Understanding the Tribal, Political and Economic Aspects of the current South Sudan civil war and their Complications in Achieving a Peaceful, lasting solution



On the Evening of December 15th 2013, a fire fight erupted in Juba, the capital of South Sudan and quickly spread like a wild fire to the rest of the country. The following morning, December 16, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit appeared on South Sudan national Television fully dressed in his military attires and announced that the fighting from the previous night was a result of a coup attempt by his former deputy, Dr. Riek Machar, who he had fired few months earlier. On this pretext, a number of politicians believed to have been involved in the coup attempt were arrested and put under detention. Most of the detained politicians were former high ranking government officials whom the President dismissed months earlier along with the Vice President. This group headed by the Former Vice President held a press conference on December 6, in which they demanded the transformation of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in which they are all members. While the majority of the group was arrested and put under detention, the group leader, Dr. Riek Machar slipped out of Juba with few of his group members and fled to the countryside where they have been waging war against the government since then. In response, the international community rushed in and established peace negotiations between the two warring parties to end the war, but these peace talks did not yield any peaceful resolution to date. The war is now approaching its second year and while the negotiating teams are constantly on the negotiating table in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, fighting continues on the ground.

So far, I have read a bulk of literature on the current South Sudan civil war and most of it focuses on politics (the catalyst) as the cause of the conflict neglecting the tribal and economic aspects (the underlying factors) of the conflict. Those who attempt to explain the conflict through the tribal lenses wrongly label it as a war caused by deep ancient hatred between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes, while the literature barely touches resource competition as one of the factors that led to this war. In this piece, the author argues that the culture of war among the Dinkas and Nuers, the competition for state resources and politicians’ exploitation of tribalism, or their use of tribal card in politics all contributed to the making of the current civil war.

The Dinka and Nuer: brothers or foes?

Dinka and Nuer are the largest tribes in South Sudan with the Dinka being the largest. Dinkas are predominantly found in seven of the ten states of the Republic of South Sudan, while the Nuers are found in three states. The Dinka and Nuer share common boarders and therefore have some cultural similarities. They are of Nilotic origin, characterized by their physical features of being dark and tall. Their livelihood largely depends on cattle and subsistence farming. While the Dinkas and Nuers could be categorized as pastoralists, unlike other pastoralists who constantly move for the search of water and pastures, these two communities only move twice a year. Between December and January, their water sources around their permanent establishments dry up and they are forced to move to the swarm areas along the River Nile. Their second movement is between May and June when they return to their permanent estates as the rains start to fall. Therefore, in many aspects, Dinka and Nuer are brothers who can only be distinguished by language and traditional markings. In fact, Dinkas who directly share the border with Nuers such as the Hol in Duk Padiet, Nyarweng in Duk Pawuel, most of Dinka Ngok and some Dinka Bar El Ghazal share the same traditional marks and speak each other’s languages. The Dinka and Nuer brotherly relationship is reinforced by intermarriages which is very common among the Dinkas and Nuers sharing the border.

However, just as expected of most of neighboring tribes in Africa, the Dinka and Nuer have their border issues. There are many minor issues causing skirmishes between the border Dinkas and Nuers, but cattle raiding and competition for water and pastures around the swarm areas are known to be the major causes of their major border conflicts.

Apart from the above factors that are known to be the major causes of border conflicts between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, some believe that the rivalry between the two tribes dates back many centuries. In 2007, a high ranking state official from Nuer narrated to me a chilling anecdote about the Dinka and Nuer being cursed to settle their differences through fighting. The state official narrated that Dinka and Nuer were two brothers living together, and one day their father summoned them and explained to them that since they were old enough to go their separate ways, he decided to divide his two cattle, a cow and a bull between them. Their father further explained that he decided to give the cow to Nuer and the bull to Dinka. He concluded that both of them will take what belong to them the next day and go their separate ways. Dinka was disappointed because he felt that his father favored his brother Nuer by giving him a cow which will produce more cows while he is given a bull which doesn’t reproduce. Being very clever, Dinka devised a plan overnight to still the cow from his brother Nuer. He woke up at dawn and took the cow from the band and went his way while both his father and his brother Nuer were still sleeping. When Nuer and their father woke up in the morning, they found out that Dinka took the cow leaving behind his bull. Both the father and Nuer were very disappointed with Dinka and the father gave his son Nuer powers and told him that he will always return what his brother Dinka stole from him by force.

