The Nuba Mountains, a former frontline region in Sudan’s north-south civil war remain tense, years after the 2005 north-south peace agreement, local leaders and analysts say.
Comprising some 48,000sqkm of green uplands and farmland, the area is part of northern Sudan’s Southern Kordofan State, but as during the war, remains politically dominated by the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Tensions and mistrust have remained high between Sudan’s north and south - major political, ideological and religious differences are unresolved – not least in the Nuba region.
"Security is a big problem, with violations and hostility between two parties - the SPLM and the NCP [National Congress Party], and a lot of conflict between tribes," said Kamal al-Nur, commissioner of SPLM-controlled Heiban County in Southern Kordofan.
"We are concerned that violence will escalate as we come closer to the elections - and in the period after the elections - to the referendum," al-Nur added. General elections in Sudan are slated for April 2010, before a southern independence referendum in 2011.
During the war, the Nuba population suffered aerial bombardment, isolation, shortages, land expropriation and forced population movements, according to international human rights groups.
The area is characterized by a mix of ethnic groups and coexistence between Muslim, Christian and traditional believers.
"We fought for long years… for equality, for the right to live as we want and not under the [Islamic] Sharia law of the north," said Younan Albaround, the SPLM chairman in Kauda, the party’s former headquarters for Nuba during the war.
Unlike Southern Sudan and the oil-rich region of Abyei which are due to vote on independence and self-determination in 2011, the 2005 peace deal only set out arrangements for interim power sharing and ”popular consultation” in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile are sometimes referred to as Sudan’s “three areas” – transitional and contested-zones straddling the north-south political, military and cultural fault lines.
Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN
|A Sudanese girl and her mother at a borehole in an area near Kauda in the Nuba Mountains region|
"Whilst the South and Abyei have clearly defined rights to an independence referendum - guaranteed by the presence of the SPLA and thus with the option of unilateral secession should the peace deal fail to be fully implemented - the two `contested areas’ are only given the ill-defined concept of `popular consultation’ on their future status," said Peter Moszynski, a Sudan analyst who began working in the Nuba region in 1981.
The SPLA’s ranks in the Nuba mountains were largely filled by local people, but those forces have officially pulled out of the region under terms set down by the peace agreement, with only special joint north-south units remaining.
Tensions have also risen following recent comments by senior Southern Sudanese officials in favour of separation, including a speech by the Southern president, Salva Kiir, that voting for unity would make southerners "second class" citizens.
"The Nuba people fear the breakaway of the south because they will be left as an isolated minority in the north - and will also be on the frontline of any future north-south conflict," Moszynski said.
"There are huge concerns that the Nuba Mountains could return to fighting," said Sudan analyst, John Ashworth. "They have no referendums - but many ordinary people are not aware of that yet and will be angry when it finally dawns on them. The `popular consultation’ is vague and probably meaningless."
A public opinion study by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) found people saw few positive outcomes for the future.
"Participants report that there is persistent, and potentially explosive, conflict in Southern Kordofan," the March 2009 study entitled Losing Hope noted.
In ethnic terms, the people of the Nuba Mountains usually identify more closely with the “African” southerners than their northern Arab neighbours.
"They describe the conflict as a fight over land and grazing rights. The Nuba argue that Arabs are armed [while the Nuba are not], that Arab traditional leaders are not neutral, and that the central government is behind much of the violence," it added.
"Arab participants say that it is the Nuba who are the instigators, and that they are responsible for the violence and theft in the region."
Few, the study found, were optimistic for the future: "The scale of the current conflict in Southern Kordofan is such that many participants believe the state is close to a return to general, state-wide war."
Similar sentiments were echoed by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in October 2008, in a report on Southern Kordofan entitled The Next Darfur?
"If the NCP, SPLM and international community fail to pay the required attention to the divided region," the ICG warned, "their inaction could come back to haunt them in a way that threatens the stability of the already divided country."