A New Home on the Range

by Jeffrey Kaiser:

Ruben Mathiok has two wives, seven children, and hundreds of cattle. He is a rich man for a herder, living on the outskirts of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State in South Sudan.

“Cattle are my bank account,” he told me. A moment later we walked across the camp to look at one animal in particular, an extraordinary white beast, his prize bull, marked by a small black tassel dangling from the tip of its gargantuan right horn. Mathiok has a home village to which he returns a few times each year, but he spends nearly all of his time here in camp with his cattle, shrouded in smoke, never entirely free from cow dung and flies, and aware of the constant threat of being raided.

Most herders in rural areas of South Sudan are still armed. State police forces are ill-equipped to guard against cattle raiding.(Kaiser/TYG)

Mathiok is a member of the Dinka tribe, the largest tribe in the new nation of South Sudan. His greatest fear? “The Murle. They are the ones destroying our villages. They are here even now in the bush.” Inter-tribal clashes in the form of cattle raiding have been commonplace for centuries, but the secession of the South has exacerbated the issue: Many people speculate that the Sudanese government in Khartoum is arming aggressors, in particular the Murle, simply to create problems for the South. Mathiok denied that the other tribes, including his own, ever launch raids of their own or even as revenge. The facts suggest otherwise: A devastating Murle raid that killed 600 in August appears to have been in retaliation to a raid by the Lou Nuer—another large tribe—in June. It left 400 dead.


Since South Sudan declared independence in July of this year, these cattle raids have killed over a thousand people. Raids and counter-raids in Jonglei state, South Sudan’s largest state, between the Murle and the Lou Nuer have escalated to previously unseen levels. Despite speculations of Northern involvement, economic motivations seem to be the key driving force, especially of smaller, more localized raids. A single bull can fetch up to $500 in the market. Inflation in bride prices has made marriage impossible for many: A dowry today can include up to 150 head of cattle, in addition to other livestock and cash.

Government attempts to deal with raiding have failed, and internal insecurity is only growing, especially in rural areas where the hand of the state is completely absent. Interventions have been unsuccessful, in part, because the approach taken by the government deals only with the symptoms of much deeper issues facing the new state of South Sudan.


Kuol Manyang, the governor of Jonglei State, is an intimidating man. A towering six-foot-five at least, Manyang was one of the most feared but celebrated rebel commanders during the long civil war that eventually led to the secession of South Sudan. Governor since 2007, he has turned down cabinet-level positions in the new government of the South to remain in Jonglei. Manyang understands the massive challenges ahead for South Sudan and for his state in particular.

“There is insecurity being created by the cattle raiders,” he acknowledged when I met him in his office in Bor. “And it is mainly the Murle. They are the cause of most of the problems.”

Children in the cattle camps cover themselves in ash to keep the flies away. (Kaiser/TYG)

Rumors and myths abound about this small tribe. Most significantly, the Murle are accused of abducting children because of genetic infertility problems. I reminded Manyang that the Murle people are also part of his constituency as governor. “The plan I have to solve the problem is, first of all, to build roads,” he said, ignoring my assertion. “Build roads into Murle land. We can introduce trade in these rural areas.” He went on to cite another region of South Sudan now mostly at peace because of the introduction of cross-border trade with Uganda.

In theory, the plan could work. Infrastructure investment, in roads especially, allows not only for trade but also better access to rural areas for security forces. “There are no roads in Jonglei state,” Manyang said bluntly. “Without roads you cannot get to a situation even ten kilometers away. By the time the information comes and you reach there, you’ll find the criminal has fled.”

Manyang also deplored the state of the police force: “…the police are not yet well trained, not well equipped, they don’t have cars. Only a third of the force has guns. Many are old people who were transferred from the army because they were physically unfit to serve.” But these are system-wide problems, and there is little that the Jonglei state government can do in this realm.


Also in June the Murle conducted a raid killing two people and stealing 90 cattle from a camp just eight kilometers from Mathiok’s camp. Mathiok said that the Dinka herders targeted took no revenge, fearing that the government would intervene. But he also acknowledged that the government never does anything. Disarmament programs have only put his family more at risk: While his camp had their guns taken away because they live near town, the Murle attackers that raided the nearby camp were armed with AK-47s. The Murle were never disarmed because they live far from town in an area yet unreached by the state’s disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program. “If there is security from the government we have no need for guns,” said Samuel Kuc Manyirol, Mathiok’s uncle and one of the elders of the camp. Until then raids will continue as armed herders easily target the disarmed camps.

Manyang also acknowledged the failure of disarmament but again faulted the Murle. “They don’t want to volunteer to give up the guns,” he said. Because they are mobile it is easy to hide weapons and avoid searches. “The other tribes then also keep their guns because they don’t see that the police can protect them,” he continued. “It is not working.”


The problem of tribalism, apparent in the scapegoating of the Murle, is rarely mentioned in discussions of government response to cattle raiding. But it is a primary issue to be dealt with. South Sudan may now be a state, but it lacks the characteristics of a nation. In large part this is due to tribal factionalization and perceptions that a few tribes, namely the Dinka, dominate the political, economic, and social realms of the country. Until the state can provide services to people in all areas of the country, many feel no need to respond to the state and act like citizens. The Murle are a perfect example. Fundamentally ignored and denigrated by the government, they will continue to cause problems until they too are treated as citizens with equal rights and protections under the law.


