The state of South Kordofan in Sudan was established, in part, by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Both parties currently govern the disputed territory. But the future of this contested state, which borders Southern Sudan, and the fate of its population of roughly two million people is uncertain. A few selected leaders from South Kordofan are hoping to influence the future direction of their state by gaining experience in negotiation and leadership, with the help of Northwestern University in Illinois.
After decades of war, Neroun Phillip Ajo Kuku's home state of South Kordofan in Sudan remains in limbo.
"Administratively, South Kordofan is part of the North," said Ajo Kuku. "But then, the people of the Nuba Mountains actually fought in unison with the people of Southern Sudan, so politically, it is part of the South."
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the SPLM and the government of Sudan allows South Kordofan to chart its own path. But unlike Southern Sudan, which will hold a referendum on independence in January, South Kordofan will conduct a "popular consultation" to decide its status.
"It's different from a referendum where a referendum is a popular vote. But popular consultation will be done through the elected members of the state legislative assembly," Ajo Kuku added.
Citizens in South Kordofan will vote in November to elect legislators who will take part in the popular consultation.
Decades of war have left a gap in understanding in the political process in Sudan, and Ajo Kuku admits assuming a leadership role is a challenge.
"Issues like conflict resolution, issues of leadership, issues of citizens' participation, project management, all these issues are related to good governance," said Ajo Kuku.
Ajo Kuku is one of five fellows from South Kordofan under Hanson's direction, taking part in a six-week program sponsored by Northwestern designed to better prepare them for leadership roles.
"The idea was to bring together important political leaders who will take an active role in this negotiation process to look for peaceful ways to resolve the long-standing conflict in the country," said Brian Hanson, associate director of the Roberta Buffet Center at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.
Mary James Kuku Angelo is an outgoing member of parliament in the South Kordofan State Assembly. She is taking part in the fellowship to help widen her skills as an advocate for women's rights.
"I have a challenge as a woman, because as we know for us from Nuba Mountain, we are not learned, and we have a very big gap, and we want to narrow that gap," she said.
Ajo Kuku is co-chair of assessment and evaluation for the CPA in South Kordofan, and will take part in the popular consultation, where he says he will directly apply the lessons learned at Northwestern.
"Conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation, all these are issues that we learned," said Ajo Kuku. "As soon as we go back we will apply them in our context."
When the fellows return to Sudan, there is an abundance of work that requires their attention. One major issue is conducting a new census in South Kordofan that will help political leaders better understand the actual population, and makeup, of the state. That census could ultimately influence the outcome of the popular consultation, and South Kordofan's future.