July 29, 2011
Since the mid-1980s, Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu has been one of the leading rebel commanders in Sudan, well known for his organizational skills and dedication to replacing the Arab-dominated central government of Sudan with a broader-based federalist system that would recognize the ancient and indigenous Nuba peoples of Sudan as an integral and fully enfranchised component of a united Sudan.
Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu
After serving a short time as deputy governor of South Kordofan in Sudan’s unity government and losing a disputed election to the candidate of the ruling National Congress Party (an alleged war criminal), al-Hilu has once more taken to the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan, leading a new large-scale insurgency against the central government in Khartoum, an insurgency that threatens to spread beyond South Kordofan, as al-Hilu intends (see Terrorism Monitor, July 1).
Al-Hilu’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) forces consist of some 30,000 to 40,000 trained Nuba, operating in their own rocky, cave-ridden hills. The men are disciplined, well-armed, motivated and operate under an established command-and-control structure with highly experienced officers overseeing operations.
The Nuba fighters have seized quantities of heavy weapons and vehicles from government garrisons, though their lack of air cover or armor will likely restrict their activities to the Nuba Mountains region short of some kind of external intervention, either by newly independent South Sudan (unlikely for now) or an international no-fly zone (extremely unlikely). According to an advisor to al-Hilu, much of this material was seized in a June 30 battle with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Kahliat (west of the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli) in which 83 government soldiers were killed (Sudan Tribune, July 4).
The Nuba are not a single tribe; in fact they represent one of the most diverse collections of people on Earth, with some 50 separate languages bearing witness to their historical formation from various indigenous groups seeking refuge in the easily defended Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. On the plains below the mountains live the Baggara (cattle-herding) Arabs, tribes such as the Missiriya and the Hawazma, who moved into the area over two centuries ago. Traditionally these groups lived in harmony, pursuing different but complementary lifestyles, though the last three decades have seen increased ethnic discord and violence encouraged by the Arab supremacist policies of successive Arab-dominated governments in Khartoum. The Nuba also share a number of faiths without religious conflict, including Islam (the majority faith), Christianity and a variety of traditional beliefs often interwoven with Islamic or Christian beliefs. Conflicts do exist in the mountains and frequently result in warfare between Nuba groups, but these conflicts are usually generated by disputes over land and water and are typically settled through traditional methods of resolution. Similar conflicts exist between the Baggara tribes and clans of the region.
Al-Hilu in the Civil War
Following the implementation of Shari’a law by President Ja’afar Nimeiri and the outbreak of the SPLA rebellion in the South in 1983, many Nuba found themselves at odds with the regime. In 1984, a veteran Nuba politician and militant clergyman, Father Philip Abbas Ghaboush, drew on his connections with Nuba in the military and other Arab and non-Arab dissidents to attempt a coup d’état (one of several made during his career). The attempt failed, but it demonstrated the commitment of some Nuba to reforming the Arab-centric regime in Khartoum in which power was perpetually held by a small minority that tended to view Sudan’s indigenous peoples as subjects rather than enfranchised citizens.
Yusuf Kuwa Mekki
Al-Hilu’s own political mobilization began in 1977, when a number of Nuba students studying in Khartoum formed the Komolo (Youth) movement, a secret organization devoted to improving the Nuba’s social and political standing in Sudan. The core group included the Yusuf Kuwa Mekki, later the SPLA/M commander in South Kordofan, his deputy and successor Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, and two men who would also become prominent SPLA commanders, Daniel Kodi Angelo Comba and Isma’il Khamis.  The group began working alongside more veteran Nuba politicians, but not necessarily under their direction. Though some members of Komolo had taken political office through the 1981 elections, they became disillusioned by 1983 when Colonel John Garang’s newly-formed SPLA issued a manifesto urging a unified but federalist Sudan that would end ethnic-based marginalization and aspire to meet the desires and expectations of all the many peoples of Sudan, a concept referred to as the “New Sudan.” Many Komolo members joined other young Nuba in the long and dangerous walk to the SPLA training camps in Ethiopia.
