Cattle raids and conflicts over pastures and wells between the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, have a long history, although, at times, relations between both communities have been marked by intermarriage and cooperation. Traditionally, cattle raids are a livelihood-sustaining practice, which allows the restocking of herds after droughts. It also has an important cultural function, as it provides the means for young men to get married. Furthermore, access to water and pastures is central for local communities in South Sudan. During the dry season, different sections of the Dinka and Nuer have to migrate in search for wetter places, often infringing on land claimed by other communities, which gives both pretext and opportunity for resource conflicts and cattle raiding. Over the past 30 years this dynamic has been amplified by progressive warming and more frequent droughts in South Sudan (Richardson, 2011).
Civil war as an exacerbating factor
Traditional conflicts between Dinka and Nuer have also been exacerbated by the civil war opposing South Sudanese separatists and the government of Sudan. First, the war brought large quantities of heavy weapons to the area, which has made traditional conflicts more lethal. Second, the Sudanese government used the hostility between different South Sudanese groups as a counter-insurgency strategy against the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), with the result that much of the killing during the civil war took place between the Dinka and Nuer.
Struggle over political influence
After the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with Sudan in 2005, South Sudan became semi-autonomous and competition between the Dinka and Nuer took place over political influence (UCDP, n.d.). Due to the fact that the Nuer supported the Sudanese government in the civil war, they were seen as not supportive enough of the new South Sudanese government. In 2013 the situation escalated after Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president and a Dinka dismissed his vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, on allegations of organising a coup against him. Initially limited to fighting between loyal and mutinous soldiers, the conflict soon developed into a civilian massacre. Following his dismissal Riek Machar threw his support behind an armed opposition of Nuer rebels and became their leader. This sparked bloodshed between the Dinka and Nuer, which is considered by some to be the next civil war in South Sudan (Howden, 2013). The South Sudanese army played a central role in this conflict as it is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.
The exact amount of fatalities remains unclear but the official number of 500 was dismissed by experts. Eye witnesses stated that the real number was in the tens of thousands. Additionally, around 200,000 people were displaced and are looking for shelter in camps set up by the UN and NGO’s such as Doctors Without Borders (Howden, 2013; Rémy, 2014; Scheen, 2013; Thielke, 2014).
Wunlit Peace and Reconciliation Conference
The New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) has played a central part in facilitating reconciliation meetings between the Dinka and Nuer. In 1998, it held its first people-to-people event between Dinka and Nuer officials in Lokichokio, Kenya, which helped pacify Dinka and Nuer relations in the eastern part of South Sudan, while fighting continued in the western part of the country. It was followed in 1999 by the NSCC-sponsored “Wunlit Peace and Reconciliation Conference” gathering Dinka and Nuer representatives with the support of the SPLM/A and various South Sudanese intellectuals. Following the conference, inter-group violence between Dinka and Nuer ceased. Women and children who were abducted in earlier periods of fighting were returned to their families. Contested grazing and fishing areas as well as trading routes were reopened. In addition, border courts were established and violations of the covenant, which was signed by all parties at the conference, were punished. Furthermore, a guarantee of security was issued to allow people, who had been displaced during the conflict, to return to their homes (Bradbury et al., 2006).
The Wunlit conference is considered by many as an exemplary case of local peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan, as it succeeded in pacifying Dinka-Nuer relations for more than ten years. Yet, waning support by South Sudan’s political elites made the peace process highly vulnerable and massive violence between the Dinka and Nuer erupted again in 2010 (Africa News Service, 1999; Bradbury et al., 2006).
The Bor Reconciliation and Healing Dialogue
In August 2014 women of the Nuer and Dinka communities met for the “Bor Reconciliation and Healing Dialogue”. This was the first time since the outbreak of violent conflict in 2010 that a peace conference took place. The conference was spearheaded by local pastors, supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and hosted by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The meeting was described by a participant as an “amazing breakthrough […] at the people’s level, at the community level, and amongst communities” (Radio Tamazuj, 2014).
Since the conference there have been no reports of fighting between the two groups. However, it is unlikely that the conflict will be completely resolved in the near future, as several thousands of Nuer continue to look for shelter in UN camps in fear of being killed by Dinka troops once they leave the camps.
Resilience and Peace Building
The Wunlit Peace and Reconciliation Conference as well as the Bor Reconciliation and Healing Dialogue were important steps in reaching a lasting peace in South Sudan.
In 2011 the UN established the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) with a broad mandate that includes the prevention of inter-communal violence and the protection of civilians.
Resources and Materials
- Africa News Service (1999). Sudan: Dinka, Nuer Endorse Proposals to End Conflict.
- Bradbury, M. et al. (2006). Local Peace Processes in Sudan: A Baseline Study. Rift Valley Institute.
- Howden, D. (2013). South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week. The Guardian.
- Radio Tamazuj (2014). Dinka and Nuer women meet for peace in Bor.
- Rémy, J.-P. (2014). Bloodshed continues in South Sudan as warring groups remain deadlocked. The Guardian.
- Richardson, T. (2011). Pastoral Violence in Jonglei. ICE Case Study No. 274.
- Scheen, T. (2013). Salva Kiir gegen Riek Machar: Putschversuch in Südsudan. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
- Thielke, T. (2014). Krieg um den Südsudan: Bruderkampf im jüngsten Staat der Erde. Spiegel Online.
- UCDP (n.d.). Dinka-Nuer. UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia. [Date of access: 23.12.2021].