03/02/2015
Llyr Attala

Traditional conflict mechanisms and reconciliation ceremonies in South Sudan

There are many misconceptions regarding armed civilian groups who participate in vi-olence 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 Nu-er 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 Nu-er. 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 econo-my 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 as-sume 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 Ar-my 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 leader-ship 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 dy-namics 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 to-gether despite differences. As soon as the threat of the Nuer raids receded the inter-nal tensions arose again and ‘brothers fought brothers.’ It shows the fragility of alli-ances 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 cam-paign. The inability of the SPLA to provide security for the communities after the dis-armaments 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: Nu-er 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)

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