A web of conflicts in oil-rich Jonglei


One and a half year ago the South Sudanese acquired their independence. The eastern province jonglei, however, is still the scene of heavy violence. Rebel leader David Yau Yau is fighting the South Sudanese army, which, however, is not the only conflict situated in the province.


Bor/ Pibor – Any moment we can again be attacked, sighs Daniel Akau Garang (32) while he rubs a cow with impressive horns with a mixture of ash and cow dung. Against mosquitoes and ticks, explains the still unmarried Dinka in black shirt and shorts. In the background the sky turns orange. The cattle camp, situated at the banks of the river just south of state capital Bor, exudes a peaceful, almost mysterious atmosphere. Men take care of the cows who just returned from the fields, women carry metal pots and children frolic among the smoky fires.
However, this peaceful scene was disturbed by heavy violence weeks ago. Seven men dressed in camouflage suits and equipped with Kalashnikovs invaded the camp, killed one of the shepherds and stole dozens of cows. Garang and his man couldn’t defend themselves. Almost one year ago they were disarmed by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the current South Sudanese army. Dozens of times we’ve asked them for protection, but they don’t do anything, he grumbles. According to Garang the guilty ones are the Murle tribe who are living in the eastern part of Jonglei.

In Jonglei, which is populated by six different ethnic groups, occur cattle raiding and fights between tribes already for centuries. The fatality, however, increased drastic since knives and spears, used during the more than 2 decades of civil war, were exchanged for Kalashnikovs. One year ago during attacks between Murle and Nuer hundreds of people died, including many women and children, thousands of cows were raided and tens of thousands of citizens became refugees.
After disarming Dinka and Nuer, the South Sudanese government decided that it was the turn to the Murle, the third largest tribe in Jonglei. During this campaign some of the 15.000 soldiers used for this purpose committed human rights violations, including mistreatment, rapes and even a murder. The South Sudanese government downplayed the violence, saying it were individual incidents and that they resolved the case with the arrest of 32 soldiers.
The human rights violations created bad feelings among the Murle and David Yau Yau eagerly made use of this. He is a Murle rebel, presumably provided with weapons by Khartoum, who in April returned to his place of birth Pibor in the eastern part of Jonglei. Disappointed for not getting a seat in the provincial council, the former theology student revolted two years ago against the government, accepted an amnesty a year later and even received a rank as general within the SPLA. However, in April he again started an armed fight against the South Sudanese government and its army. By distributing weapons in no time he was able to form a rebel group of about 3000 Murle youth who killed dozens of SPLA soldiers in several confrontations.
The question rises why in a small period of time thousands of Murle youth join, according to many a not very charismatic rebel leader. It is good to dwell on the distrust created in history between on the one hand Dinka and Nuer, the two biggest tribes in Jonglei whose language and culture have strong similarities, opposite to the Murle who originally emigrated from Ethiopia. This suspicion has strengthened during the civil war when SPLA-commanders of the two biggest tribes misbehaved themselves against the Murle, whereby that group increasingly felt it was better off by the Arab domination than under the SPLA. Murle leader Ismail Kony started a militia so that he could, with help from Khartoum, regain the area surrounding Pibor from the SPLA. Only two years after the in 2005 agreed peace agreement he joined the South Sudanese government. Although also various Nuer-militias collaborated at that time with Khartoum, especially the Murle are considered to be a traitor.

British anthropologist Jon Arendsen, doing research in Jonglei since 1975, even presumes that in 2009 there was a plan to get rid of the Murle. In that year he saw a report which talked about Dinka and Nuer-leaders who said that after the independence of South Sudan it would be time to destroy the Murle and to occupy their land. In march that year hundreds of well equipped and dressed in new camouflage suits Nuer destroyed Murle village Lukwangole and killed 200 citizens, including mostly women and children. Still many Murle wonder how these Nuer got those new uniforms and weapons. With big machine guns, government weapons, the Nuer attacked us, tells James Malual (25) whose whole family was massacred during this attack. No one did something, not the government, nor the SPLA. Since then many attacks and counterattacks took place and still many people don’t dare to go back to their villages.
This insecurity is a breeding ground for dissatisfaction with the Murle youth who refuse to hand in their weapons and feel underrepresented by the South Sudanese government, which contains many former SPLA-commanders. It’s the same with the SPLA who, according to the Murle, were not acting as the South Sudanese army during disarmament, but as a separate party against them. If more Murle-soldiers had participated during the campaign, possibly there would be no rapes and mistreatment, believes 18-year old Philip Koribuk. With the appointment with a Murle commander the South Sudanese government hopes they have corrected this imbalance. However, many Murle fear the new disarmament which presumably will take place at the end of this month, after the rain season. With only one Murle other officers will still give other 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 quiet Jonglei is also important for another reason for the South Sudanese government. The soil is full of oil, gold and uranium. Although with the independence South Sudan inherited the biggest part of the oilfields, Juba shutdown the oil production in spring because of a fight with Khartoum. Three months ago Sudanese president Al Bashir and his South Sudanese colleague Salva Kirr signed a deal in Addis Abeba. Soon the oil production can start again. Crucial for the South Sudanese oil plans, including an alternative pipeline through Kenya, is a big oil concession which the government made two months ago with French Total and two other foreign oil companies about block B which is situated largely in Jonglei. New violence can, however, scare new investors and endanger this new concession. Perhaps this explains the presumably involvement of Khartoum, who tolerably certain provides David Yau Yau with arms. Three months ago even the UN saw an illegal airdropping close to Pibor. Deliberately Khartoum is creating chaos and conflict in Jonglei to undermine this development, says Jodi Jonglei, one of the seven Murle inside the Provincial States. Besides, Khartoum is denying every involvement with rebels in South Sudan.


