Articles and Analysies
Analyzing tribal conflicts in southern Sudan and GOSS failure in dealing with the problem By: Lago Gatjal Riaka, USA
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Feb 3, 2010 - 11:49:59 AM

Analyzing tribal conflicts in southern Sudan and GOSS failure in dealing with the problem

By: Lago Gatjal Riaka, USA


The eruption of tribal conflicts in southern Sudan is not new. Tribes have been fighting each other as far back in centuries.  Not only tribes, but, clans and sub-clans within the same tribes have been waging some kind of warfare against each other. Tribes might fight over grazing land, water point, and land occupation. For instance, the expansion of Eastern Nuer along the Sobat River in the 18th centuries was met with resistance by the Anyuak, Dinka, and those who live along the Sobat River

Fights among clans and sub-clans have similar characteristics as fight among tribes.  Among other components why tribes, sub-clans, and clansí warfare existed in the pre-southern Sudan society, murder of one tribe, clan, and sub-clan men were always resulting into deadly clashes between the two rivals.  There has always been a mechanism to address such a conflict between tribes, clans, and sub-clans. These mechanisms have been the traditional ways of handling disputes among the communities.

There were procedures of punishment against those who might be found guilty of the wrong doing. These punishment ranges from paying a number of cows and performing some kind of a duty to reward the guilty plea. But, this was along tribal line.  Each tribe does it differently from another. Nonetheless, traditional of settling disputes have always contributed to maintaining peace and security among tribes, clans, and sub-clans.

It could be argued that something has changed dramatically compared to how these fights were being fought in southern Sudan.  In the old days, and even in some occasions at the present in southern Sudan, tribal war fares were fought with spears, arrows, and other traditional weapons.  These weapons were never deadly compared to the modern weapons, which many civilians are using against each other.

The difference is that, the use of modern weapons has increased the number of causalities in the same kind of warfare fought long time ago. What has also changed is the target of elderly, women, and children across southern Sudan in these tribal warfare. People have moved away from customary humanitarian rule of cultural warfare in which elderly, women, and children were exempt from war. 

In relation to the current customary international humanitarian rule of war, this customary ideology of rule of war has existed for centuries in southern Sudan. The idea that non-combatants, wounded, and civilians should never be target in army conflict has taken shape not only in southern Sudan, but in other African societies as well.  Also, tribal warfare in the old days has never had political agenda.

But, in the current tribal warfare in southern Sudan, it can be argued that there are political dynamics involved in fueling these conflicts as the nature of attacks illustrate.  This is something that Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) will be struggling with in its mandate of trying to halt these kinds of conflicts and eliminating them.

∑        Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS)

Looking at the current situation in southern Sudan, it can be argued that the Government of Southern Sudan has failed in its mandate to halt tribal conflicts across the board. What is being seen across southern Sudan is a serious continuation of attacks among tribes. All the ten states of southern Sudan have been affected in some way or another by these conflicts, and the government remains reluctant, yet continues to put the blame on the National Congress Party (NCP).

Last month, a section of Nuer ethnic group attacked a settlement in Warrap states, killing 139 individuals.  This is not the first time that the two groups have been involved across the state line in waging attacks against their country-men. At some point, the Dinka launched a surprise attack against their country-men in Unity State, killing a number of people and taking cattle with them.

These kinds of moves have been going back and forth between the two communities. This was also seen in Lake States between the Dinka ethnic group and the Jur tribe. In Jonglei and Central Equatoria, it was among the Murle, Nuer, and Mundari. In Central Equatoria, Mandari and Bari clashed over land.  What is critical about these tribal conflicts, they are contributing to insecurity across southern Sudan, and they must be stopped.

The question that many would want to explore is that, how did the automatic machine guns end up in the hands of civilians, which are now being used in these fights and are deadly? This question is easy to answer by southern Sudanese who know what happened. The longest civil war in Africa between the Sudanís People Liberation Movement/Army, and the Governments in Khartoum created this chaotic situation in southern Sudan

As a result of the war, what southern Sudanese saw was a revolution of automatic weapons going around communities without an order, and many of the guns ended up in civiliansí hand, which they also saw as important to protecting themselves from who they thought was their enemy. Civilians saw automatic weapons as having a good standard in defeating onesí opponent. As a result of this interest in automatic weapons by the civilians, the result was a huge flow of guns into inexperienced individuals. Even when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was sign, civilians remain reluctant to bring their guns out to turn them in to the authority, in this case, the Government of Southern Sudan.

