Llyr Attala

Post-2005 Integrations and Insurgencies

One of the challenges in understanding conflict in South Sudan is the seemingly constant development of new armed opposition groups, or the frequently changing loyalties and alliances. Dozens of groups have existed- although many are just factions or new iterations of old groups. Certain individuals have changed sides many times, such as Peter Gadet and David Yau Yau, and it can often be hard to keep track of the many small conflict actors- especially as many share the same acronyms. The split of the SPLA in 1991, and particularly the further fragmentation of groups, can be very complex[1]. In the past nine years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) many groups have seemingly appeared and subsequently disappeared again. Now some are part of the SPLA, or the SPLA-IO. Others are aligned with Khartoum, or claim to be supporting a separate political agenda. There are in general two groups most of the armed movements fall into- those that existed before the CPA, and those that arose after the 2010 election.


The Juba Declaration was a post-CPA offer of amnesty to all the armed movements in South Sudan. Its intent was to integrate the many militias that existed into the SPLA and government, rather than try and defeat them militarily. Leaders and their forces would be forgiven and not have to account for their past crimes. Many of the militias were under the South Sudan Defense Force (SSDF) umbrella, which was an outcome of the Khartoum Peace Agreement in 1997. The SSDF was composed of a fragile coalition of individual groups, who often fought amongst each other rather than against their intended target: the SPLA. In an attempt to gain control over the oil fields in Unity, Khartoum often pitted the groups against each other, such as Paulino Matip’s forces and Riek Machar’s.


While the majority returned to South Sudan and accepted the amnesty offer, others returned to Sudan instead and were integrated into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Most were, however, never fully integrated into the SPLA mainstream, while some felt they were ignored for promotions in later years for SPLA loyalists. Moreoever, many were deployed to their home areas under the same leadership structures as in the past, and loyalties lied primarily with these commanders– not the SPLA. A lack of trust in the SPLA leadership and a slow process of integration led to frustration.


Peter Gadet:


Gadet was slow in accepting the Juba Declaration which initially created suspicion. His brutal reputation while fighting with Paulino Matip during the factional fighting, then with the SPLA, and later with the SSDF also preceded him. Civilian populations were devastated in some of his attacks and many civilians in Bahr al Ghazal and Unity state hold significant grievances towards him to this day. He left the SPLA in March 2011 and started the SSLM/A movement but later signed a ceasefire with the GoSS in August 2011 (SAS 2011). Gadet was one of the first to defect in December to the SPLA-IO and has since been the commander for Jonglei, and more recently Unity states.


SSLM/A factions:


Although Gadet signed an agreement with GoSS in 2011, many splinter groups continued to fight under the SSLM/A name. After Gadet announced a ceasefire, others from his group accused him of accepting bribes and vowed to continue to fight. These men included Matthew Puljang, Bapiny Monituel, Kok Chara Nyang and James Gai Yoach. (SAS 2011)


The second group of rebels arose after the 2010 election. George Athor and David Yau Yau both competed for government positions but lost and consequently started armed movements against the government claiming undemocratic elections and election fraud.


George Athor:


Athor competed for the governorship of Upper Nile for the 2010 elections and lost, prompting him to start the SSDM/A movement. Unlike some of the other rebel leaders Athor had remained an SPLA loyalist from when he first joined in 1983 until he rebelled in 2010. His movement was a major supplier of arms to civilian youth in Jonglei. Athor was later killed in unclear circumstances in 2011.


David Yau Yau:


After losing the 2010 elections for Jonglei state member of parliament David Yau Yau began a rebellion in his home county of Pibor. Unlike many of the other movement leaders, Yau Yau had no previous military experience. He signed a peace agreement with the GoSS in 2011, but defected again in 2012 after the brutal SPLA disarmament of the Murle at the beginning of the year. This time he received much more support from the youth, and his movement changed its name to SSLA- Cobra Faction. Interestingly, Gadet was the commander sent to lead the counter-insurgency based in Boma against David Yau Yau in 2013 and captured the main base, but failed to kill Yau Yau himself. Yau Yau signed a new peace agreement with the government in 2014 under the circumstances of a newly created Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA)[2] that does not report to the state governor in Jonglei but to the president’s office instead. Yau Yau has been made the head of the GPAA.


Shilluk rebels:


The motivations behind the three Shilluk rebels- Robert Gwang, Alyuak Ogot and Johnson Olonyi- in the post-CPA period varied significantly from the other groups. All three had led individual militia groups, but claimed their political aims were regarding Shilluk land rights, i.e. that the Dinka were encroaching on Shilluk land. Local community grievances are the stated primary motivations and mobilization means for all three. The SPLA believed that Lam Akol, the leader of SPLM DC, was supporting the Shilluk movements, which further increased enmity between the SPLA leadership and Akol. Gwang joined the government in 2010. Johnson Olony and his forces were being integrated when the violence broke out in December 2013, and have since fought alongside the Government of South Sudan against the SPLA-IO. This has led to retaliations by the opposition and White Army against Shilluk civilians. Meanwhile, Lam Akol is now involved in the peace talks between the groups.


Small Arms Survey (www.smallarmssurvey.org) particularly (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/issue-briefs/HSBA-IB-18-Armed-insurgencies-Greater-Upper-Nile.pdf)


The White Army, Titweng and Gelweng


There are many misconceptions regarding armed civilian groups who participate in violence in South Sudan, such as the Nuer White Army, and Dinka Titweng or Gelweng. While the history and development of each varies from community to community, many rural communities formed defense forces during the previous civil wars. The government’s failure to provide the rule of law and security in the post-CPA period necessitated the continuation and re-establishment of community defense forces, as has civilian targeting in the current crisis. The establishment of these defense groups varies according to the specific local context. Some were frustrated with attacks from Khartoum, some from abuses by southern groups such as Anyanya II, the SPLA and its many factions, while others needed protection from other communities. Consequently these factions armed many communities in an attempt to gain allies, support, and a military advantage over their rivals. Importantly it should be remembered that while commanders might have had particular political agendas, community support for local defense groups was largely based off their ability to protect the community and carry out justice and revenge. Many communities in South Sudan created defense structures at different periods of vulnerability and frustration. The most well-known are the Nuer White Army and the Dinka Gelweng/Titweng.


The White Army continues the traditional mobilization structures of Nuer communities described by Evans Pritchard in the 1930s. Mobilization usually takes place at kinship and section levels within larger tribal segments, such as the Lou Nuer and Jikany Nuer. For example, Mor and Gun (Lou Nuer primary sections) often fight each other, but they also unite against an external enemy, as during large-scale mobilizations against the Jikany Nuer and lowland Murle (Breidlid and Arensen 2014). On rare occasions, larger tribal segments unite to face a common enemy, as the Jikany and Lou have done in the current conflict. These alliances are extremely fragile and could easily falter in response to the dynamic environment. Importantly, the Nuer youth of Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity do not fight under one command structure but are mobilized and organized under separate leaders (ibid).


While these mobilization structures have existed for generations, the political economy of the second civil war and large scale violence in recent decades has altered leadership structures and tactics. In the course of the previous war, Nuer faction leaders armed White Army members from their own communities. They manipulated kinship and section identity to mobilize support, which also contributed to increased militarization and fragmentation of Nuer communities (Breidlid and Arensen 2014). At the same time the increasing dependence upon the White Army for protection has seen the establishment of defined command and control structures among the youth. Observers of the impressive mobilization and coordination mechanisms frequently assume outside help. While the youth do receive some outside support, they also have highly developed leadership structures. For example, in 2012 the Lou Nuer White Army had collected cattle from among the youth to purchase satellite phones for the leadership to improve coordination between sections. The batteries for the few phones they owned had proven a challenge in a previous campaign and so the leadership had obtained mobile solar panels as well (Arensen 2012).


The SPLA initially armed the Titweng/Gelweng (which translates as ‘cattle guards’ in Dinka) after repeated raids by the SPLA-Nasir faction against Dinka communities in the early 1990s. Frustration over SPLA’s inability to provide security prompted SPLA to hand over responsibility to the community themselves through the distribution of guns. The SPLA organized the Titweng/Gelweng as a militia and they fought alongside them in 1997 while capturing large parts of Bahr al Ghazal. After the Wunlit peace agreement in 1999 the threats from Nuer raids decreased and the youth began to use the weapons in internal feuds (Nyaba 2001). This is an excellent example of the dynamics found within both the Nuer and Dinka described by experts such as Hutchinson and Harrigan. While a greater outside threat existed, the Dinka Gelweng banded together despite differences. As soon as the threat of the Nuer raids receded the internal tensions arose again and ‘brothers fought brothers.’ It shows the fragility of alliances across segments, clans and sections within both the Dinka and Nuer.


The SPLA quickly responded with a plan to disarm the Gelweng and other civilians with weapons. Not surprisingly, the following disarmament by the SPLA in 1999 was brutal and violent, and prompted significant grievances among the population (Nyaba 2011). After the signing of the CPA the SPLA also decided to disarm the White Army (2006). Once again the disarmament faced heavy opposition and initially over one hundred SPLA were killed by the White Army. This prompted a very heavy response by the SPLA who killed hundreds of Lou Nuer youth in the consequent disarmament campaign. The inability of the SPLA to provide security for the communities after the disarmaments saw the youth quickly rearm. The White Army was back to full strength within years.


Political elites have frequently manipulated these groups into participating in political contests, but the primary motivations of the participants rests in the protection of the community, justice in the form of revenge, and personal economic gains. As a result the control the military factions and elites have over the youth is usually minimal.


Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen. 2014. “Demystifying the White Army: Nuer armed civilians’ involvement in the South Sudanese Crisis.” Conflict Trends Issue 3, 2014. 32-38. (http://www.accord.org.za/images/downloads/ct/ct3_14_nuer_armed_civilians_involved_in_south_sudanese_crisis.pdf)


O’Brien, Adam. 2009. “Shots in the Dark: The 2008 South Sudan Civilian Disarmament Campaign,” Geneva: Small Arms Survey. (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-16-South-Sudan-Civilian-Disarmament-Campaign.pdf)


Nyaba, Peter. 2001. “The Disarmamament of the Gelweng of Bahr el Ghazal and The consolidation of the Nuer-Dinka Peace Agreement 1999.” (https://db.tt/umNSgolg)


Young, John. 2007. “The White Army: An Introduction and Overview,” Geneva: Small Arms Survey. (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-05-White-Army.pdf)



As discussed in the proliferation of guns section, the high number of weapons in the hands of civilians in South Sudan has had increasingly negative consequences and has changed the nature of warfare significantly in the past thirty years. It should come as no surprise that in the post-CPA period, civilian disarmament has been the main measure by the government and the international community to restore security in rural areas. While in theory disarmament campaigns are part of the solution to reducing violence in South Sudan, many factors have to be in place beforehand. Weapon sources would need to be cut off to stop populations from rearming. Security would need to be enforced in order to ensure communities who cannot protect themselves are not made more vulnerable to criminal actors. Rule of law and justice must be in place for those who steal or abduct. Until that time is reached, disarmament campaigns are more likely to escalate violence and grievances rather than reduce it.


In the absence of a conducive environment for disarmament, such initiatives have often exacerbated violence rather than reduced it. Furthermore, the process itself has been the source of major grievances against the SPLA and government due to the brutal methods employed, frequent human rights abuses, looting of civilian property, and the lack of consequences for soldiers who carry out these abuses. Rebel movements have been able to recruit young men as a result of these grievances.


Attempted disarmament of civilians has been the most frequent response to inter-communal violence in Jonglei. Since December 2005 it has been carried out five times (Amnesty International 2012). The last disarmament campaign in 2012 is an excellent example of the dilemma of disarmament. In 2011 the inter-ethnic conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle of Jonglei State peaked, with mass killings and abductions of women and children on both sides, prompting the government to embark on a large-scale disarmament campaign. Despite warnings from human rights organizations that past disarmaments have proven to be unsuccessful, often involving grave abuses, the government decided to move forward. In order to counter the past problems of imbalanced disarmaments, leaving disarmed communities vulnerable for attacks from armed neighbors, the entire region was to be disarmed at the same time. As many as fifteen thousand additional soldiers and five thousand extra police were deployed to Jonglei for the disarmament campaign (Amnesty International 2012).


Both Lou Nuer and Murle community members who were interviewed before this disarmament began claimed that they would be happy to disarm if they would receive government protection from rival raiders and armed groups. In the past the SPLA did not provide security to the newly disarmed communities. While the Lou Nuer initially received greater security, the counter-insurgency against Yau Yau pulled forces away. Moreover, in Pibor the process itself was appallingly brutal. Amnesty International traveled to Pibor in August 2012 to verify alleged reports of abuse. It found “that men, women and children were subjected to extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killing, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and unnecessary or excessive use of force by the SPLA and SSPS Auxiliary Force, including shootings, beatings, simulated drowning, and rape” (Amnesty International 2012:8).


Not surprisingly, these types of abuses exacerbated community grievances with the military and thus the government. Murle and Lou Nuer explained that past disarmament processes only worsened the relationship with the government and increased the feelings of marginalization. In addition the consequent raids from rival ethnic groups, who recognized they could not defend themselves, led to the quick rearming of the community. Some Murle respondents pointed out that in previous campaigns SPLA who disarmed them had then sold the weapons back to them in exchange for cattle (Arensen 2012 a). Moreover, the ease of access to the arms trade made it simple for communities on both sides to rearm through other means, quickly undermining any positive results.


Disarmaments in the past, as well as the one in 2012, have not only failed in creating security in Jonglei State, but have actually worsened the situation (Arensen 2012 a,b). They have exacerbated the frustrations the communities have towards the government and military. Disarmed communities also commonly complain over spikes in raids post-disarmament, which are adding to the grievances towards their rival communities (ibid). These issues regarding disarmaments are not unique to Jonglei or the Nuer and Murle communities. Unless future disarmament processes are carried out with minimal violence, soldiers who commit human rights abuses are held responsible, security is ensured afterwards by the state, justice and rule of law is applied to those who carry out criminal acts, and the ability of the communities to re-arm is ended, disarmaments will continue to be a conflict driver rather than a mitigating factor.


