Ethnic militias and the shrinking state: South Sudan’s dangerous path
– By James Copnall
Maban county, Upper Nile state, South Sudan, August 2014
Until early August, Maban county was mostly famous for the misery of others. Nearly 130,000 Sudanese refugees live – and sometimes die – in desperately difficult conditions in several makeshift camps in Maban, having fled the fighting in Blue Nile, over the border in Sudan. Their suffering has been a recurring news story over the last few years: Sudan’s troubles exported to South Sudan.
On August 4 and 5, Maban’s own problems made the headlines. At least five South Sudanese aid workers (some reports said six) were killed. They were singled out on the basis of their ethnicity. All were Nuer – the same ethnic group as the rebel leader Riek Machar, and the vast majority of his fighters. The UN and other bodies say the aid workers were entirely blameless. The killings were pinned on a previously unknown group, the Maban Defence Force (MDF). The MDF had clashed with Nuer deserters from the SPLA, and subsequently allegedly targeted Nuers working with international aid organisations. More than two hundred aid workers had to be evacuated, with the UN hastily deploying peacekeepers to what had been considered a relatively calm part of the country.
So what exactly is the MDF? It’s known by different names, including Maban (or Mabanese) Defence Force, the Maban White Army, Petroleum Defence Operations, and Community Policing. The name chosen often reflects to what extent the speaker approves of the militia. Several officials from Maban have expressed their support for the MDF, either privately or in public. Locals suggest the new force, whatever it is called, is composed entirely of ethnic Mabanese, and could number as many as 5000 people, though such estimates are often unreliable. It was created as a direct result of the civil war that broke out in December 2013.
“We had a lot of crises in Jonglei, in Bentiu, in Malakal”, explains Andrea Maya, the Assistant Commissioner for Refugee Affairs for Upper Nile state. “Civilians were killed in big numbers, properties were looted. Based on that, civilians all over South Sudan organised themselves to defend themselves” – including the Mabanese. Maya thinks the MDF members already had weapons, as many ordinary people in South Sudan do, and says the group sprang up more or less independently to protect the community. Others are convinced the MDF was sponsored by the government in Juba, in part as a loyal barrier against any rebel “attack towards the Adar oil fields at Maban’s western border”, as one source in the area puts it. There are suggestions that eventually the MDF could be incorporated into the SPLA.
The creation of an ethnic force independent of the national army, and one which has killed in cold blood members of a supposed rival ethnic group, is a further sign of the self-flagellating trajectory the country has taken. It is understandable why individuals in Maban county would feel the need to protect themselves, given the number of civilians that have been killed in this conflict. Indeed, there are apparently more than twenty community defence forces, often simply small-scale ethnic militias, scattered around South Sudan. Looked at from a national perspective, though, this is the surest route to the militarised balkanisation of the country.
Pibor county, Jonglei state, South Sudan, December 2011/January 2012
In the first couple of years after South Sudan declared its independence, before the current civil war broke out, South Sudan’s biggest internal security threat was inter-ethnic violence in Jonglei state. Cycles of revenge cattle raids spun out of control. Hundreds died in a single day’s fighting, tens of thousands of cows were looted, and the fragile sense of a cohesive state cracked under these repeated hammer blows. The Lou Nuer, trapped in the worst of the violence with the Murle, responded by forming the White Army (a name with echoes in southern Sudanese history). The White Army laid waste to Murle land in December 2011 and January 2012.
The then commissioner of Pibor county, Joshua Konyi, reported that more than 3000 Murle were slaughtered. Here, too, the figures are disputed. The UN investigation assessed the death toll at around a third of Konyi’s figure. At the height of the White Army’s advance, the then-Vice President, Riek Machar, flew to meet them. He tried to persuade them to stop their murderous advance, appealing to them as fellow Nuer, and evoking the full authority of the government – and was only partly successful. “They defied Riek, and they defied the state”, one minister told me at the time.
In one of the bloody ironies that seem so common in South Sudan, the White Army now make up a large part of Riek’s fighting force, in his months-long battle against President Salva Kiir. These armed youths sprang into action as a result of the killings of hundreds of Nuer in Juba in December. The White Army has been accused of carrying out massacres of (unarmed) civilians in Bor, Malakal and elsewhere. (The term White Army itself is problematic, as it refers to a loose collection of many thousands of armed civilians, with uncertain lines of command and control, but it is widely used in South Sudan). Riek has admitted he cannot fully control the White Army’s actions, while happily taking credit for their military successes. Many of these fighters say they owe no particular loyalty to the former Vice President turned rebel leader.
The shrinking state
The MDF was formed, in part, in response to the threat posed by the White Army. Ethnic militias and community ‘defence forces’ are not new in what is now South Sudan. They are a consequence of an ethnically divided society, with a long and destabilising history of conflict, and Khartoum’s divide and rule tactics. It was hoped that separation from Sudan would, over time, create the conditions in which ethnic militias would not flourish. In the three years since independence, the opposite has happened.
Lou Nuer youth would always have felt the need to take revenge for the devastation Murle raiding parties wrecked on their villages, and recover lost cattle; and vice versa. But the weak response of the state made things much worse. The security forces were unable to stop the cycle of violence, despite the slow march of the White Army or the Murle raiders giving ample time for warning cries to go up. There was complete impunity: the killers, on both sides, were never prosecuted. The state, caught up in tensions with Sudan, political squabbles in Juba, and many individuals’ all-consuming drive for self-enrichment, did nothing to develop Jonglei state, or find jobs to tempt the armed civilians away from cattle-raiding, or build roads to allow the SPLA to intervene to stop inter-ethnic clashes. Several disarmament campaigns were deeply flawed, and largely unsuccessful.
Since the civil war broke out in December, ethnic divides have widened. Communities retreat into tighter groups for self-protection. In a place like South Sudan, it is not surprising that many young men take up weapons. They are a convenient source of manpower to both sides – but the threat they pose goes beyond the looting, rapes and killings they commit. The state shrinks. Most obviously, President Salva no longer controls all of the country. Yet even in Maban, an area which is loyal to the President, the small SPLA contingent largely stays in its barracks, and the MDF members accused of killing the aid workers have not yet been arrested. In rebel territory, the White Army is discovering the sense of its own unruly power. Among the many immense challenges facing South Sudan, the erosion of state authority and the growth of ethnic fighting forces may be one of the hardest to overcome.
James Copnall is a journalist and author of ‘A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce’