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Review: Land, Governance, Conflict & the Nuba of Sudan

Guma Kunda Komey's book rejects simplistic interpretations of Sudanese conflict, by focusing on land as a point of contention.
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Analyses of the violence in Abyei and South Kordofan since June 5 have tended to fall into two camps. Either it is the endnote of the struggle between North and South, a divorced couple arguing over the children, or it is another bout of ethnic cleansing by Khartoum, which risks turning into Darfur all over again. Both interpretations are flawed. Denunciations of the Bashir regime are sometimes valid, but usually superficial and uninformed. They often cover a lack of understanding about the complex roots of the conflict, which is reduced to the work of a genocidal regime and a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. To reduce the conflict in the Nuba Mountains to an appendix in the political struggle between Khartoum and Juba, meanwhile, denies the conflict its own logic.

Published last year, Land, Governance, Conflict & the Nuba of Sudan by Guma Kunda Komey is a well-timed and refreshing book. Komey avoids the above clichés and generalisations, providing a detailed background of the conflict in the Nuba Mountains with a focus on the importance of land. The overall argument is that “land issues provoke, sustain, or even escalate different types and levels of conflict in the Sudan’s unfolding and violent transformation.”

“Land is the central issue in Sudan”

Elrayah Hammad, a member of Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad (NMSA) in London, agrees with this focus, claiming that “land is the central issue in Sudan.” News reports about Sudan and South Sudan often concern cattle raids and conflicts over grazing and water rights: issues which arise from land and its uses. “Land grabs” have also been reported, especially those by other Arab states and South Korea. Oil, meanwhile, has heightened competition for land and, as Komey outlines, is connected to forced mass displacement.

The importance of land in rural Africa has already been extensively researched. What makes this account different is that rather than claiming land rights as the source of all conflicts, the issues around land are used to explore the complexity and multi-dimensional nature of the conflict.

“The land question” is not merely a result of scarcity of land (indeed, this is rejected as all resource disputes are essentially political in nature), nor of the competing claims to land – the nomadic vs. sedentary debates. Instead, the account focuses on the governance of land disputes. They are seen as the result of the state’s tendency to exclude its population from their rights and needs, and the failure to establish a viable national identity. The national crisis facing Sudan is seen as a “question of fair representation and participation of sub-national communities in peripheral regions in the formation of national identity.”

Legacy of marginalisation

While the Sudanese state is unflinchingly described as having “no record of good governance” and its exclusionary tendencies are outlined, the narrative goes deeper than the usual criticism of Bashir’s administration. State failure is traced back to colonial rule, which concentrated power in the hands of a narrow elite in Khartoum and the surrounding areas. The importance of the colonial legacy of regional disparity in Sudan is often omitted in a rush to highlight the undoubtedly unsavoury aspects of the government in Khartoum. The post-colonial state consolidated rather than challenged this legacy, fostering more inequality and the marginalisation of communities like the Nuba.

In terms of land policy, the colonial administration confined the process of land settlement and registration to the northern and central regions. This shaped the land tenure system such that in other areas of the postcolonial state land remained unregistered and communally owned through customary laws and practices. This land has been subject to a systematic practice of land grabbing, further marginalising these peripheral areas and impoverishing local communities. Mechanised rain-fed farming since the 1960s, and oil explorations since the 1990s have been especially important incidents.

Questions of belonging

Komey also ties land disputes elegantly into “identity politics”. The failure to establish a viable national identity has dominated Sudan’s politics, and Komey describes a trend of articulating communal identity as a claim to land rights. As endangered communities, the Nuba soon activated, politicised and deployed the notion of indigenous identity. This was strongly tied to their communal land. This “identity politics” leads the Baqqara to fear that they are likely to be excluded. Komey traces the transformation from a relatively peaceful and symbiotic relationship between the sedentary Nuba and the nomadic Baqqara into an antagonism. The central government armed the Baqqara, enlisting them in pro-government militia forces against the SPLA/M.

Implications of the CPA

The CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) marked the end of the civil war between Sudan and the SPLA/M. The agreement, which paved the way for the South’s secession, was viewed internationally as a success, albeit a partial one. In the Nuba mountains, the CPA fell far short of expectations. It failed to address the root causes of their political and armed struggle, which was land. The negotiations left South Sudan with a referendum on independence, while the Nuba were only granted a “popular consultation” and the establishment of a State Land Commission to “to review existing land leases and contracts and examine the criteria for the present, land allocations and recommend to the State authority the introduction of such necessary changes, including restitution of land rights or compensation.” The State Land Commission was repeatedly delayed, and never formed. Thus, alongside the CPA’s failure to meet expectations, “questions of communal land, cultural identity and political destiny arose with new emphases.” Even the successes of the CPA, which allowed a number of displaced people to return to the Nuba Mountains, actually heightened the importance of land issues.

Recent events

Given recent events, it is unfortunate that Komey’s book ends with an analysis of the CPA. The conflict is still very much alive. The secession of the South will inevitably have major effects on the development of conflict in the region: northern nomadic groups seem increasingly likely to use the Nuba Mountains, as they cannot access further South. The intensity of the struggle has changed, with a growing belief, based on a long legacy of marginalisation, that what the Nuba face in Sudan is “cultural annihilation” – and alienation from their land. The discovery of oil, gold and other valuable minerals in the Nuba Mountains has increased conflict over their land rights.

While Komey’s insights on more recent developments in the Nuba Mountains would be welcome, his book is a refreshing look at the complex history of the conflict through the lens of land. It is a harder read than most simplistic narratives of Sudan, but a great deal more valuable.

Guma Kunda Komey's Land, Governance, Conflict & the Nuba of Sudan is published in hardback by James Currey.

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