Malakal County, Upper Nile

General information

2016 population projection: 174,537

Major population centers: Malakal town is Upper Nile State’s capital.

Major ethnic group: Historically majority Shilluk, as is much of the area on the western banks of the White Nile.

Displacement risk:

High risk of conflict related displacement.  Malakal town saw intense fighting throughout the 2013   2015 conflict, with control of the town switching sides multiple times.  Each change of control spurred mass displacement of alternating ethnic groups.  The UN base outside Malakal has been a protection of civilians (PoC) site for the length of that conflict.  An attack on the PoC site in February 2016 killed 40 IDPs and re displaced more than 20,000.  As of June 2016, UNMISS reports that 32,719 IDPs live within the camp.

*National Bureau of Statistics, Population projections for South Sudan by County

* about this map

Economy & livelihoods

The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) categorizes Malakal County as part of the “Northern Sorghum and Cattle” livelihood zone (Aug 2013) while ACTED categorizes it as part of both the “Nile and Sobat Rivers” LZ and “Eastern Floodplains LZ” (Sep 2013).  In all cases, communities are agro pastoralists.  The primary livelihood is agriculture, supplemented by rearing livestock, fishing and foraging.  The main crops are sorghum and maize, as well as pumpkin, cowpeas, sesame and vegetables.  Better off households keep cattle, goats and sheep.  Fishing is seasonal, taking place primarily in the swamps towards the end of the rainy season and into the dry season.  Malakal town is the State’s capital and a major market in the area.  The area also has access to external markets across the border in Sudan.  Seasonal migrations of pastoralists and their cattle throughout the region can be a source of conflict over pastures, access to water, and cattle raiding.  Traditionally, hazards to livelihood in the area include flooding, drought, livestock disease and crop pests.  The violence in the region since December 2013, however, has induced large scale displacement, disrupted normal farming cycles, and severely imperiled livelihoods, especially around Malakal town.  

IPC projection for Jan-Mar 2016

The IPC projected “crisis” levels of food insecurity for Malakal County for the period of January to March 2016. This is down from the “emergency” levels projected for the County in early 2014. For Malakal town (assumedly including the Malakal PoC site), IPC specifies that the area “would likely be at least one phase worse without [the] humanitarian assistance” that being provided (Sept 2015).

Historical context

Dominant Control during conflict: SPLA/M, but contested throughout.  

Malakal town, Upper Nile State’s capital, has been the site of significant fighting for the length of the conflict.  Control of the town switched between the SPLA IO and SPLA multiple times following the outbreak of violence in December 2013.  In periods of intense fighting, the town was repeatedly deserted as the civilian population fled to the nearby UN base and neighboring counties.  By April 2015, however, the SPLA had regained controlled of much of Upper Nile State – including Malakal, Akoka, Baliet, Fashoda, Maban, Melut and Renk Counties – while the SPLA IO maintained a presence in rural areas of Longochuk, Maiwut, Manyo, Nasir, Panyikang and Ulang counties. 

Shilluk fighters were initially the backbone of the SPLA forces on the western bank of the White Nile River in Upper Nile State.  However, under the command of Johnson Olonyi, these fighters were only minimally integrated into the rest of the SPLA (Small Arms Survey 2015).  Following the (local) defeat of the SPLA IO in 2015, underlying tensions between the Upper Nile State’s Shilluk and Padang Dinka communities remerged and escalated.  In May 2016, Olonyi defected from the SPLA, formed a Shilluk militia called the Agweleks, and attacked Malakal town.  His forces took (temporary) control of Malakal and campaigned north, before being stopped by the SPLA 1st Division.  A few months later, Okiech also defected and formed the Tiger Faction New Forces (TFNF) in Manyo County.  Conflict between the Shilluk forces and the SPLA in Upper Nile State continues

Territorial disputes and conflict between the communities on both sides of the White Nile date back to the second civil war.  During that period, Dinka communities moved into land on either side of the White Nile that the Shilluk community considers their own.  Under President Kiir’s 28 states decree, most of the area west of the Nile in Upper Nile State is part of a new Shilluk dominated Western Nile State.  However, Kiir’s plan allocates Malakal County to Eastern Nile State, dividing Western Nile State into two non contiguous halves, with Fashoda and Manyo counties to the north and Panyikang to the south.  The Shilluk community largely rejects the proposal, viewing it as only the most recent iteration of a long history of government supported Dinka land grabbing and political marginalization. 

When the violence in Malakal town started in December 2013, tens of thousands fled to the nearby UN base.  The IDP population on this protection of civilians (PoC) site is a volatile mix of multiple ethnic groups.  In February 2016, Padang Dinka fighters and members of the SPLA attack the site.  At least 40 civilians were killed and a significant portion of the camp was razed; however, Dinka and Darfuri areas were left undamaged.

About the map *

This map follows the administrative county boundaries 2005-2015. Our aim is to identify key geographic, demographic and historical features of the area, rather than political/administrative issues. In doing so, SSHP expresses no view on the development of the 28 state policy

Geography & logistics


Central Malakal, Eastern Malakal, Northern Malakal, Southern Malakal, Lelo, Ogot

Geographical features

Malakal County spans both sides of the White Nile River and extends west to the border with Sudan.  The low lying area consists of Savannah grassland, bush and patches of forest.  The White Nile River is a key resource for transportation and fishing, and for livestock rearing.

Main roads

A major road runs along the east bank of the White Nile, connecting Malakal town to Paloich and Renk to the north and extending to Bor and Juba to the south.  A secondary road runs parallel along the east bank of the River.  Another main road runs southeast to Nasir and west towards Bentiu.

All season fixed-wing airstrips



Information last updated: 26/08/16

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