The World Food Programme began food distribution on 12 January for 19,000 internally displaced persons in Pibor, Jonglei State. Some 60,000 people in the state have been displaced over the past few weeks by inter-communal violence between the Murle and Lou Nuer tribes. Photos: Isaac Gideon.


Today is the one year anniversary of the Republic of South Sudan’s declaration of independence. Reuters is running a series of deeply reported stories that show some of the key challenges faced during South Sudan’s first year, and potential sources of instability that hinder the country’s development.

The series is called Birthing a Nation–South Sudan’s First Year. In the first of the series, posted today, reporter Alexander Dziadosz explains how cattle rustling is threatening to plunge one region of South Sudan into ethnic conflict:

“If you have just 10 cows, people will not consider you. You’re like a spoon – only for eating and throwing down. You cannot eat also. You’re for using,” said Joseph, a local government worker, with a laugh. “If you have many cows, people will respect you. They’ll greet you in a respectful way.”

Raids and counter-raids have cycled for centuries, gradually becoming bloodier as guns and satellite phones flooded in and young men became less responsive to local elders’ pleas for them to stop. With no real chance for people to appeal to the law when rivals steal their cows, the incentive to steal back is high.


In the December raid, an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 young men from the Lou-Nuer – a sub-group of the Nuer – marched on Murle territory. They called themselves the “White Army,” a name first taken by another Nuer group during the civil war whose fighters smeared white ash on their torsos to guard against insects.

On December 23, as pastor Chachin and church members in his hometown of Lekwanglei practised songs and prepared food for Christmas, Murle started to arrive from the north. They were injured and had stories of carnage.

“The people were running. They said, ‘The Nuer are coming now,'” Chachin recalled. His family and other villagers walked through the night the 40 km (25 miles) or so to Pibor. There, he and his wife, Rebecca, and their five children moved into a small hut near the main church. By December 31, raiders had arrived at the town’s outskirts. The family fled again.

“You could see the smoke. They were burning the houses,” Chachin said of the raid on Pibor.

This isn’t really a story about cows or cattle rustling.  It is a story of state weakness.

Vulnerable cattle herders in the hinterlands of South Sudan cannot rely on a rule of law. State forces are simply too weak to effectively impose order in Pibor, or other parts of South Sudan. This leads militias organized along tribal or ethnic lines to take matters into their own hands and seek justice through a series of tit-for-tat reprisal raids.

The state is simply not strong enough yet to impose rule of law in this part of South Sudan.  Long term security sector reform (i.e. training police and the army) and even longer term justice sector development (training judges and lawyers) is the eventual solution to this problem. But for now, there’s not much to be done.

The UN Peacekeeping mission could play a key role here — and it certainly does at the margin. But the UN  Mission is sorely overstretched because it is trying to prevent the outbreak of a war between South Sudan and Sudan.  It’s not realistic to expect 10,000 soldiers in a country the size of France to be everywhere always. And, for good reason, the mission’s leadership has decided that preventing all out war between the north and south is a more urgent priority than robustly patrolling some of South’s rural outposts.

This, in the end, is one of the real tragedies of South Sudan’s first year: constant fighting with the north has captured the attention (and resources) of the government and international community at the expense of development.

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