Ethnic violence in South Sudan (2011–present)

Ethnic violence in South Sudan (2011–present)
Part of the Sudanese nomadic conflicts

Map of South Sudan with the areas of conflict in red.
LocationJonglei and Upper Nile, South Sudan


  • Peace agreement reached between the government and SPLM-IO in August 2015[1]
  • Peace agreement reached between the government and SSDM/A - Cobra Faction in January 2014;[2] Cobra Faction merges with SPLM-IO-allied Greater Pibor Forces in January 2016[3]
South Sudan South Sudan
United Nations UNMISS

Nuer White Army


South Sudan SPLM-IO[4]

  • Greater Pibor Forces (since 2015)[5]
Commanders and leaders
South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit
South Sudan Riek Machar (2011-2013; 2016)
South Sudan Taban Deng Gai
South Sudan James Wani Igga
United Nations Hilde Frafjord Johnson
George Athor 
John Uliny
David Yau Yau
Gordon Koang
Riek Machar (2013 - 2016)
Paulino Zangil (since 2015; leader of Greater Pibor Forces)[5]
~3,800 SPLA soldiers
800+ federal police
~6,000 Lou Nuer tribesmen Unknown SPLM-IO: At least 10,000 defectors[6][7][8]
4,241+ killed from all sides (including civilians) in 2011
900 killed in early 2012[9]

Ethnic violence in South Sudan began as part of the Sudanese nomadic conflicts, continuing since January 2011.

The fighting continued throughout the transition process for South Sudan's independent government.

More than a month following South Sudan's independence and secession from Sudan, the fighting escalated after several cattle raids took place during ongoing clashes between the Murle and Lou Nuer, at farms in South Sudan's Jonglei state, killing up to 600 people[10] and injuring up to 985, on 18 August 2011.[11] The clashes took place when members of the Murle group are said to have attacked the majority Lou Nuer, stealing nearly 40,000 cattle.[12] The death toll was originally reported to be as low as 58,[13] but the United Nations said the flow of information had been hampered by vast distances and poor logistics.[14] The UN also said that there was a possibility that as many as 200 people had been abducted.[14] By January 2012, clashes including and stemming from the August cattle raid had left more than 1,100 dead in the region, according to the UN.[15]

Fighting further intensified in late December 2011 and early January 2012 as the Nuer White Army, an armed group of Lou Nuer tribesmen, attacked Pibor and surrounding Murle villages in retaliation for the August 2011 cattle raid. The UN estimated between 20,000[16] and 50,000 were displaced as a result of the fighting.[15]

In 2010, Dennis Blair, then United States Director of National Intelligence, issued a warning that "over the next five years,...a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."[17][18]


Violence erupted in South Sudan following the Southern Sudanese independence referendum, 2011, which took place between 9 and 15 January. Conflict initially focused on the volatile Abyei region before spreading to neighbouring areas. By February, armed confrontations between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and rebel forces loyal to George Athor had escalated, resulting in hundreds of deaths.[19]

South Sudan Democratic Movement

The South Sudan Democratic Movement is a rebel group founded in 2010 by George Athor after he lost a contested election. The group also incorporates and supports other factions as part of a broad coalition of those who complain of neglect by the SPLA. This notably includes those composed of ethnic minorities such as the Murle people who lead the Cobra faction and the Shilluk people who lead the Upper Nile Faction.

Murle-Nuer fighting

See also: Cattle raiding

Those from the Murle and the Lou Nuer are largely nomadic cattle herders. Cattle are used as food and are used as a store of wealth. It takes 20 cows to buy a bride, if a young man hopes to marry, which encourages to cattle raiding. Violence between the two groups go back generations, exacerbated by tensions over land and water. The attacks often target an entire village, burning them in their round thatched huts. Militias frequently abduct children during cattle raids, who are then raised as their own. This is seen as a method, notably among the Murle, to increase the numbers of the small minority group. In past generations, attacks used machetes and sticks. However, after decades of civil war, the region is awash with guns, and young men are now armed with high-powered weapons.[20]

Pibor massacre (2011-2012)

Main article: Pibor massacre

In 2011, there was fighting between the Murle and the Lou Nuer, mostly over raiding cattle and abducting children. The Nuer White Army released a statement stating its intention to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer’s cattle".[21] Notably, in the Pibor massacre, an estimated 900[22] to 3000[20] people were killed in Pibor. Activists, including Minority Rights Group International, warned of genocide in that current Jonglei conflict.[23]

Gambela raid (2016)

