Why are the Dinka and Nuer Killing Each Other in South Sudan?

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

January 23, 2014 (SSNA) — Couple days ago I was invited to a German Public Radio (Radio Bayern) to discuss current armed violence in South Sudan. The dominant current perception of the conflict in public discourse around the world is that South Sudan is suffering from an ethnic conflict between the two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. Most Germans too are convinced to the effect. This served as the premise or the underlying assumption of the program anchor.

She specifically asked me to discuss the ethnic dimension of the conflict and the role played by cultural issues such as cattle rearing and farming in the violence. Her audience is primarily composed of lay Germans with little historical background of South Sudan, which meant I was asked to give some concrete examples and discuss the conflict in a non-technical language that is easily communicable to her audience as possible.

The first question she raised was for me to introduce myself and my social location in ethnic terms, including the cultural traits of my tribe. In response I presented my social location as a Bari by tribe and that I come from Juba, which is the Capital City of South Sudan. The Bari ethnic group I noted is the fourth largest tribe in South Sudan after the Dinka, the Nuer and the Azande.

The Azande and the Bari lead a composition of different ethnic groups collectively referred to as Equatorians. The common cultural feature of the Equatorians is that they are mostly sedentary communities, who farm their ancestral lands and grow many unique tropical crops and fruits. However some Equatorians such as some members of the Bari ethnic group also keep cattle in addition to farming. This is the case for instance with my relatives in my village located just several miles north of Juba International Airport. And one can also visibly see this in the Mundari tribe just further north. The Mundari tribe is a subset of the Bari ethnic group.

By contrast the Dinka and the Nuer spearhead another (non-Equatorian) segment of the social and cultural composition of South Sudan commonly known as the Nilotic ethnic groups. But there are also Nilotics in Equatoria, such as the Acholi community. The dominant cultural feature of the Nilotics is their mobility and cattle-keeping, though some also till the ground and grow crops. However, the Dinka and the Nuer are known for seasonal migration straddling vast space of land mainly in search of pasture and drinking water for their cattle. Because cattle play a central cultural role in the Dinka and Nuer communities, they are popularly known to be adept at keeping and maintaining cattle.

For instance during the civil war the cattle camp of my relatives was mainly managed by members of Dinka who were displaced from their villages to Juba by the civil war. It was believed that cattle multiply faster when a cattle-camp is managed by members from one of the two ethnic groups, the Dinka or the Nuer. The Dinka and Nuer are known to be good at aiding and abetting the cattle reproduction process (don’t ask me how)!

This was one example of inter-communal peaceful coexistence. The Dinka members who managed our cattle-camp had unlimited access to milk as well as getting paid in kind or through receiving a quota from the farm harvest such as a bag of groundnuts, corn or sorghum. It was a win-win situation.

On the question of why the Dinka and Nuer are now fighting in South Sudan. I explained that the current violence is a result of long simmering leadership struggle in the ruling party, the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) mainly between the incumbent president Salva Kiir who also doubles as the Chair of the party and his first deputy, Dr. Riek Machar Teny who also held the vice-presidential post in South Sudan until his removal by Salva in a government reshuffle last July, 2013.

Contrary to the pervasive media representation that reduces the conflict to violent ethnic clash between the Dinka and the Nuer, I reiterated that this was not the whole story. I used a metaphor of an Onion where I noted that it takes several layers to peel to arrive to the heart of the Onion. I argued the conflict must be seen that way. The ethnic dimension is just one layer. However, it is equally false to suggest that the rapid violent transmutation of the conflict across ethnic lines is embedded in some ancient ethnic hatred. A prominent German anthropologist interviewed for the same occasion seems to hold this view.

He held that the Dinka and Nuer always fought each other. For the Professor one of the reasons for this phenomenon is because of competing interests. Similar ethnic groups, he observed which the Dinka and the Nuer are often fight each other, because they compete over similar demands.

I agree with the Professor. Conflicts are inevitable wherever identity groups share a geographic space or whenever people interact. They are part of life even between siblings in one family. Conflicts between Dinka and Nuer are no exception. This is particularly true when it is widely acknowledged that the two tribes are "war-like people" as the professor noted and as I have previously observed elsewhere. But I disagree with the notion of ancient ethnic hatred as purportedly driving these inter-ethnic conflicts.

There are many causes to Dinka-Nuer conflicts not well explainable by ancient ethnic hatred. As herders most historical inter-communal conflicts between these two communities are necessitated by geographic and not necessarily political factors. Often the two communities fought over dwindling cattle grazing land and water-points precipitated by drought and ecological degradation. But this geographic cause also affects most identity groups in South Sudan and not only Dinka and Nuer.

All South Sudanese ethnic communities have often violently engaged in turf wars and have scrambled for scarce existential resources, such as fending off encroaching cattle to livelihood farms. The geographic grievance has often also triggered violent intra-communal feuds within culturally similar ethnic groups or even within the same tribes, such as one Dinka clan against another or one Bari tribe against another say the Mundari, or a Nuer clan against another and so on and so forth.

Other causes to inter or intra-communal violent conflicts include the traditional practice of cattle raids, which is "normal" among particularly the cattle-keeping communities. For instance, in the current violent conflict in South Sudan, there are at least two reported deadly incidences of cattle raids. One incident was between two Dinka clans in Lakes State, and another took place when Bentiu fell to government forces where it was reported that large herds of cattle were driven to Warrap State, perhaps as part of the war spoil.

