03/02/2015
Llyr Attala

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)