Proliferation of guns
Download this background document
The use of modern weaponry significantly changed the dynamics of warfare within South Sudan. At the same time the supply of weapons in the region has drastically increased in the past fifty years. Ever since the rebellion in eastern Congo in 1965 large amounts of weapons have been flowing into the region and the hands of civilians (Simonse 2005). The Soviets and Americans supplied huge amounts of weapons to their allies, whether governments or opposition, and the horn of Africa was the largest recipient of small arms during the Cold War (Mkutu 2008:2). Regional governments have also done the same, often in an attempt to destabilize rivals in other nations (e.g. Sudan supported the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Ethiopia rebels while the Ugandans and Ethiopian government supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in South Sudan). Political elites in the region are reliant on their ability to neutralize their opponents’ supporters while empowering their own- frequently through the use of violence. Many weapons have been co-opted by the civilian population and now there is a thriving weapons and ammunition trade, through exchange, barter, or alliances. The increase in proliferation in the past few decades has been so severe that prices have dropped from as high as 160 cattle for a gun in the 1970’s to as low as two today (Mkutu 2008, 149). In recent years in Jonglei, the state with the highest level of violence in South Sudan, the price has been between two and four cattle per gun, depending on the state of the weapon (Arensen 2012 a). The means of obtaining weapons are much the same as in the past few decades. Armed opposition movements are a frequent source of weapons, as is the black market. For example, after their failed election bids in 2010 both George Athor and David Yau Yau began armed movements in Jonglei. In interviews with the author both groups were identified by youth as major sources of arms in the state. Alternatively, some Murle men received weapons in Juba at the black market in exchange for cattle. In addition, in past government disarmament campaigns some SPLA soldiers would promptly offer to exchange the confiscated weapons back to the civilians for cattle or money (Arensen 2012 b). The local barter of weapons is quite common, most frequently for cattle but also for cash. While guns last a long time, ammunition needs to be replaced more frequently. Ammunition is also on sale in the black market in exchange for cattle, cash, or even liquor. Liquor producers in the rural areas will occasionally trade alcohol for ammunition, and then sell the ammunition on the local market (Arensen 2012 a).
In addition to an increasing supply, demand has seen more weapons end up in the hands of civilians. A Small Arms Survey study from 2007 estimated that two thirds of the 1.9-3.2 million weapons in the Sudan were in the hands of civilians. While the state has progressively been less able to provide protection and security for its citizens in the past few decades, the need for civilians to protect themselves has grown. This is especially true in the pastoralist regions, which tend to be in the difficult to reach areas- usually the most marginalized parts of the countries. In the colonial period the benefits of advanced weapons enabled a relatively small military to largely enforce rule of law on civilian areas after decades of violent “pacification” campaigns. However, even the British never fully had a monopoly of violence over the pastoral parts of South Sudan, and despite deterrence factors, including death penalty, raiding still occurred (Simonse 2005). Now that civilians have weapons of similar levels as the professional military, control is much more challenging.
In addition to the terrain, the lack of infrastructure, such as roads, and high cost of advanced military equipment means that the state security forces do not have a signifcant advantage over armed civilians. The civil wars since Sudan’s independence (1956) have also created a draw factor of security forces towards areas of strategic importance such as towns. This has had the effect of moving them away from the marginal areas, further expanding the security vacuum in the peripheries. Also, many civilians are seeking to get their hands on even more weapons due to competition over limited resources. Increased populations mean that there is greater competition over resources such as grazing land and water, one of the primary causes of conflicts. The increased demand, due to reduced security and limited resources, combined with the continual supply of weapons over the past fifty years has had a devastating effect on the dynamics of violence in South Sudan.
Importantly, the use of guns changed the cultural significance of the spiritual consequences of murder. Many pastoral cultures in East Africa believed that killing a person resulted in the ‘pollution’ of the body, which required a time consuming cleansing ceremony by a spiritual leader (Lamphear 1998:82). In Hutchinson’s study of the Nuer she examined the various blood prices that would need to be paid to the victim’s family in cases of internal Nuer killings. The costs varied depending on the type of weapon used, how the person died, and if the killing was intended or not. However, these social control mechanisms were much more challenging to apply when spears were replaced with guns. Furthermore, the identification of perpetrators was difficult, if not impossible, during large gun battles between youth (Hutchinson 1996). Essentially, the introduction of semi-automatic guns not only gave pastoralist youth increased independence from the elders; it also undermined the traditional social sanctions and conflict mitigation mechanisms in place. The social responsibilities of youth in pastoralist communities in areas with little government control have become even more pronounced in recent decades. The security vacuum has put more pressure on the youth to defend and protect their community, and also to carry out justice in the form of revenge attacks against rivals.
These developments need to be seen in relation to decades of civil war since Sudan’s independence. The two civil wars (1955-1972, 1983-2005) increased the demand for weapons in the country. For example, the Ugandans, Ethiopians, and Eritreans, among others, all directly supported the SPLA at various times through the distribution of weapons. However, another major source of weapons for the other factions and civilian defense groups in South Sudan was the Khartoum government. In an attempt to buy support and alliances with commanders or groups that were against the SPLA, or desired to protect themselves, the Sudanese regime gave significant amounts of weapons to various community defense forces and factions in the South during the war years (Johnson 2003). The 1990s saw a huge influx of guns as the Khartoum government, SPLA and other southern factions attempted to purchase support through the distribution of arms, which further increased the arsenals of communities and fighters. The 1991 split of the SPLA also saw an increasing demand for fighters on both sides. It is this event that many academics identify as the turning point in the militarization of South Sudanese societies, particularly among the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.
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.
Human Rights Watch. 1994. Sudan: Civilian Devastation- Abuses by all parties in the war in Southern Sudan. New York
Hutchinson, Sharon E. 1996. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State, Berkeley CA: University of California Press
Johnson, Douglas. 2003. Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. Oxford: Currey.
Small Arms Survey. 2007. “The militarization of Sudan: a preliminary review of arms flows and holdings.” Number 6, April. (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/issue-briefs/HSBA-IB-06-militarization.pdf)
Mkutu, Kennedy A. 2008. Guns and Governance in the Rift Valley: Pastoralist Conflict and Small Arms. James Currey, Oxford.
Simonse, Simon. 2005. “Warriors, hooligans and mercenaries: Failed statehood and the violence of young male pastoralists in the Horn of Africa.” Chapter 11 in Abbink, Jon and Ineke van Kessel (eds.) Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa. Leiden-Boston: Brill.
 The most proliferate weapon is the Russian AK-47, which was built to last, further ensuring that weapons do not have to be frequently acquired (although ammunition does).
 SPLA were said to be occasional sources of guns, but individual soldiers face major repercussions if a gun is unaccounted for. Ammunition is also meant to be accounted for, but ready excuses are much easier to come by.
 These numbers included both Sudan and South Sudan as it was before southern independence.