Although the Government of Southern Sudan has tried to implement Disarmament and Demobilization program, it has not been effective to bring these guns out of the communities. The problem is that, the government was trying or always is trying to do this DDR program through the Southern Sudanís Army. The government sends in soldiers to the communities and look into peopleís houses in an attempt of trying to disarm the civilians by force.

Many of the times, the soldiers have been successful in finding some automatic weapons. There is no denial of some of these success stories, especially, the one that the soldiers were able to conduct in Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan. But, still the government needs to do more and do more successfully.

My criticism of the whole process of DDR is that, the government should not do it through the soldiers but the communityís leaders or the chiefs, who know their communities than the government. Not only through the chiefs, it can start from states governors, commissioners, payams bomas, local chiefs, and to the last men as possible.  The message should be clear and sent to the communities through these leaders all the way to local chiefs that anybody, who has an automatic weapon is required by law to turn it in to the authority. From governors, commissioners, payam and bomaís head chiefs ,this message can be pass down in local language in clear message as possible, so that no one will say later on that he or she was not inform.

In addition, there should be a mechanism to hold governors, commissioners, and local chiefs accountable, if it turned out that one of their country-men has been involved in some crime in which a gun was involved. The responsibility to locate such kind of a person involved in a crime should be handed to state governors. Then state governors must hand it down to commissioners and to the local chiefs. Since these individuals know their country-men more than the federal government or the army, they would easily find the person, who would happen to have been involved in such a crime and bring him to justice.

The failing process is that, the government has been trying to take this task into its own by using uniform soldiers to disarm communities of which they do not understand.  The use of local chiefs must be a high priority to find local criminals, who are fueling these conflicts.  Let it also be clear that, it is not absolutely true that guns are the only cost of conflict among communities, but they are the weapons used. Taking guns away from civilian does not mean that these problems would go away; it would only take away the kind of weapon being used. Communities would still use other ways to fight, maybe even using traditional weapons like spears and machetes.

Therefore, the point is not only the guns but finding a long term mechanism to stop these tribal fights completely. The point here is to identify the problem and then find a solution to that problem. As this case goes, no one can argue that there is a single cause to this problem. Fights can be caused by several factors among tribes.  Since some fights between tribes have been over cattle, others for instance, the governor of Jonglei state have suggested at one time that, southern Sudanese should get rid of cattle as a path of creating peace and security in the region.

Many would disagree with this statement of getting rid of cattle not only as the primary source of wealth in southern Sudan, but no research has found that cattle are the major cause of tribal conflict in southern Sudan. Cattle raiding are just one of the causes of tribal conflicts in southern Sudan; there are other more variables to look at.

The government must enact a law that would hold criminals accountable individually, when they commit crimes. This will need educating the public that whoever is found to have committed a crime will be held accountable in the court of law, which means no collective punishment for a family or a community just because one of them has committed a crime.

Most of the tribal cultures in southern Sudan are based on collective response. Communities, even when not part of the crime will try to defend their country-men from the government intervention. For example, if police have been sent to make an arrest, that individualís relatives; tribe, clan, or sub-clan will try to question the authority as to why. A legal framework must be established in southern Sudan to punish people individually for crimes they have committed. This will create individual responsibility among the citizens that if they commit a crime, they will be the only one to take the responsibility.   If this legal framework is establish, people will be fearful to commit crime they know will individually take them to danger.

Also, compensations for criminal acts for instance, murder, which is based on cultural trait should be abolished by law. It must be make clear that if a person takes human life, it must be dealt with by law.  It is not a bad thing to compensate the victimís family, but, the government should be the one to do that compensation, and hold the person who has committed such a crime accountable. This practice of cultural compensation encourages killing among young men, which result into a major fight between tribes, clans, and sub-clans.

