South Sudan Watch: Uniting Rival Clans

JUBA, Sudan–“You are the same people,” the southern Sudanese vice president Riek Machar remarked to a conference room full of elites and traditional leaders from the Lou and Jikany clans of the Nuer tribe. “What is the problem?” he asked, seeming to be genuinely perplexed as to the causes of continued conflict between these two groups.

“If it is the land, if is the water, if it is the fish, can we not discuss it?” the vice president, himself a Nuer from a different clan native to the areas west of the Lou and Jikany peoples, continued. “Water has been here all this time. The fish have been here. So why is there conflict now?”

By “now,” Machar meant in relatively recent times. He noted that there have been serious problems between the Lou and Jikany people in the area of the south which they share since 1993, when clashes between the Lou and the Cie Kuek (a section of the Jikany clan) left a lasting impact of displacement along the Sobat River that remains a conflict trigger today.

This particular area of Nuerland–bisected by the Sobat river which runs through the heart of the “Sudd,” Africa’s largest remaining intact wetlands–has suffered from internal insecurity for decades. Cattle raids, revenge killings, problems between local administrators, boundary disputes, displacement…these are just some of the problems caused by the persistent mistrust and enmity between these two clans of the same tribe.

A friend working in this area explained to me that the area which the Lou and Jikany share, called Wanding, is strategically situated along the fertile fishing grounds and swampy areas of the Sobat. Both communities rely on this area because they are primarily pastoralists, which make them reliant upon cattle grazing grounds (known as toic) and the river for fishing. When drought comes to the Wanding area, fishing becomes more difficult and the toic shrinks, which sparks conflict between the Lou and Jikany communities due to the increased competition for limited resources.

Peace conferences between the Lou and Jikany elites and traditional leaders yield resolutions and promises that are often broken when tensions between the two groups spike for one reason or another. The meeting in the southern capital Juba where Machar spoke was a “brainstorming workshop” between these leaders. Although I do not doubt that this meeting served as a useful forum for the two communities to discuss the issues their people are facing, it is hard not to note the irony of the western jargon, which was necessary given that the meeting was sponsored by USAID.

It is easy, however, to be a critic, and harder to understand what exactly could be done to bring an end to the extremely localized tensions between various groups in southern Sudan.

Vice President Machar made the case for why finding the answer to this question is so important for the future of the southern Sudanese, who will likely choose to form their own country in their self-determination referendum in January 2011:

Sustainable peace is connected to development. If people don’t see changes in their lives…If their kids don’t go to school… then [these areas] will continue to have insecurity. But if there are schools, development, people will change their attitudes toward life.