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Sudan and South Sudan: Battle in the Borderlands

Conflict has returned to the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, bringing with it displacement, hunger and further suffering.
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The Nuba Mountains. Photograph by Rita Willaert.

Seven years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) aimed to put an end to the long wars that impoverished Sudan for 50 years, violence is once more omnipresent in the regions that together used to form Africa’s biggest state.

The CPA of 2005 never got to grips with the problems in the region of Darfur, failed to ensure democratic transformation within the military-Islamist government in Khartoum, and did little to address the kinds of economic disparities that have long been recognised as the root causes of endemic war.

And while South Sudan’s secession on 9 July 2011 occurred more smoothly than many had expected, its aftermath has been bloody with over half a million people displaced on both sides of the still to be demarcated border.

Ghosts of the past

The reappearance of large-scale conflict has been particularly vicious in the borderlands of Sudan and South Sudan, such as in the regions of Blue Nile and around the Nuba Mountains in the region of Southern Kordofan.

The Blue Nile region and the Nuba Mountains are socio-cultural melting pots and acquired a special status in the CPA, not least because during Sudan’s bloodiest war (1983-2005) they were the sites of some of the most horrific violence.

Local communities fell victim to large-scale expropriation of land for mechanised farming by government cronies who were to produce food crops for the Middle East. When locals joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in protest, Khartoum-backed militias were given carte blanche to burn villages, rape women and, perhaps most shockingly, enslave children.

The conflicts worsened when, in 1989, Hassan Al-Turabi rose to power in Khartoum following a coup. His “Al-Ingaz” (Salvation) regime tried to turn Blue Nile into a model province for Islamisation and development while genocidal violence was unleashed in the Nuba Mountains.

Aerial bombardments by the army and raiding by the Popular Defence Forces intended to depopulate those areas unwilling to submit to the new “civilisation” envisioned by Al-Turabi: this included destroying the mosques of “apostate” Muslims, forcible conversions to Islam and the withholding of food to starve civilians into submission.

The SPLA/M rebels enjoyed a high degree of local support, but they too were guilty of war crimes, most infamously the use of international aid for their military campaign and the use of child soldiers.

The failure of power sharing

The logic of power-sharing in the CPA was replicated in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains to tackle these long-lasting conflicts. Al-Ingaz and the SPLA/M signed deals through which the governor belonged to one party but his deputy would hail from the other side, switching positions halfway into a 5-year mandate.

Former orchestrator of the counter-insurgency in the Nuba Mountains, Ahmed Haroon (indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in Darfur) shared office with Abdelaziz Al-Hillu, the SPLA/M’s senior Nuba official; in Blue Nile, the SPLA/M military commander Malik Agar accepted Ahmed Koromino, a radical Islamist, as his deputy. For 6 years the peace held, leading analysts to voice optimism about old enemies reconciling.

Yet while these partnerships enabled daily co-existence, they did not resolve the CPA provision of “Popular Consultation” that was supposed to tackle the root causes of political, economic and socio-cultural marginalisation of Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. While in the eyes of SPLA/M supporters the solution was transition to a form of self-rule, Al-Ingaz saw more autonomy as out of the question, instead prioritising Khartoum-led service delivery.

Popular Consultation further polarised an increasingly tense local situation in Blue Nile in late 2010-early 2011, while regional elections in South Kordofan spiralled out of hand as Haroon narrowly beat his deputy governor.

With the independence of South Sudan in sight, President Omar Al-Bashir ordered the disarmament of Northern SPLA/M soldiers: Khartoum would not tolerate any parallel armies on its territory, seeking to reassert itself or still work for regime change. The response was predictable: SPLA/M-North accused Al-Ingaz of abandoning the CPA and took to the hills, starting a guerrilla campaign in the Nuba Mountains in April and Blue Nile by August 2011.

War of attrition

As many of the local-regional forces underpinning war resurfaced around South Sudanese independence, violence in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains again became embroiled in a larger confrontation fought through proxies.