Al-Hilu returned to South Kordofan in 1987 as the adjutant of Yusuf Kuwa’s Volcano Battalion of the SPLA, composed mostly of Southern troops. The Volcano Battalion was quickly driven from South Kordofan, but after further training in Ethiopia, the Nuba returned (again with strong support from Southern fighters) in 1988-89 with Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu leading in five of the six battalions of the New Kush Division. This time the SPLA held their own and were never forced from the mountains again, though their position was at times extremely tenuous. Al-Hilu was one of the principal commanders that held off a massive five-month government offensive at Tullushi despite extreme shortages of ammunition and other supplies. At times the conflict in the mountains took on the strains of a civil war within a civil war; Nubas formed a very large part of the Sudanese regular army and many Nuba soldiers and officers continued to prefer (or were unable to evade) government service. The government’s failure at Tullushi led to the introduction of new tactics targeted at the civilian population, including their forcible removal to “peace camps.” 
The 1990s conflict in the Nuba Mountains, a poorly known but tragic episode of the Second Sudanese Civil War, took as many as 200,000 lives. The international community expressed massive disinterest, even when Khartoum declared an official “jihad” against the Nuba in 1992 based on a fatwa (religious ruling) that stripped Muslim Nuba of their status as believers: “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a nonbeliever standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them.” In consequence the SAF and its Popular Defense Force (PDF) militias rampaged through the region, massacring civilians and destroying mosques and churches alike. At the time, a major split had occurred within the southern SPLA spurred by differences between Nuer and Dinka commanders and the Nuba fighters were cut off and left without supplies or ammunition. A 1992 gathering of commanders and community representatives only narrowly decided to continue the struggle. 
However, a ceasefire brokered in 2002 still left al-Aziz with a host of problems, not least of which was the fact the break in hostilities was still a long way from guaranteeing his people’s future. A Canadian diplomat described al-Aziz at this time: “[Al-Aziz] seemed tired and dispirited, his petulant attempt to blame the international community in advance for any eventual failure of the ceasefire a symptom of his frustration at being caught between a rock and at least four other hard places: his people’s fatigue; the pressure of the international community; the investment of fifteen years’ sacrifice, and the greater political ambitions of the SPLM/A.” 
Al-Hilu, with roots through one of his parents in Western Darfur, was assigned by the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – the political wing of the SPLA) to join Yasir Sa’id Arman in 2002 as envoys to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) of Darfur, which was in the initial stage of operations at the time.  The SPLM would draw on his experience in the 2002 ceasefire agreement to help negotiate a larger treaty with Khartoum – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which would eventually lead to the July 2011 independence of the South Sudan.
A Disputed Election
Following a disagreement with the post-Garang SPLM leadership, al-Hilu spent several years in the United States before returning to Sudan in 2008 and taking up a new role as deputy secretary-general of the northern SPLM. After local complaints that the SPLM’s deputy governor for South Kordofan, Daniel Kodi Angelo Comba, was not energetic enough in seeing to the full implementation of the CPA in the region, he was replaced in 2009 by al-Hilu, a much more popular choice. Khartoum’s response was to appoint an outsider as the new governor; Ahmad Haroun, a veteran of the campaign to repress the Nuba in the 1990s who is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his role as a principal organizer of the notorious Janjaweed militia in Darfur.
Al-Hilu’s electoral opponents in the May 2011 gubernatorial race were a well-known independent candidate and former SPLA commander, Telefon Kuku Abu Jalha, and the controversial Ahmad Haroun, an NCP candidate wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
According to a report from al-Jazeera, al-Hilu was ahead in the poll by 14,000 votes with only six polling stations out of 666 remaining to be counted (al-Jazeera, May 7). Results of the election were delayed for several days as top presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi flew into Kadugli on March 8 to assess the outcome. A victory was manufactured for the NCP candidate, in part by inventing new polling stations that were unknown to either the opposition or election observers. The head of the electoral commission fled to the UNMIS mission in Kadugli as Haroun was declared the winner. Ultimately, despite being well behind in the popular vote, the NCP took both the governorship and 22 of 32 available seats in the state assembly. Khartoum claimed the results were legitimate despite employing a process of gerrymandering and poll-shifting to achieve the result.
The NCP victory essentially guaranteed there would be no further progress on instituting the “popular consultation” process that had been guaranteed by the CPA.
The CPA – Root of the Conflict
While the 2005 CPA provided for a referendum on secession for the South, Blue Nile and South Kordofan were granted only “popular consultations” to be held in 2011 to determine their role and degree of autonomy within the North Sudan.  After the Southerners voted overwhelmingly for independence in January, Khartoum quickly lost interest in holding the popular consultations. By now it appears highly unlikely that the consultations will ever be held. The CPA did not provide any direction regarding the disposal of the largely Nuba SPLA army in South Kordofan, and in its absence Khartoum demanded their disarmament or their migration to South Sudan.