In April 2016, Murle fighter in South Sudan crossed over to the Gambela Region in Ethiopia and killed more than 200 people, stole 2000 cattle and kidnapped more than 100 children from the Nuer tribe. Ethiopian troops crossed over the border with the South Sudanese government's permission to track the kidnappers in what some felt is the spilling over of fighting into Ethiopia.[24]

Shilluk-Dinka fighting

Shilluk disarmament campaign (2010)

Many from the Shilluk people contend that the Dinka as well as the Dinka and Nuer soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army committed abuses in an attempt to disarm them in the summer of 2010. The SPLA burned scores of villages, raped hundreds of women and girls and killed an untold number of civilians in the Shilluk Kingdom.[18] Over 10,000 people were displaced in the midst of the rainy season and sent fleeing into the forest, often naked, without bedding, shelter or food, with many children dying from hunger and cold. Civilians alleging torture by the SPLA claim fingernails being torn out, burning plastic bags dripped on children to make their parents hand over weapons and villagers burned alive in their huts if rebels were suspected of spending the night there. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported many of these violations, and the frustrated director of one Juba-based international aid agency called them "human rights abuses off the Richter scale".[18]

Agwelek forces rebellion

John Uliny from the Shilluk people lead the Upper Nile faction of the South Sudan Democratic Movement in rebellion. Uliny entered into peace talks and accepted an amnesty by the government in 2013. However, during the civil war, after Kiir's floated the idea of carving new states which would give Kiir's Dinkas strong majorities and which the Shilluk felt would carve up their homeland, Uliny switched sides to fight with SPLO-IO in April 2015. [25] His forces were now known as the "Agwelek" army. On 16 May 2015, the Agwelek forces and elements of the SPLM-IO captured Upper Nile's capital, Malakal, as well as Anakdiar and areas around Fashoda.[26] The group said they want to run their affairs independently from others in Upper Nile State, and SPLM-IO backed away from claims that it is in charge of Olony's group and stated that Olony's interests simply coincides with theirs.[27] SPLM-IO said they understood the feeling from the Shilluk community that they wanted a level of independence and that that was the reason the SPLM-IO last year created Fashoda state for the Shilluk kingdom and appointed Tijwog Aguet, a Shilluk, as governor.[28]

During the civil war, those sheltering in the United Nations' "protection of civilian" (POC) sites are sometimes divided by ethnic groups to prevent fighting. In February 2016, fighting between Shilluk and Dinka youths at a POC site killed 18 people, including two Médecins Sans Frontières staff.[29]

Murle-Dinka fighting

As early as 1963, during the First Sudanese Civil War, Khartoum began arming the Murle tribe, traditional enemies of both Dinka and Nuer, to fight the southern rebellion. As the south descended into decades of war with the north, tribes scrambled to one side or the other of the conflict to get guns to protect themselves. Some like the Murle sided with Khartoum. Sometimes, whole tribal territories became affiliated with one side or the other, and the vicious north-south war became a defining factor in relations between tribes, infusing old hostilities with a new, political dimension. With the peace deal in 2005, tribal militias chose to either be absorbed into the SPLA or head north and join the armed forces there. Most chose to join their former SPLA enemies as a matter of survival. Others, like fighters from the Murle tribe, chose to join the northern army. Today, there are many Murle army officers in Khartoum, and they say the tribe is being punished for that.[18]

Cobra faction rebellion

The Greater Pibor Administrative Area (highlighted) created as part of a peace agreement between the government and the largely Murle rebel group, the Cobra Faction, in 2014.

David Yau Yau, led a Murle dominated faction of the South Sudan Democratic Movement (SSDM) known as the Cobra faction against the government in 2010. He signed a ceasefire with the GoSS in June 2011, which integrated him and his militia with the SPLA. However, he defected again in April 2012 citing SPLA abuses in Pibor county in the March-October 2012 disarmament campaign and now claimed to be fighting for a separate state for the Murle.[30] During the Civil War in May 2014, the government signed a peace agreement called the Greater Pibor Administrative Area peace agreement with the Cobra Faction which created the semi-autonomous area called the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA) to increase the minority populations within its borders and David Yau Yau was appointed chief administrator, equivalent to state governor.[31] Not all Cobra faction general were satisfied and a splinter group called the Greater Pibor Forces formed alleging that the SPLM were inciting the Murle to attack the Lou Nuer as a form of divide and rule. Further, on Christmas Eve 2015, Salvar Kiir announced an increase in the number of states from 10 to 28 and then, five days later, swore in all new governors appointed by him.[25] The new borders give Kiir's Dinkas a majority in strategic locations.[25] This replaced the GPAA with Boma State and replaced Yau Yau with Baba Medan Konya, angering the Cobra faction. In September 2016, the Cobra faction, now led by Khalid Boutros declared war against the government.[32]

Dinka-Nuer fighting

During the Second Sudanese Civil War, several factions split from the SPLA often along ethnic lines and were funded and armed by Khartoum.[33] The most notable was SPLA-Nasir founded in 1991 by Riek Machar as an attempt by the Nuer to replace John Garang.

