Issue 57 - Article 5

Drivers of conflict in Jonglei State

May 16, 2013
Judith McCallum and Alfred Okech
Victims of attacks in Jonglei

Almost two years after South Sudan’s independence, peace in Jonglei State remains elusive, despite attempts by the government, the international community, the Church and other national institutions to address the protracted violence there. This is not surprising given that these efforts have been disjointed, driven by multiple and conflicting agendas, lacking in strategic vision and seldom reflective of local perspectives. Grievances have been driven by a range of factors, including the perceived failure of the government to protect civilians and provide security and justice in an equitable manner; forced disarmament processes; perceptions of inequity in development and the distribution of resources; and unequal political representation at the state and national level. Environmental factors and lack of infrastructure have exacerbated these problems, undermining livelihoods and food security and rendering remote areas of the state inaccessible and, for a large part of the year, ungovernable. External support for and manipulation of armed groups by the Sudanese government and other actors with interests in resource extraction have compounded the violence.

The roots of the conflict

Conflict in Jonglei State has deep roots. Historically, Nuer, Dinka and Murle pastoralists all participated in cyclical cattle raiding and child abduction. Cattle are central not only to all three communities’ livelihoods but also to their social and cultural systems. During the twentieth century, the proliferation of guns, the commercialisation of cattle and rising bride prices made cattle raiding more violent and more lucrative. Customary mechanisms for addressing cattle raiding became less effective as governance systems changed and respect for traditional leadership declined.

After over 40 years of civil war, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 ended overt conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government. However, it did little to improve security in Jonglei State. Communities remain divided and continue to raid each other’s cattle. Both the Lou Nuer and the Murle communities feel politically and economically marginalised by the politically dominant Bor Dinka; the Murle in particular feel threatened as they have little physical presence in the capital, Bor town, or representation in the Jonglei State government.

mccallum-box-1The 2010 elections sparked a number of insurgencies in South Sudan. In Jonglei State, General George Athor and David Yau Yau formed interlinked rebellions. For more details on these and other insurgencies following the elections, see Fighting for Spoils: Armed Insurgencies in Greater Upper Nile, Small Arms Survey HSBA Issue Brief 18, November 2011.  Although the insurgencies ended in 2011 with the death of Athor and an amnesty for Yau Yau, tensions continued to escalate. Raids between communities culminated in an attack in December 2011/January 2012 by over 6,000 Lou Nuer on Murle in Pibor County, resulting in massive displacement, loss of life, the abduction of children and women and cattle raiding. Meanwhile, in February 2012 the SPLA began a disarmament process across Jonglei. This proceeded peacefully everywhere except Pibor County, where there were reports of the rape and torture of Murle civilians by SPLA troops. HRW, South Sudan: End Abuses by Disarmament Forces in Jonglei – Urgent Need for Justice and Accountability, press release, 23 August 2012.  The following April Yau Yau defected again to Khartoum, and in August he re-established his militia in Pibor County. Insecurity in Pibor and surrounding counties increased significantly. Other communities are frustrated with the increased level of cattle raiding allegedly perpetrated by Murle youth and Yau Yau’s militia, and the absence of state action to address this lack of security.

The government response

The government has responded to insecurity in Jonglei in several ways. It initially sought to bring insurgent groups back into the SPLA, including by offering an amnesty to Yau Yau and his followers, but the SPLA rank and file are less willing than their superiors to accommodate militia groups such as Yau Yau’s. Offering an amnesty is seen as politically expedient by many in the SPLA. A key concern is the rank that the incoming insurgents are offered. It has been claimed that Yau Yau defected again because he was not given the rank of Major-General. However, he had no military background and granting him that rank would have been highly unpopular among the rank and file of the SPLA.  There is no comprehensive strategy to reduce cattle raiding and violence more generally, and disarmament efforts in Pibor have only served to exacerbate tensions. The SPLA battalion responsible for disarmament in Pibor was largely composed of Nuer and Dinka officers, who took the opportunity to take revenge for earlier cattle raids on their communities by members of the Murle community. HRW, South Sudan: End Abuses by Disarmament Forces in Jonglei.  Reports of rape and torture further enraged Murle youth and drove them deeper into the bush; until communities are confident that the SPLA and the police will protect them they are unlikely to surrender their guns. Organisations raising concerns over human rights abuses against civilians were intimidated by the state and national government, which put pressure on them not to report abuses. An Investigations Committee formed to look into the causes of the violence and hold the perpetrators to account never became operational, ostensibly because of a lack of funding.

