Finally independent, but hopelessly divided

A web of conflicts in oil-rich South Sudan


Almost two years ago South-Sudan gained independence. But the new state didn’t appear to be the haven of peace that was promised. Especially the eastern province Jonglei is still a scene of heavy violence. Reason? A complex mixture of old ethnic divisions, underdevelopment, exploded dowry prices, competing rebels and governments and lost boys who found their way home.

Text: Andrea Dijkstra

Photography: Jeroen van Loon

Bor/ Pibor - ‘At any moment they can attack us again’, Daniel Akau Garang (32) sighs, while rubbing in a mixture of ash and cow dung on one of his cows. ‘Against mosquitoes and bugs’, the still unmarried Dinka in black shirt and shorts explains. In the background the Nile slowly turns orange as the sun sets. The cattle camp, which is situated on a riverbank south of the state capital Bor, exhales a peaceful almost mysterious atmosphere in this evening light. Men taking care of the cows just returning from the fields, women moving about with metal pots and children romping among the smoky fires.

Some weeks ago however, this peaceful scene had been disturbed by heavy violence. Seven men dressed in camouflage suits and carrying Kalashnikovs rifles invaded the camp, killed one of the shepherds and stole dozens of cows. Garang and his man couldn’t defend themselves. About one year before they had been disarmed by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the current South Sudanese army. ‘We’ve asked them many times for protection, but they didn’t help us.’, he grumbles. According to Garang, the Murle tribe, living in the eastern part of Jonglei, is behind the attacks.

For centuries now, Jonglei State, populated by six different ethnic groups, has been the scene of cattle raids and ethnic clashes. Fatality, increased drastically when during the civil war, that lasted over two decades, knives and spears were exchanged for Kalashnikovs. Hundreds of people died, including many women and children, during attacks between Murle and Nuer one year ago. Also thousands of cows were raided and tens of thousands of civilians became refugees.

After disarming the Dinka and the Nuer, the South Sudanese government decided the Murle, which is the third largest tribe in Jonglei, were next. But during their campaign several of the 15.000 deployted soldiers committed human rights violations, such as beatings, simulated drowning, rapes and even a murder. The South Sudanese government downplayed the violence, saying they were individual incidents which were resolved with the arrest of 32 soldiers.

The human rights violations inflamed anger among the Murle, where David Yau Yau, a Murle rebel who returned to his birthplace Pibor in the eastern part of Jonglei in April 2012, eagerly took advantage of. Disappointed for not getting a seat in the state parliament, the former theology student rose up against the government in 2011, accepted amnesty a year later and even made rank as general within the SPLA. However, in April 2012 he again started an armed fight against the South Sudanese government and its army, presumably provided with weapons by Khartoum. By distributing these weapons he formed a rebel group of about 3000 Murle youth in no time, who killed dozens of SPLA soldiers in numerous confrontations.

But why would so many Murle adolescents start following an, according to many, not very charismatic rebel leader, in such a small period of time? Firstly, let’s consider the distrust growing over time between on one hand the Dinka and the Nuer, the two biggest tribes in Jonglei whose language and culture have strong similarities, and on the other hand the smaller Murle tribe who originally emigrated from Ethiopia. During the civil war suspicion grew, when SPLA-commanders of the two biggest tribes misbehaved against the Murle,  who were starting to feel they would be better off under Arab domination than under the SPLA. Murle leader Ismail Kony started a militia and with help from Khartoum reconquered the area surrounding Pibor from the SPLA. Only after two years since the 2005 Sudan peace agreement did he join the South Sudanese government. Though various Nuer-militias also collaborated with Khartoum, especially the Murle are regarded as traitors.


British anthropologist Jon Arendsen, who has been doing research in Jonglei since 1975, even suspects that in 2009 the plan was to get rid of the Murle entirely. In that year he claims to have seen a report in which Dinka and Nuer-leaders declared that after the independence of South Sudan the following task would be ‘to destroy the Murle and to occupy their land’. In March that year hundreds of well-equipped and in new camouflage suits dressed Nuer destroyed the Murle village of Lukwangole and killed two hundred citizens, mostly women and children. Many Murle still wonder how the Nuer got their hands on those new uniforms and weapons. ‘With big machine guns, government weapons, the Nuer attacked us’, tells James Malual (25), who’s whole family was massacred during this attack. ‘No one did anything, not the government, or the SPLA.’ Many attacks and counterattacks have taken place since, and many people are still too frightened to go back to their villages.

This insecurity is a breeding ground for dissatisfaction within the Murle youth who refuse to hand in their weapons and also feel underrepresented by the South Sudanese government, consisting of many former SPLA-commanders. The same goes for the SPLA who, according to the Murle, during disarmament were not acting as the South Sudanese army but were standing against them as a separate party. ‘If more Murle-soldiers had contributed to the campaign, perhaps rapes and mistreatments wouldn’t have occurred’, believes 18-year old Philip Koribuk. By appointing a Murle commander the South Sudanese government hopes to correct this imbalance. However, many Murle are afraid of the a disarmament campaign which presumably will take place soon. ‘With just one Murle at the top, other officers will still give deflected orders’, thinks 30-year old Lokohi Tindit, who moved from his village Kongor to Pibor after all of his cows were stolen during Nuer attacks.