Bor massacre

Main article: Bor massacre

As a result of the infighting, more southerners died at each other's hands than were killed by northerners during the war.[33] In the Bor massacre in 1991, an estimated 2000 civilians were killed by SPLA-Nasir and the Nuer White Army and another estimated 25,000 died from the resulting famine in the following years.[34]

Bentiu massacre

Main article: 2014 Bentiu massacre

During the South Sudanese Civil War, forces identified by the UN as SPLM-IO massacred about 200 mostly non-Nuer civilians in April 2014.

Equatorian-Dinka fighting

For most of the South Sudanese Civil War, the fighting was focused in the Greater Upper Nile region. After the clashes in Juba in 2016, the fighting largely shifted to the previously safe haven of Equatoria, where the bulk of SPLM-IO forces went for shelter.[35] Accounts point to both sides targeting civilians on ethnic lines between the Dinka and the dozens of ethnic groups among the Equatorians who are historically in conflict with the Dinka, such as the Karo, who include the Bari.[36] A UN investigation said rape was being used a tool of ethnic cleansing[37] and Adama Dieng, the U.N.'s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, warned of genocide after visiting areas of fighting in Yei.[38]

Timeline of incidents

As I mentioned last time that SPLM/A has no capacity for running south Sudan affairs and instead of looking for peace and a full resolution of the conflict, SPLM declared war against our movement, deluding itself that we must be crushed within one month time, that is a big lie.

We will remain challenging the SPLM/A, and teach them a lesson that they will never forget. SPLM/A should learn from their experience when it was in the bush, if guerrillas can be crushed than SPLM/A could have been crashed.

I believe the only way to silence guns is through peace full settlement of the conflict, by addressing the root causes of the conflict and bridging the gap between the two conflicting groups. Because they are not committed and interested in bringing peace to our people, the SPLA forces on Sunday at 6.00am staged two attacks on our two bases in Alow and Patai, resulting in a number of their soldiers being killed.

They suffered heavy casualties in terms of human and weapons. 86 died and 147 were wounded and 900 weapons were captured on the SPLA side, referring to the SPLA and 90 different types of weapons were captured. On our side we lost 6 and 17 sustained injuries.

 Dok James Puok, spokesman for Athor rebels, 28 February 2011[19]

January 2011

February 2011

March 2011

In the following months, more defections occurred in the SPLA.

April 2011

We understand that on the side of (Tang's forces) 55 were killed including five of his generals ... We don't have reports of those killed from the SPLA and civilian sides but the (overall) death toll must be much higher
 Peter Lam Both, Upper Nile State Information Minister, interview with Reuters on 24 April 2011[47]

May 2011

Shortage of food among rebel forces and local tribes during the conflict leads to the outbreak of cattle raids.

June 2011

By June, at least seven "rebel militias" were still fighting with the SPLA forces. Tribal conflict in the form of cattle raids, which stemmed partly from inability to pay dowry fees in the form of cows, escalated.[53]

July 2011

August – December 2011

The 18 August 2011 attack occurred in Uror County, northern Jonglei state, and killed at least 640 people.[56] The attack was reportedly launched by Murle tribesmen after armed groups infiltrated into the Peiri and Pulchuol Districts (Payams) at about 5 a.m. The attack is believed to have been a revenge operation against the Lou Nuer tribe after an attack on the Murle the previous June in Pibor County, prior to South Sudan's independence, in which many deaths were reported and cattle stolen. The attackers burned down over 3,400 houses and the hospital ran by Médecins Sans Frontières. An initial estimate showed that 38,000 heads of cattle were stolen and 208 children were kidnapped.[56]

As fighting expanded into Upper Nile state, leaving 60 dead and 43 injured in fighting on 20 August, Juba accused its rival, the Republic of the Sudan, of supporting rebels led by George Athor, a rebel general and unsuccessful Jonglei gubernatorial candidate who was a former SPLA commander, and Gordon Koang.[57]