Curious about the authenticity of the narrative and why an old politician would tell me such folklore, I decided to investigate the legend more and asked a number of people I thought would be familiar with the story if it in fact existed, including my aunt who is married to a prominent Nuer Chief. To my surprise, most of the people I asked confirmed the existence of such a folktale. Although this legend is narrated slightly differently by different narrators, the meaning it carries is uniform. Some, including my aunt even jokingly added that it is because of this legend that the Nuers always raid the Dinkas for cattle. Relating this folklore to physical and cultural similarities among the Dinkas and Nuers, I reluctantly acknowledged that maybe Dinkas and Nuers were in fact brothers cursed to be foes at the same time. I was also left wondering whether Nuers are now taking leadership in the modern politics as the cow considering the fact that Dinkas have ruled Nuers and the rests of Southern tribes for the last 31 years, from 1983 to present.

Culture of war and the contemporary politics between Dinka and Nuer

For centuries, Dinka and Nuer tribes lived separately with different political structures until recent times, so there were never political wars between the two tribes until 1984. Thus, violent history of Dinka and Nuer revolved around cattle raiding and skirmishes caused by competition for water and pastures as explained above. Fighting resulting from these incidents was usually short in duration and less costly in terms of human life and property damage. This is because traditional norms discouraged the killing of vulnerable members of the society, such as women, children and the elderly. Such violent conflicts also produced fewer casualties because they were fought with less deadly weapons such as sticks, spears and arks. Therefore, the relationship between Dinka and Nuer is not characterized by deep ancient ethnic hatred as some scholars try to claim.

Both Dinkas and Nuers highly regard themselves as warriors among the tribes of South Sudan. And to their credit, both tribes proved in the Sudan civil war where they fought side by side that they are indeed mighty warriors. During the 21 years (1983 to 2005) of South Sudanese struggle for independence from Sudan, Dinkas and Nuers were the majority in the rebel army. Because of their resilience in the battle field, they quickly rose to military high ranks and dominated the leadership of the liberation movement. When the war ended in 2005, both the Dinka and Nuer tribes were dangerously armed. An attempt by the government to disarm them yielded little success as both communities were not willing to disarm. Nuer youth even went further in resisting the disarmament by fighting the government disarmament troops.

While their bravery earned South Sudanese their independence in 2005, the Dinka and Nuer culture of war is also becoming their undoing. Contemporary history has shown that Dinkas and Nuers are prone to solving their political differences by fighting. Since 1984, Dinka and Nuer politicians chose to settle their differences in the battle fields rather than by dialogue. The 1984, 1991 and the 2013 political disagreements between the Dinka and Nuer political leaders that resulted in tribal wars are discussed blow.

John Garang versus Samuel Gai Tut, 1984

The first notable power struggle between Dinka and Nuer started in 1984 between John Garang (a Dinka) and Samuel Gai Tut (a Nuer). While both leaders were fighting for South Sudanese freedom, they disagreed on ideological bases and John Garang ended up killing his opponent, Samuel Gai Tut and took leadership. After the killing of Samuel Gai Tut, another Nuer military leader, William Abdallah Chuol seized control of Gai Tut’s forces who were almost entirely Nuers to carry on the fight against John Garang’s forces. It was then that what started as an ideological split between John Garang and Gai Tut developed into Nuer movement against the Dinka leadership. The fighting between John Garang and Gai Tut and later Abdallah Chuol did not have any significant impact on civilians as the two armies confined their fighting to fighting only the armed elements of their forces.

John Garang versus Riek Machar, 1991

The second political disagreement that resulted in a fight that pitted the Dinka against Nuer came in 1991 when Dr. Riek Machar Teny, a Nuer military General rebelled against his Dinka Commander in Chief, Dr. John Garang. Like the disagreement between Gai Tut and John Garang in 1984, Machar disagreement with John Garang was based on ideological differences with Machar opting for the full separation of South Sudan from Sudan, while John Garang maintained his vision of fighting for a unified new Sudan. Again, the political disagreement between Machar and Garang quickly developed into tribal war between Dinka and Nuer. Unlike the 1984 war that was mainly confined to the two armed factions, the 1991 war was an all-out war that resulted in untold suffering of civilians on both sides, although the Dinka civilians suffered at much greater scale than the Nuers.

