Jeffrey Gettleman’s “War Against the Nuba”: What does not appear

By Eric Reeves

July 28, 2012 (SSNA) — New York Times East Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman recently published in the New York Review of Books an essay that attempts to give an overview of the crises in the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan) and elsewhere in Sudan and South Sudan ("War Against the Nuba," The New York Review of BooksAugust 16, 2012).  Gettleman’s account of the Nuba has much to commend it, and his reporting on greater Sudan has frequently been distinguished by courage and resourcefulness; here he helps create a vivid picture of the Khartoum regime’s particularly vicious campaign of human destruction.  Even so, there are serious errors and shortcomings in his present account.

First, the degree to which South Sudan is providing material support to the rebels in the Nuba is a matter of much dispute.  Accounts of what has moved north vary but they do not include the "rockets and tanks" that Gettleman refers to (far and away the most authoritative source on this and other arms-related issue in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains is Small Arms Survey [Geneva]). The rebels, formerly part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, already had very substantial arms and heavy weapons of their own following the civil war (1983-2005); and the rebels’ relentless mauling of Khartoum’s regular forces over the past year has produced an abundance of captured weapons and ammunition.  Moreover, Gettleman’s suggestion that war in the Nuba may be directed from Juba (capital of South Sudan) is preposterous: anyone who knows Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, former governor of the Nuba and a superbly skilled military leader, understands that he needs no guidance from Juba.  And anyone who has traveled among the Nuba people can be in no doubt about the ferocity of their determination to defend their lands and escape Khartoum’s tyranny.

Gettleman suggests that Khartoum’s bombing of South Sudan began in June 2011; in fact, the regime has bombed the territory of South Sudan continuously since November 2010, and has targeted all five border states in the South (altogether there have been some 70 confirmed attacks on civilians since November 2010—along more than 1,300 miles of international border).  This is important because Gettleman also suggests that the South attacked the Heglig oilfield in a disputed border region in response to the "start" of Khartoum’s bombings in spring 2012.  No doubt these bombings—again mainly targeting civilians—were a factor, but the real reason for the attack was that Southern forces, in a Southern base (Tishwin, Unity State), had twice been assaulted by Khartoum’s ground forces based near Heglig. The attack was meant to forestall further military incursions from Heglig—a response, not an offensive, a fact established authoritatively by UN observers on the ground in the region.

What has also been established definitively by Small Arms Survey is that Khartoum arms and supports renegade militia groups in the South, military forces with no meaningful political agenda but rather a mandate to create civilian chaos and destruction, tasks which have been undertaken with brutal determination and success.  And yet when Gettleman briefly mentions these proxy forces serving Khartoum, his account is peculiarly partial: "the south has its hands full with ethnic militias that have killed thousands of people in the past couple of years, laying bare the weakness of its ethnically divided security forces."  But perhaps Gettleman is referring not to Khartoum’s militia proxies but rather the ethnic violence in Jonglei State of this past year, which indeed involved the "White Army" of the Nuer ethnic group in attacks on the Murle ethnic group.  Either way, it’s dismaying that his account is so incomplete.

In speaking about U.S. policy toward Khartoum Gettleman says that most "Western experts on Sudan" think that lifting sanctions is long overdue.  We evidently speak to different experts, because my experience is quite the opposite, especially among Sudanese themselves.  Moreover, Khartoum’s cooperation on counter-terrorism—the ostensible reason for lifting sanctions—is a matter of considerable controversy.  Gettleman claims that "Sudanese security forces [have] cooperated closely with the U.S. after the September 11 attacks." Many dispute this, including Russ Feingold, former chair of the Africa Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who offered a frank, highly informed insider’s view:

"I take serious issue with the way the report [on international terrorism by the U.S. State Department] overstates the level of cooperation in our counterterrorism relationship with Sudan, a nation which the US classifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. A more accurate assessment is important not only for effectively countering terrorism in the region, but as part of a review of our overall policy toward Sudan." (May 2009)

Notably, Khartoum continues to support Hamas and regularly receives senior Hamas officials (Hamas remains on the U.S list of terrorist organizations).  Moreover, Osama bin Laden was not "briefly in Sudan": he was there from 1992 (not 1993 as Gettleman reports) to 1996, and had invested a great deal of money in the Sudanese economy, especially construction and banking, before he moved to Afghanistan. He and al-Qaeda subsequently retained close ties with the regime. His years in Khartoum are those in which many students of al-Qaeda believe the organization came to fruition.

Just as troublingly, Gettleman recapitulates in his account the error of U.S. diplomacy in late 2010 and 2011: he downplays—indeed, incredibly, does not even mention—the significance of the Abyei "self-determination referendum," guaranteed by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and deliberately aborted by Khartoum.  This was the episode that set the stage for the violence Gettleman chronicles.  Given the importance of Abyei for the people of the South, its deep cultural and historical significance, it was a disastrous decision by the Obama administration to marginalize the self-determination referendum.  At the behest of former special envoy for Sudan (Major-General) Scott Gration, senior Obama administration officials expediently urged the South to accept a further "compromise" on Abyei’s borders when in fact the South had already compromised twice, once in a "final and binding" ruling by Permanent Court of Arbitration (2009). The refusal to push for fulfillment of the terms of the CPA and its Abyei Protocol was a formula for renewed border conflict.  This much was clear long before Gettleman was handed a document in May 2011 about the plans for an attack on the Nuba.

But the largest point about lifting sanctions, whatever the original reason for their imposition, is that such action would be morally and diplomatically myopic while the targeted regime continues an extermination campaign in both the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile.  Moreover, a relentless "genocide by attrition" continues in Darfur, where Darfuris on the ground convey a grim picture of widespread insecurity, ethnically-targeted rape, murder, land appropriation, and the steady attenuation of humanitarian reach and capacity—all at the behest of Khartoum.

Responsibility for the crises in the Nuba and elsewhere in Sudan cannot be equally apportioned to Juba and Khartoum in some perverse sort of "moral equivalence"—the default position of the Obama administration.  Only one party is guilty of serial and ongoing genocide, and that party must be held accountable.  Reading Gettleman’s account, I come away with the disturbing conclusion that he believes—with current special envoy Princeton Lyman—that the brutal men who dominate the Khartoum regime can be reasonable diplomatic actors, and that Sudan advocacy efforts, especially in the U.S., have got in the way of diplomatic progress toward peace.  Exactly the opposite is true: Khartoum has engaged as much as it has only because of pressure that prevents a total capitulation to expediency on the part of the Obama administration.  Gettleman is explicit in his claim that advocacy is part of the problem rather than the solution when it comes to dealing with Khartoum:

"[The U.S. Congress and Sudan advocacy efforts] have succeeded in so thoroughly vilifying the Khartoum government for its atrocities in Darfur and now in the Nuba Mountains that the Obama administration’s hands are essentially tied. But if some way had been found to work around Congress and give some reward to the Sudanese government for its acceptance of South Sudan after the referendum, perhaps Bashir and those close to him would have been more willing to compromise."

This is simply astonishing.  Evidently Gettleman believes that a robust civil society response to Khartoum’s penchant for genocidal counter-insurgency campaigns "ties the hands of the Obama administration."  A response other than "vilification" is judged appropriate even when many hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and displaced by recent, deliberate policies on the part of Khartoum—and that we can compromise with a regime that at this very moment is denying all humanitarian access to many more hundreds of thousands of starving people in the Nuba and Blue Nile.  Moreover, in the last past fourteen months Khartoum’s military actions have forced more than 200,000 civilians to flee to South Sudan (Upper Nile and Unity State)—this in addition to the more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok of Abyei who were forced to flee before Khartoum’s military seizure of the region in May 2011.  It was the expedient, one might say "compromising" response to this last assault that gave Khartoum the signal that it could proceed with plans for the Nuba and Blue Nile. 

If dealing with Khartoum means ignoring all this, if securing "compromise" from al-Bashir and the military hardliners who now are clearly in charge of policy means acquiescing in such ghastly realities, then our Sudan policy will have become fully bankrupt.

Gettleman’s suggests at one point that with many international eyes focused on one of various Sudan’s crises, war along the border can be forestalled ("Rarely does a problem become a crisis when there are so many eyes on it.").  This seems historically naïve in the extreme, given not only recent events in the Nuba and Blue Nile but this regime’s relentless militarism over the past 23 years.  As has long been clear for those who would only look honestly, until there is regime change in Khartoum, the agony of greater Sudan will continue.

Eric Reeves is author of the forthcoming Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012

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