The CPA also called for a joint administration in South Kordofan, but in practice the NCP and SPLM continued to maintain separate administrations in the territories they held at the time of the ceasefire.
Objectives of al-Hilu and the Nuba SPLA/M
The SPLM had spread into the North under Garang’s direction before his death in July 2005 changed the direction of the movement from federalist to separatist, decided in February 2011 to split into two parts – the first becoming the governing party of South Sudan, with the second, the SPLM-Northern Sector (SPLM-NS), becoming one of the largest opposition parties in North Sudan. Party leader Yasir Sa’id Arman explained the relationship between the two parties with a European analogy: “It will be like the relations between the green parties in Norway and in Britain. They are in different countries but they share the same vision” (Sudan Tribune, December 22, 2010). The governor of the Blue Nile state, Malik Aggar, became chairman of the SPLM-NS, with veteran SPLM politician Yasir Sa’id remaining as secretary-general and al-Hilu as the deputy SPLM-NS chairman.
The Just Peace Forum (JPF), a political alliance led by the president’s uncle, al-Tayyib Mustafa, called for the SPLM to be banned in any form in the North, as did many within the NCP (Sudan Tribune, February 13). The JPF was organized to advocate for Southern secession, as this would free the North to return to what they described as Sudan’s Arab and Islamic character.
Al-Hilu’s vision of a “new Sudan” sounds much like the secular federalism espoused by the old Garang-led SPLM: “We want a restructuring of central government so that each region, each state, is represented in the center according to its weight. We want a new Sudan, built on new basis of justice, of equality, of freedom” (al-Jazeera, July 13). However, the “New Sudan” concept has had little resonance with the Northern opposition since Garang’s death; a May 2010 call by Arman for opposition parties belonging to the anti-NCP Juba Alliance (including Sadiq al-Mahdi’s Umma Party, Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, the Sudanese Communist Party and the Khatmiyya Sufi dominated Democratic Unionist Party) to join with the SPLM in creating “the New Sudan” brought only a tepid response.
Governor Haroun claims Yasir Arman and various unnamed “leftists” are “responsible for involving al-Hilu in such a critical position. Al-Hilu, who is mature enough, is also responsible for the deterioration of the situation. We are determined not to allow those who are responsible to go without punishment… If the [SPLA] soldiers continue to stay in the north post-July 7, they will be considered as mercenaries according to international law… al Hilu is wanted as he killed soldiers as well as civilians in addition to betrayal of the constitution as the deputy governor of South Kordofan” (Radio Omdurman, June 9).
A statement from SPLA Brigadier Sa’id Ketchum on the fighters’ objectives appeared to confirm Khartoum’s worst fears: “First we take Kadugli, then [Kordofan capital] al-Obeid, then Khartoum” (Independent, July 11).
The Addis Ababa Agreement
After nearly a month of fighting, SPLM-NS chairman Malik Agar negotiated a pact in late June in the Ethiopian capital with senior Sudanese presidential advisor Nafi Ali Nafi under AU mediation led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. The Addis Ababa Agreement was not a ceasefire, though it was intended to set the conditions for a ceasefire as well as legalize the SPLM-NS as a legitimate political party in the North. 
The agreement called for the NCP’s recognition of the SPLM-NS as a legal political party in North Sudan and also acknowledged that SPLA/M fighters in South Kordofan are Northerners and not Southerners who need to leave South Kordofan for South Sudan (Khartoum’s earlier position). The Nuba SPLA fighters were to be integrated into the SAF and any disarmament would be carried out “without resorting to force” (Sudan Tribune, July 1).
The agreement also called for the creation of a joint NCP/SPLM-NS committee to arrive at an amicable settlement of the South Kordofan issue within thirty days. Criticism of the accord began almost immediately in the north, with pro-government media saying the agreement had made too many concessions to the SPLM (Sudan Tribune, July 4). Al-Bashir’s own dissatisfaction with the agreement surfaced in his address to a Friday prayer gathering in Khartoum shortly after his return from an official visit to China: “We order the armed forces to carry on its operations and not to stop until South Kordofan is purged as Abyei was purged before, and Abdel Aziz is arrested and brought to trial” for the crimes of terrorizing civilians and killing innocent people” (Sudan Tribune, July 1; Sudan Vision, July 2).