With his base in Nasir, the heart of Nuerland, Machar unleashed his forces into the Dinkaland looting and killing anything they find on their way. Machar forces were made up of three Nuer armed groups: Nuer regular SPLA forces that defected with Machar; Nuer remnants of Gai Tut; and Abdallah Chuol forces (Anya Nya-2) and Nuer armed civilians who later became known as the White Army. While Machar regular army and Anya Nya-2 were fighting to overthrow John Garang, the White Army matched to the Dinka land mainly to loot the Dinka cattle. In few months, the once heavily inhabited Dinka Bor land lay in ruins as the smell of decaying corpses of both humans and animals filled the air. All the Dinka Bor cattle numbering in millions were looted and the bodies of women, children and elderly were left for birds and animals to feed on. The remaining survivors deserted their homes to seek refuge in the swarms along the river Nile, while others fled to seek refuge among the friendly neighboring tribes and in the liberated areas held by John Garang forces.

Following the successful operations by his forces in Bor, Machar moved his headquarters to Panyagor, a town deep in the Dinka Bor land and the Birth place of his opponent, John Garang. With his forces now in the heart of Dinka territory, Machar forces continued their annihilation of the Dinka with much more efficiency as they didn’t have to travel for miles to find Dinkas to kill.

In around 1993, John Garang finally mobilized and sent a force comprising mainly of Dinkas to Panyagor to fight against Machar forces. The offensive was successful and Machar forces were pushed back to the Nuer territory. During this offensive, some Dinkas committed atrocities against Nuer civilians in revenge. It was only in 2002 that John Garang and Machar reconciled and resumed working together toward the liberation of South Sudan from the Sudan. Nevertheless, the 1991 Bor Massacre as it became known internationally marked the beginning of the history of targeted mass killings of civilians and serious mistrust between the Dinka and Nuer.

Riek Machar versus Salva Kiir, 2013

John Garang died in a mysterious plane crash in 2005, seven months after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Sudan that granted South Sudan autonomy, and he was replaced by his deputy, Salva Kiir Mayardit (a Dinka) and Riek Machar became his deputy. South Sudan became independent in 2011 with Salva Kiir as the President and Machar as the Vice President. In July 2013, President Salva Kiir sacked his Vice President, Dr. Machar and dissolved the entire Cabinet and appointed new Cabinet Ministers. On December 6, 2013, Dr. Machar and a group of former government officials relieved with him months earlier held a press conference in the Capital Juba in which they demanded for reforms in the ruling party, the SPLM. Nine days later, on December 15th, a fight broke out in Juba that quickly spread to the rest of the country.

After a day of fighting in Juba, Machar and his armed supporters left Juba and headed to Bor were the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Division 8 under Major General Peter Gatdet (a Nuer Commander) declared defection to Machar. Within days, Nuer soldiers in almost all the SPLA units defected to join Machar. The Nuer White Army also quickly mobilized and sent reinforcement to Division 8 in Bor to mount a counter offensive on Juba.

In Juba, Dinkas resorted to tracking down Nuers in the City, indiscriminately killing them in their thousands. In the towns of Bor, Bentiu, Akobo and Malakal captured by Machar forces, Nuer fighters slaughtered Dinka civilians in revenge. When the government forces (predominantly Dinka) recaptured Bor, Dinka youth attacked the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNIMIS) compound and slaughtered some of Nuer civilians taking refuge in the compound. At that point, Nuers in government controlled areas were not safe anymore and the same with Dinkas in Nuer held territory. This forced civilians, both Dinkas and Nuers to take refuge at UNIMISS compounds and some fled to the refugee camps in the Neighboring Kenya and Uganda. The 15th December incident developed into a civil war that is now going to its second year.

The December 15th incident was first described by the government of South Sudan as a coup staged by the Former Vice President, Dr. Machar and his disgruntled group of former government officials that held a press conference on December 6. However, further investigations into the incident indicated that there was no planned coup. The government still holds that it was coup de tat nonetheless. For the third time in 29 years, what started as a political disagreement between a Dinka and a Nuer political leaders quickly developed in to a civil war between the two tribes.

