Llyr Attala

The manipulation of ethnicity by both parties in the 1990s 'war of the educated'

The conflict following the 1991 split led to a huge shift in local conflicts between civilians. As mentioned earlier, historic (pre-civil war) conflicts and raids between civilians in South Sudan had limitations and community leaders had means of mitigating them from escalating out of control. This changed after 1991. Hutchinson and Jok claim that before the split Dinka and Nuer would not target women and children intentionally in inter-communal warfare (1999). However, after 1991 civilians became direct targets in the violence. It is widely agreed that a drastic shift occurred in 1991 in terms of the involvement of civilian fighters in the fighting. Civilians began to use the same tactics as the soldiers, and women, children, and elderly became direct targets of the violence. These legacies can be seen in large-scale revenge attacks today, where women, children, and elders are regarded as accepted targets. The involvement of civilians in the political clashes starting in 1991 further blurred the lines between civilians and combatants. If civilians are potential threats, then they are also legitimate targets.

The taboo against killing women and children in the past was arguably related to their flexible ethnic identity - it could change depending on who they married (Hutchinson and Jok 2002). Frequent inter-ethnic marriages also meant that by targeting women and children one could accidentally kill a female family member who had married across ethnic lines. Hence, inter-ethnic marriages helped create “points through which adversarial relations among men could be potentially defused and transformed into relations of affinity” (Hutchinson and Jok, 2002[1]). The increasing targeting of civilians after 1991 began to change this.[2]

The arming and mobilization of Nuer youth, or the White Army, by Machar in 1991 in order to expand his support and recruitment base changed the dynamics of ethnic conflicts. The civilian youth joined in the assaults with experienced soldiers and learned tactics of war previously seen in political and military campaigns- the destruction of villages and targeting of innocent civilians. Although the “Bor Massacre” had the opposite effect Machar wanted, SPLA-Nasir raids into Dinka territories continued in 1992, and SPLA-Torit responded in a similar fashion by targeting Leer and Adok, the homeland of Machar (Nyaba 2001). The response to these raids by Dinka civilians was to demand protection from the SPLA, or at least weapons so that they could defend themselves. This led to the creation of the Titweng/Gelweng, or ‘cattle guards’ in Dinka territories (ibid). Initially armed for protection purposes these youth later were used as a militia by the SPLA-Torit faction, much like the White Army was used by SPLA-Nasir.

The leaders on both sides manipulated identity as a means of mobilizing civilian fighters to fight as proxy groups, which further entrenched ethnic identities and enmity between the communities. Both SPLA-Nasir and SPLA-Torit encouraged civilian fighters to join in attacks or to raid civilian “supporters” of their enemy. Johnson states that not only were the Nuer White Army involved in the Bor massacre by SPLA-Nasir, but “Nuer and Dinka civilians from western Upper Nile and Lakes began raiding each other; and the Torit faction garrison at Pibor encouraged the Murle to begin raiding into the Nuer districts of Akobo and Waat” (2003:114). The attempts by Machar to increase anti-Garang sentiment had the added effect of increasing anti-Dinka sentiments as well. Consequently this blurred the original issue from one of grievances towards Garang’s political leadership to one of ethnicity. Attacks on civilians led to loss of political support, and the SPLA-Nasir movement became perceived as an ethnic movement (ibid).

Civilians interviewed by Jok and Hutchinson in the 1990s explained that they viewed the attacks in 1992 as ‘politically motivated,’ due to the different tactics employed- the use of modern weapons, the targeting of women, children, and the elderly and the destruction of villages and livelihoods (1999:131). These were not tactics used in local raids or clashes between neighbors. One Dinka community leader explained:

The war between us and the Nuer was no longer our usual war… It was not in our hands anymore, it had become a soldiers’ war both in equipment and in purpose… Traditionally, when the Nuer raided us, they took cattle, they never concerned themselves about the women, children, and the elderly, and they never even chased after those who ran away… It was just the way things were, we both had spears, and it seemed balanced. (Jok and Hutchinson 1999: 131)

Many civilians pointed out that the ‘old wars’ were opportunities for real men to prove themselves and their courage. The political conflict in the 1990s had modern weapons and were “fought by cowards who kill defenseless women and children” (ibid:132). Both sides manipulated ethnic identity to increase recruitment and motivate fighters. While the conflict did not initially occur along ethnic lines, as it continued soldiers and commanders defected from both sides, either for economic reasons or to join their kin. For example, the commander who first led the SPLA-Torit attack against SPLA-Nasir was William Nyuon, a Nuer. He was appointed Chief of Staff by Garang and even represented the SPLA-Torit faction in peace talks in Abuja. He later changed sides and joined SPLA-Nasir in 1992 (Johnson 2003:113).

This was a war of the elite who were manipulating identity as a means of mobilization and motivation among their respective communities. As stated in the ethnic profile section, most Nuer and Dinka did not have primary loyalty with a country-wide “Dinka” or “Nuer” identity. Instead, loyalty lies with kin and family. Unity is only found when the overall group is faced with external threats. Fukui and Markakis claim that “ethnicity is not the cause of war but the reverse” (1994:5). Conflicts create a shared identity, and the targeting of women and children by both sides created a perception of a threat to the ethnic group as a whole that needed to be defended. One former Dinka SPLA soldier explained “We don’t care about their political careers, at least not to the extent of killing ourselves. They know this, and that is why they have to make it sound as if tribal wealth was under threat from the rival tribe in order to persuade the people to wage war” (Jok and Hutchinson 1999:133).

