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It takes a village to raise a militia: local politics, the Nuer White Army, and South Sudan's civil wars

  • Noel Stringham (a1) and Jonathan Forney (a1)

Why does South Sudan continue to experience endemic, low intensity conflicts punctuated by catastrophic civil wars? Reporters and analysts often mischaracterise conflicts in the young country of South Sudan as products of divisive ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’ rivalries and political competition over oil wealth. More nuanced analyses by regional experts have focused almost exclusively on infighting among elite politicians and military officers based in Juba and other major cities who use patronage networks to ethnicise conflicts. This paper argues instead that civilian militias known as the Nuer White Army have consistently rebelled against elites who they blame for mounting inequalities between urban areas and the rural communities regardless of their ethnicity. While unable to stop governments and NGOs from funnelling almost all their resources to the cities, these militias have consistently mobilised local resources for violent campaigns that redistribute wealth by pillaging urban areas.

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Wiyual Bun, resident of a village with the office of ‘Chief of the Daughters’, Ulang Town, Upper Nile State, 1.4.2013.
Nhial Deng, resident of a village with the office of ‘chief of the daughters’, Korenge Payam, Upper Nile State, 29.1.2013.
Thokat Nhial, former government official in South Sudan, Gambella Town, Ethiopia, 28.4.2013.
Wiukor Nyang, supporter of 2012 campaign against the Murle, Jikmir, Upper Nile State, 17.2.2013.
Koat Riem, witness to the Lou-Jikany war in 1993, Matar, Ethiopia, 20.6.2012.
Jop Gatchai, witness to the Lou-Jikany war in 1993, Matar, Ethiopia, 20.6.2012.
Kun Bup, Gaa-jak elder who related that only a few Lou raids reached Longechuk County, Mathiang Town, Upper Nile State, 28.1.2013.
Nyakong Hothnyang, resident of a village with the office of ‘chief of the daughters’, Mading, Upper Nile State, 15.1.2013.
Nyanhial Mach, resident of a village with the office of ‘chief of the daughters’, Mading, Upper Nile State, 15.1.2013.
Child combatant's father, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 19.1.2014.
Fifteen-year-old White Army combatant, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 20.1.2014.
Nasir County government worker, Juba, Central Equatoria State, 10.4.2014.
White Army member from Korenge, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 19.2.2014.
White Army member from Thoich, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 10.3.2013.
White Army member from Yomding, Nyinyang town, Ethiopia, 25.3.2014.
White Army secretary from Jikmir, Nyinyang town, Ethiopia, 26.3.2014.
White Army secretary from Ulang, Pagak, South Sudan, 1.1.2015.
White Army secretary from Korenge, Pagak, South Sudan, 2.1.2015.
White Army sympathiser from Mathiang, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 13.1.2015.
White Army treasurer from Korenge, Gambella town, Ethiopia, 19.4.2014.
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