The threat to the nascent South Sudan state is said to be from Khartoum, but
there are others, writes Graham Usher at the United Nations
12 - 18 January 2012
Six months since South Sudan became independent it remains a polity blighted
by unfinished wars with Khartoum and wrenching ethnic violence within its
North and South Sudan are in conflict over possession of the Abyei border
region, the share of oil revenues and even where their border should lie.
Khartoum charges that the South's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is
arming separatist rebels in the north. The SPLA says Khartoum is behind
tribal conflicts in the south.
Yet the most recent burst of violence in South Sudan seems only tangentially
related to Juba's long war with its nearest and most lethal neighbour. For
that reason it may prove the most intractable of all to the world's youngest
In December between 6,000-8,000 armed youths from the Lou Nuer tribe cut
through the savannah of South Sudan's Jonglei state to hunt down all and
anyone from the rival Murle tribe.
Villages were razed, hundreds of thatched huts torched and the Murle town of
Pibor encircled and, at one point, breached. Up to 50,000 people fled their
homes, said the United Nations mission in South Sudan. Three thousand Murle
may have been killed, said Joshua Konyi, South Sudan's Commissioner in
Pibor. He said the Lou Nuer's intent was "genocide".
Neither the SPLA nor UN can confirm killings on that scale. The deaths so
far known are in "the tens, perhaps the hundreds", said Lise Grande, the
UN's humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, addressing the UN in New York
on 3 January.
The UN has declared Jonglei state a "disaster", mobilising an emergency
operation to reach some 60,000 people in need. By 7 January 4700 Murle had
returned to Pibor. The situation there was "calmāź¦ now", said a UN
The Lou Nuer had acted to "wipe out" the Murle (said a Nuer spokesman) in
reprisal for Murle raids on their lands in August that had left 600 dead,
200 children abducted and as many as 25,000 cows rustled. The Merle said
that attack was in response to a Lou Nuer raid on their cattle in June.
In an economy where the cow is the main source of personal wealth, cattle
wars are as old as the tribes. But their ferocity has been compounded by the
easy availability of arms, booty of Sudan's decades of civil war. Whereas a
generation ago Lou Nuer and Murle would have fought with spears, now they
use automatic weapons.
The upsurge in violence has highlighted the SPLA and new South Sudanese
government's failure to disarm the tribes, despite six months of nominal
statehood and six years of actual SPLA rule.
Overstretched by the ongoing conflicts with the north, the SPLA says it
lacks the manpower and resources to also police the tribes. During the siege
of Pibor it had only 400 soldiers plus 400 UN peacekeepers to fend off
several thousand Lou Nuer with arms, said a spokesman.
Grande too said the UN "early warning" system in Jonglei in essence meant
telling people to "get out of the way" of the incoming Lou Nuer militia.
That certainly saved lives. But it hardly fulfils the UN's mandate to
And that failing may have less to do with incapacity than with a lack of
political will on the part of the SPLA, say outside observers. One told the
BBC the new South Sudanese government was loath to meddle in the fight
between the Murle and Lou Nuer lest the SPLA spilt along the same ethnic
The SPLA rejects the charge of non-intervention, as does the UN. "In Pibor
-- with the help of South Sudanese forces -- we effectively prevented a
frontal attack by the Lou Nuer on the city, so I think that's some effective
protection of civilians," said Herve Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary-General for
Peacekeeping Operations, on 5 January.
But he acknowledged the recent ethnic violence had causes other than ancient
tribal animosities. One was a failure to even slow the spread of arms.
Others included the sense of "disenfranchisement" felt by both the Murle and
Lou Nuer peoples; the crushing poverty in which they lived; the lack of
accountability for crimes committed against them; and, perhaps above all,
the lack of any feeling of "ownership" toward the SPLA's nation building
project in Juba.
As long as that project stays in Juba, the South Sudanese will likely defer
to their tribes before their state for protection.
On 3 January the Lou Nuer left Pibor for their tribal homelands. They had
with them "a great amount of cattle" said the UN and, according to Konyi,
"over a thousand abducted (Murle) children". A group calling itself the Nuer
White Army warned that any reprisals for the raid would incur "surprise
attacks" by the Lou Nuer "which will lead to more bloodshed and
It also said any attempt to disarm them by the South Sudanese government or
SPLA would lead to "catastrophe".
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Received on Mon Jan 16 2012 - 18:38:03 EST