A peaceful Jonglei is also important to the South Sudanese government for another reason. The soil is filled with oil, gold and uranium. Although South Sudan inherited the biggest part of the oilfields with the independence, Juba shut down the oil production in spring because of a fight with Khartoum. Six months ago the Sudanese president Al Bashir and his South Sudanese colleague Salva Kirr signed a deal in Addis Abeba. Because of this deal, the oil production can start again at any time. What is crucial for the South Sudanese oil plans, that include an alternative pipeline through Kenya, is a big oil concession which the government made five months ago with the French Total and two other foreign oil companies concerning ‘block B’, which is situated largely in Jonglei. Additional violence can scare new investors off and endanger this new concession. This might explain the suspected involvement of Khartoum, almost certainly providing David Yau Yau with arms. Even the UN saw an illegal airdropping close to Pibor six months ago. ‘Khartoum is deliberately creating chaos and conflict in Jonglei to undermine our development’, says Jodi Jonglei, one of the seven Murle members of the Provincial Assemblée. Khartoum denies any involvement with rebels in South Sudan though.

Another reason for many Murle youth joining Yau Yau is their social economic situation. Philip tells that his 28-year old uncle joined the rebel leader two months ago. ‘Because he didn’t have any cows, he didn’t see any other way. From Yau Yau he got back a weapon, could raid some cattle, marry and start a family.’

For as well the Dinka, the Nuer as the Murle cattle is vital. It gives them status, milk and is essential to marry. This dowry system is and has always been a source of conflict within all three tribes. A lot of men have insufficient cows and try to get them in other ways, like raiding. The dowry for the son frequently gets paid with the cows a family already received for the daughter’s marriage. But when she doesn’t manage to get any children, all the cows have to be repaid to her man, which often isn’t possible anymore because they have been already used to pay the dowry of her brother. This leads to cattle raiding as well as the abduction of women and children, already included as full members of the new family.

Although the leaders of the six tribes agreed in May to not steal cattle, women or children from each other anymore, it’s unlikely that the on-going cattleraidings have been committed by Yau Yau only. Four Dinkas have been arrested for cattle raiding last July and especially within the Dinka tribe the dowry prices have increased enormously. Before, a man used to pay thirty cows for a wife; nowadays the price lays around one hundred, sometimes even two hundred cows. One reason for this increase may be Lost Boys, who fled the country to the United States at a young age, now returning with suitcases full of dollars. Another reason is where high officials sometimes use tax money to pay the cows for their sons. Many Dinkas, however, deny a connection between the high dowry prices and the cattle raidings, because they say higher prices only apply to marrying well educated women and whenever there is a competitive situation.

In the meantime several researchers mention how local leaders nowadays face difficulties to control the youngsters in their tribe. Anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson for example, has been doing research in Jonglei since 1980, and describes how elderly within the Nuer and the Dinka practice their leadership by controlling the cattle. During civil war, however, SPLA-militias raided many of their cows, armed youth started to claim own cattle and this system of local leadership collapsed. Also among the Murle, where everyone is born in so-called ‘age-sets’, to which you have to obey for the rest of your life, leaders don’t manage to control the younger ‘age-sets’ anymore and pastors complain that youth doesn’t go to church or even listen to them any longer.

Philip tells that many people in Pibor are very disappointed. ‘The Arabs were businessmen. Under their control life was much better’, the teenager dressed in jeans and t-shirt proclaims, plodding through the muddy streets. ‘There was electricity, there were streetlights, good market prices and it was safe, as Ismail Kony kept the SPLA at a distance. Now we have our own country but we suffer a lot. There are no roads, there is no electricity, we barely have schools or good teachers, prices at the market have tripled and it’s more dangerous than ever.’

Many South Sudanese citizens criticize the SPLA soldiers for being lazy and not wanting to work after all those years of civil war. Jonglei’s Deputy Governor Hussein Mar Nyout blames, however, the lack of cars, radio equipment and the dreadful conditions in Jonglei. ‘For days they have to move ahead by foot through swampy terrain, especially during the six months of rain season, when the majority of the roads are flooded. Because of this they can’t be everywhere.’

Everybody, from politicians to young people, seem to agree that Pibor has to be more developed as soon as possible. ‘By paving the roads, it will be possible to ensure security, to enable economic activity and open more schools’, tells the Deputy Governor. ‘Like this the  Murle won’t live for six months a year on an island anymore, they will start to get in contact with the outside world and will learn other ways to survive than just stealing cows.’ The 18-year old Philip even thinks that the government should persuade young Murle to become farmers.

Getting in contact with the outside world for the Murle is extra important. Due to their role during the civil war they are hardly represented within the Lost Boys, who after being educated in the United States, back in South Sudan often act as a spokesperson for their tribe.

In different ways politicians try in the meantime to connect the youth of Jonglei. Baba Medan, minister of youth and sports, stimulates wrestling games, which are very popular in South Sudan. ‘During those games youth of different tribes can get to know and start to trust each other’ County Commissioner Joshua Kony together with local youth leaders organises traditional dances in Pibor. During a speech he tries to convince the youth, decorated with impressive headdresses and animal skins, not to join Yau Yau.

Time will tell, however, whether the South Sudanese government, who in his short life has already built up a name of corruption and nepotism, will invest in the distant, slightly rebellious Murle region.

Garang, the Dinka who lost almost all of his cows during the recent attack at his cattle camp at the river banks of the Nile, doesn’t even consider stealing cows from the Murle. He tries to find other ways to earn money. He trades in cows and working as an English teacher, he hopes to earn enough money to buy the extra necessary cows for a dowry. The 32-year old South Sudanese smiles. ‘Property of your neighbours can never make you happy.’



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