Amnesty International. 2012. “South Sudan: Lethal Disarmament.” London, United Kingdom. AFR 65/005/2012 (http://www.amnesty.org/ar/library/asset/AFR65/005/2012/en/a60e1cf6-168b-4fa2-a7ab-bd8167e964e7/afr650052012en.pdf)


Arensen, Michael. 2012. (a) “Murle Age-sets.” AECOM International South Sudan on behalf of USAID. Unpublished.


Arensen, Michael. 2012. (b) “Lou Nuer Youth: Report on the Recent Iteration of the White Army.” AECOM International South Sudan on behalf of USAID. Unpublished.


Child Soldiers in South Sudan and the SPLA


Records of the use of child soldiers in South Sudan date back as far as 1870 (Johnson 1992:168). The commercial slaving companies used ‘gun-boys’- children who were gun bearers for the professional soldiers. When the children grew older they then became slave soldiers themselves. These gun-boys started at ages as young as seven (ibid). Many professional militaries in the past, including the British as late as the twentieth century, had a reserve of child soldiers. These boys were often sons of soldiers and would be drafted in when they were old enough, or as needed (ibid). The colonial armies in northeast Africa retained some of the military slavery legacies that existed before them, including these reserves. This included both the Ugandan and Sudanese post-independence forces. Out of the 1,146 Sudan Defense Force soldiers who were involved in the Torit mutiny of 1955, thirty percent (380) were child soldiers (Johnson 1992:86).


Although the SPLA officially denied that they used child soldiers in the past, the evidence in a Human Rights Watch report from 1994 to the contrary is damning[3]. After the start of the second civil war in 1983, many South Sudanese fled to Ethiopia. The Mengistu regime at the time supported the SPLA’s efforts and the movement set up military bases in Ethiopia while receiving supplies and support from the Ethiopian government. South Sudanese refugees were subsequently settled in camps where they could receive humanitarian support. Starting in 1986, young boys were moved to Ethiopia by the SPLA for ‘educational’ opportunities (HRW 1994). While some boys volunteered to go to Ethiopia for safety and education, many were forced against their and their parents will. Villages were required by the SPLA to send some of their sons to Ethiopia. Upon arrival, the boys were put in ‘minors camps,’ which were separate camps without any families or adults. NGO workers were not allowed to stay in these camps in the evenings and the camps were run by the SPLA.


Although the SPLA claimed that all the boys were unaccompanied, one study from the time found that 20% had family in a camp nearby (ibid:14). From 1987 the SPLA maintained these separate camps for boys in Ethiopia, and by 1988 large numbers of boys were being marched to Ethiopia by the SPLA. In 1990 one observer saw boys being moved by vehicles to Ethiopia. The SPLA claimed that the boys were unaccompanied as they had fled from attacks by the government against cattle camps. While this could be true for some of them, the fact that others came from as far as Bahr al Ghazal meant that they likely did not all flee across South Sudan to Ethiopia (ibid).[4]


Upon arrival the boys that were sixteen and older were frequently taken directly to full time military training. The younger boys stayed in the camp, but would be taken for fighting as needed. The situation in the camp was dire; one NGO report of Fugnido camp from 1987 found many malnourished and naked boys with no shelters. Another survey from 1989 showed that 90% of the boys were either illiterate or in grade one (HRW 1994:14). The boys routinely told NGO workers they moved for education; however, one boy later claimed that they only had time for books when they had important visitors, otherwise they were working or training for the military (New Statesman 1994).


All of the boys received some level of military training. The smallest such recruits, as young as seven years old, were trained on school holidays. The older boys received full training over a period of three to four months to make them combat ready (HRW 1994:16). The boy soldiers came to be known as the Red Army, or Jesh Amer. One former Red Army officer explained that the boys were organized into battalions and were aged between fourteen and sixteen- those over sixteen having been put into normal training upon arrival (ibid). Officially the SPLA claimed the boys were being given military training in case the war effort lasted a long time and they eventually had to defend the south. They denied the boys were sent into combat, although there are many stories proving the boys were used to support the Ethiopian government against rebels as well as in battles in South Sudan.


In addition to the camps in Ethiopia, the SPLA also proposed to set up several schools in South Sudan to be run by its own Friends of African Children Educational (FACE) foundation (HRW 1994:20). Donors did not support the idea, but the SPLA created schools in Palataka, south of Torit, and in Molitokuro and Borongolei, north of Nimule. A visitor to the Palataka school in 1991 called the situation “shocking” (ibid:21). The boys were receiving military training and many of them were dying of starvation and preventable diseases.


In the first few years of operation the Red Army were sent to participate in battles but fared poorly (HRW 1994:16). As a result, they were taken away from the front line and were primarily used for more mundane tasks, such as defending towns or guarding prisoners. However, in the beginning of 1991 the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was under a lot of pressure from rebel movements. The SPLA supplied reinforcements for the Ethiopian government, and between 900-2000 of the boys were sent to fight, some as young as eleven. The children fought against Ethiopian rebels in Dembidolo in February 1991 and in Gore in April-May. Many of the children were killed (ibid:16).


The Mengistu regime, and primary benefactor for the SPLA, fell in May 1991. The SPLA lost their military bases and supply lines and some 350,000 Sudanese refugees fled back across the border (HRW 1994:16,17). It was estimated at the time that 17,000 boys were included in this group. Many of the boys fled to places on the South Sudanese side of the border, particularly Nasir, Pakok and Pochalla. ICRC registered the boys in order to return them to their families and had registered over 14,000 by the end of 1991. Some 10,000 were estimated to be in Pochalla, 2,000 in Pakok and 2,000 in Nasir, where the boys were moved to their own camp (ibid:17). The missing cultivation season from 1991 combined with the returning 350,000 refugees created a huge hunger gap, and the Sudanese government restricted relief efforts.


One former SPLA commander reported that after the fall of the Mengistu regime he was ordered to accompany an estimated 4,000 boys to Kapoeta for education. Once they reached Kapoeta the 1,500 boys who had finished their military training were immediately assigned to the SPLA. The other 2,500 received less than three months of training in Kapoeta and were then deployed. These boys were estimated to be between eleven and sixteen years old (HRW 1994:17).


When Riek Machar broke away in August 1991 to form the SPLA-Nasir faction, he used the civilian frustration with forced recruitment of children as a means of criticizing the SPLA leadership (HRW 1994:17). This criticism of child soldiers was not forthcoming before the split, and so it was likely a populist move to increase support both domestically and internationally.


In early 1992 the boys in Pochalla had to evacuate further south to places such as Boma and Kapoeta. The Sudanese military was planning a dry season offensive and Pochalla was a target. Some relief workers believed that the attack was partially motivated by the perception of the boys as combatants, or at least a reserve force for the SPLA (HRW 1994:18). ICRC assisted the children and others with stations along the route with medical assistance and provided food and water. They were consequently expelled from Sudan in March 1992 by the government. It is believed their protection role with the children and their assistance to the evacuees both played a part in their expulsion (idid:18).


The boys were accompanied to Kapoeta by the chief of military operations for SPLA Torit at the time, Salva Kiir (HRW 1994:19). In an interview Kiir explained that the plan was to settle the boys at a new camp near the Kenyan border where they could receive humanitarian assistance. A headcount upon arrival in Kapoeta on April 22 found 12,241 boys and another 6,600 ‘teachers and dependents’ (HRW 1994:19). While some 850 of the boys were Nuer from Leer, it was estimated that 90% of these boys were Dinka (ibid:20).


At the end of May 1992 Kapoeta fell to the government, and the residents fled across the border into Kenya to Lokichogio (HRW 1994:19). The 12,000 that were estimated to arrive in Lokichogio then moved to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Upon arrival it was discovered that there were 1500-3000 less boys than in Lokichogio, while some NGO and UN staff claimed that at least 1000 were seen returning to Lokichogio. It is believed that these boys were placed in the SPLA and were part of the attack on Juba by SPLA-Torit in June and July 1992 (ibid:20).


In addition to the camps in Ethiopia, the three FACE schools the SPLA had created in South Sudan were also used as training bases for boys. A visit by a journalist in February 1992 to the Palataka School found the children in awful conditions with no food and daily military exercises (HRW 1994:21). It was estimated that there were 4000 boys in the school at the time, most between ten and eleven years old, but some as young as seven. The children complained that they were taken by force from their families, including from the surrounding Acholi population. The Acholi complained that the SPLA had recruited boys from their community, some against the will of the parents (ibid:21). Due to the lack of food the boys often raided local Acholi fields, which led to fights between the local population and the boys. Evacuees in May 1992 who passed through Palataka reported they observed 3000 boys, some as young as five (ibid:21).


In April 1992 it was estimated that there were some 6000 boys in the three FACE schools, all in terrible conditions (HRW 1994:21). In July that year feeding centers were opened and health workers arrived in the schools. By that point the population had increased to 7,750 (ibid:21). Around six months later SPLA-Torit closed the Borongele and Molitoko schools claiming military threat as the reason. However, the IDP camps nearby were left and only the boys were moved. Out of the 4,350 boys estimated to be at the two schools, 3,650 received military training and were deployed into SPLA-Torit. The remaining 700 moved to the Palataka school (ibid:24). The newly deployed boys were part of the offensive in Kongor in March 1993 against the SPLA-Nasir faction.



Despite official denial that child soldiers were used by the SPLA, the evidence to the contrary is significant. Youth over sixteen were put directly into full military training, those between the ages of 11-16 were deployed as the SPLA needed, and boys as young as five still received some level of training. Although some of these boys volunteered under the pretext of an education, many were also forcefully recruited. Some 10,000 ended up in Kenya and were called the “lost boys.” Thousands of others were brought in to the SPLA as needed before they reached Kenya and were used to fight against Ethiopian rebels, the Sudanese government forces, and later in the internal SPLA wars of the 1990s.


It is unclear how much the various SPLA commanders at the time knew about the use of child soldiers. It is known that the current Minister of Defense Kuol Manyang sent boys from his region of Bahr al Ghazal to Ethiopia for education, as well as the Upper Nile commander at the time Riek Machar. Current President Salva Kiir helped accompany boys after 1991 to Eastern Equatoria with the stated intent of education in Kenya. However, with thousands of boys receiving training and participating in direct combat in Ethiopia and against Juba in 1992, it is doubtful that the major commanders at the time were unaware of their involvement. All three men are now at the top of the command structures in the current conflict. The expanding assimilation and use of civilian fighters as a means of gaining the upper hand shows the desperate need for greater numbers of fighters for both sides. As the number of adult recruits begins to dwindle in the current conflict, the potential for the recruitment and use of child soldiers is likely to increase.


In discussing the Red Army with South Sudanese many mention it, and their involvement in it, with pride. To have been a member of the Red Army holds a certain social status within much of South Sudanese society, just as being a member of the SPLA during the war does. Many Red Army members later became refugees in Kenya or elsewhere. There are extremely complex social dynamics within South Sudan between those who were directly involved in the SPLA, civilians who never left, those who were displaced regionally during the war and those who moved to western countries. Social status, and frequently access to government positions, is based partially on who are perceived to have personally sacrificed the most in the creation of South Sudan. Having been a member of the Red Army is a means of proving one’s involvement in the independence struggle. This has created a positive nostalgic perception of the Red Army within parts of South Sudanese society, although this should not be equated with support for the use of child soldiers in conflict. In addition those who were involved may have mixed feelings towards the Red Army, as well as purely negative ones depending on their individual experiences.


Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied

Boys in Southern Sudan. Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)


Human Rights Watch. 1995. “Children in Sudan: Slaves, Street Children and Child Soldiers.” (http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8264.html)


Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: Civilian Devastation- Abuses by all parties in the war in Southern Sudan. New York.


Johnson, Douglas. 1989. "The Structuring of a Legacy: Military Slavery in Northeast Africa," Ethnohistory 36:I, pp. 72-88.

Johnson, Douglas. April 1992. "Recruitment and Entrapment in Private Slave Armies: The Structure of the Zara'ib in the Southern Sudan," Slavery & Abolition 13 London.

New Statesman and Society. Sept 2, 1994. “Letter from Nairobi” (https://www.dropbox.com/s/61c1fc649x602zu/New%20Statesman.docx?dl=0)

Children among civilian armed groups


In addition to the recruitment of boys by established military forces, such as the SPLA and various SPLA factions, the use of underage children in civilian defense groups and militias has also continued to expand. The increased militarization of communities in South Sudan, particularly in the 1990s, played an important role in this. The arming of the Nuer White Army by Riek Machar and the Dinka Titweng and Galweng, or cattle guards, by the SPLA, expanded political violence into the civilian sphere.


At the same time the introduction of modern weapons also lowered the entrance requirements for youth engaging in violence and raiding, which used to be limited to men in their peak but now includes boys and men past their prime (Breidlid & Arensen 2014). While the UN definition of ‘youth’ is between 18-24, within these pastoral societies, the definition has ballooned to include as much as a forty-year range, all who are expected to protect their community and therefore participate in violence (Rolandsen and Breidlid 2013). Once boys go through the initiation ceremony (frequently accompanied by various scarring patterns dependent on the ethnic group) they gain the benefits of being an adult in society, along with all the responsibilities and privileges this holds.


According to Douglas Johnson, among the Nuer “starting in the 1950s the age-sets have been initiated more frequently, and the age of initiates has declined to ages thirteen and fourteen in the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to fears on the part of fathers that scarification would be banned” (HRW 1994:14). In Upper Nile, Machar tried to ban scarification in the late 1980s and in some places he even penalized those who carried out the practice. Now the age of initiates can be as low as nine or ten, and could be pushed even earlier if the current conflict continues. Once boys receive the scarring they are deemed adults within society and therefore are involved in adult responsibilities, like protecting the community. It also means that the adults, such as mothers, cannot tell the new ‘men’ what to do, and it is their own independent choice to participate or not[5]. Much like the SPLA used the Red Army primarily for more mundane tasks, such as guards, the civilian groups also often assign the young boys different tasks than the full grown men. The expanding need for civilian fighters to participate in political conflicts in the 1990s, and now again in 2014, will likely continue to put pressure on younger boys to go through initiation earlier so that they can participate in conflict.


Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen. 2014. “Demystifying the White Army: Nuer armed civilians’ involvement in the South Sudanese Crisis.” Conflict Trends Issue 3, 2014. 32-38. (http://www.accord.org.za/images/downloads/ct/ct3_14_nuer_armed_civilians_involved_in_south_sudanese_crisis.pdf)


Human Rights Watch. 1994. “Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied

Boys in Southern Sudan.” Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)


Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Ingrid Marie Breidlid. 2013. “What is Youth Violence in Jonglei?”, PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO (http://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=7067)


Displacement of civilians


As mentioned in the ethnic profiles section, as far back as five hundred years ago many of the migrations by peoples into South Sudan were due to famines, drought, and slave raids in their places of origin. When facing famine or continual slave raids many ethnic groups migrated to new lands south along the Nile. It is not known if other groups were pushed out by these initial migrations, but later expansions, such as the Nuer in the 19th century, saw the assimilation of many outsiders while others moved further away (Hutchinson 2012). The British attempted to reduce ethnic tensions over land by defining clear borders and creating annual meetings between chiefs to solve any disputes[6]. This largely reduced the mass migrations of peoples to seasonal movement, with a few exceptions.[7] In the past few decades the primary causes of mass migration have remained the same: war and famine. During the second civil war, Ethiopia was initially the primary destination of many South Sudanese seeking refuge, due to the Mengistu regime’s support of the SPLA. After the fall of his regime in 1991 hundreds of thousands of refugees had to flee across the border back to South Sudan where they remained highly vulnerable. A drought at this time combined with the high number of returnees exacerbated food insecurity and led to violence over limited food resources.[8] Many South Sudanese also fled to the borders with Northern Uganda and Northern Kenya and settled in refugee camps where they could access education and receive aid.


While many South Sudanese fled to other countries, a large amount never left the country when relocating. Very little research has been carried out on where populations within South Sudan flee internally and what coping mechanisms they employ, but it varies from family to family, not by ethnic group. An in-depth study is needed throughout the country, but destinations continually change with political dynamics and alliances and a comprehensive mapping that accurately predicts future movement is likely impossible. In general, depending on the risks and dangers, most people move either to “the bush,” to extended family in safer locations, and occasionally to other ethnic groups. Due to the challenge of accessibility in much of South Sudan, fighting tends to focus around key towns, cities or resources. During the dry season from January to May, much of the country is accessible by vehicle, but the rest of the year, due to the rains, walking is the only means of transportation in much of the country. Much of the Greater Upper Nile region floods and is under water with small areas of elevated land that remains above the flooding. The rainy season is both a blessing and a curse to vulnerable people. By fleeing to homesteads in difficult accessible areas that are largely flooded, many people can reduce the chances of being targeted. This has been a coping mechanism since slave raids hundreds of years ago. However, it conversely increases their risk of disease, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, and inability to receive humanitarian support. If a town or area nearby has received humanitarian aid and is deemed safe to reach and access then women will often be sent to receive goods and bring them back to the homestead. While women are sent as they are less likely to be killed, they are putting themselves at huge risk of SGBV and protection becomes a key concern. Defining where people go in these situations is difficult as frequently they are very spread out to reduce the chance of being targeted. This makes it extremely challenging for aid agencies to find and reach out to them and to map out locations of beneficiaries, as was the case with the Murle in 2013.


If those at risk have extended family, either through blood or marriage, in a safe location they will often flee there. This is more common among the largest groups, such as the Dinka and Nuer, who have wider family networks due to their larger population sizes and territories than minorities.[9] Often the vulnerable, the women and children in particular, as well as the elderly, who have greater challenges in moving far distances by foot, will be sent to stay with extended family. The men will stay to protect their homestead and livestock. Following a Murle raid on Dengjok in Akobo County in 2012, thousands of Lou Nuer families were being accommodated with Jikany Nuer relatives in Nasir, further north and away from the risk of Murle raids. People can also move to stay with other ethnic groups they have close relations with, such as Nuer from Unity staying in Warrap with Dinka or the Dinka Nyarweng staying with Lou Nuer, if they can negotiate peaceful relations outside of the wider conflict. However, the greater political context continually changes the dynamics and it is impossible to say where exactly people will move to in times of shock and violence.


People move dependent upon current alliances, conflict dynamics, and threats. These factors are, however, constantly changing. For example, the Lou Nuer and Murle conflict in the past few years has led to thousands of deaths. However, in the 1990s internal Lou Nuer feuds in Akobo were at such a level that one of the families decided to migrate elsewhere. As the Jikany Nuer and Lou Nuer were having major skirmishes throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the Jikany Nuer areas were not deemed a safe destination. According to Murle chiefs from the area the Lou Nuer family instead migrated and lived in Lekuongole, in Pibor County with the Murle, for a few years. These dynamics were reversed a couple of decades later as Lou Nuer fled to stay with the Jikany Nuer in Nasir due to Murle threats. Between 2009 and 2013 significant clashes between the Lou Nuer and Murle led to thousands of deaths. However, a peace agreement between the two groups suddenly arose in 2014 once the Nuer, who generally support SPLA-IO, had the greater threat of the government to contend against. Communities in South Sudan consistently adapt their relationships depending on the current political and economic dynamics. The constantly shifting alliances found in South Sudan at the national and local levels must be understood and considered when trying to predict movement due to threats of violence or food insecurity.


Importantly, military groups have abused the displacement and vulnerability of civilians in their areas of control to buttress their own movements. For example, Riek Machar’s SPLA-Nasir faction was accused of doing this in the early 1990s. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing back across the border from Ethiopia after the fall of the Mengistu regime, the region was extremely vulnerable. Access was extremely challenging as the Sudanese regime restricted the access of humanitarian agencies (HRW 1994). Drought in the early 1990s only exacerbated the situation and was an important cause of conflicts within the Nuer themselves (Jikany and Lou). The SPLA-Nasir faction focused on the needs of 2,000 children in Nasir as a means of increasing humanitarian support to the community, but much of it was redirected to the movement itself. The children stayed in a state of malnutrition, which facilitated the continuation of assistance. A nutritional survey at the time of the split, in August 1991, found that 60% of the boys in Nasir were moderately malnourished while a later study at the end of the year found that 30% of the children were suffering from severe malnutrition (HRW 1994:18). Months of assistance for the children had been redirected to the movement. The SPLA-Nasir faction was not the only group to do this, and the redirection of humanitarian assistance is a huge risk in the current conflict. Beneficiaries are likely targets for the ‘sharing’ of supplies, especially when out of sight of humanitarian monitors. There are no easy solutions to this problem, but it must be recognized as a significant risk by humanitarian and protection workers. The worst case scenario is that, much like in the early 1990s, support is abused to prolong the conflict while the neediest stay in a state of permanent vulnerability.


Human Rights Watch. 1994. “Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied

Boys in Southern Sudan.” Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)


Hutchinson, Sharon. 2012. “A Guide to the Nuer of Jonglei State Part One: Nuer and Dinka patterns of migration and settlement” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March 2012. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/tv1q0sfuaac1c1j/Doc%202%20-%20Composite%20Nuer%20NoPics.pdf?dl=0)


Traditional conflict mechanisms and reconciliation ceremonies in South Sudan


The myriad societies in rural South Sudan have historically had many methods and mechanisms in order to reduce violence and bring back a balance between rival clans or ethnic groups. Ceremonies vary from group to group, but in many of these events weapons were broken (in the past spears) and buried as a symbol of peace, often together with other objects. In addition bulls were usually sacrificed as a means of confirming the agreement. Those who broke the agreement faced spiritual consequences such as curses and even death. In intra-ethnic cases of murder bloodwealth was often required- essentially murderers had to pay back the lost life in cattle wealth[10]. Hutchinson explains that among the Nuer the initial cost was similar to bridewealth. The family could then find a wife that could bear more children for the family as a replacement for the killing (1996). This changed over time and bloodwealth became much higher than bridewealth.


However, many of these traditional reconciliation ceremonies and conflict mechanisms have been seriously undermined by decades of war and the consequent militarization of societies. In addition, while the church has often taken a lead role in peace engagement, and remains a major actor, it has often been at the expense of traditional mechanisms. In many societies the murder of another person carried with it spiritual consequences and many reconciliation ceremonies involved the ‘cleansing’ of the killer through traditional means. The modern church often sees these ceremonies as animist and non-Christian[11]. Furthermore, the SPLM/A administration discouraged cleansing rituals as to facilitate civilian participation in warfare.


Meanwhile, the direction international actors take in local peace engagements often lead to the use of widespread peace tropes and generalized terminology. While the use of common peace theories and the modern church are both advantageous to reaching a sustainable peace, it is often at the cost of the already existing mechanisms. Many of these traditional ceremonies and actors are not known or engaged with by NGOs or peace mediators despite still playing important roles. Interestingly the Wunlit talks in 1999, which are frequently cited as a rare success story, included a combination of traditional mechanisms and modern conflict resolution.


For example, the most important Nuer prophet, Ngundeng Bong, died over a century ago, but is still revered by most of the Nuer population as well as non-Nuer (Johnson 1994). Riek Machar has attempted to tie himself to both past and current Nuer prophets, and has used them as a means of mobilization both in the 1990s and the current conflict. Machar brought back Ngundeng’s rod, perceived as a symbol for power, to South Sudan in 2009. Ngundeng’s original prophecies talked about the rise of a leader, and Machar would like to be perceived as the fulfillment of that prophecy (Breidlid & Arensen 2014). In the ongoing conflict he has also reached out to Dak Kueth and other modern Nuer prophets in order to consolidate their influence with the youth into his political movement. Despite their influence, prophets are rarely included in government or NGO peace processes[12].


Aside from anthropological studies from before the second civil war, there are no recent studies on the current role of these mitigation mechanisms and actors[13]. Spiritual leaders often play a dual role of both peace makers and peace spoilers, and therefore need to be included in peace processes. This would help ensure ownership of these engagements. An in-depth study of traditional conflict mechanisms and actors, and how they have been effected, or manipulated, by the war, is necessary.


Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen. 2014. “Demystifying the White Army: Nuer armed civilians’ involvement in the South Sudanese Crisis.” Conflict Trends Issue 3, 2014. 32-38. (http://www.accord.org.za/images/downloads/ct/ct3_14_nuer_armed_civilians_involved_in_south_sudanese_crisis.pdf)


Hutchinson, Sharon. 1996. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Johnson, Douglas. 1994. Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Oxford University Press.



Historically livestock were the primary targets of raids, and the conflicts occurred between the men in the societies who were responsible for defense and carrying out justice in the form of revenge. Academics argue that women and children were rarely the targets of raids and inter-ethnic warfare before the 1990s (Jok and Hutchinson 1999). However, one major exception to this was the abduction of women and children.


Abductions are not a new phenomenon in South Sudan, and records show it has been practiced by many ethnic groups both in the past and even today. Abductions are a means of expanding family or wealth. The social pressures on women to have children, and the fact that children and young women have become ‘property’ to be stolen and sold, has led to abductions being part of the political economy of warfare. The fluid identity found among many ethnic groups means that victims usually become assimiliated into their new culture. As most people are unlikely to admit their involvement in the illicit trade, current information on the issue is extremely limited and more research is urgently needed. Based on various interviews by the author and anecdotal evidence, the issue of abduction in South Sudan appears to be both more complex and more nuanced than one is often led to believe.


The value of women in many South Sudanese societies is closely connected to their ability to bear children. Girls provide a brideprice when they are later married, which helps to cover the original brideprice paid for the mother. Boys are valued as they are able to continue the family lineage, protect the family, and increase the family herds through raiding. If a woman cannot have children, then the original brideprice paid for her can be asked to be returned by the husband’s family. This creates significant social pressures on a woman to have children.


Due to these pressures, there have been child markets in South Sudan as far back as records exist. Information on the trade in children is even harder to find than abductions. Colonial records mention a market outside Bor, in Jonglei State, where children were bought and sold in the past. Sources in Jonglei also referred this market in interviews (Arensen 2012 b). Children were sold or traded, usually in exchange for cattle, to those families who wanted to expand or those who were unable to have their own children. While some of the children were abducted, others were sold by poor families out of economic desperation. In addition children who were born from culturally defined ‘incest’ were often sold, either at the market, or directly. Incest in this case does not adhere to the western understanding of the concept. Among some cultures in South Sudan incest includes relations between people who share patrilineal bloodlines i.e. relations with cousins from your father’s side is deemed incest, while cousins from the mother’s side are marriageable. Who is defined as family, and who is marriageable, can become extremely complex as ethnic groups have different rules and family lines are well known many generations back.


While the market outside Bor has been closed for a long time, some sources claim the direct sale of children has occurred as recently as the late 2000s. The prices for purchasing children in the post-CPA period varied a great deal, from as low as ten cattle to as high as fifty (Arensen 2012 b). As with other illegal markets where the rule of law does not apply, criminals have begun to use the market as a means of scamming the desperate. Reports exist of families who have purchased children from criminals, but then later were accused of abduction themselves (ibid). The authorities have later forced them to return the children. This leaves the family without the cattle they originally paid, as well as no child.[14] One older Murle woman exclaimed in an interview that she was now ‘owed a child’ as she has been left with no cattle wealth and her ‘son’ was also taken from her (ibid). An older woman with no children or cattle in South Sudan is in a position of extreme vulnerability.


In some ethnic groups the adopted children are given the full rights provided to them as a member of society. They take over the family herds, continue the family legacy and in some cases even receive social positions that are normally passed on through hereditary lines. In Mice or Men Jon Arensen narrates the story of a well-known chief in Pibor at the time (1970s):


One of the prominent chiefs among the Murle is a man who was originally a Masongo (Majangir) from Ethiopia. His story is well known among the Murle people. They say that he was originally captured as a boy by the Anuak when they made a raid on the Masongo. He was later traded to a Murle chief for a single elephant tusk. He was then raised as a son of the Murle chief and has inherited his position. Even though everyone knows his background, he is considered by all to be a Murle and a legitimate chief. (1992:40)


Meanwhile, a Murle man from the 1940s who worked with the Pibor District Commissioner claimed that he was originally Pari and was abducted by Murle in a raid while a baby. However when he was around twelve he was abducted again along with a few dozen other women and children by the Lotuko and was raised as a Lotuko (Jon Arensen 2013). Identity is fluid among many ethnic groups in South Sudan[15] and assimilation of one community into another was common in the past. Jok and Hutchinson explain that women have a more flexible ethnic identity than men. Inter-ethnic marriage was a common means of building relations between groups as well as a means of assimilation (2002). The flexibility regarding the identity of women meant that those abducted could be married into their new society and not be treated as an outsider. The increasing use of ethnicity as a means of mobilizing for conflicts in the past thirty years has begun to change this perception, and identity has become more fixed.


