South Sudan: Jonglei Conference Aims to Resolve Escalating Tribal Conflict

analysis

Bor — South Sudan's government is attempting to tackle violent inter-tribal fighting, but it is uncertain whether they have sufficient resources to do so.

The ongoing border disputes between South Sudan and Sudan are not the only conflicts currently troubling South Sudan. Jonglei, the largest region in recently-independent country, has been faced with violent inter-tribal fighting, predominantly between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities.

Inter-tribal conflict, predominantly in the form of cattle-raids, is by no means a new phenomenon and has a long history. Recently, however, disputes have become more violent with the proliferation of arms. Since December 2011, inter-tribal clashes led to the deaths of several hundreds, while tens of thousands have been displaced.

The South Sudanese government has tried to address the violence through a disarmament programme which began in March, and through the hosting of a Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance conference in Bor, the capital of Jonglei, this May. But ending tribal hostilities is likely to require a considerably more substantial response.

Causes of tribal fighting

Conflicts between different tribes in this arid region are relatively common, and the roots of fighting tend to be deeply imbedded in traditions that stretch back far beyond the current fractious political climate.

Cows are central to the lives of nomadic tribesmen. In some local cultures, it is customary for a boy making the transition to adulthood to prove his worth by stealing a cow from a neighbouring tribe. Only then will he receive the distinctive facial markings of his tribe. This task is often used, however, as a pretext for other males of the tribe to take part in cattle rustling.

A tradition of even greater significance is that a man must pay a woman's dowry to her father in cows, with the dowry numbering anything between ten and 100 cows. Men marry several wives, giving the acquisition of cattle a profound and long-term significance.

Cattle represent wealth and social status, and cattle-raiding has been apparent for generations. But increasingly the way in which confrontations between conflicting tribes occurs has changed, with levels of violence escalating beyond traditional forms of conflict.

The proliferation of arms

Jonglei's inter-communal conflict essentially stems from struggles over scarce resources, but this is aggravated by the militarisation of society. By virtue of the civil war from 1983 to 2005, as well as foreign fighters taking refuge in the country, small arms have proliferated in the region, many falling into the hands of civilians. A disarmament programme began in March attempting to tackle this, but has so far had limited success.

Examples of significant violence are widespread. One of the worst recorded incidents came in August 2011 when members of the Murle community reportedly killed 640 from the Lou Nuer in Uror County, in the north of Jonglei State, as well as stealing over 30,000 cows and kidnapping 208 children, apparently in retaliation for an attack by the Lou Nuer the previous month. Furthermore, from December 23, 2011, to January 3, 2012, Lou Nuer men carried out raids in Pibor County, home of the Murle, which saw up to 6,000 men stealing around 50,000 cattle and killing hundreds of people.

Peace conference

After mounting international pressure to act, the government, led by President Salva Kiir, engaged both parties in dialogue in an attempt to resolve outstanding issues. This effort culminated in the Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance conference this May.

Sixteen resolutions were agreed to, the most significant being that anyone whose cows are stolen is now legally entitled to compensation. Accepting weapons from militia groups will also carry a high punishment, although the punishment was not defined.

Other recommendations referenced cattle-raiding, unemployment, underdevelopment, lack of roads and infrastructure, food insecurity, and abductions as key issues to be addressed by the government. Warnings were also expressed against repeating failures of the past in which similar ideas were proposed without follow-up and monitoring.

At the end of the conference, elders from across Jonglei State signed the forty-page document. But even as President Kiir flew up from Juba to attend the conference's last day, reports came in of a Murle attack on a village in the northern Fangak County, a clear reminder that further progress is required and that the treaty will not be a silver bullet.

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