The Nubas are a polyglot of peoples, with sizeable numbers of animists, Christians and Muslims.
The history of negotiations between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has made clear that delineating the border between north and south Sudan is contentious, and the talks that led to the signing of the Machakos Protocol in July 2002 again confirmed this.

The difficulty is particularly over whether the Nuba Mountains region of Southern Kordofan, southern Blue Nile (sometimes known as the Funj territory or, mistakenly, the Ingessena Hills) and Abyei - all of which have been part of north Sudan for administrative purposes since independence in 1956 - can be considered part of the south for the purposes of negotiations since groups based in these areas (or at least the two former ones) have launched insurrections under the SPLM/A, according to John Young, an expert on the Sudanese peace process

[LINK TO MAPS OF THESE TERRITORIES]

While these areas have suffered from political and economic under-development, and their people generally consider themselves Africans like southerners and not Arabs like the northerners, many - and, in some cases, the majority - are Muslims with strong ties to the north.

The Nubas are a mixture of peoples, with sizeable numbers of animists, Christians and Muslims. Southern Blue Nile also includes a wide array of peoples, but the majority are Muslims and Arabic-speakers.

Abyei is inhabited primarily by people of the Dinka tribe, who otherwise live in the south. During the colonial period, their paramount chief decided that the territory would become part of the northern province of Kordofan rather than Bahr al-Ghazal because he saw economic and political benefits to be had from such a linkage.

In earlier rounds of negotiations and in the Khartoum Agreement of 1997, the government of Sudan asserted that the problem of Abyei would be resolved at a conference to be held during an interim period of government, says Young.

The SPLM/A did not propose any means to determine the sentiments of the people and, instead, held that the north-south boundary be shifted to the north so that Abyei could be accommodated in the south, Young adds.

The umbrella National Democratic Alliance (NDA) - comprising northern opposition groups for the most part, but of which the SPLM/A is also a member - took a different position in the Asmara Declaration of 1995, holding that a referendum should take place in Abyei to gauge whether the inhabitants wanted to be part of the north or the south.

The approaches by Khartoum and the SPLM/A to the Nuba Mountains region and southern Blue Nile closely parallel their positions on Abyei. Thus, the SPLM/A argues that the territories are part of the south and the government authorities in Khartoum hold the contrary position.

Young says that the NDA strongly supports the unity of Sudan and does not automatically support the right of the people of Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile to self-determination but, in the Asmara Declaration, it did urge that the alleged injustices of the people be addressed.

It also called for a referendum "to ascertain their views on their political and administrative future", though without making clear whether the referendum would determine if the people wanted statehood within a federal system, administrative autonomy, or some other arrangement.

The NDA's approach to the matter of the border territories was to assume that there would be a united Sudan based on political inclusion and the separation of religion and state, John Young reports.

According to Young, none of the major political forces in Sudan have advocated independence for these territories.

At peace talks held at Lake Bogoria, Kenya, from 21 September to 4 October 2000, under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediating Sudan Secretariat appreciated that, since the territories were not in south Sudan at the time of independence and since the IGAD peace process was restricted to south Sudan, it did not have the authority to consider the issue itself.

However, the secretariat insisted that the matter must be addressed and concluded that, since the people in these territories had raised arms alongside the SPLM/A, a separate mediation should be established to resolve the conflict.

Young, who was present at Bogoria, says this position was opposed by the Khartoum government, which questioned IGAD's intervention in this matter as well as the right of the SPLM/A to claim to represent peoples whom, it said, "are northerners and predominantly Muslims."

The SPLM/A, meanwhile, held that the IGAD mediation involved "the sum total of their [government- and SPLM/A-controlled] respective parts", and that the IGAD talks should, therefore, take up the issue of southern Blue Nile, Abyei and Southern Kordofan in negotiations.

The rebel movement also decided that it would include members from these areas on its negotiating team, appointing Malik Agar, the SPLM/A Regional Secretary from southern Blue Nile, and Abdel Aziz, his counterpart from the Nuba Mountains, and both continued to serve on SPLM/A’s negotiating teams.

Partly as a result of these differing positions, little progress was made on this issue at the Lake Bogoria talks in September-October 2000. Agreeing on the status of regions bordering north and south is also proving difficult at Machakos, according to observers.