SPLM-NS Secretary General Yasir Sa’id Arman (a Ja’alin Arab) warned against Khartoum reneging on the agreement: “The only alternative to this agreement is a war, from Blue Nile to Darfur. We don’t want that” (Sudan Tribune, July 4).
On June 16, al-Hilu told Mbeki: “They rigged the census, the elections, the ballot boxes. We tested the NCP over six years. They don’t respect agreements; they did not implement the CPA. They declared clearly there is no room in this country for any group except Arabs, and no other religion except Islam” (Guardian, June 18).
Khartoum’s hard line on South Kordofan is seen by al-Hilu as an attempt to dispose of the CPA and its call for “popular consultations” in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces now that the South has seceded. For al-Hilu, Khartoum’s decision is an irreversible turn towards renewed warfare: “Khartoum is trying to avoid paying the entitlement of popular consultation, but we will not give it up even if it leads to another twenty years of war, and there is no concession at all of these rights. We fought for twenty years, and have learned from that war, and the NCP has nothing but tyranny and arrogance. They now declared war, and voided the agreement, and they have to bear the consequences and we will not go back to dialogue with them again” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 9).
The Role of South Sudan
So far, there appears to be little material support for the Nuba insurrection from the leaders of newly independent South Sudan, though South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit said earlier this month: “I want to assure the people of Abyei, Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan that we have not forgotten you… When you bleed, we bleed” (Independent, July 11).
In Tehran, al-Bashir claimed that the South Sudan’s SPLM was sneaking fighters into South Kordofan to seize Kadugli and make al-Hilu its ruler (Sudan Tribune, January 26). It was an incendiary accusation given the extreme political tension in Sudan, but reflective of al-Bashir’s current hardline approach that replaced the more conciliatory tone he expressed before the almost unanimous rejection of Sudanese unity in January’s referendum on South Sudan independence. The bunker mentality of the regime can be seen in a statement from the NCP deputy chairman Mandur al-Mahdi, who said the NCP expected a “fierce foreign attack” to remove the party from power after the South Sudan’s declaration of independence on July 9 (Sudan Tribune, June 26).
Though he is ready to lead the Nuba in a renewed struggle against the largely Arab National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum, al-Hilu appears to be aware that such a struggle can only succeed in the long-term by bringing all the marginalized peoples of North Sudan into a united resistance: “We are aspiring for unity of all the marginalized people, we are actually inviting the Blue Nile, the Darfurians and the rest to come under one umbrella and defeat Khartoum… We will struggle to topple this regime – to remove it and to bring a new democratic system of governance and put an end to wars and continuous hatred between the Sudanese people” (al-Jazeera, July 13).
With signs of growing divisions within the ruling NCP, a continuing conflict in Darfur and unresolved issues in other parts of the country (including the Blue Nile and Nubia), the rule of the military/Islamist cabal led by Omar al-Bashir appears increasingly precarious. Sudan’s armed forces have been modernized in recent years thanks to the influx of petro-dollars, but these revenues are already in decline with the separation of the oil-rich south, and the army must face a shrinking pool of recruits from traditional recruiting areas such as South Sudan, Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Khartoum must deal quickly with al-Hilu and his Nuba fighters as sustaining another long conflict without encouraging further armed dissent in the North Sudan will prove increasingly difficult as the struggle for South Kordofan goes on.
1. Nanne op ‘t Ende, “Philip Abbas Ghaboush. Omdurman 1922 – Middlesbrough February 3, 2008,” http://www.occasionalwitness.com/Articles/20080304a.html.
2. Nanne op’t Ende, “Interview with Yousif Kuwa Mekki,” London, February 12 and 13, 2001, http://www.occasionalwitness.com/Articles/20010426.htm .
3. Nanne op’t Ende, “Interview with Daniel Kodi Angelo Comba,” Khartoum, Sudan, April 17 & 18, 2006, http://www.occasionalwitness.com/Articles/20060605.htm.
4. Nicholas Coghlan: Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa, Montreal, /Kingston, 2005, p.238
5. Hilde F. Johnson: Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War, Eastbourne U.K., 2011, p.64
6. “North Sudan” is used for clarity’s sake throughout this article to refer to the region still under the control of Khartoum, but please note that the official name for this region remains “Sudan,” while the official name for the newly independent south is “South Sudan.”
7. Not to be confused with the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement that brought an end to Sudan’s first civil war.
This article was first published in the July 29, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.