Peacebuilding efforts

Attempts to address insecurity and respond to its humanitarian consequences have had mixed results. In mid-2011 the Sudan Council of Churches (SCC) launched a project to strengthen dialogue within and between Dinka, Nuer and Murle communities to address recent violence and prevent relations from deteriorating further. However, the process quickly unravelled as alleged political manipulation stoked perceptions of bias, and communities increasingly felt that dialogue was being used as a substitute for state intervention to protect lives. Following the Lou Nuer attack on the Murle at the turn of the year the government and the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) initiated the Jonglei Peace Process. Although this succeeded in bringing about a temporary cessation of violence, it did little to advance reconciliation and peacebuilding between the communities involved, and was seen by many in the Murle community as partisan and promoting a Dinka Bor agenda. Other organisations working on peace, as well as local pastors, felt that the Anglican and Catholic Churches spearheading the initiative should have made greater efforts to ensure that Presbyterian leaders on the ground were fully engaged in the process. The Presbyterian Church is the main religious organisation in Lou Nuer and Murle areas, and Catholics and Anglicans have very little presence. Members of the Murle community felt marginalised, believing that they were being used as scapegoats for the raiding and political unrest in Jonglei State, and little has been done to implement resolutions related to services, security, protection, justice and accountability.

A number of other peace processes have been facilitated by local and international organisations, including AECOM, Pact South Sudan, Non Violent Peace Force, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). International organisations are working with UNMISS and Murle leaders to bring Yau Yau back into the SPLA, and UNMISS has provided logistical support to the government and humanitarian actors, particularly transport, during the rainy season, when many areas are cut off. However, overall the international community has failed to put pressure on either the South Sudan government or the government in Jonglei to meet their responsibilities for security and protection. No international body has condemned the attack on the Murle in 2011–12 or the abuses perpetrated during the disarmament process, and no internal or external investigation has been undertaken into the causes of the Murle attack.

The humanitarian response

Between January 2011 and September 2012 conflict in Jonglei State left more than 2,700 people dead and displaced more than 200,000. Akobo and Pibor counties have been particularly hard hit. Health, education and water and sanitation services have been disrupted or destroyed, and international organisations are unwilling or unable to increase their presence in insecure areas. Unusual weather patterns and flooding affected an additional 201,000 people in Jonglei during the rainy season in 2012. Food insecurity has increased dramatically across much of the state, with particularly severe effects in Akobo and Pibor.

Humanitarian actors face a number of challenges in responding to conflict-related needs. Few agencies are present in the affected area and their capacity to scale up the response is low. Prepositioning of stocks is difficult and response times have accordingly been slow. Staff turnover is high and staff presence sporadic, making it difficult to base responses on a good understanding of the context, and without proper Do No Harm analysis what activities are undertaken risk contributing to tensions between communities. For example, the provision of assistance to Murle communities targeted in recent raiding has caused resentment in neighbouring communities, who perceive that they have not received the same level of support. Given the high levels of need most organisations have had to focus primarily on crisis response, rather than support for conflict mitigation and prevention.

Very little development work is being done. AECOM AECOM is a USAID contractor working in South Sudan.  is supporting infrastructure development and livelihoods, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is providing livelihood support to pastoralists. CRS, in collaboration with Save the Children, is implementing a food security programme, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and others have supported state planning processes. One key area is the construction of all-weather roads to connect remote and isolated areas with centres of governance and economic activity. There is also scope to improve river transport. However, no organisations are focusing on this critical area of development because of the security risks and high costs involved. The creation of a buffer zone between Murle, Dinka and Nuer areas, with military and police based at regular intervals along it, would help to reduce cattle raiding between these communities, but this has been rejected by the government on grounds of cost, and in any case the SPLA is not willing to deploy troops in these remote areas. The Pibor Commissioner made this recommendation in January 2012, and it was repeated in a letter sent to the President of South Sudan composed by the Murle community in March 2012.  Governance structures need strengthening at the county and payam level. Some progress has been made in bringing government institutions closer to the grassroots, but progress is slow and hampered by insecurity and logistical problems. Capacity-building, both in terms of training and logistical support, is sorely needed in security provision, and local civil society and traditional leaders should be supported to work with their communities to change attitudes and improve relations with local government actors.


Communities in Jonglei State have experienced conflict over a number of generations, and it will take many years to mend the rifts between them. Community reconciliation must be based on a comprehensive plan for development and rehabilitation. All of the communities involved are both victims and perpetrators of violence. The tendency to blame the Murle for the violence is unproductive and only fuels conflict. Peace in Jonglei State needs long-term commitment and a diversified approach that includes high-level political dialogue, grassroots consultation, the provision of rule of law and access to justice and the development of alternative livelihood and employment opportunities for the young. Given the level of insecurity and the logistical challenges in Jonglei State, this is a daunting, but not impossible, task.

Judith McCallum is an independent consultant. Alfred Okech works with Catholic Relief Services (CRS).


Comments are available for logged in members only.