Ethnic Violence and Weapons Proliferation in South Sudan

By Danny Hirschel-Burns, STAND Policy Analyst

In South Sudan’s Jonglei state, ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities is a constant characteristic of South Sudan’s internal instability. Along with many structural factors, weapons proliferation is a central cause of increasing conflict. The presence of numerous armed men have increased the casualty rates of cattle raids and undermined more cautious leadership. The South Sudanese government has consistently either failed to address the root causes of the problem, done so ineptly, or lacked the required institutional capacity. It has also aggravated the conflict by relying on ethnic militias to provide short-term security, without a plan to eventually disarm these militias. There are some issues at play beyond the reach of the South Sudanese government, but even in the areas it can control, it has so far failed as a productive actor in decreasing inter-tribal violence.

To understand the role of small arms in facilitating Jonglei’s inter-communal conflict, a brief analysis of causal factors is necessary. This violence, largely between the Lou Nuer and the Murle tribes, is based around cattle raiding, a practice that has existed for generations. Recently, however, these cattle raids have ceased to be solely economic, and as a result of many factors, raiders have begun to attack individuals from the rival tribe, and not just those that physically prevent them from stealing cattle. In the past three years, individual attacks have caused up to one thousand deaths. While climate change has had some effect on increasing competition over land, population displacement, changes in farming practices and the disruption of trade routes have exacerbated the Lou Nuer-Murle conflict. The end of the north-south war has also worsened the conflict, though the militarization of the Lou Nuer and the Murle has been ongoing for more than a decade. The return of armed men undermined tribal leadership structures, which had established relatively peaceful coexistence with other tribes. Both tribes, but particularly the Murle, are politically marginalized within South Sudan, and thus generally distrustful of the South Sudanese government. Therefore, they are less willing to cooperate with government-led violence reduction initiatives. Local politicians also exploit tribal rivalries for personal gain, and though evidence is scant, they may well be involved in actually inciting raids.

The proliferation of small arms is one of the main drivers of the conflict in Jonglei. Following the end of the north-south war, soldiers returning to civilian life brought their weapons with them. Both tribes used this new supply of guns to raid cattle, which has led to higher death rates. Another factor in the abundance of small arms is the presence of anti-government rebels. Former members of the SPLA's loose coalition of minority militias, including the late George Athor and David Yau Yau, have exploited the availability of small arms for political gain. Though the war has ended, the SPLA continuously fails to prevent its soldiers from returning to civilian life with their weapons, and ammunition is a form of currency in some Lou Nuer areas. Finally, the SPLA has armed both the Murle and the Lou Nuer to fight against Athor and Yau Yau, respectively.

Arms flow to the Murle and the Lou Nuer has risen and fallen over time, and the sources for these arms had also changed. However, the SPLA has consistently failed to effectively disarm its populace. Though South Sudanese authorities undertook disarmament in 2005 and 2006, the effort was incomplete, and the seized weapons were re-seized by ethnic militias due to poorly guarded warehouses. Other SPLA disarmament strategies have failed because they often target individuals who keep weapons solely for self-defense, and fail to target ethnic militias, mostly due to a lack of capacity. The SPLA has repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten civilians in disarmament efforts, increasing anger toward the state and decreasing confidence in government-led violence reduction initiatives.

In response to ethnic violence in Jonglei, the South Sudanese government must cease arming ethnic militias and attempt to establish a better relationship with Lou Nuer and Murle communities. While the latter task is easier said than done, distrust between a target community and a government severely hampers disarmament efforts, exemplified by the only partially successful attempts at DDR in Burundi. Though the South Sudanese government lacks the capability to fully disarm citizens in Jonglei, it has the ability to facilitate this process. Unfortunately, its current policies are negatively affecting the possibilities of disarmament and violence reduction. If the government of South Sudan truly wishes to end ethnic violence in Jonglei, it must discontinue attempts to achieve peace through further militarization, increase its presence in Jonglei through political inclusion, and focus on community-led negotiations and solutions.

Subscribe to our news feed

Syndicate content

STAND | 202.643.7238 | 1800 Wyoming Ave NW, Third Floor | Washington, DC 20036

Empowered by Biro Creative and Agentic