In fact, Iím not calling for elimination for traditional courts, those traditional court are making a great impact in contribution to southern Sudan justice system.  Traditional courts have played measure role settling disputes in our communities, and their elimination would be a disaster. They deal with disputes like divorce, compensation, stealing, cattle issue, and among others. This relieves our federal system from exhausting itself with all these cases, which have no jurisdiction in our justice system. Communities settle these issues based on their cultural ways of settling disputes; therefore, it would be unwise to create a jurisdiction against these practices except in the case of a murder, cattle raiding, and other political issues that happen in cities.

∑        Blame Game

What has annoyed me throughout this period is the response of the Government of Southern Sudan to these tribal conflicts.  Every time a tribal conflict occurs, the response of the GOSS is to put the blame on their counter peace partner, the National Congress Party (NCP), that it is supplying weapons to some communities in southern Sudan. Look at those links below please to understand what the statement above;

Read the links and see what southern Sudan leaders are saying about these tribal conflicts. They are putting the blame on the NCP. This is a sign of a weakness.  It is a sign of a weakness because southern Sudan has a functioning federal governing system, which should be able to control the out flow of these guns into civiliansí hands.

My question is, how do these guns get into civiliansí hand from Khartoum?  When there is a border entry point by land, air, and sea, which are all controlled by southern Sudanese agents, how do these guns come to southern Sudan? Please, I want an explanation. The point is that, there should be no reason at all to let some individuals from the north distributes weapons to communities in Southern Sudan. This is a failure of the GOSS from federal, states, and counties.

The Government of Southern Sudan should do a better job in securing all the entry points; land, water, and air so that no weapons come to southern Sudan from the north. I do not dispute the fact that NCP might have been involved in some of these acts, but, they should have been caught. There is no clear evidence that NCP is distributing guns to communities in southern Sudan. If it is true that NCP is distributing guns to communities in southern Sudan, then stop it!! And bring the NCP to justice by any mean.

The politics of the blame without clear evidence should stop from now and the GOSS need to put its acts together in securing this autonomy region. These tribal conflicts are deadly and are cause to insecurity in southern Sudan. With referendum coming by soon, southern Sudanese do not want to see more of these tribal conflicts, and a mechanism system to deal with them must be put in place by the GOSS.

Many have suggested that the role of the southern Sudanís Army Forces should be to stop these tribal conflicts. This is not a bad idea at all. When fights like this break anywhere in southern Sudan, the SSAF should be used to halt the situation, if states and counties cannot handle the situation. Thatís should be the role of the federal government in southern Sudan, to response when a situation is beyond the counties and statesí control. 

Some have blamed the military for not doing enough in these tribal conflicts. What can the military do? The military only wait for an order from the command, and without that chain of command, they have no power to response to any situation. The president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit is the Commander-in-Chief of the southern Sudanís Army Forces. 

There is only one way to use the army forces. When a fight breaks out between two communities, send the army in to halt the situation, if states and counties canít do it due to the multitude of the situation. This is a short term solution to the problem, just to stop the ongoing fighting. But, the long term solution to these tribal conflicts needs a legal framework from all levels of government in order to stop them. That legal framework is not there, thatís why these tribal conflicts continue to affect the region.


1.       Disarmament and Demobilization must be done through states, counties, and local chiefs and not the use of force by the military

2.       Murder, cattle raiding and other serious crimes must be declared federal crimes, so that whoever commits such a crime must be dealt with by the federal government and not the traditional chiefs. If a person takes a human life, it must be a federal crime.

3.       The Government of Southern Sudan must improve its inspection in all the bordering points; land, sea, and air to stop any unnecessary smuggling of weapons to southern Sudan from anywhere in the world.

4.       The southern Sudanís Legislative Assembly (SSLA) needs to enact a bill that would deal with these issues, for instance, what kind of punishment a murder can get if convicted. There is no jurisdiction of that kind in southern Sudan justice system, as far the interim constitution goes. Some would argue that there is no real constitution in southern Sudan now, and what we have in southern Sudan is an interim constitution. Well, my take on that, we need a legal instrument now to deal with the problems facing us at the movement. These problems might affect our future, if not taken care of. Most of the murders have been handled in the traditional courts. Or sometimes police might just arrest the person that has murdered somebody and do not know anything to do about that person. They might subject the persons to serious beatings and a long time prison as a punishment. The SSLA need to come up with a clear bill to address these issues. What kind of punishment can a murderer get?


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