Grievances and the Road to December 15, 2013

Before December 15th, South Sudan was sitting on a time bomb. There were clear indications prior to December 15, that fighting between Dinka and Nuer was inevitable. One of the major indicators was Nuers dissatisfaction with the Dinka run South Sudan’s government, especially among the Nuer ex-combatants. When the South Sudan became autonomous in 2005, the leadership invited all Southern armed groups to abandon rebellions and report to Juba for reintegration in to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Among the rebel forces that answered the call were forces under General Paulino Matip and General Peter Gatdet (both Nuers). In 2006, the government of Southern Sudan signed the Juba Declaration with Southern militias, and as a result, a large group of Nuer armed fighters matched to Juba for reintegration.

The reintegration however soon became a challenge to the SPLA and a source of resentment for some of the returning militias. Among the challenges was the fact that a majority of the returning armed men were not trained militarily, uneducated and the groups had more high ranking officers compared to the size of their units that they were commanding. The groups also were not well organized and reporting to the reintegration centers seemed endless as more men kept pouring in to the centers even after the reporting deadlines. This frustrated the SPLA organizing teams and some of the returning militias ended up not being reintegrated. Some officers were also ripped of their military ranks and reintegrated with lower ranks or with no ranks at all. Those who were not reintegrated became known as the “unconfirmed” and they continued to complain to the SPLA’s leadership for reconsideration.

The reality of this situation was that, with the majority of the militias not educated, the only way to benefit from the peace dividend was to join the military, and high rank meant more pay. Thus, any man from the village, young or old, military or civilian saw that their only chance to get to the military pay roll was to join the returning armed groups and get reintegrated in to the SPLA. Therefore, for those who were not reintegrated, it meant that their only door to the state resources was shut. At the same time, real Nuer soldiers who were not reintegrated as a result of SPLA’s administrative measures against the cheating Nuer civilians were convinced that they were not reintegrated simply because they were Nuer. Majority of the unintegrated Nuer fighters started camping in groups in Juba, and in New Site in particular where they continued their complain for reintegration. New Site is an area within Juba where the SPLA General Headquarters is located and which became Nuer fighters’ stronghold during the December 15, 2013 fighting.

While resentment among unintegrated Nuers militias grew by day in Juba, the majority of their colleagues who were reintegrated in to the Police, Prisons and Wild Life sectors were sent to Bor, the capital of Jonglei state per government policy that security personnel in those security sectors should be deployed in their own states. Another large group of Nuer fighters, the wounded heroes were also stationed in Pariak, a town few miles from Bor town. All these armed Nuers employed in Bor struggled to find places to live in the ever growing town. Bor is a Dinka land, and because it was now the state capital, land became a high commodity as the town residents compete for it. Although Bor was not surveyed and not heavily inhabited, the Dinka residents of the town assumed ownership of the land leaving the Nuers with nowhere to settle. Nuers who decided to settle in empty land were forced out by Dinkas who claimed to be the rightful land owners. In final desperate move, Nuers in Bor decided to settle in one of the uninhabited parts of the town without the Dinka approval and named it Ci Nuer ben, or the Nuers have come. Already armed, the settlers vowed to protect their settlement from an attempt by Dinkas to force them out as they have done in other locations in the past. This caused tensions between the Dinkas and Nuers in Bor town that both communities were rumored to be preparing for war at some point. Although it is a Dinka town, Bor is one of the towns that quickly felt to the Nuer rebels on the early days of the December 15 fight mainly because of its large armed Nuer disgruntled residents.

The final trigger to December 15, 2013

President Salva Kiir’s decision to dismiss his Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar, and to relieve his entire Cabinet made up of very influential former liberation Generals was without any doubt the trigger to December 15, 2013. Dr. Machar is highly regarded among the Nuers as their eye in politics and his dismissal was perceived among the Nuers as Dinkas’ final step in silencing them in politics. In fact when the news of Machar removal was aired, many Nuers were ready to go to war, and if it wasn’t for Machar himself who called for calm among his tribesmen, Dinka and Nuer were going to go to war in July 2013, not December 15th.

