Historical Engagement Between Communities
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Raids and ethnic clashes among pastoral communities are part of the socio-economic norm and have occurred within and between communities in South Sudan for centuries. Historical competitions and raids between pastoralists in East Africa are defined by Lamphear as ‘ritual war,’ with no attempt to completely destroy the opposition or to even target livelihoods or civilians (1998). Instead clear limitations on war were in place, which most often took the form of raids and revenge attacks. The modes of warfare that existed controlled violence and limited the expansion of war. In these ‘ritual wars’ elders, women, and children were not accepted targets for violence . Both Murle and Nuer women have claimed in interviews with the author that in the past, when cattle raiders came to a homestead and the husband was not home, they would allow the women to tie down the cattle needed for food and survival. The raiders would take the rest, but leave the cattle needed to feed the victim’s family, and not target the women or children (Arensen 2012).
According to Lamphear, balance with other communities was the ultimate goal of conflict, and “if the balance was threatened, various ‘safety-valves’ such as migration, assimilation, or boundary adjustment could effectively set things right” (1998:82). This can be seen in the Nuer expansions of the 19th century, where many peoples were either assimiliated into the Nuer, often through marriage, or migrated to another location (Hutchinson 2012). While raiding and violence between pastoralist communities was, and still is, frequently occurring, the role of these conflicts historically varied a great deal from armies’ attempts to conquer or destroy the opposition or their livelihoods. Instead, ‘ritual war’ was used primarily as a means of “promoting identity and reinforcing internal unity by organizing violence towards outsiders” (Kurimoto & Simonse 1998:11). Importantly, while intentions might not have been to completely conquer or wipe out the enemy, these conflicts were far from harmless. Violence and death did occur, but customs were in place in order to moderate the escalation. The elders and spiritual leaders had various means of mitigating conflicts and resolving disputes- such as the payment of bloodwealth to victim’s families.
In the past few decades the failure of the state to ensure protection in rural areas has increased the demand for modern weaponry and dependence on youth to provide local security. The increasing involvement of youth in warfare and large-scale violence has contributed to a breakdown of traditional control mechanisms, as well as increasingly violent conflicts. The high level of violence found in modern conflicts must be seen in relation to the introduction of modern weapons, the politicization of inter-ethnic conflicts and acceptance of civilians as legitimate targets, and the inability of the elders and spiritual leaders to mitigate these conflicts as they once did.
Arensen, Michael. 2012. “Murle Age-sets.” AECOM International South Sudan on behalf of USAID. Unpublished.
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://db.tt/yaFlbZjn)
Kurimoto, Eisei and Simonse, Simon (eds.) Conflict, Age and Power in North East Africa: Age Systems in Transition. James Currey, Oxford. 1998.
Lamphear, John. 1998. “Brothers in Arms: Military Aspects of East African Age-Class Systems in Historical Perspective.” Chapter 4 in Kurimoto, Eisei and Simonse, Simon (eds.) Conflict, Age and Power in North East Africa: Age Systems in Transition. James Currey, Oxford.