By Jacob Chol*
Gurtong Published:- One of the main drivers of political violence in South Sudan is the local belief in traditional magical powers. Notably, the White Army, a communal Nuer ethnic-based militia known locally as Jiech Mabor, emerged in the early 1990s with empirical links to the spiritual mythology prevalent in South Sudan politics.
A major aspect of this spiritual mythology was the notion that Dr. Riek Machar, South Sudan’s erstwhile deputy leader was a messiah who could bring spiritual and political liberation to the Nuer when he is the country president. Although empirical overreaching demonstrated it to be false, this belief has animated Nuer participation in South Sudan’s recent civil conflict. Unfortunately, outside analysts have largely ignored this element of the conflict.
The literature on communal militias argues that the existence of White Army dates to as early as the late 1980s. The White Army is a predominantly Nuer youth outfit. This traditional militia is drawn from three sub- groups of Nuer ethnic people, namely the Lou in the south, the Jikany and Gawaar in the east, and the Bul in the north. These three Nuer sub-groups reside in the northern part of the Unity region, Upper Nile region, and eastern part of Jonglei State in South Sudan.
Like other non-state armed actors in South Sudan, the White Army’s primary purpose is to protect the community against external threats and to defend property and livestock (Adeba 2015).
In fact, the White Army first emerged as the protectors of cattle. Cattle play an extremely important role in the life of the agro-pastoralist Nuer. Cattle ownership is a source of status, fertility, health, and general prosperity. Cattle are also the principal medium through which social ties are created and conduit through which new alliances with outsiders is forged (Hutchinson 2012).
Groups akin to the White Army have long been common in many African pastoralist societies. For example, among the Dinka, the traditional militia group is called Gelweng; among the Otuho in Eastern Equatoria, the defense youth group is called the Monyimiji; and amongst the Cholo, the youth vigilante group is known as Akwelek Grassroots Defense Force.
In response to the South Sudan state’s inability to provide security, however, new groups have emerged. For instance, Azande militants created
the Arrow Boys in response to the activities of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army in Western Equatoria State (Adeba 2015) in 2014. Amongst the Bor Dinka, an armed group called the Bor Panda Youth has emerged and was implicated in the killing of Nuer internally displaced persons (IDPs) under United Nations protection in April 2014 (Ibid).
Moreover, a notorious group called the Maaban Defense Force became known to the world in August 2014 when it killed six Nuer aid workers, forcing aid organizations to halt activities in Maaban County of Upper Nile State.
These groups are typically transitory in nature, tribally based, defensive in orientation, and lacking any ideology or long-term objectives.
The White Army is an exception, however, having played an active part in Sudan’s second civil war in 1983-2005. While similar armed groups remained under community control, the White Army became an independent entity that was sometimes destructive to the community from which it originated (Young 2007). Smearing their faces with white ash to protect themselves from bugs, members of the group presented a fearsome aspect to both their enemies and their fellow Nuer.
The 1991 split of Machar from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by Dr. John Garang, saw an estimated 30,000 Nuer youth mobilized and ordered to attack the Dinka of Bor, the area from which Garang hailed. The aim of the attack may have been to expose Garang as a “weak leader,” one who could not protect his own backyard.
The attack on Bor was devastating in scope and ferocity: villages were razed; male captives were disemboweled; and women were raped, shot, or burned alive (Peterson 2001). Human rights organizations estimated that 5,000 people were massacred. This fratricide cost Machar his credibility among South Sudanese, in addition to cementing the reputation of the White Army as merciless killers (Hutchinson 2012).
Machar’s White Army attack was met with fierce vengeance, as Garang’s Dinka soldiers executed many Nuer of Gajaak sub tribe. Garang’s faction retaliated with force and summarily executed all Nuer they captured (Peterson 2001). Near Bor, one group of 19 Nuer men were tied up in a cattle shed and speared to death (Amnesty International 2000).
Yet the interesting question is what motivated a large number of young Nuer militants, originally defenders of cattle, to fight for a political cause on behalf of leading politicians?
