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Rift Valley Institute

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Causes of intercommunal conflicts in Lakes State, South Sudan

In this blog, Maketh traces the roots of intercommunal conflicts in Lakes State, South Sudan to the legacies of war, dowry demands and climate change, and subsequently calls for reconciliation processes and skills training in order to mitigate the conflicts.

By Maketh Deng

Introduction

Lakes State had a population of about 700,000 at the time of the 2008 census. The scale of sub-national conflicts in Lakes State has made life very difficult for residents, causing poverty and hunger for entire populations. A high proportion of the state’s residents, and of South Sudan as whole, are displaced from their original homes. This has made their lives vulnerable and poor, with little or no income at all. Of an estimated population of 17 million in South Sudan, 9.6 per cent of the population needed food assistance in 2023, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Conflicts are happening across South Sudan, but conflict in Lakes is higher because it is in the same community. Lakes has more because it is the same community raiding themselves, killing themselves, within the same location. You see AK47s and other machine guns local youth are having. And, when it comes to ammunition, you cannot even tell where it is from, and they cannot even tell you where there are getting it.

Legacy of war

The roots of the intercommunal conflicts in Lakes State go back to the inception of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) on 16 May 1983 and its later division into three factions. Each faction recruited tribal militia and civilians into the local home guards, called Gelweng, who were heavily armed to protect their territory and animals from Sudanese Arab militias and splinter rebel parties. (Gel Weng means ‘protect’ and ‘livestock’ in Dinka.)

When the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the SPLA/M and Sudanese government stipulated that Sudan be split in two, the SPLA/M called for peace and unification among the different rank and file. But the new Government of South Sudan was characterized by power struggles: Generals took up arms in Lakes, Unity, central Equatoria and Jonglei states. This allowed youth access to new and heavy weapons, intended for local militia. The national and state governments were not able to disarm them because there were well-trained soldiers within their communities fuelling the internal conflict. The armed soldiers trained some of the Gelweng youth to help them further their own political ambitions, with revenge killings, the looting of property and cattle raiding carried out as a business to enrich themselves. The Gelweng youth have weapons more modern than the national government and that makes it difficult to disarm them.

One of things that struck me during travels in Lakes was the presence of these weapons in the hands of young men. I saw most of the youth from the cattle camp walking with guns. When the new military governor was appointed last year, he was able to bring some order, but the issue of intercommunal conflicts is still ongoing, with youth using guns as a way of acquiring wealth.

How many cows is too many?

Dowry payments in Dinka culture are a source of conflict. Girls are seen by families as a source of wealth. When a lady of outstanding beauty elopes without her family’s approval, it results in cattle raiding and the loss of lives. The government has set a limit to the cows that can be paid for dowry—30. But people do not accept this—they may pay 100, 200 cows. Last year, there was even a case of 350 cows being paid. The person who has a lot of cows is the winner (of the girl). Sometimes it is purely competition, it is not because a girl is pretty. It is just pride.

On June 2, 2022, for example, eyeRadio.org reported that communal clashes over a girl left five people dead, with dozens more injured, when youth purposefully attacked a community to acquire wealth to meet the demands for resources made by the girl’s parents—all to conduct a customary marriage with a beautiful wife they desired. This is a major cause of community conflict among pastoralist communities in Lakes State.

Not enough swamp to go round

Semi-nomadic livestock keepers, moving from one area to another, due to changes in the seasons and the climate, are another source of conflict. Water points for animals and competition for land rights are the driving factors of clashes, especially when pastoralists enter the territory of another community without proper consultation. Clashes over green pasture have resulted in the loss of many lives and thousands of cattle being raided.In the dry season, pastoralists rely on swampy areas along the Nile River. These areas are owned by some other communities. There are not enough swampy areas for the animals.

Fearing to talk

It was not easy to collect data on the causes of intercommunal conflicts in Lakes State because some community members fear to talk—they fear to share their experience. When you want to talk to them, they say ‘maybe these are spies sent by the government, getting information from them and doing so and so.’ Until you tell them why you want to talk to them.

Nonetheless, a Paramount Chief of Rumbek East County, Awet Majak, noted that talking about peace in the presence of firearms in the hands of local youth is like mixing paraffin with water. The best way to end intercommunal conflict and bring lasting peace to Lakes State was through the peaceful disarmament of youth, he said, by the means of monetary and in-kind approaches, such as paying a number of cows in exchange for guns. This would allow local youth to surrender their guns once and for all.

Two others, Ayada Machok Kueric, together with Majier Riak, recommended the best option for peace was to train the Gelweng to be community policemen because they knew who among them had done something, and thus all the culprits would be brought to book. This would be among the few productive activities they could be engaged in. Another would be the meaningful opening of agricultural farms and irrigation schemes to create huge employment opportunities in Lakes State.

Access and insecurity

The inaccessibility of some locations due to insecurity was another challenge. On 7 March 2023, Radio Tamazuj reported 126 people killed in Rumbek North and 5 killed and 11 wounded in Awerial County, making it difficult to reach some rural communities. As a result, some interviews were conducted by telephone. This obstacle was compounded by inadequate finance to cater for field research assistants for a good number of days, as well as for covering transportation, accommodations and the printing of material, taking into consideration South Sudan’s crisis of inflation.

Reconciliation

A reconciliation process should be launched to bring conflicting communities together for dialogue and forgiveness and build trust among themselves. The chiefs and elders interviewed reported that Lakes State had been neglected when it came to reconciliation initiatives and that these initiatives should be prioritised. To this end, the media has established local FM radio stations to disseminate peace and reconciliation keys messages to the Gelweng, using their native language.

Skills

Vocational skills and numeracy training were mentioned, to give illiterate youth the skills to help them generate income for sustainable lives. Their skills will contribute to community and state development, bringing the bad practices of cattle raids and stealing under control. Creating employment with things such fishponds and beekeeping and women’s Village Saving Loans Associations (VSLAs) are ideas thought of, as are setting up warning systems, with information running from traditional leaders to county commissioners to the state government before violence occurs.

The Author

Maketh Kuot Deng holds a Higher Diploma in Agriculture from South Sudan Christian University of Science and Technology, and is a final year student in the faculty of Agriculture and Rural Development, Upper Nile University, South Sudan. Maketh has been working in the humanitarian aid sector in South Sudan for more than eight years, and currently works as a Livelihood Project Officer for Finn Church Aid, based in Mingkaman Awerial County, Lakes State, South Sudan.

Acknowledgement

This blog has been produced as a result of Maketh’s training in the Rift Valley Institute’s (RVI) Research Communities of Practice (RCoP) project. The blog therefore reflects the views of the author and not those or the position of the Rift Valley Institute. The RCoP is one of the RVI’s flagship projects that supports the professional development of early career scholars in east and central Africa through training, mentorship and dissemination of research outputs. Building on RVI’s long-term experience and presence in the region, the RCoP is a value-driven project that is built around a community of practitioners and academics with a common interest in the professional development of early career researchers. With funding from the Carnegie Corporation in New York, USA, and in partnership with the Open Society University Network-Hub for Connected Learning Initiatives, the RVI trained 27 early career scholars from Somalia, Somaliland, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in the first and second phases of the RCoP project between August 2022 and January 2024.

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