MALUAL AKAN CATTLE CAMP, Sudan—Mabany Dut Akot is a strapping young cattle herder with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He’s in charge of his own herd of bulls and cows. He helps support a handful of his nieces and nephews. And he needs to find a wife—and a way to pay her dowry to his future in-laws, which will involve giving away most of the animals in his herd.
Mabany’s personal challenges in the cattle camp he inhabits with members of his family during the rainy season are compounded by the politics of Lakes state—situated squarely in the middle of Southern Sudan, and hence exposed to threats from neighboring states on most sides. Cattle raiding is nothing new in Southern Sudan, but the adage here goes that now that cattle herders are using AK-47s instead of spears, the local violence has become deadly. The question of how these AK-47s came into the hands of cattle herders is where politics comes into the mix. Many think that the north is flooding the south with arms to destabilize the area before the self-determination referendum in January.
Regardless of the origin of the weapons, the southern government earlier this year ordered its army to remove the weapons from the civilian populations across the south. In heavily armed and insecure areas like Lakes state, the government directive did not go over well. The latest rounds of the disarmament exercise in Lakes have gone poorly, in one case resulting in a gun fight between members of a community being forced to disarm and the soldiers attempting to take their weapons; more than 20 soldiers were killed, along with an estimated 8 civilians. Resentment among some local communities against the army remains high in areas where disarmament was done in a brutal and uncoordinated manner. Communities are acutely aware that if they are disarmed before their unfriendly neighbors, they will be exposed and vulnerable should these fellow cattle herders decide to raid and pick off some of their herds—basically the sole source of income for the pastoral populations in Lake state.
Learning a little about Mabany by asking questions through a Dinka translator was a lesson in how these politics impact the everyday lives of cattle herders like him, people who are struggling to survive in difficult circumstances. Mabany said he had seven cows stolen last dry season, but said he was happy they were “only stolen,” meaning that there was not a raid where his family could have been hurt. He said that he had been disarmed this year, so now he was staying close to “the government” (probably meaning near the large town of Rumbek, the state capital) for protection. Whether or not the government and especially the security forces are capable of providing that protection and any semblance of general security remains to be seen, but what choice does Mabany have? He has to keep his herd somewhere.