The split of the SPLA-Nasir faction was a threat to the possible success of the SPLA movement. Even worse, the use of military hardware and support from the Khartoum regime reinforced the claims by the SPLA Mainstream that Machar was a puppet for their worst enemies (Johnson 2003:99). As many Nuer supported Machar they were included in this assessment and were acceptable targets in the military battle against Khartoum. This logic appealed to many Dinka men who joined the SPLA cause. On the other hand, Machar justified raids into Dinka territory as a means of recovering lost livestock from SPLA attacks, fighting “Dinka dominance,” and supporting the independence movement. This also appealed to Nuer men (Jok and Hutchinson 1999:133). In reality the attacks carried out by both sides to regain ‘stolen livestock’ did not benefit the civilians. The recouped cattle ended up in the hands of the commanders, who distributed them among their men as a means of ensuring loyalty as the men were not paid salaries (ibid). The fact that loyalty among military units on both sides was, and still is today, primarily to individual commanders should not come as a surprise.

The arming and targeting of civilians and manipulation of identity by both parties to increase recruitment benefited the elites’ political and military aims, but brought political violence to other relationships. The split in 1991, and the further fragmentation of additional commanders into even smaller groups later, increased the speed at which civilians accessed modern weapons. Personal grievances were now carried out by the use of firearms, further deepening and expanding feuds and rivalries at both the inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic levels. The effect of the violence towards and by civilians based on ethnicity from the 1990s still has major repercussions today and has yet to be reconciled. Machar apologized for his involvement in the Bor Massacre in recent years, but is still characterized by many Dinka as the perpetrator primarily responsible for significant violence against innocent Dinka civilians after the split. President Kiir, in his first presidential address after the violence broke out in December 2013, directly referred to Machar’s involvement in the event. A proper reconciliation never occurred between communities, and the reminders by both politicians and the media of past transgressions continues to exacerbate animosity. The violence which broke out in December 2013 and 2014 has reopened many of the old wounds and will add to the grievances felt between parties and communities.

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

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

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 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

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)

Nyaba, Peter. 1996. The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insiders View. Fountain Publishing.

Parallels with the Current Conflict

Parallels between 1991 and the current situation in South Sudan are easy to make. Frustration with a “Dinka dominated” leadership with dictatorial tendencies leads to divisions within the SPLM leadership, which ultimately culminates in a split of the movement. Riek Machar leads a faction with the public goal of internal party reform, but in reality with the desire instead to take over leadership of the SPLA. The conflict begins as a political competition between the elites, but targeting of civilians along ethnic lines by both parties triggers mass civilian mobilization on both sides. The opposition is primarily based in Nuer homelands in Greater Upper Nile, where most of the fighting takes place. Civilian fighters are armed by both parties as a means of gaining the upper hand militarily, but little control over them exists and major human rights abuses are reported.[3] Civilians are targeted by both sides in a cycle of revenge attacks. The opposition does not have complete control over their forces, whose loyalty lies with individual commanders rather than Machar’s political goals. Disruption in the economic situation for the movement made the SPLM/A leadership vulnerable. Many of the same actors are involved: Salva Kiir, Riek Machar, Kuol Manyang, Lam Akol, Taban Deng Gai, and Peter Gadet to name a few. Many more parallels could possibly be made, and probably have been made by the civilians who must feel a strong sense of deja vu. While many of the actors involved in the conflicts of the past are also taking part in the current conflict, both the legitimacy and power balance of the actors have changed. Looking for parallels from the past as a means of predicting the future can ignore significant differences. Many such changes occurred in the twenty-two years between the start of 1991 and the start of the current conflict and demand consideration.

The CPA signed between the Government of Sudan and SPLM in 2005 resulted in a change of the power balance on the ground as GoSS (mainly consisting of the ruling SPLM) took over the garrison towns. Moreover, the Juba declaration of 2006 was an important move in improving internal security as it provided for the integration of former militias into the SPLA. While these did not solve all of the tensions between actors, they were vital in uniting much of the country during the important post-war period. During this time South Sudan held a referendum and voted for independence in 2011. The SPLM are now running a government, including all the challenges and resources, rather than a rebel movement. President Kiir has been legitimately elected by the people. While some SPLM leaders, such as the Third Bloc in negotiations, oppose his ‘dictatorial’ tendencies and want internal reform of the party, they are not joining the armed opposition movement. The creation of the SPLA-Nasir faction in 1991, by a declaration over the radio, was significantly different from the events in Juba in December 2013 that led to the start of the SPLA-IO. There is an established UN peacekeeping force in the country contributing to protection and the monitoring of human rights abuses by both parties. The professional military personnel (currently fighting on both sides) have received training and salaries in the last few years. It is unlikely many will now be willing to engage in a long conflict without a salary or at least “supplementary income” as in the past. In 1991 the loss of the supply lines and support from Mengistu increased the vulnerability of the movement. The economic vulnerability of the current government is related to the shutdown of an oil pipeline worth billions of dollars in 2012[4]. Control over the oil fields, and their possible income, will remain one of the primary military targets for both sides in the ongoing conflict. The targeting of hundreds of Nuer civilians in Juba in December 2013 has created a significant motivator for the opposition and destroyed any trust in President Kiir’s leadership within the Nuer. It has become a symbolic event much like the Bor Massacre has defined Riek Machar’s military legacy. Targeting of civilians by the opposition has had a similar effect. It will prove incredibly hard for either leader to remain in government, either individually or in a power sharing agreement. Both leaders have lost legitimacy among significant parts of the population due to their inability to control human rights abuses by their soldiers or allies. Finally, the targeting of women, children, and elders by both parties and armed youth was a new dynamic in 1991. It has now become the norm in cattle raids, ethnic conflicts, insurgencies, and counter-insurgencies in the past twenty years.

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