The Truth Behind the Ethnic Conflict in South Sudan

ConflictPhoto: Steve Evans

Whether or not you are into watching or reading about global events, you have to wonder sometimes if there aren’t more important things than Liam Hemsworth shopping for pet supplies. Don’t you ever wonder what’s really going on? Chances are, you’ve heard about South Sudan gaining independence from its northern counterpart (if you haven’t you may want to consider looking it up). Since independence was gained, there have been major ethnic clashes between the Nuer and Murle people groups who live in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. Hundreds of people have died during the months of conflict, and thousands have been displaced.

IndependencePhoto: Steve Evans

Most media coverage of the issue attributes the attacks to a vicious cycle of cattle raiding. The truth, however, may be a different and more sinister story. Dr. Jon Arensen, a D.Phil. in Anthropology, has a unique perspective on the current conflict. “Reciprocal cattle raiding is a false excuse for the present attacks,” says Arensen, who lived among the Murle people for eight years.

Woman & TankPhoto: Steve Evans

One characteristic of the bloody clashes between the Nuer and Murle is that women and children are being targeted and killed. Arensen says that “this is not a customary practice for any Sudanese culture” and supports his belief that this is not so much an issue of historical cattle raiding, but may actually point to a form of genocide. “The present fighting taking place between the Nuer and the Murle tribes in Jonglei State is more than a simple tribal war,” asserts Arensen. Media coverage of the conflict has almost exclusively singled out the Murle as the aggressors, and the Nuer as “noble warriors reacting to the attacks.”

Sudanese GirlPhoto: Steve Evans

A little history lesson sheds more light on the matter. Arensen says that around 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) took over the Murle region. However, the Nilotic SPLA governors treated them badly, inciting a group of Murle to offer their services to the Arab north. “They became a flying militia,” says Arensen, and “eventually fought their way back into Murle land and took over the area from the SPLA.” Because this contingent of the Murle allied themselves to the north, they were seen as traitors by the rest of the country. As a result, a paper was circulated among the Nilotic tribes in 2009, calling for “the destruction of the Murle and the seizure of their land” immediately after South Sudan’s foreseen independence.

AID to PiborPhoto: European Commission DG ECHO

Clearly, the situation between the Murle and Nuer is even more desperate than has been portrayed. “It is critical that clarity is established about the causes behind the current fighting,” says Arensen, who recently spoke at a UN forum in Nairobi and circulated papers to “level the playing field” and defend the Murle position. He calls for these “genocidal acts against the Murle people” to stop, and for the perpetrators to be identified and called to account.

“Serious pressure should be levied upon the South Sudanese government to promptly and effectively address this issue before the killings escalate even farther,” he concludes.

Sources: Arensen, Jon. “A Memorandum In Defense of the Murle.” 4 Feb. 2012, 2, 3, 4