16 May, 2011Issue 16.2AfricaEssaysPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Old Conflict in a New State

Naomi Pendle

Cattle Horns

Protruding through the clouds of dust and smoldering dung, majestic, curving horns salute the sun as it rises over South Sudan. Custom forbids the number of cattle ever being counted but there must be thousands resting in each of the endless camps of the Dinka. Sleeping beneath the stars, living on the milk of the cows, and wandering with their herds from pasture to pasture, the youth of South Sudan’s largest tribe repeat the daily scene of their ancestors. Yet this May morning a single calf runs through the camp, the new flag of South Sudan tied to a pole on its back. In just two months, on 9 July, South Sudan will become the newest state on Earth. After almost 50 years of constant fighting against the Sudanese army, all corners of the country will mark the day with celebrations. However, AK47s still remain rife, scattered beneath trees, slung over the shoulders of girls, and gripped in the hands of men. These Apuk Dinka youth are armed as though they were soldiers at war. Conflict still troubles this young land.

Since the end of the North-South civil war in 2005, inter-community violence in South Sudan has continued to escalate. Another May morning this year, these same camps of the Apuk Dinka were raided without warning. Armed with AK47s and shining new “Khartoum Guns”—guns rumoured to be supplied by Khartoum—the attacking Nuer started their massacre before dawn. The fighting lasted until the sunset, Dinka chiefs, politicians, and youth rushing to defend. On that day, over 90 people were killed and many more injured. Similar battles further south saw over 80 killed earlier in 2011. This inter-community violence has not only killed thousands of people in the last six years; it has also undermined the transition to independence by weakening nationhood, peace, and development. While South Sudan has achieved state borders, its national identity has only been defined, through years of conflict, in opposition to Khartoum. The withdrawal of the Northern threat now brings the new challenge of a positive, united national identity, a prospect undermined by continued friction.

Calf with Flag

Conflict in South Sudan has a more ancient rhyme and rhythm than that introduced by the AK47. Between the pastoralist communities such as the Dinka Apuk, it would traditionally take the form of deadly cattle-raiding. Without the option of judicial redress and compelled by a duty to seek retribution for loss of life, each victimised community would mount a retaliatory attack, with further cattle and lives taken. And so the cycle of violence would continue.

The North-South civil war added new dynamics to these old conflicts. It brought widespread use of firearms, and fatalities increased exponentially. Today, South Sudanese civilians use these firearms against each other. As you drive through the bush to cross the river to Gogrial, the remains of the killed lie unburied in the parched grass. With gun battles continuing around the bodies, there had been no opportunity to bury them within 24 hours as is customary, thus aggravating the loss for the families of the deceased. Current fighting in Jonglei is seeing as many as two dozen killed per day. Fresh with the confidence lent by their AK47s, the cattle-keeping youth of the Dinka are now attempting revenge attacks they once considered too risky. Thousands have been killed in the six years since peace; these fatality rates would have been unthinkable before the influx of these new weapons.

The greatest danger firearms bring is the dependency they induce. Before the 1980s, when spears and clubs predominated, the community itself could manufacture the tools of war. Guns, however, need to be imported, giving external parties vested interest in the perpetuation of conflict and making the warring communities reliant upon the support of those with resources. Powerful local individuals or external players can now buy a voice in the conflict, supplying guns and ammunition, and turning the communities into their own veritable militia.

Girls with Guns: Acieng, Ayak and Ajok

The Titweng—the cattle-guard—are the main perpetrators of local violence amongst the Dinka during inter-community conflict. Untrained yet armed, the youths of the Titweng defend the community herds against raids or advance to reclaim stolen cattle. In Warrap State, the Titweng have been armed since the height of the civil war in the mid-1990s. Yet in these violent times, with firepower seen as crucial to the survival of the community, politicians pursue electoral success through material support for these groups. One aspiring candidate for commissioner amongst the Apuk is currently said to be the largest supplier of ammunition to the Titweng and is frequently visible during periods of conflict. Even incumbent politicians maintain their position through a reputation for strength in battle.

The approach of independence complicates this situation. Opposition to the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) is mounting, with various military and political leaders expressing their dissent, often in violent confrontations. While 2006 saw some of the leadership of the other large militarised group in the South, the South Sudan Defense Force, absorbed into the SPLA/M, the remainder are now acting on their disagreement. The raid into Gogrial East this month was not the usual Titweng offensive; the heavy black boots and the Khartoum guns of the attackers suggested the involvement of a dissenting faction. Caught in political conflict, with their continuing duty to preserve the cattle, the Titweng must defend against an opposing force much better equipped.

Cattle under Trees

Under a tree, on locally crafted chairs, opposite his smart new office building, the leading chief of Warrap State explains the history of the Council of Traditional Authority Leaders (CoTAL). Established after deadly conflict in Greater Gogrial, the CoTAL draws chiefs together for the purpose of preserving and creating peace. Even though statehood has transformed the old conflicts, the key to the re-establishment of peace may yet lie in these traditional leaders, with their local authority over the Titweng. Chiefs resource the conflict with ammunition supplies and participate in fighting. During times of heightened tension, these chiefs will be found amongst the youth, coordinating the defence of the cattle; one Apuk Dinka chief was even killed during recent defensive attacks against the Nuer. Furthermore, their executive and judicial authority over the youth and the community grants them sway over the ebb and flow of hostilities. So long as the youth remain obedient to their elders, external players who want to help end this local discord must address the chiefs.

Some aid agencies, however, are beginning to reject the role of the chiefs in peace-building, who are accused of being little more than puppets of the state and other national groups. Growing dependency on the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) for salaries, cars, budgets, buildings, and guns limits a chief’s ability to be an independent agent. Chiefs have even been accused of interrupting peace negotiations to communicate with national players to ensure their consent. Yet the chiefs need not remain pawns of the government; throughout history, they have often been pragmatic in seeking political allegiances. To the extent that their power and legitimacy stays rooted in their proximity to, and knowledge of, the community, and not in the government’s support, they are able to act independently.

As the sun starts to fall from the sky, the chiefs sit together beneath a reaching mahogany tree. Their grandfathers witnessed the independence of Sudan from the British, and they promise to slaughter countless bulls when they see the independence of the South. However, the conversation concerns the continuing conflict. They discuss the count of the dead and the defence of the cattle in their grazing lands. Satellite phones sit in their pockets, a sign of their connection to some external influence. Yet with the armed youth under their control the chiefs are indispensable to the realisation of peace in this new nation. They have the potential not only to lead an evolution of community values, but also to act as a check on the power of the state.

Naomi Pendle graduated in 2005 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Merton College, Oxford. She currently lectures in South Sudan both at the University of Bahr al-Ghazal and Marol Academy (Warrap State).