Long before the current civil war, studies demonstrated that the White Army relied on the interpretation of prophets and medicine men in their sojourns of both bravery and looting. These Nuer prophets were revered for their role in blessing barren women, healing, and settling disputes.
While preaching peace, however, the “main social function of the leading [Nuer] prophets in the past was to direct cattle raids on the Dinka and fighting against various foreigners who troubled the Nuer” (Mbiti 1990: 185).
Evans-Pritchard described the prophets as individuals possessed by spirits and having charismatic powers. When these prophets spoke, they spoke in the name of the divinities that possessed them. As such, “what the prophet says and what the spirit says are all mixed up together, the two being interspersed together in such a manner that they cannot be separated” (Evans- Pritchard 1956: 45).
Hutchinson (1996) argues that the White Army united under the powerful prophet, Wuornyang Gatakek, who drew heavily on the legacy of an earlier prophet, Ngundeng Bong. Bong lived between 1830 and 1906, and prophesized a fierce battle between the Nuer and the Dinka, in which the latter would be conquered.
According to the prophecy, drums would sound, spears would be sharpened, and the Nuer would be mobilized for the battle by a messiah from the village of Nasir (Scroggins 2002).
Other accounts of the prophecy describe the messiah as being left-handed, unmarked by tribal scars in the forehead and gap-teethed; the prophecy also indicated that he would marry a white woman (Adeba 2015).
With his headquarters in Nasir, Machar perfectly fit the profile of the messiah to be: he was left-handed, unmarked, gap-toothed, and married to a white British aid worker, Emma McCune.
Although Machar eschewed the messiah label, he did nothing to dispel the ancient fable. Machar’s calls for President Salva Kiir to step down in 2014 confirmed his answer to prophetic calls (Aher 2014).
Machar received prophetic Dang, the magical rod once carried and, with disputations, used positively by prophet Ngundeng Bong against the British government in 2009. It is alleged that Machar ran away with Dang (rod) on the fateful night of December 15th 2013, as this is un-separable from his life.
Taking over Ngundeng’s role, Wuornyang prepared and blessed Jiech Mabor, or the White Army, for the battle, buttressed by the use of Nuer religious symbolism (Adeba 2015).
After the death of Ngundeng and Wuornyang, a young prophet emerged. Dak Kueth, in December 2014, mobilized over 25,000 White Armies that captured Bor, baptized it as Ngungdeng city, en-routed to Juba before the government repulsed the offensive attack and took over Bor. The affair has been motivated by spiritual mythology.
As Dr. Riek Machar returns as the 1st vice president designated for TGoNU, he should learn from this spiritual mythology and join hands in-trust with president Salva Kiir and other stakeholders to implement the peace deal in later and spirit. Nonetheless, if outsiders are going to play a role in halting any South Sudan political conflict and violence related to Dr. Machar, they must recognize this aspect of spiritual mythology.
Adeba, Brian. 2015. “Making Sense of the White Army’s Return in South Sudan.” Centre for Security Governance, CSG Papers, No. 1.
Aher, Martin Garang. 2014. “The Dang And The Spear: Spiritual Warfare Over Leadership In South Sudan.” Personal blog, February 5, 2014, accessed November 1, 2015.
Amnesty International. 2000. Sudan: The Ravages of War, Political Killings and Humanitarian Disaster. New York: Amnesty International.
Mbiti, Joseph. 1990. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann Publishers.
Peterson, Scott. 2000. Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda. London, Routledg
Evans-Pritchard, Hutchinson. 1990. Nuer Religion. Oxford, Oxford University Press
Scroggins, Deborah. 1999. “Emma’s War: Horizontal Markings on the Foreheads of Adult Nuer Men, Symbolizes Their Initiation into Manhood”
Young, John. 2007. “The White Army: An Introduction and Overview”, Working Paper of the Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment, Small Arms Survey.
*Mr. Chol is a Senior Reader of Political Science, University of Juba. He can be reached via email@example.com