News / Africa

South Sudan's Jonglei State Teeters On Edge

An MSF doctor examines a baby in Pibor, in Jonglei State in South Sudan. People who went into hiding following recent attacks continue to come in for urgently needed medical care at MSF's re-opened facilities.
An MSF doctor examines a baby in Pibor, in Jonglei State in South Sudan. People who went into hiding following recent attacks continue to come in for urgently needed medical care at MSF's re-opened facilities.
Nico Colombant

United Nations peacekeepers, community leaders and the world's newest government in South Sudan are trying to quell ethnic violence in the country's biggest state, Jonglei. But new warnings and a lack of resources have analysts fearing violence will continue.

Aid workers say more than 140,000 people have been displaced by the ethnic violence in eastern Jonglei state, which has caused an unknown number of deaths in recent months, estimated at the several thousand.

The most recent attack, in which two herders were killed by an alleged cattle raider, was reported Sunday in the state's Bor county.

An armed Nuer and Dinka youth militia group calling itself the White Army has issued an ominous warning saying that next month it will start new operations to contain rival Murle youth.

Militias from both ethnic groups have attacked and counter-attacked each other since South Sudan broke away from Sudan and became independent last year.

J. Peter Pham, the Africa director at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, says historical rivalries between the cattle herding communities, which had been dormant for a while, suddenly exploded. "The thought of independence, the dream of having their own country kept the various disparate factions together long enough to achieve it and they achieved it relatively smoothly but now comes the hard part which is building a state where there has not been one before," he said.

Ethnic militias were often used and paid by rival sides in Sudan's long civil war.  Without that revenue and with the realization their new country would not be providing them new opportunities, some of the militia groups have conducted cattle raids as a substitute.

Jonathan Temin from the United States Institute of Peace says there seems to be a multitude of factors behind the violence. "The availability of small arms and light weapons certainly makes these kinds of raids more deadly. Another factor here that does not get discussed too often is dowry.  There has been a significant inflation in dowry prices, the prices that a man has to pay in order to get married and because of that inflation men need more cattle in order to get married and that can drive some of the cattle raiding that were are seeing. Then there is also politics which pervades everything in South Sudan," he said.

Temin says politicians trying to gain standing in the new South Sudan have also caused the situation to deteriorate, by using divisive ethnic arguments to drum up their own support.

United Nations peacekeepers and South Sudan's security forces have been criticized for not doing enough to stop the ongoing confrontations. Officials from U.N. agencies, the government in Juba and local Jonglei communities all say they are working hard to help victims of the recent violence, as well as prevent new major outbreaks.

Amir Idris, a Sudan expert at Fordham University in the state of New York, says it is important to put the focus on local power-sharing and development, rather than blaming the rival communities.

"If we do so, we begin to demonize these two communities, the Nuer communities and the Murle communities.  And there is nothing wrong with their culture and traditions, but certainly there are some political and economic issues that need to be addressed by the government of South Sudan and the international community to stop these kind of military confrontations, otherwise this cycle of violence will continue," he said.

South Sudanese immigrant leaders living in Canada and the United States have started a cross-ethnic organization called the Jonglei Peace Initiative to try to help end the violence as well.

In a statement, they also said development projects for all Jonglei communities were urgently needed.

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