Over the past 30 years, South Sudan has been experiencing progressive warming and prolonged dry seasons.
Since the Lou Nuer live in a water poor area, they are forced to migrate into territories of other groups during dry seasons, frequently bringing them in close proximity to the Murle and inciting conflicts over shared resources and cattle raiding.
Both the influx of weapons and the effects of climate change have exacerbated traditional conflicts over access to water and cattle between the Lou Nuer and Murle. Other factors influencing the fighting between both groups include the feeling of political discrimination, and the state’s inability to provide security to local populations. Violence between both groups reached its peak from 2009 to 2012, claiming more than 3,000 lives during that period. Fighting between the two communities continued in the following years with little or no decrease in intensity and despite resolution attempts by various actors.
Historically, cattle raids have been common between the Lou Nuer and Murle in Jonglei State, South Sudan, as cattle rading is central to the nomadic people’s way of life, not only as a drought coping strategy, but also as a social and cultural practice (see Communal conflicts in South Sudan). However, the nature of cattle raiding has changed drastically in recent decades as the South Sudanese civil war brought large quantities of heavy weapons to the area and contributed to an increased commercialisation of cattle raiding. Both factors have exacerbated traditional conflicts between the Lou Nuer and Murle. Violence between both groups reached its peak from 2009 to 2012, claiming more than 3000 lives during that period (UCDP, 2015). It displaced about 50,000 people during Christmas 2011 alone (Knaup, 2012). Fighting between the two communities continued in the following years with little or no decrease in intensity and despite resolution attempts by various actors (McCallum and Okech, 2013; UCDP, 2015).
Progressive warming and land use conflicts
Access to water and pastures is central for local communities in Jonglei State, and the Lou Nuer are at a geographical disadvantage. Living in a water poor area, they are forced to move into the territories of other groups during the dry season, which can give both pretext and opportunity for conflicts over shared resources and cattle raiding. Over the past 30 years, this dynamic has been amplified by progressive warming and prolonged dry seasons in South Sudan, which have frequently brought the Lou Nuer in close proximity to the Murle (Richardson, 2011).
Increased militarisation and mutual suspicions
Yet, Lou Nuer and Murle do not only fight over cattle and access to water, but also as a result of political discriminations. Both the Murle and the Lou Nuer in Jonglei State feel economically and politically marginalised by the politically powerful Bor Dinka; especially the Murle feel threated as they have little representation in the local government. Although both communities have supported counter-insurgency movements against a common enemy - the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) - during the north-south civil war, and then again during the 2010 elections in South Sudan, the increased militarisation of both communities in the course of the war has strained their relations and given rise to mutual fears and suspicions (McCallum and Okech, 2013;Richardson, 2011).
Weak presence of the state
However, the most important reason for communal violence in Jonglei State is the weak presence of the South Sudanese State and its inability to provide security to local populations. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the SPLA and the Government of Sudan unintentionally created a “power vacuum”. The SPLA, which had partly acted as a provider of security in controlled territories during the war, entered in a phase of internal consolidation and accommodation of rival army factions, but civilian policing did not replace its deterrence role at the local level. Meanwhile, decades of civil war and the proliferation of weapons across Jonglei State has undermined traditional authorities and conflict mitigation institutions, with military commanders fighting on behalf of their community and traditional authority figures loosing influence over armed young men (Richardson, 2011; Ferrie, 2012).
The SPLA has responded to communal violence in Jonglei State with several disarmament campaigns, most of which were unsuccessful and sometimes even worsened the violence, since the troops in charge of the disarmament were to a large extent Nuer, who used the opportunity to take revenge for earlier attacks by the Murle. Rape and torture were reported, which further discouraged Murle youths to turn in their weapons.
In addition, some disarmament attempts have been unequal, leaving disarmed groups more vulnerable to attacks. Organizations voicing concerns over human rights violations were intimidated by the government and pressured to not report on the subject. On the other hand, inadequate capacities have prevented the SPLA from building buffer zones between the warring groups (McCallum and Okech, 2013; Ferrie, 2012).
The South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) initiated the Jonglei Peace Process in 2012 to promote dialogue and reconciliation between local communities and military leaders. Although it succeeded in temporarily halting violence, it has failed to stimulate reconciliation and peacebuilding between the involved communities and is met with skepticism by many Murle. Several other peace processes have been assisted by local and international groups, including AECOM, Pact South Sudan, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) ((McCallum and Okech, 2013).
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is providing logistic support to governmental and humanitarian organisations. However, the international community has not put adequate pressure on the GoSS to protect local populations (McCallum and Okech, 2013). Humanitarian action is hampered by low capacities and persistent insecurity, which lead to high staff turnover and only sporadic presence in crisis areas. In some cases, assistance to the Murle has provoked resentment by other communities. Furthermore, too little development work has been done by the government and international donors. This is partly due to the fact that most of the financial resources have been invested in short term crisis support, rather than in long term infrastructural development and in the provision of formal education and job opportunities (Ferrie, 2012; McCallum and Okech, 2013).
Some progress has been realized in bringing institutions closer to the local people, but important logistical and security challenges remain. Weak police presence as well as negative experiences with past disarmament strategies have left communities skeptical about the government’s ability and willingness to ensure their security (Ferrie, 2012; McCallum & Okech, 2013). Considering that security, development, state-community and inter-community relations in Jonglei State are deeply intertwined; a lasting solution to its local conflicts will largely depend on the effectiveness and accountability of the SPLA and governmental agencies.