The motivations for abductions are also closely tied to the political economy of warfare. Children are abducted either with the intention of expanding one’s family, or for selling the child in exchange for cattle. Young men might abduct a child for a sister or family member who is not able to have children. Alternatively, he may sell the child to a childless lady or couple. Essentially young women and children are often perceived as ‘property’ to be stolen, sold and bought. Abducted women are usually traded or sold for cattle rather than kept with the abductor himself- as this is commonly considered taboo. Women who are not bought with brideprice are not given the status of a wife in society.[16] Young men would historically not be able to marry at a young age due to the high cost of brideprice and their dependence on the extended family to donate the cattle. The two common means for young men to access cattle, and therefore marriage, is by either stealing cattle or by abducting women and children they can exchange for cattle. Young women or adolescent girls are targets, as they have many years of child-bearing age left.


Conflicts further expanded the demand for abductions as families lose their children to war. Those too old to have more children look to adopt or buy children. In South Sudan parents are dependent upon their children to take care of them in old age and to continue the family legacy. A man with no children, especially no sons, is at a great loss in South Sudan, and many groups historically practiced levirate marriage to ensure a man with no children has them even after he dies[17]. Although based on limited information, those who were in the market for children fell into two categories- families who are unable to have their own, or older women who have lost all their children in conflict (Arensen 2012 b).


Politicised rhetoric and stereotypes of the Murle


There is a widespread narrative found in the media, as well as among both government and NGO officials, that abduction is only practiced by the Murle ethnic group in Jonglei as they have issues of sterility. As the narrative is so common, and false, these stereotypes will be directly addressed. Historic records show abductions was common among many ethnic groups in South Sudan in the past, and in recent years other ethnic groups have also admitted involvement in abductions. For example, Lou Nuer youth admitted in 2012 to abducting women and children from the Murle during major attacks (Arensen 2012 a). While the youth claimed the abductions were only in response to Murle abductions, the stealing of women and children has become part a normal part of the political economy of war in South Sudan. In cyclical violence the motivations behind ‘revenge abductions’ loses significance after years of cyclical violence.


The most common abduction myth in South Sudan is that the Murle people abduct due to issues of sterility. This rhetoric has no basis in current medical data, and it is also used as a means to emasculate the Murle, frequently regarded as the pariah of Jonglei State[18]. Records from B.A. Lewis and Jon Arensen, two Murle experts, show that there were periods in the past where Murle did face fertility challenges. These are likely the source of the current myth. Lewis worked as an administrator during the 1930s and 1940s and claims that the Murle complained of the “infertility of their women” due to the introduction of gonorrhea by the military posted in Pibor (1972). Later Lewis refers to the newfound fertility of the Murle.[19] (1972:154,160). Jon Arensen also heard of temporarily reduced birthrates among the Murle in the 1960s due to venereal disease, but it is unclear if this was a continuation of the gonorrhea from Lewis’ time or a new disease. However, a campaign by WHO eradicated the disease in Pibor in the 1960s, and infertility among the Murle has not been identified as a problem in the past fifty years. While the period of reduced fertility increased demand among the Murle for children, abductions were common long before these periods, and not just among the Murle. The administrator BA Lewis states, “it will be interesting to see if the new-found fertility in Murle women will curb the illicit trade in ‘incest children’ for cattle with the Bor Dinka; a practice frowned upon by authority, but difficult to prevent” (1972:160).


Policy implications for protection workers


Records from the 1940s, 1970s, as well as examples from the past few years show administrators struggling with the identification and return of abducted children. In addition further sensitivities and challenges for child protection workers arise when children are too young to remember being abducted and now primarily identify with their new adopted family and ethnic group. For example, one male adult in Pibor refused to return to his original family, as he was old enough to remember being sold when he was a child. As the oldest son in his adopted family he had access to the family herds, and asked why he would want to return to be a seventh child with no cattle wealth or prospects in a family that gave him away (Arensen 2012 b). To complicate the matter, legal adoptions have become increasing common as people try to increase their family through legitimate means. Recent changes in Ugandan adoption law, and the independence of South Sudan, has reduced adoptions from Uganda and Sudan, which people identified as the most common destinations for those wanting children in the past. Easing regulations and accessibility of adoption within South Sudan could be considered as a means of reducing illicit methods of gaining children.


In conclusion, the issue of abductions in South Sudan is far more complex and nuanced than is usually portrayed by the media, government and international actors. The political economy of war, the cultural and economic significance of children for families, the perception of women and children as property, the lack of economic alternatives- and therefore social access to marriage- among young men, the economic desperation of families who sell children, the taboos regarding ‘incest children,’ the cycle that arises from revenge abductions, and the need to replace lost children killed in conflicts are all directly linked to the root causes of abductions within the country. Furthermore new restrictions has meant that families are facing greater challenges in being able to adopt through legal channels. All these influences must be understood and integrated into a holistic approach in order to end the practice of abduction.


Arensen, Jon. 2011. Chasing the Rain. Old Africa Books.


Arensen, Jon. 1992. Mice are Men: Language and Society among the Murle of Sudan. Summer Institute of Linguistics.


Arensen, Michael. 2012. (a) “Murle Age-sets.” AECOM International South Sudan on behalf of USAID. Unpublished.


Arensen, Michael. 2012. (b) “Lou Nuer Youth: Report on the Recent Iteration of the White Army.” AECOM International South Sudan on behalf of USAID. Unpublished.


Hutchinson, Sharon and Jok Madut Jok. 2002. “Gendered Violence and the Militarisation of Ethnicity: A Case Study from Southern Sudan.” In Richard Werbner, ed. Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. London: Zed Books


Laudati, Ann. 2011. “Victims of Discourse: Mobilizing Narratives of Fear and Insecurity in Post-Conflict South Sudan- The Case of Jonglei State” (https://www.dropbox.com/s/bjub5w7f5zp3lpy/Laudati%20article%20AGR%2030n1%20June%202011.pdf?dl=0)


Lewis, B.A. 1972. The Murle: Red Chiefs and Black Commoners. Oxford Clarendon Press.


Land rights as a cause of conflict


Disputes over land rights are one of the primary causes of conflicts with South Sudan. The most common image is of cattle camp youth from rival communities fighting over access to pasture or water points. Access to a fishing pool during a period of food insecurity in 1993 was the flashpoint of the decades long conflict between the Lou Nuer and Jikany Nuer. The need for Lou Nuer to have access to permanent water points has been one of the primary reasons for their clashes with both Anuak and Jikany Nuer in the past few decades- in both conflicts the Lou Nuer have gained important land along the Pibor River. Conflicts over administrative borders have also been common source of violence in the post-CPA period, often involving local politicians and government officials. Finally, tensions exist over perceived land grabbing in rural areas.


While clashes frequently occur over resources, existing resource-sharing agreements between local communities are often ignored. Cattle camp youth and elders have annual land-sharing agreements in place- even across ethnic lines. Despite violent clashes between 2011 and 2013, the Murle and Lou Nuer had local border sharing agreements as recently as 2010, led by the cattle camp leaders. In the annual dry season migration by Lou Nuer to Jikany Nuer territory the White Army leaders and elders set out an agreement for the season. Clashes between youth often take place at the cattle camps, and most of these raids take place at the end of the dry season, when cattle camp youth are ready to return home and are not risking the potential loss of access to water points or grazing lands for an entire dry season. These small scale raids also do not necessarily mean the loss of access in the next dry season, when another agreement is made.


Local politicization of state, county and payam borders also plays an important role in fueling local conflicts. Schomerus and Allen found that political borders and decentralization played a significant role in land disputes in South Sudan (2010). After fighting for decades against the centralization of power in Khartoum and the marginalization of the South, the SPLA made decentralization a priority in government documents after the CPA (Schomerus and Allen 2010:22). However, the implementation of this policy has stalled, and power is still extremely centralized- only this time in Juba rather than Khartoum. This is one of the areas in which South Sudan is “at odds with itself”- the policy of decentralization is moving forward in theory, while actual power is increasingly centralized (ibid). The policy of decentralization has led to local power struggles at the county level, particularly regarding border lines. Increasing tensions and conflicts between counties is occurring due to the “ethnicisation of politics at the local level, where counties are being drawn along tribal lines […] fuelling nepotism and patronage in politics” (ibid:39). The competition for political space often occurs along borders- the north/south border, and between states, counties and payams. The perception among many civilians is that access to development funds and representation at the state level starts at the county level. Therefore every ethnic group, or clan, wants their own county. However, demarcating borders along ethnic lines also has the potential to increase tensions and fuel conflicts between groups. In addition the “selection of county commissioners […] has been shaped by tribal calculations” (ibid:41). In the interim period from 1972-1983, and later as part of Garang’s ‘caretaker’ system, leaders were intentionally selected from different ethnic groups or regions (ibid:41). This was used as a means of reducing tribalism, but also to ensure administrators did not face pressure or complaints of bias for their own group. In the current system local government leaders are accused of favoritism and potentially exacerbate tensions due to their personal loyalties, rather than act as mediators.


Aside from localized land disputes over resources or political borders, a new potential factor in land disputes in the future will be the sale or loan of land to the commercial sector. David Deng revealed that between 2007 and the end of 2010 over 2.5 million hectares of land were acquired by foreign interests for forestry, biofuel and agriculture uses (2011:7). If tourism, conservation and domestic investments are included then the figure tops 5.5 million hectares- or nine percent of the total land of South Sudan (ibid). The acquisition of land to foreign interests is becoming more common in recent years. It is hoped that the investments will bring in funds, and therefore jobs and taxes, to the local economy. However, without the correct laws and regulations in place to monitor these sales, the continual ‘land grabbing’ instead becomes a potential conflict driver. The lack of implementation, or clear regulations, regarding land rights and tenure in South Sudan at this time means the large scale sale of land is extremely risky and could become major conflict drivers for years to come.


Deng, David. 2011. “The New Frontier: A baseline survey of large-scale land-based investment in Southern Sudan.” Norwegian People’s Aid. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/r95amy1vihjaas8/Deng%20-%202011%20-%20The%20New%20Frontier%20A%20baseline%20survey%20of%20large-scale%20land-based%20investment%20in%20Southern%20Sudan%282%29.pdf?dl=0)


Nucci, Domenico. 2004. “Study on arbitration, mediation and conciliation of land and property disputes.” Norwegian Refugee Council. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/wf6flntccm76ph7/Nucci%20-%202004%20-%20Study%20on%20arbitration%2C%20mediation%20and%20conciliation%20of%20land%20and%20property%20disputes-annotated.pdf?dl=0)


Schomerus, Marieke and Tim Allen. “South Sudan at Odds with Itself: Dynamics of Conflict and Predicaments of Peace.” LSE. Pact Sudan and DFID. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/k0fus8mxazgt5jw/LSE%20south%20sudan%20at%20odds%20with%20itself.pdf?dl=0)


Gender Based Violence


There is no section on gender based violence but it is recognized that readers might be interested in reports on the topic. The three below are recommended.


Hutchinson, Sharon and Jok Madut Jok. 2002. “Gendered Violence and the Militarisation of Ethnicity: A Case Study from Southern Sudan.” In Richard Werbner, ed. Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. London: Zed Books


Small Arms Survey. 2012. “Women and Armed Violence in South Sudan.” (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/south-sudan/womens-security/HSBA-women-and-armed-conflict.pdf)


Small Arms Survey. 2008. “No standing, few prospects: how peace is failing South Sudanese female combatants and WAAFG.” (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/issue-briefs/HSBA-IB-13-no-standing-few-prospects.pdf)






Socio-cultural profiles of Major Ethnic Groups in Greater Upper Nile


South Sudan is an extremely diverse country with dozens of ethnic groups and languages. Further complicating this is that many groups consist of different sub-groups with various dialects. Anthropological studies on groups South Sudan are some of the most well known in the field, particularly Evans-Pritchard’s seminal study on the Nuer from the 1930s. However, decades of war have meant that most research since the 1950s occurred in the period of peace between the first and second civil wars, or were done remotely. Most primary research therefore is either from the colonial period or from thirty to twenty years ago. The challenges of access and security have limited field studies since the mid-1980s, although many anthropologists from before that have continued to write remotely, or have conducted research in refugee camps. Importantly, there are a few excellent exceptions, including South Sudanese academics. In addition, much research carried out in the post-CPA period is still being written and has yet to be published.


It is highly recommended that primary sources by anthropologists are read to complement these short profiles. Some of the better known anthropologists are listed after each profile, with some of their principal works (or at least the most accessible for non-anthropologists), but the list is in no way comprehensive. Social structures are extremely complex and in constant flux. The high amount of ethnic groups in South Sudan means that many peoples have very little anthropological research written about them. The current conflict means that this will likely continue to be the case. A very short list of anthropologists for some of the smaller groups not profiled here is also given. An excellent source for some of the less visible ethnic groups is the Gurtong webpage, which has profiles on dozens of people groups within South Sudan (http://www.gurtong.net/Peoples/PeoplesProfiles/tabid/71/Default.aspx).


A list of the counties where various Nuer and Dinka clans are located is more likely to confuse rather than clarify. Instead the UNOCHA ethnic map of South Sudan is a great visual guide (https://www.dropbox.com/s/s5326kcw57kqcp3/SS%20Ethnic%20Map.pdf?dl=0). Keep in mind many of the borders given between groups are not as well defined or are along exact lines as portrayed on the map- many of these areas are contested, shared or both.


Any mistakes or gaps are the author’s alone. Corrections, clarifications or updates are welcome.






Ethnic group: Dinka (Jieng or Muony-jang)


Language group: Nilotic



There are over twenty major Dinka clans. Some of these include- Rek, Ruweng, Bor, Twic, Nyarweng, Hol, Agar, Gok, Rek, Aliab, Ciec, Thoi, Luach, Ngok, Renk, Malual, Abiliang, Padeng, and Atwot. The Dinka are generally found in Greater Bahr al Ghazal, Greater Bor, and Upper Nile. See the UNOCHA ethnic map of South Sudan for locations.


Related groups: Nuer


Historic movement:


Oral traditions dictate that the Dinka migrated from Gezira between the 14th and 16th centuries due to drought and slave raids. They moved south following the Nile into the Bahr al Ghazal region and are believed to be one of the later groups to arrive in South Sudan.