While independent South Sudan has been accused of supplying weapons to its northern brothers-in-arms (an issue Barack Obama raised with President Salva Kiir at the UN last September), Khartoum retaliated by funding rebel groups in the south, mainly in the border states of Unity and Upper Nile, not coincidentally the main oil-producing areas.

The inter-locking of local and (inter)national drivers of conflict have spawned a humanitarian emergency. The eerie echoes in the fighting today of the horrors of war, famine and displacement of the 1980s and 1990s have led UN officials to sound the alarm bell about alarmingly high malnutrition levels. But outsiders are struggling to get access to the war zones and some have called on the US government to establish protected areas for humanitarian assistance given Khartoum’s refusal to allow international organisations into the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions.

Such an operation would be logistically complex and politically hazardous. But the biggest problem remains that it would not address the fundamental problem fuelling the proxy conflicts. Amidst internal contestation and economic crises faced by both Al-Ingaz in Khartoum and the SPLA/M in Juba, the protagonists are determined to wage a war of attrition in the belief that the enemy will collapse first.

This rationale, evident from extensive interviews with both sides, also explains the stalled negotiations in Addis Ababa on “post-referendum arrangements” like distributing oil revenues, dividing the share of the Nile waters and drawing the border. Al-Ingaz representatives are reluctant to concede because they feel they have the upper hand militarily and expect the ethno-regional tensions inside South Sudan to soon overwhelm President Kiir. At the same time, the SPLA/M leadership hopes that a popular intifada in Khartoum could succeed tomorrow.

The biggest threat for Al-Ingaz, however, is probably internal: the Islamist wing of the regime and many of the more moderate voices inside the regime are profoundly disillusioned with the lack of political liberalisation and economic reform despite the South’s secession and the Arab Spring. They opposed militarisation in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains knowing it would strengthen the security hardliners around Al-Bashir, and make the cause of much-needed reforms even harder. Khartoum is awash with rumours of a possibly devastating split in the military-Islamist front that has ruled for 23 years.

Thus the situation in both regions today – as well as the impasse between North and South more generally – provides little reason to be optimistic.

Both Al-Ingaz and the SPLA/M believe that they need to push just a bit harder for all-out victory, even as the humanitarian consequences of their war of attrition become ever graver. Yet, as so often with bellicose politicians playing chess games, prolonged proxy conflict and open war are more likely than a swift, unilateral victory. The Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains are once paying the price.

Correction 19/03/2011: The third paragraph of the section "Ghosts of the past" previously had the possessive "their" before "women". This has now been removed. We apologise for our oversight and the implications of male Nuba ownership of Nuba women, denying these women agency and humanity. We are grateful to a reader's comment for pointing this out.

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Is it really appropriate for your writers to be using phrases like "rape their women"? in 2012?

Dear Paz,No it is not appropriate. We apologise for the phrasing of that section, which implied male ownership of women. This has now been corrected with a statement placed at the bottom of the article. Thank you very much for pointing out this terrible error.With thanks,James Schneider (Editor)

I of course welcome this correction. However, what I was really getting at was not just the problem of implying ownership of Nuba women by Nuba men, but that as a website focusing on African affairs, that the phrase was insensitive to the different kinds of oppression experienced by Black women, not just women in general.  Even for a sharp-eyed reader, casual sexism is sadly common enough to pass over without comment.  However, in this context, a phrase like "their women" implies so much more - it dehumanizes not only the Nuba women but the whole Nuba group.  It rings of Colonialist stereotyping  (assumption of "primitive" or "brutish" societal structures, sexual practices and so on).  Can you imagine this phrase being applied to groups traditionally understood as "white"? Not so easily.  Now I don't mean to pick at minor points just for the sake of it.  As your writers point out in several articles, Sudan has suffered from Western stereotyping and misunderstandings in tangible ways.   The use of that single word "their" speaks volumes about the work that is still to be done towards getting past such patterns of thought.