The morning after meeting with the governor and visiting the cattle camp, I returned to the seat of the state government in Bor to catch the first few minutes of the weekly cabinet meeting. I spoke with Minister of Security and Law Enforcement Gabriel Duop for a moment before the meeting began, and he suggested a visit to the Livestock Protection Unit (LPU), a new initiative working to eliminate cattle raiding in Jonglei. It sounded intriguing, and Duop placed a few calls to set up the visit. About 20 minutes later Colonel Abui Atem Abui arrived on a motorcycle taxi, unarmed but decked out in a bright blue camouflage uniform. We waited for Colonel Abui’s bodyguard—unlike Abui, he wore no uniform but carried an AK-47—and then departed for the LPU.

We arrived around 10:00 a,m., and the small outpost was just rousing as we pulled in. Half a dozen or so men scrambled into their uniforms and donned SWAT-like vests, only half of which bore the “Livestock Protection Unit” badge. No other vehicles were in sight, and each officer saluted theatrically as Colonel Abui, the unit’s director, led me past the barracks into his barren office.

The LPU was assembled and funded by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help the government begin to tackle major internal insecurity issues. Fifty men received 11 weeks of training from the United Nations, though only 21 were still stationed with the LPU when I visited.

Colonel Abui seemed, at first, passionate about his unit and their work. “Child abductions were taking place here, but since we came, nothing has happened,” he said. “When they [raiders] see the patrol, they will not do anything.” He also stressed that the station was built strategically on the border between Jonglei State and Central Equatoria State in an effort to curb cross-border raiding. And in this area, incidence of raiding has fallen.

But the LPU is incredibly limited. Patrols last two or three hours and can only cover a distance of about six kilometers from the station in any direction because teams patrol on foot. “We were provided two vehicles by UNDP, but one has now been destroyed. Mine has no fuel. UNMIS gave us vehicles, but no one gives us fuel. My government says, ‘you are attached to the U.N., so we cannot provide you with fuel.’” Out of two cars provided to the LPU, it seemed one belonged exclusively to Colonel Abui—apparently for his personal use, as he does not participate in patrols—and the other had already been destroyed. The lack of cooperation between the United Nations and the government over something as simple as fuel is shocking. Abui quickly opened up about the rest of the problems he faces: “The food is also a problem. My men have no food. We protect the people of this area but they provide us with no food. Even the clothes now: We were told we would have a different uniform. And also we don’t have any medicine. We were told that UNDP would build a clinic.”

Celebrations in the streets of Juba, the new capital of South Sudan, lasted well into the hours of the morning on July 9, 2011, the day of the official declaration of independence. (Kaiser/TYG)

On June 22, one of the officers of the LPU was killed when a group of herders attacked a patrol. But these men had not been on a raid. “They were punishing the patrol,” said one of the other officers in the room. “They came to ambush us.”

Admittedly the Livestock Protection Unit was a pilot project, and no doubt well intentioned. But preventing cattle raiding six kilometers around the LPU headquarters in a state the size of Pennsylvania is like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. A few months before I met with Colonel Abui, a high-level U.N. Security Council delegation had visited this same site. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice later commented that, “While the Livestock-Protection Unit is a worthy initiative, the economic, social, and political effects of cattle rustling and associated child abduction remain daunting.”


The official independence celebrations in Juba asserted the multiculturalism of the new country, which is home to nearly 60 different tribes. (Kaiser/TYG)

There are no clear solutions to the major security issues that threaten Jonglei State and all of South Sudan. But unlimited resources—a pipe dream—would allow for some creativity. I spoke with one senior official in the South Sudan Police Service who believes technology is the solution: “We have to build a police force that is technology oriented.” This general envisions a 10 or 12-story modern headquarters in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, networked and linked to information management centers around the country, including the LPU and future stations like it. “In the future we want to provide them [local police forces] with helicopters to patrol the area and collect information on the movement of raiders and stolen cows,” he said. He also mentioned the need for night vision goggles and eventually satellites to help the LPU safeguard large swaths of the country. “When we increase their capacity and give them resources, they can combat cattle rustling and bring stability.”

Helicopters would be a game-changer, and given the amount of money pouring into South Sudan from the United Nations and international donors, the project could become a reality with a bit of political will and pressure from knowledgeable officials like the general I spoke with. But addressing the issue of cattle raiding will require more than tactics and technology in South Sudan. It will require massive, long-term infrastructure projects to develop roads and electricity grids. It will mean addressing the often flawed relationships between the South Sudanese government and the United Nations and international donors. And it will require tackling the issue of tribalism and working to change perceptions of historic tribal biases and prejudices. None of these changes is easy, but given the stakes—the success of the world’s newest state—it seems worthwhile to put in the effort.


South Sudan was born this summer amidst fanfare. Hundreds of people gathered to watch and celebrate as the countdown clock at a central traffic circle in Juba struck midnight on July 8. People rode on rooftops and running boards, singing and shouting and dancing. Cries of, “SPLA Oyeee!”—a chant of support for the army from the days of the war—rang out nearly every minute. Only a few hours later, just as the sun began to rise over Juba, the gates to the public viewing area for the official celebrations were opened. People poured in by the thousands, from every tribe and corner of the country, prepared to wait hours for a good spot from which to witness the historic moment. The festivities glorified the multiculturalism of the new country, but it was President Salva Kiir’s speech that rang the most true. In addressing the issue of tribalism, he reminded the crowd that, “We may be a Zande, Kakwa, Nuer, Toposa, Dinka, Lotuko, Anyuak, Bari, and Shilluk, but remember you are a Southern Sudanese first.” But for the new nation to survive, translating this message into action will be one of the most important tasks in the months and years ahead for South Sudan.

Jeffrey Kaiser ’12 is a Political Science major in Saybrook College. Contact him at jeffrey.kaiser@yale.edu.