Livelihoods: Agro-pastoralists


The Dinka peoples are very diverse. Similar to other pastoralists in rural South Sudan and in the wider region, cattle are a central part of Dinka livelihoods and society. The Dinka primarily rely upon livestock, but are also engaged in planting (cultivation) and fishing during the dry season. The importance of fishing and agriculture on food security, however, varies between communities. Like other agro-pastoralists, many Dinka communities are reliant on moving with their cattle in the dry season (usually January to May) to the toic (swamps in the rainy season which turn into pasture in the dry season), where they set up temporary cattle camps. Here the cattle are able to access water and grazing for part of the year. Fishing is usually best in the dry season as the rivers and pools get low and fish are easier to catch. At the beginning of the rainy season (June/July) the people return to their homesteads and fields are planted. This time is often the most significant hunger period for South Sudanese agro-pastoralists, as the cattle are not producing much milk and the fields are yet to be ready for harvesting. Once the harvest is ready people celebrate. At the end of the year drums are often heard from marriage celebrations or dances. Once the dry season returns in January the cattle are taken back to the cattle camps and the cycle starts again.


Historical Social Structure:


Before the colonial era the Dinka were an acephelous society- meaning they had no hierarchy or centralized system of coordination and control[20]. Instead the Dinka have been organized into a number of major inter-linked, but independent clans. The leaders that existed before the arrival of the British were either military, religious, kin group, or cattle camp elders who decided when to migrate. Loyalty and identity lied primarily with kin, not with the ethnic group as a whole. This is still the case, although political conflicts have manipulated the threat of the ‘other’ to unify groups that in the past shared little loyalty. The Dinka are incredibly diverse and the language has a number of different dialects. For example, an important system of spiritual leaders found in Bahr al Ghazal never existed among the Dinka in Jonglei (Harrigan 2012). Kinship groups are the primary means of identity and loyalty among the Dinka. According to Harrigan, Dinka kinship is most clearly delineated by the sharing of bridewealth, both in paying and receiving.


The system of chiefs now found across South Sudan was created by the British colonial rule (1898-1956) as a means of civil administration (indirect rule)- primarily for the collection of taxes and solving disputes through customary courts. Chiefs were appointed to represent particular territories, and this system of local governance was reinforced by the GoSS after the CPA (through the Local Government Act in 2008). There are various levels of chiefs and although terminology varies depending on the region, the terms are usually translated to sub-chiefs/headmen, chiefs and paramount chiefs. In modern times one can recognize the hierarchy from the sashes the various chiefs wear when attending official events. Sub-chiefs, or headmen, are given black sashes, chiefs red sashes, while paramount chiefs have a number of lines on their red sashes-indicating the number of chiefs they represent. Harrigan explains that during the second civil war the chieftain system was used as a means of providing recruits as well as supplying food for the SPLA. Each sub-chief was expected to supply five recruits to the SPLA and supply one tin of maize for each family. This was later increased to three tins of maize for each family. The chiefs do not have any economic control over their community members and their primary responsibility is keeping the peace through the solving of disputes. The chiefs sit on customary courts and solve issues such as cattle theft, murder, elopement, and adultery. The courts have the same hierarchy as the chiefs, and if the judgment is appealed then cases move up the chain to higher level chiefs.


Kinship groups among Dinka share cattle and food, but territory is shared among a number of family groups. These kinship groups might coordinate for political representation, collective defense of grazing land or for ceremonies, but they do not share food. Only members of a common kinship group share food and are responsible for each other. The territorial groups are called wut, which literally translates from Dinka as cattle camp. The protection and defense of the cattle in the territory is shared between the youth belonging to the family groups.


Relationship with SPLA and other armed elements:


The common narrative is that the SPLM/A has been “Dinka dominated” from its inception in 1983. However, much like other ethnic groups the relationship between the SPLM/A and the Dinka civilian population has been complex and varied. In the beginning of the rebellion, many Dinka volunteered to join; however, the relationship between the SPLM/A and rural populations has not always been strong[21]. There were frustrations in Bahr al Ghazal in the 1980s due to their perceived exclusion from military strategy and relief support compared to other parts of the country. The recruitment of children for the Red Army was also not a popular policy, and created frustration with the leadership. While the fall of the Mengistu regime, the SPLA’s primary backer, and the subsequent 1991 split had a unifying effect, the attacks on Dinka villages by the SPLA Nasir faction at the same time led to discontent with the leadership for not being able to provide security. The consequent arming of the Dinka youth in Bahr al Ghazal, also known as Gelweng, led to the use of armed Dinka civilians as proxy militias for the SPLA. The clashes between the two factions, and the arming of civilian militias (i.e. gelweng, see White Army, Gelweng and Titweng section), were causing resentment among the civilians caught in the middle as targets. Furthermore after the 1999 Wunlit peace agreement the SPLA decided to disarm the gelweng to reduce the internal clashes that were occurring. The brutality of the disarmament process also resulted in violent clashes between the youth and SPLA, and created strong grievances against the movement.


Key individuals:


The late John Garang Mabior

Salva Kiir

Kuol Manyang


Recommended readings:


Deng, Francis Mading. 1972. The Dinka of the Sudan. Waveland Press Inc. Illinois.


Deng, Luka Biong. 2010. “Social Capital and Civil War: The Dinka Communities in Sudan’s Civil War.” African Affairs, 109/435, 231-250. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/w6jn4eprzkra4a8/Deng%20-%202010%20-%20Social%20capital%20and%20civil%20war%20The%20Dinka%20communities%20in%20Sudan%27s%20civil%20war%282%29.pdf?dl=0)


Harrigan, Simon. “Background paper for Bor, Twic, Ghol and Nyaraweng Dinka” presented at AECOM conference, Nairobi March 2012 (https://db.tt/cusHiNtO)


Jok, M.J. and S. Hutchinson. 1999. “Sudan’s Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities.” African Studies Review 42(2): 125-45. (https://db.tt/nkMlG74a)


Leinhardt, Godfrey. 1961. Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford Clarendon Press.


Ethnic group: Nuer (Nei ti naadth)


Language group: Nilotic


Sub-groups (major clans):

Some of the major clans among the Nuer include the Lou, Jikany, Gawaar, Bul, Lek, Jegai, Adok, Nyong, Ador, Thiang and Lak. The Nuer are generally found in Greater Upper Nile (Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states). See the UNOCHA ethnic map of South Sudan for locations.


Related groups: Dinka


Historic movement:


According to oral traditions the Nuer migrated south from Kordofan to Bahr al Ghazal around 1700 due to drought. In response to slave raids by the Baggara Arabs in the 18th century the Nuer carried out a mass migration to the east across the Nile (Hutchinson 2012). The expansion in the 19th century by the Nuer was one of the largest expansions in Africa at the time. The Nuer moved into Dinka and Anuak lands and assimilated some people while pushing others to migrate. By the end of the century the Nuer had reached all the way to Ethiopia and their territory expanded between three and four times what it was previously. While the Nuer did use violence to expand their territory, marriage and adoption were often used as means of assimilating new groups. Hutchinson explains that many Nuer men would marry their daughters to Dinka and Anuak men as a means of assimilating them (ibid). Those paying bridewealth did not just owe cattle, but also owed cooperation and respect towards their in-laws for as much as eight generations afterwards. This expanded family groups and loyalties and eventually sons or grandsons would break away to form his own family group and village.


When the British definitively defeated the Lou Nuer in 1929-1930, the Nuer expansion diminished but did not stop entirely (Hutchinson 2012). According to Nuer oral sources and archives, Lou and Jikany Nuer both continued to expand to the east and attempted to buy land from Anuak and Murle. The Murle took the land back in the 1950s, while the Anuak sold land to the Nuer south of Akobo. In 1982 this agreement came to a head and clashes broke out between Anuak and Nuer over the land rights (ibid). Hutchinson believes the disagreement might have sprung out of differing opinions on what the Nuer bought- either permanent land ownership or temporary access for grazing (ibid). The Nuer pushed the Anuak out of Akobo town and the Anuak are now primarily in Ethiopia, Pochalla and eastern Akobo county. The movement of thousands of South Sudanese to Ethiopia in the 1980s expanded Nuer territory in Gambella, again at the expense of the Anuak. Further clashes in Akobo in 2013 escalated tensions again after the death of an Anuak chief in Akobo who was calling for the Lou to give Akobo back to the Anuak.


Livelihood: Agro-pastoralists


The Nuer share a similar livelihood cycle with the Dinka (see the Dinka livelihood section for an explanation of the annual cycle). The Nuer dry season migratory patterns are too complex and vast to list here. However, like most dry season migratory patterns the cattle are taken to the toic (pastures), nearby the closest permanent or semi-permanent body of water, usually rivers. See map in index of migratory patterns.


Historical Social Structure:


Much like the Dinka, the Nuer ethnic group were historically acephelous and did not have a centralized system of political control before the arrival of the British. Instead the Nuer are divided into between eleven and thirteen sub-groups or clans. Within these clans there are family groupings interlinked through either marriage or descent. In reality this means that loyalty and identity lies with direct family primarily, and then with more extended family units dependent on outside threats. Hutchinson explains it as “brothers should unite against cousins, unless faced with a broader threat, whereupon cousins should all unite to face their common enemy” (2012:13). The consequence of this is very fluid alliances and loyalties outside the small familial units. The internal Nuer wars of the 1990s and early 2000 can be better understood through this lens. A perceived outside threat to all Nuer will unify them, but primary loyalties ultimately lie with small family units, not the ethnic group as a whole or even the major clans.


In pre-colonial time, Nuer society did have particular individuals responsible for spiritual and ritual aspects of society, such as earth priests and prophets, but they did not have a political role. Despite this prophets did have many followers and the songs (prophecies) of the most influential, such as Ngundeng Bong (1846-1906), still hold significant sway over much of the Nuer population (Johnson 1994). The spiritual leaders held influence due to their perceived powers to bless or curse and foresee the future. Current Nuer prophets are still believed to hold such powers and people go to them for blessings and direction. The British undermined the Nuer prophets as they were perceived as threats to colonial dominance and instead imposed a chieftain structure. Initially weak the government system of chiefs soon became adopted and assimilated into Nuer society.


The authority of government chiefs was directly affected by the two civil wars. As explained in the Dinka section, the SPLA, and the later breakaway factions, initially used the chief system as a means for recruiting as well as supporting their troops through food and other resources. However, high level chiefs (not seen as sympathetic to the political cause) were often targeted during the war years, either by Khartoum or by opposing factions of the SPLA. The current relationship between chiefs, the government, and the opposition varies from county to county. It is highly likely both sides in the current conflict are relying on the chieftain system in many of the same ways they did in the 1980s and 1990s – i.e. as sources of recruitment as well as economic support – albeit not always voluntarily. From quite early on the SPLA-IO has worked with Nuer prophets, such as Dak Kueth, in mobilizating and motivating the White Army.


Relationship with SPLM/A:


The Nuer relationship with the SPLM/A is extremely complex. The below discussion will focus on Riek Machar and his split from the mainstream SPLM/A to create his own movement in 1991 (SPLM Nasir), his rejoining of the SPLM/A in 2002, and then the most recent creation of his SPLM/A in Opposition (IO) after the violence broke in Juba in December 2013. The effects of the 1991 split are analyzed more closely in the militarization section. However, while Machar has received the most attention among the Nuer leaders, his political agenda has not necessarily been supported across the Nuer population or leadership. Machar’s involvement in arming and directing Nuer civilians who targeted civilians in Garang’s homeland in the notorious “Bor Massacre” still defines the political narrative surrounding him. While Machar publicly apologized for his involvement in the Bor Massacre in 2013, in the current conflict the government has also used this event as a means of discrediting him.


Importantly, the manipulation of ethnicity by Machar and other military leaders in the past twenty years has clouded the nuances regarding Nuer support for Machar’s positions. Common narratives in the media oversimplify extremely complex realities. It must be remembered that when Machar first split from the SPLM/A in 1991 to form the SPLA Nasir faction, it was not a pure Nuer movement, but Shilluk, some Dinka and other ethnic groups were also represented. Meanwhile, some Nuer leaders remained loyal to the mainstream SPLM/A. The consequent manipulation of ethnicity and targeting of civilians by both sides changed the conflict dynamics from a political and ideological contest to an ethnic one, but it did not start out as an ethnic dispute. Similarly, not only Machar and his Nuer supporters were frustrated with the current leadership within the SPLM: Dinka and Shilluk leaders who had been vocal in their criticism against the government were also arrested in December 2013. Although they have not supported the armed movement of Machar, they are advocating for reform within the party (commonly referred to as the Third Bloc).


Importantly a significant portion of south on south violence in the civil war was actually between Nuer factions in the 1990s. Many Nuer did not support Machar’s decisions to sign an agreement with Khartoum (1997), while others contested him for power. Primary loyalty among many Nuer soldiers lied with certain commanders, often based on kinship, not with Machar himself.


The targeting of Nuer civilians in Juba in December 2013 acted as a means of mobilizing Nuer support for the SPLM/A-IO. As Hutchinson explained, among the Nuer brothers will fight brothers unless they have a problem with the cousins - then they will unite against their common enemy. The killings of Nuer in Juba in December 2013 by forces of the government united the Nuer together. Importantly though, the unity is based on the perceived threat against all the Nuer, not on the leadership skills of Machar or the desire to support any particular political agenda. The civilians who are fighting on behalf of the opposition prefer to fight in parallel to the military structures (Breidlid and Arensen 2014). Attempts by the opposition leadership to assimilate them will be very challenging.


In addition the other Nuer commanders, such as Peter Gadet, are not likely to support Machar’s political agenda or possibly even his military leadership. If the current dynamics follows a similar pattern to the 1990s, Machar will struggle to keep control over the various commanders and armed civilians. The longer the current conflict goes on the higher the chance that fragmentations among the opposition will occur as commanders vie for power and soldiers and armed civilians loyalty to Machar is challenged (ibid).


Key individuals:


Riek Machar

Taban Deng Gai

Peter Gadet


Breidlid, Ingrid Marie & Michael J. Arensen. 2014. “Demystifying the White Army: Nuer armed civilians’ involvement in the South Sudanese Crisis.” Conflict Trends Issue 3, 2014. 32-38.