Also among the dismissed Cabinet Ministers were powerful individuals whose their removal did not go well with their supporters. Among the dismissed were the Minister of National Security, who was also the former Chief of General Staff of the national army, the SPLA, General Oyai Deng; the Deputy Minister of Defense who was also once the Minister of National Security, General Majak D’Agoot and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. General Nhial Deng Nhial. President Salva Kiir also dismissed the Party’s Secretary General, General Pangan Amum and his Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Deng Alor.

Between July and December, the dismissed government officials worked together to voice their concerns about the issues affecting the Party in the Party’s Convention that was going to be held on December 15th 2013. Prior to the Convention, on December 6, the group openly held a press conference in which they publicly spoke about their differences within the ruling party. For many, this was the decisive moment leading to the incident of December 15, 2013.

Conclusion and Recommendations

South Sudan civil war has entered its second year and while the warring parties continue peace negotiations in the Ethiopian Capital, Addis Ababa, under the mediation of the regional body, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), fighting continues on the ground. All the secession of hostilities agreements have been violated and the negotiating teams are not making any noticeable progress.

To bring lasting peace to the people of South Sudan, IGAD mediators and other stakeholders involved in the peace process must understand the root causes of this war so that they are fully addressed during the negotiations. While tribalism plays a role in the current conflict, claims that this war is based on ancient animosities does not hold as Dinka and Nuer tribes do not have major ancient grievances of any kind against each other and have coexisted peacefully until recent years. The culture of war known to Dinka and Nuer tribes, competition for state resources and politicians’ exploitation of tribal differences best explain the causes of this war. However, the degree of killings witnessed in 1991 war and the current civil war have shown that Dinka and Nuer are indeed starting to develop some kind of hatred against each other. Easy excess to modern weapons also proved that Dinka and Nuer are now capable of mass slaughter of one another as seen in the last two wars.

For a lasting peace to be realized, South Sudan leaders must look beyond Juba, the only place in South Sudan where the post-conflict activities (politics and development) are visible. They must extent their leadership to the majority of South Sudanese in the villages who for the most part of the nine years of self-rule experienced more violence and not peace dividends. They must include tribal leaders (mainly the Dinka and Nuer Chiefs) and youth leaders in the peace negotiations and in the reconciliation process once peace is achieved. Otherwise, government’s continuous isolation of these communities will encourage lawlessness and tendencies for rebellions; therefore, they will always be a ready source of recruitment for disgruntled groups against the government as seen in the case of the White Army.

South Sudan leaders should also work with the civil society, Church groups and the South Sudanese Diaspora to bring peace to the people of South Sudan. Church groups have been very crucial during the struggle for South Sudan independence, and their experiences and position as people of God could undoubtedly help bring peace to South Sudan. The civil society is usually the voice of voiceless civilians and should be given a chance to participate in the peace talks and in the reconciliation arrangements. Like Church groups and civil society, the Diaspora can also serve as a neutral group in the peace negotiations as they are not directly affected by the violence like their counterparts on the ground in South Sudan who have experienced the violent first hand and might have developed some resentment among themselves based on tribes.

In addition, there is no doubt that resource competition is one of the major causes of this conflict, thus the government of South Sudan must rethink its approaches to state wealth sharing. Massive youth unemployment and the issue of ex-combatants will remain as serious source of state insecurity that the government needs to tackle with seriousness. It’s already a common view among the South Sudanese youth everywhere that employment in Juba is about “who you know not what you know,” featuring a bad start for the country that is struggling to avert internal violence. The country should also take its previous experience with disarmament as a lesson to devise better plans to deal with the issue of ex-combatants should peace ever return. The major problem that affects the effectiveness of the Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program is underfunding, and South Sudan has more than enough resources to fund its DDR program to facilitate the process of demilitarizing its population.

In general, lasting peace is achievable, and South Sudan still has a bright future if its leaders work hard to forget their differences and work for peace and development. The last nine years of self-governance has ended in failure as it is characterized by inter-tribal and intra-communal conflicts, rampant corruption and finally this senseless war. But the people of South Sudan could use their experiences of the last nine years to turn the course of their new country in the right direction, starting by ending the current war. Otherwise, a bad peace and continuity of corruption and bad governance could only lead to more disastrous events in the future that could threaten the existence of South Sudan itself.

Thon Agany Ayiei, a columnist for The New Sudan Vision, holds an MA in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He can be reached by email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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