Meanwhile, for many youth the social economical situation is also a reason to join Yau Yau. 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 another opportunity. From Yau Yau he received another weapon, could raid some cattle and marry and start a family.
Cattle are vital for the Dinka, the Nuer as well as the Murle. The give them status, milk, but are really essential to get married. This system of dowries is still a source of conflict within all three tribes. Many men have insufficient cows and try to acquire them in another way. Many times the dowry for the son is paid with the cows a family yielded for the daughter. If she doesn’t manage to have children, all the cows have to be repaid to her man, which in many times is not possible because they are already used to pay for the dowry of her brother. This not only leads to cattle raiding but also to the abduction of women and children who are often included as a full member of the new family.
Although in May leaders of the six tribes agreed to not steal cattle, women and children from each other, it is unlikely that since then the still ongoing cattle raidings are only committed by Yau Yau. Still in July four Dinka’s were arrested for cattle raiding and within the Dinka tribe the dowry prices increased a lot. A man used to pay 30 cows for his wife, nowadays he has to pay 100 cows, sometimes even 200. Presumably the reason is the Lost Boys who returned with many dollars from the United States. These are youth who at a young age fled the country during the civil war and nowadays are world-famous. High officials also seem to sometimes use tax money to pay the cows for their sons. Many Dinka deny there is a connection between the high dowry prices and the cattle raidings, because you only pay a higher price for well educated women en whenever there is competition.
Besides that, different researchers describe how nowadays local leaders have some difficulty to control youth in their tribe. Anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson, who is doing research in Jonglei since 1980, describes how elderly within the Nuer and the Dinka practice their leadership by controlling the cattle. When SPLA-militias raided many of their cows during the civil war and armed youth themselves also started to claim cows, this system of local leadership collapsed. Also within the Murle, where you will be born in so called age-sets to which you have to obey for the rest of your life, leaders don’t succeed anymore to control the younger age-sets and pastors complain that youth don’t go to church anymore and don’t listen to them.

Philip tells that many people in Pibor are very disappointed. The Arabs were businessmen. When they controlled the country it was much better, thinks the teenager dressed in a jeans and t-shirt, trudging through the muddy streets. There was electricity, streetlights, good prizes at the market and security, Ismail Kony indeed keeped the SPLA at a distance. Now we have our own country but we suffer. There are no roads, no electricity, barely schools, no good teachers, the products at the market are priceless and it is more dangerous than ever.
Different South Sudanese citizens criticize the SPLA soldiers for being lazy and that they don’t feel like to work after all those years of civil war. Jonglei’s Deputy Governor Hussein Mar Nyout blames it, however, at the lack of cars radio equipment and the impossible conditions in Jonglei. For days they have to move through marshy terrain, certainly during the six months of rain season when the majority of the roads are flooded. Because of this they can’t be everywhere.
Everyone, from politicians to young people, seems to agree Pibor has to develop as soon as possible. By constructing paved roads, it is possible to have better security, to enable economical activity, open moor schools and the Murle will come in contact with the outside world, tells the Deputy Governor. In that way they don’t live on a island for six months a year and they will learn there are other ways to survive than to steal cows. 18-Year old Philip even thinks that the government has to persuade young people to become farmers.

Coming in contact with the outside world is even more important for the Murle, because of their role during the civil war they are barely represented within the Lost Boys, who are relatively well educated in the United States. Once back in South Sudan they function as a speaking-tube for their tribe.
Politicians in Jonglei more often attempt to bring the local youth in contact. Baba Medan, minister of youth and sports, stimulates wrestling games, which are very populair in South Sudan. Youth of different tribes can get to know each other and therefore the mutual distrust will decrease. Commissioner Joshua Kony organizes together with local youth leaders in Pibor traditional dances. During a speech he tries to convince youth, decked with headdresses and animal skins, not to connect with Yau Yau any longer.

However, time will tell whether the South Sudanese government, who in his short life already has build a name in corruption and nepotism, will invest in the distant, slightly revolted region of the Murle.
Garang, the Dinka who lost almost all of his cows during a recent attack of his cattle camp doesn’t mull about the fact of stealing cows from the Murle. He tries to find other ways to earn money. He trades in cows and hopes to earn enough money as a English teacher to buy the remaining cows for a dowry. The 32-year old South Sudanese smiles. he property of your neighbours can never make you happy.