Evans-Pritchard, E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Intervention of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


_____________. 1951. Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Johnson, Douglas. 2009. “The Nuer Civil Wars.” In Changing Identifications and Alliances in North-East Africa: Sudan, Uganda, and the Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Gunther Schlee and Elizabeth Watson (eds). New York: Berghahn Books.


Johnson, Douglas. 1994. Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Oxford University Press.

Jok, M.J. and S. Hutchinson. 1999. “Sudan’s Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities.” African Studies Review 42(2): 125-45. (https://db.tt/nkMlG74a)


Hutchinson, Sharon. 1996. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State. Berkeley: University of California Press.


_____________. 2012. “A Guide to the Nuer of Jonglei State, Part One: Nuer and Dinka patterns of migration and settlement” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March 2012 (https://db.tt/yaFlbZjn)



Ethnic group: Chollo (Shilluk[22])


Language group: Nilotic


The Chollo are generally based in Upper Nile state around Malakal and the White Nile and Sobat Rivers.


Related groups: Anuak, Pari, Luo


Historic movement:


According to oral tradition the Chollo originally migrated from Bahr al Ghazal around 500 years ago. The founder of the Chollo, Nyikang, separated from other Luo groups and led his people down the White Nile. They arrived at the current location around 1500 AD and decided to settle around Malakal.


Livelihood: Agrarian

The Chollo livelihood primarily rely upon fishing and agriculture. Livestock are highly valued, but the Chollo are not as dependent upon cattle for food relative to other groups. In the dry season the livestock do not need to migrate far away into other territories. Many cattle camps were actually on islands in the rivers along which the Chollo kingdom was settled[23].


Historical Social Structure:


Unlike most the ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Chollo have a very centralized system of governance. After settling at the junction of the Nile and Sobat rivers around 1500 AD, the Chollo fought wars with the Dinka from 1600-1650. These wars led to the establishment of the Chollo kingdom. The Chollo have a monarchy under a king (reth) who is believed to be divine. He is selected from among the sons of the current king. It is the duty of the reth to perform sacrifices to the original leader, Nyikang, and ensure his shrines are maintained. The kingdom was divided into two political districts (north and south) and fifteen provinces. Each province was led by a paramount chief who reported to the king. The provinces were divided into eleven settlements, each which were led by a chief.


The king still plays a major role in Chollo life today and is responsible for collecting taxes and solving local disputes. The Local Government Act[24] gave the king formal authority over civil administration of the Chollo areas. While the king is expected to be politically neutral in his role as the head of the kingdom he has historically been close to the former SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum, and been the rival of another Chollo politician Lam Akol (head of the breakaway SPLM DC party- see below for more details).


Relationship with SPLA and other armed elements:


Like many other groups the relationship between the Chollo and the SPLA in the past few decades is mixed. The Chollo community has been divided between the political leaders Lam Akol and Pagan Amum. Akol was a high level commander in the SPLA movement but left the movement with Machar and others to form the SPLA-Nasir faction in 1991. He then left Machar to create SPLA-United in 1993 and signed an agreement with Khartoum in 1997.[25] He stayed aligned to the Khartoum government until 2003, when he rejoined the SPLM/A. After the signing of the CPA Akol was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2005 and 2007, but then left the SPLM/A again. He founded the SPLM Democratic Change (DC) movement in 2009. While some traditional Chollo leaders supported him, others supported the SPLM party instead, including the king (reth) and SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum. Akol ran against Salva Kiir for the presidency in 2010, to much chagrin from within the SPLM.


The SPLM DC party has faced major challenges from the SPLM since its inception. Due to Lam Akol’s past alliances with Khartoum, the party has been accused of being a branch of the NCP, and Akol’s call for unity with the north reinforced this assumption. While the SPLM attempted to ban SPLM DC from taking part in the elections (2010) the courts rejected the idea and Lam Akol competed against Salva Kiir for the presidency. While Akol lost, four SPLM DC parliamentary candidates won seats in the election. The SPLA refused to accept the results and arrested the candidates in May 2010. The candidates were restored at the end of August 2010 after the Legislative Assembly voted to give them back their immunity as elected members. However, by this time violence had already erupted in Upper Nile.


A barge attack by unknown persons was blamed on supporters of SPLM DC, prompting a quick deployment of an SPLA division to the area to “clear the area of the Lam Akol militia.” Soon followed reports of human rights abuses against civilians by the SPLA, who allegedly did not differentiate between the militia members and civilians from the community. After a failed ceasefire, fighting erupted in March 2011 which saw Malakal the target of an attack by opposition forces. Although repelled, the operation to clear the town by the SPLA led to serious accusations of more human rights abuses by the military against Chollo civilians.

One of the Chollo commanders involved in the SSDM/A opposition movement in the area, Johnson Olony, accepted an amnesty offer by President Kiir in September 2013 after he received a pardon from the king for killing a Chollo chief. After violence broke out in December 2013 Olony and his men helped the SPLA take control of Fashoda County and later in January helped the SPLA take back Malakal from opposition forces. Because of the support of Olony’s forces to the government/SPLA, Chollo civilians’ have become targets for the SPLM/A IO forces and allied civilian fighters. Meanwhile, as elsewhere in the country, Nuer civilians in and around Malakal have been targeted by the SPLA.

While the association with Lam Akol led to the targeting of Chollo civilians by the SPLA in 2010, many Chollo have also supported the SPLM mainstream. As stated, the king has politically opposed Lam Akol and has maintained close ties with Pagan Amum, a high level Chollo politician who, until recently, was within the SPLM. However, in response to his avocation for SPLM reform and decision to run for the upcoming Presidential elections, President Kiir dismissed Amum from his position as the SPLM Secretary General in 2013. As this was a clear violation of the party constitution, Amum took the case to court, but was arrested after the violence broke out in December 2013, accused of plotting a failed coup attempt against the President. Pagan was eventually released and is now one of the leaders within the “third bloc”, who are not aligned with either Machar or President Kiir. Meanwhile, as an illustration of constantly shifting alliances in South Sudanese politics, Lam Akol has been involved in the talks in Addis as part of the government delegation, despite being the leader of an opposition party.


In conclusion, the Chollo relationship with the SPLA varies within the community and frequently changes. Historically the Chollo have had more tension with the Dinka than the Nuer due to disputes over land. But currently Olony’s forces are supporting the SPLA against the SPLA/M IO in Malakal, which has led to Nuer retaliation against Chollo communities. On the other hand Pagan Amum, who since the civil war has been a main propagator of the SPLM, is now opposing the president, but is not supporting Machar. Lam Akol was a main opponent of the government, but since December 2013 is again involved with the government. The constantly shifting alliances show a desperate attempt by both sides to find support and allies. It is highly likely the Chollo civilians primary concern is with protecting their community and do not support the political agenda of either party at this time.


Key individuals:


Lam Akol

Pagan Amum

Peter Nyaba

Johnson Olony


Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1948. The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan. Cambridge University Press.


Westermann, Deidrich. 2009. The Shilluk People, their Language and Folklore. Michigan University Press. (reprint of a book from before 1923, which was very well known in its era- not sure if it holds up well now)


Ethnic group: Murle


Language group: Surmic


Sub-groups: There are four clans- Tangajon, Ngaroti, Kelenya, Nginvach & Lowland Murle and Highland Murle


The Murle are all based in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area which includes the former counties of Pochalla and Pibor. The Murle are all found in the former county of Pibor.


There are four clans, or drumships, within the Murle that all Murle people are part of. These are not as important as B.A. Lewis describes in his work, but especially among the red chiefs the drumships are part of Murle identity. Of the four drumships there are two major ones- Tangajon and Ngaroti- and two minor ones- Kelenya and Nginvach.


Although not actual sub-groups, both in recent years and in the past there has been discussion around the differences between the highland Murle of Boma and the lowland Murle of Pibor. The main differences between the groups exist around livelihoods, with the lowland Murle relying primarily upon cattle and pastoralism. In contrast the highland Murle are dependent upon agriculture. This is due to the existence of livestock diseases around Boma, which make cattle raising untenable. The highland Murle have historically been called “Ngalam” by the lowland Murle, which literally translates as sugar-ants, implying they work in the dirt and lack the prestige of cattle ownership. In recent years the SSDM Cobra Faction of David Yau Yau has escalated tension between the SPLA and the Murle community, which has consequently seen the highland Murle distance themselves more from his movement, and therefore the lowland Murle as a whole. This has led to political leaders and chiefs from Boma embracing the ‘Ngalam’ identity, although this is perceived by many as a mechanism to protect their community from targeting by the military. The recently created Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA) will introduce new counties, including Boma, which could further entrench differences depending on management. However, despite differences the highland Murle still identify themselves as members of the Murle group as a whole, and very strong kinship ties exist due to frequent inter-marriage and movement between the two areas.



Historic movement:


The Murle claim to have always lived in the Pibor County area, but academics believe they originated from Southwest Ethiopia. The historic migration into Pibor County occurred from Eastern Equatoria, where Boma was settled first and then the Murle continued to migrate northwest. As with many ethnic groups the arrival of the colonial powers put a halt to Murle expansion to the west towards Bor. Nuer claim that the Murle took Nuer grazing land in the 1960s and 1970s along the Nanaam River in the northwest of Pibor County, but major expansion halted about 100 years ago.


Livelihood: Agro-pastoralists


Like many of their neighbors the lowland Murle are agro-pastoralists and primarily depend on their livestock, which they migrate with to the toic and cattle camps in the dry season. In addition they engage in seasonal planting along rivers, fishing and (historically) hunting of the white-eared kob migration. However, around the beginning of the rainy season, when the cattle have stopped producing most of the milk, fishing is exhausted and food storage is beginning to run low, the Murle faces an annual hunger period between June and July. After the return of the rains in May or June planting is carried out for the next harvest, but food is still a major issue as the cattle have dried up and the harvest has yet to come. Once the harvest is ready, the new cattle are born and the cows begin to produce milk again, the annual cycle begins again. This carefully balanced lifestyle is easily affected by external factors, such as conflict, raids and droughts. Missed (lost?) planting seasons in 2011-2013 among the Murle due to conflict and raids significantly reduced their ability to cope for additional shocks.


The Murle in Boma do not seasonally migrate, as they rely primarily upon agriculture. While less food insecure than the lowland Murle, the highland Murle also missed planting season in 2013 due to conflict between SSDM-CF and the SPLA. Stability and secure planting seasons are key for 2014 if the Murle are going to improve their food security.


Historical Social Structure:


  1. Age-sets

The key structures in Murle society are the age-sets. Male youth from a certain age segment become members of an age-set and this is an identifier throughout life. Each age-set has an animal, color scheme and a scarring pattern particular to them. Once you learn these it is often easy to tell which age-set people belong to. Women wear the colors or get the markings of their husband, and small girls wear the color of their father.


Age-sets last for life, but it is when the men are young and single that they matter most. The men want to fight and prove themselves, and through this get access to adolescent women at the dances they hold. There tend to be two active age-sets- the dominant one which holds dances and who are most responsible for defense and protection of the tribe (currently the Botonya), and the one below them who are trying to establish themselves as a full-fledged age-set (currently the Lango).


Within each age-set there is no clear structure or hierarchy of leadership. Youth either look to those who are from a red chief family, and therefore have the ability to curse, or youth with proven ability in terms of speaking, hunting or fighting. Raids are not planned or known by an entire age-set, but by geographical proximity and personal relationships. This is also apparent by the number of Murle youth usually involved in raids, between five and twenty.


Murle Age-sets in descending order (oldest to youngest):








  1. Red Chiefs

One of the original studies of the Murle, by B.A. Lewis, focused on the existence of four drumships, led by red chiefs. More recent academics believe these structures were exaggerated in importance, but they still play a role in Murle society. The role of red chief holds the most influence among the age-sets and Murle community. The Red Chief’s power is based on his religious authority, in particular the ability to curse people. There are four clans, two major ones- Tangajon and Ngaroti- and two minor ones- Kelenya and Nginvach. There are “leaders” of each clan amongst the red chiefs, but they are purely the eldest male present from the family at a time. Any male members of the red chief families have the power to curse, which means each age-set has descendants of the red chief clans who hold some level of influence. The role of red-chiefs has decreased in recent decades due to increasing external influences such as the political economy of the civil war. In addition since red chiefs identity is passed down patrilineal lines (from fathers to sons), the high number of red chiefs in modern Murle society seems to have reduced their influence relative to the past.


Relationship with SPLA and other armed elements:


The Murle have had a poor relationship with the SPLM/A in the last couple decades. In the beginning of the southern rebellion members (including commanders) of the Murle were involved, as illustrated by the army mutiny in Pibor in 1983, along with Bor and Pochalla. Boma was one of the first SPLA bases, and it was never lost to the north during the Second Civil War. However, a few years after the start of the movement a high profile Murle leader was killed in Ethiopia by other members of the SPLA. While the causes of his death are debated, his death led to a major reduction of support for the movement among the Murle population, who perceived a bias against them and other minority groups in the fledgling movement. Consequently a Murle leader (Sultan and Red Chief), Ismael Konyi, looked to Khartoum for support in arming his local militia, Pibor Defense Force (PDF) in order to protect the Murle community against the SPLA.


Despite the use of Boma as a major base throughout the war, the SPLA were never able to recapture Pibor after Konyi’s PDF captured it in 1992. The historic ties with the government in Khartoum, and their resistance against the SPLA during the war, have increased animosity between the Murle and their historic ‘rivals’ of the Nuer and Dinka. Despite this, it must be remembered that many Murle remained loyal to the SPLM/A and some rose to the rank of Brigadier General. Meanwhile the highland Murle in Boma hosted one of the main SPLA bases throughout the war, although like in the rest of the country tension existed between the soldiers and the community ‘supporting’ (hosting) them.


In more recent years (post-CPA) the SSDF Cobra Faction, led by David Yau Yau, has dominated the headlines on Pibor. David Yau Yau first rebelled after losing in the 2010 elections in Pibor County. At the time it was not a major movement and a peace agreement was signed with the government in June 2011. However, after the forced disarmament of the Murle by the SPLA in early 2012 Yau Yau went back to the bush. The general frustration with the government among the Murle youth after the disarmament prompted a mass recruitment into his forces. SPLA positions were targeted, culminating in the loss of Boma (when?). The SPLA, led by Peter Gadet, carried out a counter-insurgency campaign in which they recaptured Boma, but they could not defeat the movement entirely and the campaign further damaged relations with the civilian Murle population. A peace deal was finally reached in 2014 thanks to the work of the church as a mediator and the nation-wide conflict between the government and SPLA-IO. The government needed to ensure the Murle did not join the opposition and the Murle benefitted from the newly created Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA) led by David Yau Yau. While the deal is politically convenient for both the government and Yau Yau for the time being, it remains fragile.