Fighting continued between rebels, including dissident tribesmen, and the army and its allies, for several months after the cattle raid. In early December 2011, fighting between ethnic groups claimed 40 lives in Jalle after a 5 December rebel attack on the town.[58] Later in the month, on 19 December, Athor was reportedly killed by army troops in Central Equatoria,[59] apparently while returning to South Sudan from a recruiting expedition in Rwanda,[60] in what was hailed as "good news" by South Sudanese parliamentarians.[61] Late on 24 December, SPLA troops fired on Christmas Eve churchgoers in Pigi County, a center of the uprising, leaving four dead. A spokesman for the army said it was investigating the "unfortunate" attack.[62]

On 25 December, the Nuer White Army threatened to "wipe out" the Murle altogether and attack United Nations and SPLA personnel if they interfered.[21] Around the same time, Lou Nuer youth were blamed for an attack on Murle villages near Pibor that caused an unknown number of casualties.[62]

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) deployed peacekeepers to Pibor on 30 December in an effort to avert an attack by 6,000 armed Lou Nuer youths, deputy coordinator Lisa Grande said. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNMISS head Hilde Johnson called on Lou Nuer and Murle fighters alike to lay down their arms and allow the government of South Sudan to work with them toward a lasting solution to the crisis.[63]

At 3 pm on 31 December between 3–6,000 Lou Nuer tribesmen attacked a part of Pibor not protected by the UN peacekeepers.[16][64] Houses were reported to have been set on fire and much of the town, including the airport and main hospital, were occupied.[16] Scores of people are reported dead and 20,000 displaced.[16] The Lou Nuer were said to be pursuing members of the Murle who have fled southwards.[65] The South Sudanese government promised to send more army personnel and 2,000 police to the town to reinforce the 800 troops already there.[65][66] The healthcare charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said that it lost contact with 130 of its staff who were forced to flee into the bush due to the attack.[65] MSF said that a hospital and two outreach clinics were overrun, with some reports stating that the hospital had been set on fire.[67] Looting was said to have taken place at MSF facilities.[67]


See also: Heglig Crisis

Pibor massacre

By 2 January, the majority of the Lou Nuer forces were said to have left Pibor and started to move to the southeast with a UN spokesman saying they were "almost certainly looking for cattle".[68] The UN said that it had successfully held the main part of Pibor alongside South Sudanese army troops but that a MSF clinic had been overrun.[68] The UN was advising people in the area to "disperse into the bush for their safety".[68] Estimates for the number of displaced ranged up to 50,000, and more than 30 were killed with as many as 80 left injured. The SPLA dispatched 3,000 soldiers and 800 police to support the government's garrison in Pibor.[15] On 5 January, Joshua Konyi, the commissioner of Pibor County and a Murle, estimated that 2,182 women and children and 959 men were killed, 1,293 children were abducted, and 375,186 cows were stolen.[69] The United Nations estimated a total death toll of 800 between December 2011 and February 2012 as a result of the Nuer-Murle clashes, prior to the South Sudanese government's disarmament campaign in March.[70]


After a year of escalating changes in government and in the party, including the dismissal of Vice-President Riek Machar and the entire cabinet in June, fighting between Nuer and Dinka SPLA soldiers broke out in Juba on December 15. A rebellion rapidly spread around the country, with defected troops and Nuer militiamen loyal to Machar taking over Bentiu, Malakal and Bor.[71][72]


Peace agreement reached between the government and SSDM/A - Cobra Faction in January 2014.[2] Creation of the semi-autonomous Greater Pibor Administrative Area in July 2014.[73]


Peace agreement reached between the government and SPLM-IO on 26 August 2015 that allows Riek Machar to become the Vice President of South Sudan again.[1]


January 2016: SSDM/A - Cobra Faction merges with SPLM-IO-allied Greater Pibor Forces.[3]

Mid-February: Fighting between Shilluk and Dinka youths at a United Nations peacekeeping compound in the city of Malakal, left eighteen people dead (including two MSF workers) and 30 wounded.[29]

On 15 April, ethnic Murle gunmen launched a shooting and kidnapping raid across the Ethiopian border in Gambela Region, killing at least 208 people. At least 108 women and children from Ethiopia were kidnapped. The target of the raid appeared to have been ethnic Nuer in Ethiopia. Ethiopian forces retaliated, killing about 60 gunmen.[74][75] SPLM-IO rebel leader Riek Machar had been due to visit Gambela on 17 April and the South Sudanese capital Juba on 18 April to take the vice presidential post, but his latter visit was delayed due to rain.[76]

See also


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External links

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