The Dang And The Spear: Spiritual Warfare Over Leadership In South Sudan

By Martin Garang Aher

February 15, 2014 (SSNA) — There are unrecorded sacred and manipulative spiritual games in the military and political lives in South Sudan. They happen between the churches and the shrines. They are games of supernaturalism, mingled with high capacity military and revolutionary experiences, and backed up with intellectualism befitting modern rationality. They are games where the gods are supplicated for luck, but when they (gods) renege on wishes and prayers, things get managed humanly violently. It leaves people awestruck whether education and military experience by some South Sudanese leaders mean anything in these mixed worlds of mindsets. Like it or not, leaders’ tuning to spirituality influences how some affairs are managed in the country.

Over the past few months, politics in South Sudan has shifted from temporal to spiritual. But it was not only in the last few months that midnight calls to local super-visionaries were put on display by the leaders, and perhaps, the army. The practice had been around, among South Sudanese societies, where leaders venture out of profanity to spirituality, especially when events of unfavorable twists become uncontrollable through human force.

In the case of military, especially during the long war, some SPLA soldiers at front-lines went spiritual with intentions to survive attacks, and military advances toward the enemy. Some prayed and others sought local spiritual help. There were SPLA soldiers who bragged of their purchased powers from local medicine-men, spear-masters and seers. The powers they got were thought to render bullets powerless when in the events of shoot outs. No force made it explicit than the famous Mobile Task Force. This amalgam was a tactical response special unit called upon when the swiftest fire power was needed on a particular front. It was said to have been made up of soldiers with impenetrable bodies – kind of bullet-proofed skins. Army rumours had it that in events of launching attacks on enemy positions; if a Mobile Task Force soldier was not bullet-proofed enough, as thought by his colleagues, he was tasked with the duties of preparing meals while the seemingly impenetrable ones did the fighting. The story could be wildly wrong, but MF’s victorious notoriety on the battlefields around Juba in 1990s, accorded them respect and some kind of immortality.

Among the Sudan People’s Liberation Army commanding officers, going spiritual was common too. Some commanders were rumoured to be possessing extraordinary powers that made them successful in the battlefields. There was a high level rumour circulating that the baton carried by then SPLM/A Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), Dr. John Garang, was magically powerful and would tell which food was poisoned and which one was safe for the leader to feast on. The current president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, was also rumoured to possess certain powers that would make him escape any attack deemed to kill everyone. In early 1990s when he got involved in a plane crash in Western Kenya and walked away unscathed, the rumour nearly got logged in certainty. These are just some of the spiritual games that South Sudanese play when things are very hard and complicated.

Outside South Sudan, no one seems to be aware, or cares to recognize, the mystical African traditional unbroken beliefs in deities and spirituality among the leaders, and how such beliefs play important roles in both national and ethnic political sentience. It is now time to begin to envisage the impacts of these beliefs in national politics.

A simple glance at the current political leaders shows nothing different from what distressed soldiers used to do at the war fronts: going spiritual. In the continuing crisis, which began in late 2013, invisible games led the way between President Kiir and former vice president, Riek Machar. It began with the presumed prophetic zenith of Ngundeng, where it was prophesied that a left-hander man from the Nuer people would rule a country somewhere on the Nile. Ngundeng, as a Nuer prophet, was recorded in history, but his prophecies were seen as leaning toward folklores and were erratically subject to ahistorical oral tradition in which meanings and interpretations depend on successive generations’ tastes and needs. In the traditional African oral histories, each generation is left to give meaning to some oral prophecies as the situations suit them.

Factually, Ngundeng’s prophecies are not taken for granted by Dr. Riek Machar and his community. He is believed by his community as the leader foretold by Ngundeng Bong to be that futuristic leader. Other antedate prophets, or spiritual couriers, such as Wurnyang, the former White Army’s leading prophet of 1991 Bor massacre, and Dak Kueth, White Army’s current leader responsible in part for the Armageddon of the same area, had continued to influence Dr. Riek Machar along that line to respond to his divine vocation: that a Nuer man must rule the country and he was the one. Machar’s calls for President Kiir to step down confirmed his answer to the prophetic call. 

