Jonglei State Intercommunal violence: from restitution to revenge – By Adam Hyde

Cattle on the road to Bor in Jonglei state

Pastoralism is the dominant economic activity of South Sudan’s conflict-prone Jonglei State. It is so critical to livelihoods that it has shaped cultural practices throughout much of South Sudan. Though violence is not new to these areas, a striking feature of the post-independence South is a stark increase of violence and conflict along pastoral community lines. For instance, in the first two weeks of February 2012, there have been at least 12 violent inter-communal incidents in Jonglei alone, killing around 60 people and wounding 38[1]. The backdrop of this is the heavy loss of life, theft and destruction of property, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people from their homes and villages, in preceding months.

In part, the cause of this trend is that in the context of contemporary South Sudan, traditional means to manage grievances related to cattle raiding have been eroded. State and federal institutions appear incapable or unwilling to confront and address grievances in an unbiased and representative manner. In this context, violence escalates with each new incident, creating instability and on that basis limiting the scope for economic development.

Problems in South Sudan

The former Sudan (encompassing what is now Sudan and South Sudan) emerged from civil war in 2005, brought about by the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA was designed to facilitate the transition to self-determination for South Sudanese. Voting overwhelmingly for separation in a February 2011 referendum, the South declared independence on 9 July 2011. Yet, still in its first year, South Sudan appears to oscillate between progress and regression. A number of objectives contained within the CPA remain outstanding, including border demarcation, citizenship, and oil revenue sharing with the North. Each of these factors presents a unique and significant challenge and require resolution if Sudan and South Sudan are to realise sustainable peace internally and regionally. Interestingly, these challenges have overshadowed characteristics of South Sudan’s domestic political economy that also present daunting challenges to stability. The most salient of these considerations is the political economy of pastoralism.

Cattle keeping and traditional justice

The characteristic of pastoralism that receives most attention in media accounts of violence is cattle raiding. Cattle theft has long been considered within Southern Sudan as an accompanying feature of the pastoral way of life. Its acceptance within the economy was facilitated by the existence and enforcement of a traditional system of justice. This system regulated violence by providing mechanisms for the management of grievances through the negotiation and award of compensation or restitution by the family, rather than by individuals. Such systems have historically been utilised in many pastoral societies and serve to reduce violence by more widely distributing responsibility for checking such behaviours across a group. The amount or ‘degree’ of compensation or restitution depended on the specific nature of any individual incident[2].


The period since the signing of the CPA has created important challenges to these traditional measures governing theft and violence within the pastoral communities of Jonglei. Not least are the problems associated with high rates of small-arms ownership by pastoralists, being a legacy of the Civil War and a vibrant small-arms trade across Jonglei’s domestic and international borders. Broad-based small-arms ownership means that individuals often perceive they can seek retribution of their own accord and, where they feel traditional measures will not effectively address their grievances, they may choose to do so, rendering such traditional mechanisms less effective still. Likewise, weapons provide a strong incentive for opportunistic theft. The result has been the proliferation of inter-communal violence such as through unregulated revenge or reprisal attacks against those individuals or groups deemed to have instigated theft or attacks. However, this does not adequately explain why these attacks have targeted non-combatants with increasing brutality, particularly women and children. The escalation of the violence requires further analysis of evolving South Sudanese institutions and the role ethnicity plays within these institutions.

Politics matters

The recent de jure creation of South Sudan consolidated the power of the state’s dominant ethnic group – the Dinka Bor. This outcome is understandable considering that it was the Dinka Bor, an ethnic sub-group from the Bor region of Jonglei, who first declared war against the Khartoum government in 1983 and who led a rebel movement, The Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) that ultimately delivered independence. On this basis, many of the positions of power in Juba, as well as in Bor, are held by, or perceived to be held by Dinka Bor affiliated with the SPLM.

In itself, this consolidation of power should not necessarily be a problem. However in South Sudan, there exists a perception that public offices are manipulated for the gain of ethnically based patronage networks, and these views are based on the perception that often, state and national government institutions bias justice and allocation of resources according to ethnicity. As a consequence, strong grievances across ethnic groups have developed, and have undermined traditional justice systems now perceived as tainted by corruption and bias. In the context of fractured traditional institutions, to prevent violence, individuals and groups need to see grievances addressed within a new code of justice and political organization that citizens can trust and access.

Where implementation of a new code of justice fails, whether by a failure to negotiate and convince or where it cannot be enforced militarily, violence is likely to escalate. In Jonglei, the perception and practice of power and resource allocation based on ethnicity and the consequent reputational damage to traditional justice measures, significantly contributes to the underlying reason for a change in the nature of conflict toward more deliberate attacks. When one group is attacked, but fails to receive redress for their losses, they then perpetrate an escalated attack against their attacker, and so forth. It is this escalation that has driven up targeting of women and children. This will continue to be the case until at least in part there is a balanced justice measure trusted by all parties to violence.


There are myriad and urgent considerations that command the attention of the South Sudanese government, not least of which are the on-going negotiations with the North. Still, a strong case can be made that given the aforementioned dynamic and cycle of escalating violence, the opportunity cost of not addressing the causes of conflict in Jonglei is too high. Ignoring these cleavages is not a realistic proposition in the short-medium term if South Sudan is to stabilise. Yet, given the current shape of government leadership, there may be insufficient will, let alone capacity, to address grievances in the foreseeable future.


It remains to be seen whether pastoral based socio-economic organisation is reconcilable with peace and stability in the context of Jonglei. But to help address the causes of violence and to better inform policy for international assistance in South Sudan, more systematic analysis of the conditions (including the natural environment) that have resulted in local settlement patterns, production, means of exchange, and justice systems will be essential. Such analysis will enable a fuller understanding of the social mechanisms and economic strategies that have historically assured food security and distribution, even in times of scarcity in Jonglei. Jonglei’s pastoral political economy represents myriad governance challenges. In the absence of pragmatic solutions to these challenges, and around managing the breakdown of traditional mechanisms, stability, as a precursor to economic development, cannot be achieved in South Sudan.

Adam Hyde is a PhD candidate in International Development at the London School of Economics. The focus of his current work and research is South Sudan.

[1] OCHA, South Sudan, Operational update as of 13 February 201 – Jonglei Crisis

[2] For instance, an award witnessed by the author in Duk County in Jonglei in May 2009 saw a ratio of 2:1 used for cattle theft – that is – two cattle payable for every one stolen – if the perpetrator(s) is identified and reprimanded. Regarding physical violence, 50 cattle might be payable if a perpetrator is deemed to have committed murder or 25 if manslaughter. Payment norms are, however, rapidly evolving in South Sudan and have become increasingly integrated with state-based mechanisms.

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2 thoughts on “Jonglei State Intercommunal violence: from restitution to revenge – By Adam Hyde

  1. Thanks you brother Adam the fruits of joy is the tree itself, you and i are the trees of South Sudan. am please for that encouragement highlighted to our country. Let build up peace in our nation to do away with declines scenarios toward our nation.
    I want to do away with poverty in our nation.

    David Deng Agau,
    Moi University.

  2. Pingback: Intercommunal Violence In Jonglei State: From Restitution To Revenge | Africa at LSE

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