Assets as Armies in South Sudan: Local Peace Mediation in the Path of Elites’ Cattle

Looking out onto the river, razor wire entwines itself in the roots of a mango tree, running down into the bed they share with the White Nile in Juba, South Sudan. In the shade of the riverbank, layers of mirky greys, greens and browns slide past, blending into shimmering golds as the dark watery mass reaches the sunlight out in the middle of the river, weaving its way past Bari lands in the distance. Far across the expanse of the river, where people appear as small dots, the Bari community have opposed the government over their plans to expand Juba into their lands. Two birds gently dance on the wire, navigating its sharp edges for pieces of fruit fallen from the tree, stuck on the razor’s edge.

Children play in the river beyond the wire, a remnant from the intense violence of 2013 and 2016. Security professionals staying at our Rivercamp Hotel in Juba tell me that this is one of the only places that wasn’t overrun in the 2016 violence, only by virtue of its position on the river in relation to the direction the fighting was moving in. In July of that year, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces loyal to President Kiir, predominantly from Dinka descent, clashed with the majority Nuer-composed SPLA In-Opposition forces loyal to Riek Machar, triggering a wave of deadly violence that swept past the Rivercamp Hotel, and through Juba.

Heading out of the security office and through the double set of heavy steel gates, we travel to meet a local mediator who has worked on cycles of cattle conflict for the best part of thirty years. Just around the corner, we wind our way past the row of luxurious tower block hotels including Pyramid and the Palm Africa, the latter being where the Sudan peace agreement (Juba agreement) was signed in October 2020, as South Sudan continues to take a central mediatory role in the Sudan peace process. Next to the fortified-looking hotel, its gates flanked with rows of brand-new Toyota Land Cruisers, in the red dust by the roadside people try to sell almost anything: a mannequin sits with a builders hard hat on it, surrounded by old bike and car parts.

The local mediator we are meeting works in coordination with the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) out in the remote areas of the countryside, negotiating on issues of humanitarian access and the release of abductees. The practice of women and children being taken by warring ethnic groups has become commonplace in the elite-driven cycles of violence that now shape everyday life for South Sudan’s rural communities.

The mediator begins describing his task of navigating these norms of violence governing the countryside, describing a landscape where most cattle keepers’ weaponry is now more sophisticated than the military’s. He tells us this is simply the translation of the elites’ interests; the political and military leaders who own the cattle supply the arms in an attempt to preserve their assets out in these vast, volatile rural spaces. Adding a further layer of opaqueness to his task, he describes local groups having access to, ‘old, relatively new and new sets of weapons’. In a recent process he facilitated between communities of Dinka-Bor and Mundari, groups had handed over older weapons in boxes at a gathering area. Of course, he says that although this looked like a positive step towards implementation, the reality was that they still had two other sets of weapons and the next morning, ‘the boxes were empty’.

Often, these local conflict cycles have been viewed through the lens of pastoralist-nomadic community behaviours and their cattle movements; words and terms like ‘herders’, ‘nomadic’, ‘inter-ethnic’, ‘militias’, or ‘armed ethnic groups’ are used to reflect these cycles of violence. Whilst inter-ethnic tensions have indeed been a central strand shaping South Sudan’s socio-ethnic history and local conflicts, these conflict cycles have also been politicised by various authority structures governing local spaces; including police, commissioners and national political figures, as well as senior military figures. This is evidenced as far back as the 1960s, extending into the second civil war. The mediator continues describing the influence of this elite funding, saying that to an extent, ‘these groups are like armies, dressed in military uniforms with generals in cattle camps’. Sometimes a camp could involve as many as 3,000 heads of cattle he tells us, with many of these groups gathered mainly in Upper Nile and around the Bor side of the Jonglei-Central Equatoria boundary, within the Dinka-Mundari clan sections.

The mediator also recognised the more traditional narratives around these conflicts. He acknowledged that floods cause groups to move livestock but emphasises that this was often motivated by elites’ motivation to land grab. In part, this pre-emptive securing of assets appeared to be an insurance against the uncertainty of the cycles of countryside violence and an inevitable by-product of the political centre; beneath the overall uncertainty of the broader transition, I heard stories of how well rewarded and yet fragile individual position in the political centre of Juba could be. When it came to land grabbing using cattle, the mediator described the response he often heard, ‘there is this attitude from the elites of “we fought in the war, this is our land, we are entitled to it”.’

Connecting this to how local processes tended to end, he reflected on the way that groups would often drive cattle out of the conflict area in an attempt to make it appear to communities and those implementing that they were leaving. ‘They say they are withdrawing cattle to look good and use this as political currency’. The reality, he tells us, is that the elites order the cattle to be held in an area further out into the countryside, gradually filtering them back into the area they had come from in small numbers. If challenged on this they resort to a similar response of referencing previous conflicts: “we fought in the war, we are taking the land”.’


We have had constant generational violence, in the 80s, the 90s, and then 2013 and 2016… we talk about peacebuilding but people are traumatised


As he tries to make sense of how to end the constant re-entry into these cycles, he talks about trauma and how addressing this is central to peacebuilding attempts. He recognises the challenge of encouraging communities to revisit trauma, seeing the need for self-reconciliation and local community group conflict analysis of the issues causing cycles. This, he says, is crucial, as he sets it against the backdrop of inter-generational trauma. ‘We have had constant generational violence, in the 80s, the 90s, and then 2013 and 2016… we talk about peacebuilding but people are traumatised’. Reflecting on the existing practices, he tells us that implementation of the local processes he oversees is often left in an unclear position in regard to follow up and monitoring. Usually this is between the police, local government and church mediators, but each actor thinks the other is going to follow up. He explains that the remit given to church mediators in this sense is impossible, as once an agreement is made, they are always ordered to move on to the next local area to begin the next process.

He concludes by describing some of the more positive and hopeful examples of work from some of the remote borderland areas of Morobo in Central Equatoria, where international NGOs cannot go but where he and the SSCC mediators have managed to facilitate processes. He tells us these areas now have cross-border business with DRC and Uganda, calling this a peace model with two key elements, (i) civilian managed buy-in’ and (ii) no presence of security or military elements. Reflecting on his work, he ends by saying that addressing trauma would help with the societal challenges facing South Sudan, including people returning to work and the educational gap which he says now sees fewer people progressing on to higher education.

Driving back through town, lines of traffic intertwine across a three-lane junction, a traffic warden tries to keep order, ushering us on as dusk falls. A black Land Cruiser with heavily armed men on the back merges into the routine of the evening rush, a group of cattle is guided past our car, blurring between the streams of traffic, the verge of the road, and the beginning of life at night in Juba.


Robert Wilson is a Research Fellow and Policy Co-ordinator with PeaceRep. His research explores local peace processes, examining the impact of inter-group dynamics on processes and the agency of traditionally marginalised local groups.

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