africans) who migrated to the Nuba Mountains in search for work as agricultural laborers in the cotton fields during the 1920s and as a result of subsequent droughts in the West African Sahel. There were continuous waves of migration from central Sudan to the Nuba Mountains and hence, many eastern Nuba have converted to Islam.

The Baggara and the Jellaba have hardly taken side with the Nuba in their struggle against the colonial or postcolonial state. As immigrant groups and allies with the Sudanese state, their interests are well rewarded in return for their political loyalty. Baggara and Jellaba were instruments of the colonial "divide and rule policies" to pacify the Nuba and bring them under colonial control. When the colonialists departed, they were used by the post-colonial state to oppress the Nuba peoples.

State-Sponsored Appropriation of Nubaland

Even though the present crisis in the Nuba Mountains is politically-driven, the real factors underlying the BaggaraNuba-Jellaba conflict have originated in land. From their earlier period of settlement in the Nuba Mountains, the Jellaba took interest in agriculture and became cotton growers, first by borrowing Nuba land and later, by purchasing the most fertile lands normally consist of black cotton soils located at a distant from the villages. Most of the Nuba still live on the hills (as they did in the past in order to protect themselves against slave raiding) and rarely venture to the distant, but fertile plain. The Nuba were infuriated and began to show signs of revolt during the mid-1960s when the Jellaba took control over large portions of their cultivable lands.

Jellaba appropriation of Nuba cultivable land continued well into 1968 when the Mechanised Farming Corporation (MFC) began to implement large-scale mechanized schemes privately owned by wealthy Jellaba and a few Baggara oxservicemen and civil servants. Most of the schemes were initially distributed in Habilla, and by 1984 they covered most of the clay plains in the Nuba Mountains. Nuba resistance to the state's appropriation of their land to mainly Jellaba and Baggara has increased, especially since they discovered that they are losing land at an accelerated rate.

Jellaba appropriation of Nuba land also enraged the Baggara. The war between the government troops, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Missinya militia in southern Sudan was intensifying and the Baggara found themselves losing their migratory routes, water sources, and traditional farms to the Jellaba in the central parts of the Nuba Mountains. The war in Southern Sudan (since 1983) also meant that the Baggara were being continuously squeezed between the semi-desert in the north, the large-scale mechanized schemes in the center, and the war in the South.

Continuous allocation of Nuba agricultural lands to the Jellaba agitated the Baggara who had historically supported the Mahdi family and its political wing, the Umma (Nation) Party Under the leadership of Sadig El Mahdi (the grandson of the Madi, the founder of the Madia movement which lasted from 1881 to 1898), the Umma Party pledged support to the creation of Baggara militia as one way of compensating them (with Nuba agricultural lands) for not being favored by the Jellaba dominated Mechanized Farming Cooperation. These militias facilitate Baggara forcible seizure of Nuba agricultural lands, and act as a buffer zone to prevent SPLA forces from reaching the North.

The Baggara strategy was to take advantage of the government's precarious position and its need for soldiers to support its war campaign in the South, and to ally themselves with the Sudanese army They also aimed to weaken the Nuba resolve to regain their lands and finally, make up for their loss of land already incurred during the war. Creating the Baggara tribal militias was one of the practical steps taken by the Sudan government to execute this strategy, which devastated Nuba lives and shattered Nuba hopes for a peaceful coexistence within Sudan's present unjust political structures and institutions.

Expeditions for Land and Cattle

In 1989, the Popular Defense Forces Act was decreed by the Sudan government which officially recognized the Baggara and other militia forces as paramilitary forces acting on behalf of the state and in cooperation with the national army. Also, many supporters of the Nuba Mountains General Union and the Sudan National Party were arrested during this period. Members of both organizations were accused by the security forces as representing a "fifth column" or for sympathizing with SPLA activities in the Nuba Mountains. By November 1989, the combined forces Of the Sudanese army and the Baggara Militia attacked many Nuba villages including Kamda, Taroji, Tulushi and Tima. More than a 100 people were killed and several hundred more were detained, tortured, or imprisoned.

Between 1990 and 1991, the Baggara militia sustained their attacks on the Nuba peoples in Koaleb, Tira, Shat, Miri Barah, Lima, Otoro, the Moro and Heiban. The call for jihad or a crusade into the Nuba Mountains came at the end of 1990 and some of the villages which were attacked in 1987, 1988, and 1989 were attacked again to inflict the maximum damage, and hence destroy peoples' capacity to sustain themselves or resist imposed Islamization.

Between April and May, 1992, Sudan government forces, supported by the Baggara militia, attacked Tulushi a second time for no reason other than the fact that they anticipated SPLA attack (which never occurred). The brutality with which the Popular Defense Forces reacted was unparalleled. Heavy artillery was used, people's property and granaries were destroyed, and about 350 people were killed or injured. By 1993, most of the Nuba Mountains were subdued and their resistance pacified by heavily-handed military campaigns supported by the Popular Defense Forces.

Impoverished Baggara joined the Popular Defense Forces only to lay their hands on guns and ammunition provided freely by the state. By 1997, the Popular Defense Forces became more powerful than the war-weary official Sudan Armed Forces and began to carry out unilateral campaigns on Nuba villages and animal camps. Reports emerging from the Nuba Mountains revealed that thousands of Nuba peoples have been forcibly deported from their villages to newly established `peace camps' (actually concentration camps). Young able-bodied men were taken into slavery where they are forced to work on the very farms appropriated from their parents. There were also credible, detailed reports about Nuba cattle being sold as far away Kosti and Doeim on the White Nile (about 700 km. from the southern Nuba).

This persecution of the Nuba illustrates the colonial nature of the Sudanese state against indigenous peoples. Exercising political and military coercion to control indigenous peoples is the result of specific historical processes and expresses itself socially, economically, culturally and politically. There are discernible similarities between the origins of dominance exercised by the colonists against their subjects and those exercised by the Sudanese state against its indigenous peoples. Hence, the term `internal colonialism' is coined to elucidate the theories behind this discourse and its political ramifications. The Sudanese state seems to have a very short political memory as they began to deploy similar (and at times more brutal), coercion against their own indigenous peoples so soon after the colonialists left. Internal colonialism has employed a similar ideology to external colonialists in order to justify its oppression against the Nuba peoples and deny them their basic human rights, including some human rights which "accidentally" co-existed with external colonialism. The call for jihad against the Nuba for their land and natural resources has been propagated by the National Islamic Front (NIF) and the government in the Sudan. There is no reason to believe that the jihad in the Nuba Mountains is waged merely for converting Nuba to Islam -- as many think -- since many Muslim Nuba have been killed and Nuba mosques have been destroyed.

I have argued elsewhere that:

"...the emerging post-colonial African states have unwittingly reinforced the political values which they inherited from the colonial state apparatus...The cultural lag between the new political elite and the indigenous peoples was ushered by power structures devoid of legitimacy or popular engagement...the present genocide and ethnocide against indigenous peoples is a continuation of the colonial policies by neo-colonialists who set out to complete the unaccomplished colonial legacy basing their claim yet again on protection and development."

Hence, the Nuba share at least two predicaments with indigenous peoples the world-over: state-sponsored policies assist in the systematic appropriation of their land and natural resources by colonists, capital, and private business interests. Also, their human rights are denied and political persecution, ethnocide, and genocide continue even after European colonialism has ended.


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