Key Murle individuals:


Ismael Konyi

Kennedy Gain

David Yau Yau

Baba Medan


Further Reading:


Andretta, E. 1985. “A Reconsideration of the Basis of Group Cohesion among the Murle of the Southern Sudan.” University Microfilms International.


Arensen, Jonathan E. 2012. “Murle Ecology” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March (https://db.tt/HRZgPkWZ)


________. 2012. “Murle History” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March (https://db.tt/b8CgJ3u6)


________. 2012. “Murle Political Systems and Age-sets” presented at AECOM Jonglei conference, Nairobi March (https://db.tt/JdrQQYAm)


________. 1992. Mice are Men: Language and Society among the Murle of Sudan. Summer Institute of Linguistics.


Lewis, B.A. 1972. The Murle: Red Chiefs and Black Commoners. Oxford Clarendon Press.


Ethnic group: Anuak (Anyuak, Anywaa)


Language group: Nilotic (Luo)


The Anuak are now mostly found in East Akobo and Pochalla in South Sudan and Gambella in Ethiopia.


Related groups: Chollo


Historic movement:


The Anuak share an oral history with the Chollo, but have different names for the leaders. The Chollo name of Nyikango, who led the Chollo people up the Nile to settle in Malakal, is instead named Akango in Anuak. His brother, Gilo, continued to migrate up the Sobat River and this migration is the start of the Anuak. The Anuak originally settled in the Baro, Sobat and Gilo river areas, but were pushed further east by the Nuer migration in the 19th century. It is said that Gilo’s grandson, Cuwai, was the first Anuak king and his descendants are the Anuak people.


Livelihood: Agrarian


The Anuak are now primarily agrarian and rely on cultivation, not livestock. The king even reduced the bridewealth price of Anuak women as a means of reducing the numbers of livestock they held, which reduced them as targets of raids by neighboring Murle and Nuer. As a result the Anuak do not have a seasonal migratory route like their pastoralist neighbors.


Historical Social Structure:


The Anuak also have a kingdom like the Chollo who they broke away from hundreds of years ago. The system of rule was through a federation of villages, which had their own headmen and court system. These headmen are under the sub-chiefs who report to the independent king (nyie), who is above all Anuak, much like the Chollo king. Historically the villages were constantly competing for the title of nyie, but this was stopped by the British. The colonial powers were tired of the feuding and selected one family to hold the title of ‘king of kings’ in a copy of the feudal system in Ethiopia at the time. The Nyie Agada Akway and his descendants were made the permanent holders of the title.


Relationship with SPLA and other armed elements:


As stated in the Nuer section the Anuak lost land in the 19th century due to the Nuer expansion and then again in the 1980s when the Nuer moved further into Ethiopia with the SPLA bases there. In the 1980s the Anuak also lost land in Akobo to the Lou Nuer and continually are pushed further east. The Anuak are now also losing land on the Ethiopian side of the border in Gambella. With all land being nationalized the Ethiopian government is distributing it to major agricultural corporations and forcing the Anuak out. This is part of the reason for an Anuak rebellion against the Ethiopian government in the last few years. The further loss of traditional Anuak land on the Ethiopian side of the border has also emboldened them to push back on their land rights against the Lou Nuer in Akobo. Those living in diaspora are calling for the restoration of traditional land to the Anuak and the armed movement in Gambella has received an inflow of arms, presumably from the Eritreans. In 2013 a Lou Nuer man who was found dead near Akobo led Lou Nuer youth to retaliate against an Anuak chief in Akobo County who has called for the return of Anuak to their homeland in Akobo. His consequent death at the hands of the Nuer youth escalated tensions between the Nuer and Anuak in Akobo and the Anuak moved further east towards Pochalla. In December 2013 when the fighting broke out in Juba, the Nuer SPLA were pushed out of Pochalla to Akobo by the Dinka soldiers supported by the Anuak population. Like in much of the country, historical local disputes, such as those between the Lou Nuer and Anuak, are likely the primary reason the Anuak have sided with the government in the current conflict.


Key individuals:

David Okwier


Further Reading:



Feyissa, Dereje. 2011. Playing Different Games: the paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification Strategies in the Gambella region. New York: Berghahn Books.


_____________. 2009. “Conflict and Identity Politics: The Case of Anywaa-Nuer Relations in Gambela, Western Ethiopia.” In Changing Identifications and Alliances in North-East Africa: Sudan, Uganda, and the Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Gunther Schlee and Elizabeth Watson (eds). New York: Berghahn Books.


Kurimoto, E. 2001. “Capturing Modernity among the Anywaa of Western Ethiopia.” In Rewriting Africa: Toward Renaissance or Collapse. E. Kurimoto (ed.). Osaka: Japan Centre for Area Studies.


___________. 1992. “Natives and Outsiders: The Historical Experience of the Anywaa of Western Ethiopia.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 43: 1-43.


Perner, Conradin (‘Kuacakuoro’)

Ethnic group: Maban


Language Group: Nilotic


Sub-groups: The Maban are frequently grouped as part of the greater Burun peoples, which consist of several other independent groups- Uduk, Jumjum, Ragreg, Ganza, Mopo, Mayak, Mabano, and Buldid. These groups are spread across the Sudanese-South Sudanese border between Southern Blue Nile and Upper Nile.


Related groups: Shilluk


Historical Migratory patterns:


Another Luo group the Maban are said to have separated from the Chollo at Soba (near Khartoum). It is believed this occurred after the fall of the Makkura Kingdom. The Maban arrived at their location between the east bank of the Nile and the Ethiopian highlands via the Baro River.


Livelihood: Agrarian


Although the Maban own livestock their primary means of livelihoods is cultivation. Like the other agrarian groups in South Sudan they do not rely on seasonal migration in the dry season.


Historical Social Structure:


Like most of the Nilotic groups the Maban did not have a centralized system of administration or control until the arrival and imposition of the British chieftain system. Their split with the Chollo occurred before the latters creation of a centralized system (i.e kingdom) and therefore the Maban do not share it. Spiritual leaders had influence historically, but no political influence.


Relationship with SPLA and other armed groups:


The recent appearance of the Mabanese Defense Forces (MDF) has brought the Maban into the current conflict. The MDF has targeted Nuer NGO staff in an apparent retaliation for losses from clashes against SPLA-IO in July.


Anthropologists of additional people groups not profiled above:


Atuot people- John Burton


Bari, Tenet and Lutuho peoples- Simon Simonse


Didinga people- J.H. Driberg


Mundari people- Jean Buxton


Pari people- Eisei Kurimoto


Uduk people- Wendy James














Major armed groups in South Sudan


SPLM/A- Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army


The SPLM/A, formed in 1983 after the Bor mutiny, was engaged in more than two decades of civil war against the Khartoum regime. John Garang was the leader of the movement, until he was killed in a helicopter clash in July 2005. As part of its official rhetoric of the “New Sudan”, the SPLM/A called for a secular and democratically reformed state. It initially received support from the Ethiopian Mengistu regime until its collapse in 1991. The same year tensions in the leadership saw the creation of the breakaway SPLA-Nasir faction led by Riek Machar, Lam Akol and Gordon Kong (Machar re-joined the SPLM/A in 2002). Tensions within the SPLM leadership in 2013 prompted President Kiir to dismiss Riek Machar from his position of Vice President, and later Pagan Amum was removed from his post of SPLM Secretary General. These tensions came to a boil in late 2013 after top politicians walked out of a SPLM meeting, after which violence broke out within the Presidential guards in Juba, escalating into a nation wide conflict.


Anyanya and Anyanya II


Anyanya was the name of the Southern rebel movement involved in the first civil war between 1955 and 1972.


The Anyanya II uprising started in the late 1970s, and was initially made up of a number of independent Nuer groups pushing for independence from Sudan. Support from the Mengistu regime (Ethiopia) in 1982 helped organize the movement, but Mengistu later decided to support Garang and the newly formed SPLA in 1983. Clashes occurred between the SPLA and Anyanya II in the years that followed. The Anyanya II forces were largely integrated into the SPLA between 1988 and 1990, although not all- the most significant exception being Paulino Matiep. Despite joining forces with the SPLA, many of the Nuer Anyanya II stayed in their areas of origin, and then joined the side of the SPLA-Nasir faction after the 1991 split.


SSDF- South Sudan Defense Force


The South Sudan Defense Force was the name given to the southern rebel groups who signed the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement with the government in Khartoum. These groups included Riek Machar’s forces (SSIM) and other independent commanders. Machar left in 2000 to form the SPDF and the SSDF was then led by Gatluak Deng until late 2002 and afterwards Paulino Matiep.


SSDM/A- South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army


Former SPLA General George Athor began SSDM/A after losing the election for governor of Upper Nile in 2010. See the post-2005 insurgency section for more.


SSLM/A- South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army


Peter Gadet began the SSLM/A in 2011 when he defected from the SPLA. After a few attacks he signed a ceasefire later that year, but other splinter factions who disagreed with his decision to sign a ceasefire continued to use the name.The SSDM/A and SSLM/A later joined into one movement around 2012, which can lead to confusion as the acronyms are often interchanged when speaking of movements such as Yau Yau’s.


SSIM/A- South Sudan Independence Movement


The South Sudan Independence Movement was the name taken by Machar’s faction in late 1994 (the earlier names being SPLA-Nasir and SPLA-United). The name was taken to highlight the group’s political goal of southern independence from Sudan, which was different from the official rhetoric of the SPLA. SSIM/A was a signatory to the Khartoum Peace Agreement in 1997 and it became part of the newly formed SSDF. Machar later left in 2000 to form the anti-government SPDF.




The name SPLA-United has been used by two different groups, neither which exists today, which leads to confusion. Initially it was the new name for Riek Machar’s SPLA-Nasir faction between March 1993 and 1994. The addition of new individuals in the leadership led to a name change, and SPLA-United was selected to replace SPLA-Nasir. However, in 1994 the name changed again to SSIM/A.


The second usage of SPLA-United was for the Shilluk movement of Lam Akol. Akol was expelled from the original SPLA-United by Machar in February 1994. When Machar changed the name of his movement to SSIM/A, Lam Akol took on the SPLA-United moniker for his own movement. The Lam Akol SPLA-United later joined the government in 1997 as part of the Khartoum Peace Agreement.


SPDF- Sudan People’s Democratic Front/Defense Forces


The Sudan People’s Democratic Front or Sudan People’s Defense Forces (the political branch and the military branch) were a rebel movement formed by Riek Machar in 2000. It later merged with the SPLM/A in January 2002.




The faction that split from the SPLA, led by Riek Machar, Gordon Kong and Lam Akol, in 1991 was initially called SPLA-Nasir, from the town in Upper Nile where they had their main base. This group later changed its name to SPLA-United in 1993, and then Riek Machar changed it to SSIM/A in 1994.




After the 1991 split, those who remained loyal to John Garang came to be called SPLA Mainstream, to differentiate them from those who were loyal to the new faction(s). They were also called SPLA-Torit, as the town of Torit in Eastern Equatoria was the main base of Garang´s faction at the time.


Red Army


The Red Army, or Jesh Amer, was part of a military unit within SPLA, consisting of boys from many parts of the country. The boys received military training by the SPLA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This occurred in refugee camps in Ethiopia, where only boys were placed, as well as schools within South Sudan - both of which were administered by the SPLA. (see Child Soldiers section for more details)


White Army


The White Army, or dec bor in Nuer (alternatively dech bor or dech en bor), is the term used to describe armed Nuer civilians who mobilize for defense and aggression. The White Army is primarily made up of untrained fighters, and is led and coordinated by youth leaders from within the community structures. The White Army first gained notoriety as a proxy militia in the wars within the SPLA in the 1990s on the side of the SPLA Nasir faction. In recent years it has been used as a means of defense and aggression in inter-ethnic clashes between the Nuer and Murle ethnic groups in Jonglei. Currently it has sided with Riek Machar’s SPLA-in-Opposition due to the perceived threat towards Nuer, but once again it is largely independent and has its own parallel leadership structures.




The titweng, or gelweng, literally translate as “cattle guards” in Dinka. After SPLA-Nasir raids into Dinka territory in the early 1990s the community demanded protection or weapons for self-protection. They received the weapons and training in how to use them. What began as a community defense structure turned into a proxy militia for SPLA-Torit/Mainstream. The group fought alongside the SPLA in 1997 in its push to capture Bahr al Ghazal. After the Wunlit Peace agreement between the Nuer and Dinka in 1999, the gelweng began to use the guns to fight amongst themselves, which led to a consequent SPLA disarmament in 2000.


SSUM/A- South Sudan Unity Movement/Army


The South Sudan Unity Movement/Army was started by Paulino Matiep in 1998. It included his earlier Anyanya II and SSDF forces and was supported by the Sudanese government. It was based in Mayom and was primarily made up of Bul Nuer.


Smaller militia groups:


Gabriel Tanginya, Gordon Kong and Simon Gatwich all had individual armed movements. They were supported by Khartoum and were made up of different Nuer sections. Tanginya’s militia was primarily Lak Nuer and was based in Fangak, Kong’s was primarily Jikany Nuer and was based in Nasir, and Gatwich’s was primarily Lou Nuer and was based in Waat.


Johnson, Douglas. 2003. Root Causes of Sudans Civil Wars. Oxford: Currey.


Human Rights Watch. 2003. Sudan, Oil and Human Rights. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/6wctp9hmacqksq1/Sudan%20Oil%20and%20Human%20Rights.pdf?dl=0)


Small Arms Survey (www.smallarmssurvey.org)


Key People


John Garang de Mabior- Garang was the head of the SPLM and Commander-in-chief of the SPLA. He was shortly a member of Anyanya I but then was integrated into the Sudanese army at the end of the first civil war (1972). He rose to the rank of colonel and was initially sent to put down the Bor mutiny but then joined them. He was one of the founders of the SPLA in 1983 and received support from the Ethiopian Mengistu Regime over his southern rivals Anyanya II. Garang called for a secular and united Sudan, in contrast to Anyanya II’s demands for independence. He tragically died in July 2005 in a helicopter crash and Salva Kiir took over as the head of the SPLM and First Vice President of Sudan.