One of the rallying cries politicians had utilized to mobilize communities during South-South fratricidal violent conflicts in the 90s was the cattle card. Communities were either persuaded that their cattle were on the line if they failed to defend themselves against "external" aggression or that they can loot cattle if they attacked the politician’s community of target. The cattle element is part of the cultural setup of these communities, just as cattle rustling is a historical practice. However, what aggravates the deadliness of the practice is when it is politicized.

In a country emerging from decades of civil wars like South Sudan means the country is awash with modern weapons, which are now being used in the atrocious raids. In the past communities only used sticks and spears in this practice. Cattle-raids participants also adhered to strong war ethics, similar to the international human rights and humanitarian law, which protect the vulnerable members of the society caught in the middle of armed violence. For instance the oral customary law or the gentlemen’s agreement that regulate any combat in these traditional societies, including those motivated by cattle raids, women, children and the elderly are sacrosanct and not to be harmed. Even deserters are also allowed to go free. However, these traditional laws are increasingly less binding these days where the vulnerable members of the society bear the heavy brunt of these feuds, especially when they are politicised as they most often are, but also in the context where it is easy to get a gun than a loaf of bread as in South Sudan.

Arguably these factors seem to be interplaying in current internal armed conflict in South Sudan, though revenge now appears to also be driving the targeted killings across ethnicities in what was essentially a political dispute. But, in South Sudan the body politics take place in an environment that is ethnically divided, which means ethnicity is bound to play integral role in any political process or politics ethnicity.

In short, I explained to the German audience that the ethnic dimension of current violent conflict in South Sudan is not embedded in ancient ethnic hatred but in failure to manage ethnic diversity. Communities had conflicts in South Sudan from time immemorial. They have rustled cattle away from each other, scrambled over grazing land and water points, and fought turf wars to protect existential livelihoods. But they have also managed these conflicts well and utilized traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and reconciliation processes and rituals to amend broken relationships by these conflicts. Often this efforts resulted in lasting peaceful inter-communal coexistence across communities as well as intra-communal relationships within communities.

Finally on the question of the way forward and whether or not peace is possible in South Sudan. I emphatically stressed that peace is possible otherwise our ancestors would have self-annihilated themselves and I would not have been here conducting this interview. Before the civil wars or even better before the colonial history South Sudanese in all their ethnic diversity and colors have lived peacefully with each other, occasional skirmishes here and there notwithstanding. The colonial master in seeking to wield and consolidate political power in order to exploit resources drove a wedge between South Sudanese across identity difference by introducing the divisive social construct of tribes, and the infamous divide and rule policies that continue to bite us to this day.

What is needed is a political leadership that acknowledges the detrimental effect of this policy in nation-building. For peace to be possible in South Sudan there must be strong political will and ability to manage ethnic diversity and recognize even the minutest of tribes in South Sudan as a necessary part of the whole and whose rights must be guaranteed and grievances genuinely addressed.

The inalienable rights of South Sudanese to live in dignity can begin to be guaranteed by a selfless government that delivers basic social and economic services at the center of which is infrastructure development. Connecting major cities and towns by good all seasons roads to rural and remote areas can go a long way in ensuring fluid mobility and interaction between communities. It can also enhance the extension of policing, and law and order in the rural areas where preventable violent intra and inter-communal conflicts often erupt over what should be manageable feuds over trivialities of resources and securing livelihoods.

The reason why struggle over resources become existential and contribute to deadly clashes across identity lines is because the government has not been able to deliver any meaningful social and economic services to secure livelihoods by creating other sources of livelihood supply line. But first the security sector is in dire need of institutional reforms. An effective and comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration campaign must be rigorously pursued once the current violence ends.

People will only begin to feel peace when they feel safe and secure and when their trust in the state as a fair arbiter where justice can be sought and found is restored. Schools and hospitals must be seen to be erected indiscriminately across the four corners of South Sudan. Clean drinking water and bread on the table should reach every Hut and Tukul. People must feel safe to voice their minds and share their ideas freely without the fear of torture, prolonged arbitrary detention without due process and without the fear of death.

Lasting peace is only possible when such policies are pursued and when employment opportunities are in abundance and South Sudanese are employed on merits rather than lineages. For instance, most youth in the rural areas practice cattle-rustling as a means of livelihood. Stolen cattle fund the marriages that they would have otherwise not been able to afford, because of the high bridewealth and dowry that the family of the bride often demands. Moreover, cattle-raids supplant the employment opportunity that the youth in towns let alone in the rural areas never had. Rampant corruption is the final nail to the coffin of failure to deliver much needed services that could have eased the tensions that lead to violent outbreak.

Of course, these steps presuppose that the current strongly condemnable violent carnage which began in Juba and spread to other sites in South Sudan, most notably Bentiu, Bor and Malakal, among others is overdue not to have been halted already. When the dust settles, normalcy returns and common sense is rediscovered, all perpetrators must be held accountable from both sides of the divide from those who authored and those who commanded all the way down to those who committed the heinous atrocities against the civilian population.

When a political settlement is reached and a peace deal is signed as an outcome of the ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a national healing and reconciliation process must rank number one on the next steps. In summary, though it remains elusive at the moment, peace is possible in South Sudan. It is therefore not a question of if peace is possible but of when peace is possible in South Sudan as in days past!


Tongun Loyuong is from South Sudan. He holds two Master’s Degrees with honors and academic excellence from the United States. The last of his two MAs is in International Peace Studies, focused on Policy Analysis for Political Change, from the University of Notre Dame – Indiana. His research interest is in South Sudan’s governance and peace and conflict issues. He is reachable at: [email protected] or http://tloloyuong.wordpress.com/

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