The militarization of cattle raiding in South Sudan: how a traditional practice became a tool for political violence

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Cattle raiding, a longstanding practice among pastoralists in South Sudan, was historically governed by cultural authorities and ritual prohibitions. However, after decades of on-and-off integration into armed forces, raiders are now heavily armed, and military-style attacks claim dozens if not hundreds of lives at a time. Beginning with the emergence of the infamous Lou Nuer “White Army” in the Bor Massacre of the early 1990s, in which Riek Machar mobilized local herders to mount a devastating attack against the heartland of Sudan People’s Liberation Army Leader John Garang, political leaders have strategically manipulated these local conflicts in order to mobilize armed herders for their political movements. Political leaders ’ systematic exploitation of customary raiding practices gravely inflames the current conflict, but the role of intercommunity violence has not been part of the mainstream dialogue around political solutions. Moreover, as allegiances between pastoralist militias and political factions decay, the proliferation of informal armed groups whose motivations are often distinct from the agenda of the state or opposition forces on whose behalf they once fought poses increasing challenges to peacebuilding efforts. Neglecting local realities poses serious implications for the prospects of peace. In this article, we synthesize perspectives from anthropology, regional history, and conflict studies to offer an analysis of the interplay between local conflict and state violence in South Sudan. We highlight opportunities for conflict de-escalation, concluding with policy recommendations focused on justice and enforcement in the rural areas of South Sudan.

Hannah Wild

MD student, Stanfort School of Medicine

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