The trouble is that it is hard to know which country Ngundeng foretold. In the history of the area in the Nile Valley where South Sudan emerged, countries appeared, disappeared and reappeared with different names. In the Turkiyah Sudan, the Nuer people knew of their local Nuerland as their country. The British later arrived and changed the field of view. Then came South Sudanese independence, and the name of the country in which Ngundeng’s prophecy would be fulfilled became harder to plot. From Nuer country to present day South Sudan, many countries have evolved. The present South Sudan was part of the Sudan where the fulfillment of Ngundeng prophecies would have made more sense. I am convinced that Nuer geographical expansion in area after Ngundeng brought his prophecy of conquest to finality. Any other claims that go beyond that period are mere political-spiritual distortions for political gains.  But that is South Sudanese history of political divinities anyway. It matches perfectly with other proclaimed prophecies where a date is never stated on the actual occurrences of events.

When Dr. Riek Machar left Juba as a warrior in mid December 2013, spiritual games began to take center stage, but were only known to some South Sudanese. Riek left Juba with dang in his hand. Dang was the magical stick once carried and, with disputations, used positively by prophet Ngundeng against the British. It was later taken away by the same British when the prophet’s son commandeered powers after the death of his father. He is said to have displayed uncooperative manners towards the British authorities and had tried to use the dang to defeat them but failed. They killed him and took the dang away, purposely to stop the craze that people attached to the harmless weapon.  One wonders why the British decided to return it to South Sudan in 2010! It arrived back home, nevertheless, and Riek Machar took it into his custody. With dang around, political-spiritual matters reached a crescendo in Juba and elsewhere in the country. Riek is said to have stuck to ownership of the stick with deep interest of what it might give him.

On the government spiritual front, president Kiir never took the combined forces of his political arch-rivals and their prophets lightly.  He must have looked around for help which eventually came from afar on the African continent in the form of the prophet with an already failed prophecy.

Somewhere in West Africa, specifically in Nigeria, Prophet TB Joshua (looked down upon at home because of his low level education in a country with more than 72 strong universities), announced that he saw a leader in East African country being captured. He stated that if the evil was not curtailed through prayerful intercessions, thousands of lives would be lost. His prophecy did not talk of thousands that would still be lost even if the doom that would befall the head of state was averted. As prophecies continue to become unbelievably wrong these days, no one paid attention to TB Joshua’s prophecy until after the events of December, 2013, in Juba. President Kiir, upon learning of it, wasted no time but wrote a thankful letter and sent a delegation to TB Joshua in Nigeria with the promise that when all is finished, he would attend, in person, the Assembly of God, presided upon by TB Joshua himself. He further requested that the prophet prayed for reconciliation in South Sudan. Joshua responded with more powerful prayers, but thousands went on to die and thousands more were displaced.

But all was not resolved. Riek Machar’s Dang continued to haunt president Kiir, who later got a backing of the Spear masters in his home state of Warrap, to counteract dang with spear. That appeared to have ended the game of the gods.

From the firmament of the sky, it looks like the spiritual scores have been settled. The locus of war has now descended down from up in the heavens where it all started. It is currently on the ground, in the battlefield, where the powers of the gods must merge with those of human leaders who are, in the end, the utmost beneficiaries of the apocalypses.

Dr. Riek Machar has officially named his rebellion as a resistance movement and subsequently sidelined the controversial detainees as part of his rebellion. This sways the calculus on the negotiations’ table. What appeared as the SPLM party internal problems, needing internal solutions, has assumed a configuration that would make power sharing arrangements a bitter possibility.

Mediators in Addis Ababa will have to solve SPLM party problems, and then turn to rebellion whose demands would be far from party internal reforms. The rebellion is already feeling the pressure in regards to the question of political detainees – cum – coup plotters arrested by the government in Juba. Should the detainees become a political force, making eventual concessions with the government on reforms, the rebel group will need all of them, as one or separate bodies, to create a space. That means only one thing: the rebels are coming back to town with their armed militias, and that is another recipe for a potential renewed fighting in the capital, Juba. 

Solving this spiritual-political dilemma will be hard. But right steps must be taken. IGAD and international mediators must consider involving civil society in the peace process and more so, the church. It would also do well if a conducive atmosphere for national reconciliation precedes mandatory elections, after which, the country must be structurally redesigned for what should last, not what the prophets of gods are dictating.

Martin Garang Aher is a South Sudanese living in Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]. This commentary was first published on his blog at on February 5, 2014.

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