Salva Kiir- Kiir was the chief of military operations for SPLA-Torit/Mainstream after the 1991 split and escorted thousands of children, and those accompanying them, to Kenya. Later Kiir was commander for Bahr al Ghazal in 1999 and strongly supported the Wunlit Peace agreement between the Dinka and Nuer. He was made SPLA Chief of Staff in late 1999 and then took over in 2005 as the head of the SPLM and commander-in-chief of the SPLA after Garang’s death. He won the first election for president and has held the position ever since. In December 2013 he accused his former Vice President Riek Machar, and others, of an attempted coup. The consequent violence in Juba escalated into the current conflict.


Riek Machar- the first Vice President in South Sudan, but was dismissed by Salva Kiir in July 2013. Machar has historically had a tumultuous relationship with the SPLM/A and has been behind a number of factions over the years. Machar has been involved in SPLA-Nasir (which became SPLA-United and then SSIM/A), SSDF, SPDF and SPLA-IO. See the Nuer profile section for more details.


Kuol Manyang- previously Manyang was the Governor of Jonglei state until his appointment in July 2013 as the Minister of Defense. As with many high level SPLM politicians Kuol Manyang was previously a high ranking official in the SPLA and was at one time in charge of the Bahr al Ghazal region.


Gordon Kong- Kong was a veteran of Anyanya from the first civil war and was an original founder of the SPLM/A. He then joined the Anyanya II movement calling for independence between 1983 and 1988. He was central in the reconciliation of Anyanya II and the SPLA in the late 1980s when most of Anyanya II was integrated. He left the SPLA in 1991 as a leader of the SPLA-Nasir faction. After the 1997 agreement he was made a commander in the SSDF movement (pro-government umbrella group) and was based in Nasir.


Lam Akol- Lam Akol was one of the leaders of the SPLA-Nasir faction in 1991 along with Gordon Kong and Riek Machar. He was expelled from the movement by Machar in 1994, after which he created his own SPLA-United group made up of Shilluk forces. His SPLA-United was a signatory to the 1997 Fashoda peace agreement. In 2009 he formed the SPLM-Democratic Change (DC) political party and ran against Salva Kiir for the presidency. See Shilluk profile section for more.


Kerubino Kuanyin Bol- Kerubino was an Anyanya officer who was integrated into the Sudanese army after the 1972 agreement. He led the Bor mutiny and was part of the formation of the SPLA in 1983. He was put in prison by Garang in 1987 but escaped in 1992 and joined the SPLA-Nasir faction of Machar in 1993. Kerubino had a Dinka militia group under him that was supported by the Khartoum government from 1994. He later joined the SPLA in 1998 but then defected again later the same year and fled to Matiep’s SSUM/A in Mankien for safety. He was killed in September 1999 by Gadet’s forces who captured Mankien after defecting from Matiep that month.


Peter Gadet- Gadet was originally a member of the Sudanese Army and was sent to fight on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq regime against the Iranians in the 1980s. He later joined the SPLA but joined the SPLA-Nasir faction after the 1991 split. He was then given an officer’s post under Paulino Matiep’s Bul Nuer forces. After the Khartoum Peace Agreement in 1997 Gadet became a key commander in Paulino Matiep’s SSUM/A militia. He then left the SSUM/A in September 1999 and fought against the Sudanese government. In early 2000 he joined the SPLA and then began to fight the SPDF forces under Machar later that year. In 2002 he then rejoined the government. Gadet was slow in accepting the Juba Declaration in 2006 which created suspicion when he began integration later. His brutal reputation while fighting with Paulino Matiep, then with the SPLA, and later with the SSDF also preceded him. Civilian populations were devastated in some of his attacks and many Bahr al Ghazal Dinka and Nuer in Unity hold significant grievances towards him to this day. Small Arms Survey believes his defection is related to the perception that former militia leaders were being overlooked for promotions, instead given to younger Dinka SPLA loyalists. He left the SPLA in March 2011 and started the SSLM/A movement. After attacks on Mayom and Mankien, in which more than 250 people were killed, he signed a ceasefire and later joined the government in August 2011. Gadet was one of the first to defect in December 2013 to the SPLA-IO and has been the commander for Jonglei, and more recently Unity state.


Paulo Matiep- Matiep is unusual as he was never a member of the SPLA. Originally a member of Anyanya in the first civil war, Matiep was not integrated into the Sudanese Army after 1972, as many others were. He rebelled again in 1975 and went to Ethiopia and returned in 1985-1986 as Anyanya II. The reconciliation in the late 1980s between the SPLA and Anyanya II by Gordon Kong did not include Matiep, presumably due to attacks by the SPLA on Anyanya II in 1983. Matiep was supported by the government and fought alongside Omar Bashir (before the 1989 military coup that would put him in power until today) while recapturing Mayom in 1989 from the SPLA. He joined the SPLA-Nasir faction in 1991 and was integrated into the SSDF after the 1997 agreement. However, he fought against Machar´s SSDF forces from 1997 over the governorship of Unity, which was won by Taban Deng Gai. In 1998 he started the SSUM/A which was again supported by Khartoum. He then expelled Taban Deng from Unity in 1999.


Taban Deng Gai- Twice governor of Unity, under both Sudan (1997-1999) and South Sudan (2005-2013). Taban Deng joined the SPLA in the 1980s but joined the SPLA-Nasir breakaway faction in 1991. He is related by marriage to Riek Machar. After the 1997 agreement with Khartoum, he became the leader of the new UDSF political party. He won an election to be governor of Unity in 1997 but was expelled in 1999 by Paulino Matiep. In 2000 he joined Machar’s new movement which then reunited with the SPLA in 2002. He was appointed as the governor of Unity again in 2005 and was seen as President Salva Kiir´s close ally. He won the contested elections in Unity state in 2010 against Angelina Teny, the wife of Riek Machar. However, over the last years he had a fall-out with the President who dismissed him from the governorship in 2013. Since December 2013 he has been a member of the SPLA-IO and represents them in the Addis peace talks.


Ismael Konyi- Former governor of Jonglei and ally of Sudan as head of the Pibor Defense Forces (PDF) during the second civil war. Signed an agreement in 2006 with the GOSS and became a peace and reconciliation adviser to the president.


David Yau Yau- After losing the 2010 parliamentary elections (state assembly) David Yau Yau began a rebellion in his home county of Pibor. Unlike many of the other movement leaders, Yau Yau had no previous military experience. He signed a peace agreement in 2011, but defected in 2012 after the brutal SPLA disarmament of the Murle at the beginning of the year. This time he received much more support from the youth, and his movement changed its name to SSLA- Cobra Faction. Interestingly, Gadet was the commander sent to lead the counter-insurgency operation against David Yau Yau in 2013 and captured the main base (in Boma?), but failed to kill Yau Yau himself. Yau Yau signed a new peace agreement with the government in 2014 providing for a newly created Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA)[26] that does not report to the state governor in Jonglei but to the president’s office instead. Yau Yau has been made the head of the GPAA.


Johnson, Douglas. 2003. Root Causes of Sudans Civil Wars. Oxford: Currey.


Human Rights Watch. 2003. Sudan, Oil and Human Rights. (https://www.dropbox.com/s/6wctp9hmacqksq1/Sudan%20Oil%20and%20Human%20Rights.pdf?dl=0)


Small Arms Survey (www.smallarmssurvey.org)


Terms and Acronyms


acephelous- applying to a society that has no hierarchy or centralized system of coordination and control. Acephelous societies are ones that are ‘flat,’ not ‘vertical,’ when it comes to social structures. For example, rather than a king, or even chiefs, the ‘highest’ social structure is often the head of a family.


agrarian- cultivators, or agriculturalists. Primarily reliant upon planting and growing crops for food security and livelihoods, most agrarian cultures also own livestock, but are not reliant upon it for food or income.


agro-pastoralist- anthropological term for those who are reliant on both livestock and cultivation. Very few societies are completely pastoralist and also rely on some level of planting or fishing as part of the annual food cycle. Many societies in South Sudan are agro-pastoralists- cattle are the primary focus, but as they rely on planting as well as fishing and hunting at different times of the year.


age-set- a peer group shared across a society. Young men from a certain age range from across the entire ethnic group identify primarily with their peers from the same generation. Loyalty is highest with one’s age-set, not with clans or regions. Each age-set has identifiers to differentiate from the others, and age-sets often compete between themselves for influence and power. Girls identify with the age-set of their father, and later their husband or boyfriend’s age-set.


brideprice (bridewealth)- payment made to the family of the bride by the family of the groom in order for a marriage to be approved socially. Among pastoral communities it is most frequently paid in the form of cattle, but also goats, money, guns and other items can be included. Bridewealth is the more current term (anthropological term).


CPA- Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the SPLA in 2005.


pastoralist- herders. Primarily reliant upon livestock (sheep, goats, camels, cattle) for livelihoods and food security.


toic- grazing land or pasture for livestock. The toic is where cattle are taken in the dry season to access water and food. In the rainy season it often turns to swamp.


















Major Seasonal Migration Routes by State- OCHA state maps with known migratory routes added





UNDP Community Consultation Report Unity State 2012- Seasonal Migration and Cattle Raids (link)

UNDP Community Consultation Report Unity State 2012- Seasonal Migration and Cattle Raids (https://www.dropbox.com/s/dvsud0ymnozkm5p/UNDP-SS-Unity-consult-12Read.pdf?dl=0)






For larger versions:

Ethnic Map: https://www.dropbox.com/s/s5326kcw57kqcp3/SS%20Ethnic%20Map.pdf?dl=0

Jonglei Map: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ie32oh6n0yhmks3/Jonglei%20State%20Migrations.pdf?dl=0

Upper Nile Map: https://www.dropbox.com/s/rgcd97s5qqmqedw/Upper%20Nile%20Migrations.pdf?dl=0

[1] Johnson explains it very well in his book The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars and anyone wanting to gain a much more comprehensive understanding should pick up a copy (2003).

[2] The new GPAA has seen two counties (Pibor and Pochalla) divided into seven new counties.

[3] Human Rights Watch, 1994. Sudan: The Lost Boys- Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan. Vol 6, No. 10. (https://db.tt/OjZU0ZRf)

[4] In an interview with Machar in the 1990’s he claimed to have sent children from Upper Nile in 1988 after recommendations by Garang that they boys receive an education in Ethiopia. He also claimed Kuol Manyang, the current Minister of Defense, sent children from Bahr al Ghazal shortly after (HRW 1994).

[5] This is not implying all children volunteer to join in violence, as many are forcefully recruited and social pressures to participate are often very high. It means that the adults cannot force boys who have been initiated to stay home.

[6] The creation of defined borders instead had the negative effect of increasing tensions.

[7] The Lou Nuer being one exception after largely taking Akobo from the Anuak in the 1980s.. Other examples could be Dinka settling near Nimule in the early 1990s after targeting of their homeland in Bor. Land disputes will be a significant cause of future conflict if land rights are not defined and agreed on.

[8] The Lou Nuer and Jikany Nuer conflict originated due to competition over food in this time. Machar attempted to reconcile the two in 1994 but failed and the conflict sporadically continued until 2010.

[9] Most inter-ethnic marriages are with neighbors, such as the Dinka Nyarwang and Lou Nuer in Jonglei.

[10] Bloodwealth was used for local disputes. It is much harder to agree who was responsible and amounts in large scale conflicts between clans or ethnic groups in which many lives have been lost and cattle stolen.

[11] This varies among denominations and individuals- the Wunlit Triangle peace agreement had both church leaders and traditional reconciliation ceremonies.

[12] It is recognized that there exists a risk in legitimizing potential peace spoilers through their inclusion. However, many of these leaders play dual roles- as both peace actors and spoilers. Ensuring they are involved in a positive way is paramount.

[13] No research could be found during this desk review. If studies exist please send them in order to update this section.

[14] It is recognized that this is also a convenient excuse for any abductors who want to claim they are the actual victims.

[15] The most significant exception being the Dinka, who place great importance upon patrilineal lineage, i.e. Dinka identity is passed down from your father.

[16] No interviewed men admitted to keeping abducted women for themselves, but cases of others doing so existed and were reported by officials- the women were kept seemingly as sex slaves and laborers.

[17] Levirate marriage is when a widow is married to the brother of her husband, but any children receive the name and legitimacy from the first husband, not the biological father.

[18] For more about the rhetoric used about the Murle read “Victims of Discourse: Mobilizing Narratives of Fear and Insecurity in Post-Conflict South Sudan- The Case of Jonglei State” by Ann Laudati (https://www.dropbox.com/s/bjub5w7f5zp3lpy/Laudati%20article%20AGR%2030n1%20June%202011.pdf?dl=0)

[19] There is some confusion regarding which period Lewis is referring to regarding the ‘new-found fertility.’ His research was originally carried out in the 1930s and 1940s, but his book was published in 1972. It is unclear if his conclusion is referring to the WHO campaign in the 1960s mentioned by Arensen or an earlier medical campaign during the colonial era.

[20] One major exception to this was the Ngok Dinka in Abyei. Consistent contact with the Baggara from the north led the Ngok to develop a more centralized system (Hutchinson 2012:12)

[21] For more about the complexity of Dinka civilian relations with the SPLA in Lakes State read Leonardi, Cherry. 2007. “‘Liberation’ or Capture: Youth in Between ‘Hakuma’, and ‘Home’ During Civil War and It’s Aftermath in Southern Sudan.” African Affairs, 106/424, 391-412.

[22] The Chollo are commonly referred to as Shilluk although that is actually an incorrect pronounciation from the past. As a result the correct name, Chollo, will be used instead.

[23] Literature does not state if this is still the case.

[24] http://mlgi.org.za/resources/local-government-database/by-country/sudan/sub-national-legislation/The%20Local%20Government%20Act%202009.pdf

[25] SPLA-United was initially the new name for SPLA-Nasir in which both Akol and Machar were leaders. Machar then changed his movement to SSIM (South Sudan Independence Movement) and Lam Akol kept the United named for his own separate movement.

[26] The new GPAA has seen two counties (Pibor and Pochalla) divided into seven new counties.

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