Long overshadowed by conflict in Darfur and a recent outbreak of fighting in oil-rich Abyei, Southern Kordofan is likely to be the next flashpoint in Sudan, said a new report by a Geneva-based independent research project.
The Nuba Mountains region in the central Sudan's South Kordofan State is home to a minority of Arab nomads and a majority of settled communities of various indigenous African Nuba tribes. It lies near the contested north-south border and has long been embroiled in the north-south civil war that consumed Sudan for close to two decades, until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.
"The Nuba Mountains region is a microcosm of the tensions surrounding CPA implementation. Many local residents feel ignored - with good reason - by the international community and neglected by the UN system," said the August 2008 Small Arms Survey report, The Drift back to War. "Growing ethnic insecurity in the region has the potential to deteriorate significantly over the coming months and needs urgent attention to prevent it from spiralling out of control."
While most of the world's attention has been focused on the International Criminal Court's recent accusations of genocide against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for his role in Darfur's killings, as well as a firefight between northern and southern armies in Abyei town that forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee, many analysts in Sudan have long been warning that tensions in South Kordofan should not be ignored.
"With the sole exception of Abyei, Kordofan suffers an attention deficit," Alex de Waal, of the Social Science Research Council in New York, wrote this month on his blog, Making Sense of Darfur. "The dangers of renewed violent conflict and humanitarian crisis in Kordofan have been evident ever since the signing of the CPA."
While officially considered part of northern Sudan, many Nuba sided with the southern rebels during Sudan's civil war, having long felt marginalised by the Arab government in Khartoum. The region, labelled one of three highly charged "transitional areas" in the peace agreement, has received "few tangible benefits from the CPA", the Small Arms Survey said, unlike its neighbour Abyei, which gets to vote in a 2011 referendum on whether to join Southern Sudan or remain as part of the north.
"Rather than socio-economic integration and political reconciliation, lubricated by a development efforts and a peace dividend, South Kordofan is the locus of an armed standoff with many fearing a return to war," de Waal wrote.
|SPLM/A Commander, Ismail Khamis Jelabi, talks to reporters at Kawdah, Nuba Mountains|
The Small Arms Survey report said both sides to the conflict are actively violating the peace agreement in Southern Kordofan, including the recruitment and training of members of armed groups.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has gained 1,500 new recruits in the last six months in "an advance guard for a future war". The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which are supposed to reduce deployment to pre-war levels, have instead increased their units in recent months. The report said the government-sponsored Popular Defence Forces in the area – estimated at as high as 20,000 – are also arming Arabs. Weapons are being sent from Khartoum and state capital Kadugli to SAF garrisons at night, and are then distributed to militias. It listed nine different armed elements active in the Nuba Mountains.
"The potential for armed group activity is fuelled by the large numbers of ex-combatants, the near absence of a comprehensive reintegration programme since organised hostilities ended in 2005," the Small Arms Survey said.
According to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) Unit of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), the SAF has registered 12,000 ex-combatants for demobilisation in Southern Kordofan, while the SPLA has listed 3,000.
While behind schedule, the withdrawal of northern and southern armies to their respective sides of the border was finally completed in January 2008, the report said, although the SPLA withdrawal was unorganised and some soldiers dropped out en route from the area. The CPA-mandated Joint Integrated Units, which deployed to the area, are not integrated at all, the report added.
"Without the required co-location in training centres, the former enemies have separate chains of command, training, armaments, and barracks...Administration of government and SPLM-controlled areas remains separate. Two local government systems currently operate in parallel, with separate policies for education (two languages, two systems), judicial and security systems, and local government structures. Passing from one area to the other involves passing through armed checkpoints."
Overly alarmist tone?
But some say recent progress in the area stands in contrast to this "alarmist" tone.
"If you look at the new developments in the area, there is a very big gap between what the report is saying and what is also taking place," Nanne op 't Ende, author of www.nubamountains.com and the book Proud to be Nuba, told IRIN. "I don't think the report's findings have become invalid... [but] there has been a very big breakthrough in terms of integration of separate administrations and police forces."
Research for the report was conducted in March and April. But in early August, op 't Ende said, members of both the northern ruling National Congress Party and the southern ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) met for a ceremony in the Nuba Mountains marking the beginning of long-awaited integration. A newly formed Civil Service Integration Committee has interviewed SPLM candidates for integration into the state civil service and hundreds of SPLM police officers have begun training for the unified state police force, he said.
"I would be the last person to say there are no problems in South Kordofan. That would be nonsense," op 't Ende said. "[But] I think this is a huge step forward and I am amazed that there is hardly any attention for this fact... I don't think war will be as inevitable as people have been saying."
The Small Arms Survey report said clashes over land have been common and increasingly ethnic – resulting in more than 20 deaths this year alone. The report detailed attacks by well-organised Arab militias with G3 rifles and Kalashnikovs on non-Arabs, including the rape and mutilation of Nuba women.
"UNMIS has done little to calm tensions, in contrast to the active efforts of the much smaller number of unarmed ceasefire monitors, the Joint Military Commission (JMC), which were present from 2002–05... Military observers in the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) peacekeeping force are insufficiently resourced and supported; there are no permanent UN civil affairs and human rights officers; and international NGOs and other independent observers are few."
Kouider Zerrouk, UNMIS deputy spokesperson, told IRIN the report's findings were "far from the reality on the ground", adding the mission has always had human rights and civil affairs officers in the area and that UNMIS and JMC had completely different mandates.
Basil Massey, acting chief of the UNMIS DDR unit said there has been progress towards demobilisation. Last week, both northern and southern DDR commissions returned from a joint mission to the transitional areas, including Southern Kordofan, and will soon begin a pilot DDR project in either Southern Kordofan or Blue Nile State.
"I don't think that UNMIS has been weak or has failed in implementing its part [of DDR]," Massey said. "There are a lot of preparatory things we had to have in place before we could start." He said the government first needed to draft a strategic policy, reintegration policy and implementation modality for the three transitional areas. Without them, "It would have been a disaster. All these prerequisites have [now] been met and that is why we are moving towards a pilot project."
Still, the Small Arms Survey insists on renewed attention for the Nuba Mountains if the situation is to remain under control.
"A combination of weak political will, an international community distracted by Darfur, and UNMIS's underperformance has led to the failure of CPA implementation in South Kordofan... Many now view war in the Nuba Mountains as inevitable," it said.