Ethnic realities of South Sudanese conflicts: Why is it squared on Dinka and Nuer?

By Steve Goi Gatluak,


White army warms up to retake Malakal in February (Photo: supplied)

White army warms up to retake Malakal in February (Photo: past file|Nyamilepedia)

May 20, 2014(Nyamilepedia) — What happened in Juba on the 16th – 18th December, 2013 did not surprise many south Sudanese especially those who had been following the nature of political rifts that existed between the two largest tribes in the country i.e. the Nuer and the Dinka. These two tribes have aggressively been engaged on negative pursuit of ethnic supremacy for centuries if not decades and they have boastfully used the vastness of their populations to intimidate themselves through threat of crude violence. Although, they have similarities in their cultures and customs coupled by practices of voluntary intermarriages, that did not help at all; therefore it would be safe to assert that they are still hostile to one another as evidenced by their recent brutal confrontation.

The worse scenario of all is the fact that, Nuer and Dinka elites have thence opted to institutionalize their hatred and ethnic supremacy in the expense of national security simply because majority of them are conspicuously the cadres of national institutions. By so doing, other tribes in south Sudan now live under the mercy of these aggressive tribes.

Although, some readers might misconstrue the logic of this argument as a blanket insult to the two tribes, but the author tends to believe that it is very important to know the magnitude of lie that is keeping you hostage before the truth could set you free. On a precise note, let us briefly examine the genesis of rivalry between the two tribes and see how failure to resolve them has resulted to what we are seeing today.

Nuer versus Dinka before and after 19 century:

According to the history of tribes in South Sudan, Nuer and Dinka are believed or rather said to have originated from one father, but two different mothers (Nyatuoy Deng – the Mother of Nuer and Nyaruop Deng – the mother of Dinka or Muonyajng. Whether this is wrong or right there are still certain similarities in customs, cultures, traditions that are truly evident based of that theory.

Nuer and Dinka from time memorial have been engaged in cattle raiding between themselves until today and yet it is not resolved.

Similarly, the Nuer have been defending their current territory from annexation especially in Eastern Upper region by Dinka, a quest for territorial demarcation that has also claimed lives and it is sad to say that nothing has been done to address or resolve such occurrence or land restitution.

Nuer versus Dinka during liberation struggle period:

During Anya nya I era (1947- 1972), semi-literate politicians from both communities developed unresolved differences among themselves based on ethnic lines but they fall short of influencing a massive confrontation simply because some well- exposed politicians by then from other part of the country especially Equatorian were majorly controlling the helm of south Sudanese politic at that time. The like of Abel Alier and Gatkouth Gual failed to unite or reconcile those tribal-minded-politicians from both communities and thereafter many things remain unresolved.

Again, at the early stages of the SPLA/M formation in1983, Nuer and Dinka renewed their enmity in a very brutal shape after their key politicians/ juntas disagreed over the strategies and objectives of the movement to be formed. The strategy group (SPLA/M) led by Dr John Garang had an impression in mind that the whole of the Sudan is in great crisis and therefore it requires a complete liberation while the objective group (Anya-nya II) on the side led by late Samuel Gai Tut among others wanted the movement to liberate south Sudan from Arab hegemony. This parallelism resulted into a fight between the two groups that did not only claim lives but also open a new chapter of hatred that witnessed the invention of war stereotypes, such as the use of word ‘’ Nyagat (an Amharic term which means a trader), militia and returnees resulting to mass killing of Nuer Gajaak by SPLA which are being practiced up to date by tribal extremists. The fall off was quickly embraced by Dinka and Nuer masses on the basis of tribal confrontation and very many people perished in large numbers until 1987 through a top-bottom reconciliation initiated in Bukteng (near Nasir) but it did not resolve anything apart from the controversial integration of Anyanya II forces into SPLA which later was termed as surrendering. Nuer extremist like late Paulino Matip, Tangingye among others were dissatisfied with the approach and motive of that agreement and refused to merge their forces with SPLA.

Worse still, the SPLM/A split of 1991 also witnessed a tribal twist of which many civilians were also killed and displaced more heavily on the Bor Dinka side, unfortunately, no proper or systematic reconciliation was done except the top-bottom approached used again by Dr John and Dr Riek to only merge their military forces into SPLA in 2002 as a relieve from international pressure on them to settle Sudanese conflict through dialogue with Bashir or with the NIF regime in Khartoum. The only viable initiative to bring together the two tribes was the remarkable attempt by Dinka and Nuer chiefs through Wunlit Peace initiative in 1999 which was later abundant by the government all together and only remains as a civil society’s reference for peace projects in the two regions of Upper Nile and Bhar el Ghazal.

Nuer versus Dinka after independent of south Sudan (2011):

The death of Dr John Garang in 2005 marks the beginning of tribal impunity between the two tribes with direct aggression on minor tribes in the country. Majority of Nuer felt that their cousins (Dinka) control nearly everything in the country with impunity. Even though the rest of South Sudanese feel that Nuer and Dinka are the only tribes in charge of the country affairs but Nuer community see it on a different lane.

Instead of building peace, these two communities through their politicians widen the gap by preaching hatred and also equating their own failures on some people from other community.

To make the matter worse, most of the current politicians from both communities (Dinka and Nuer) are war veterans who were also part and partial to the history of tribal mess during the liberation struggle.

It is very essential to know that peace and reconciliation initiatives in South Sudan were not given factual-concentration that is why Nuer and Dinka opted to operate on their traditional lines of hatred and intimidation throughout the period of independence.

Possible approach to end this tribal fiasco:

In order to resolve the current conflict in south Sudan, the author see the following approach as a viable mean:

A). Actionable Ceasefire: South Sudanese people mostly Nuer and Dinka cannot easily give up war on one another if none of the either side is defeated. And worse still, if Nuer are defeated they cannot surrender no matter how long you pursuit them, they will always regroup for revenge; this scenario is equally the same to Ngok (Balliet) who are now active participants in the current conflict. In this regard, a mere ceasefire signed by both parties without action from the mediators is not visible in the eye of the fighters on ground.

B). Rotational Interim government on yearly basis is viable : An interim government without Dr Riek Machar in the eye of Nuer masses is useless and it is like surrendering to Dinka while an interim government without Kiir Mayardit in the eye of Dinka community mostly from Bhar el ghazal is like a direct surrender to Nuer. Whether we like it or not this is how the real situation is rooted on ground, therefore any other thought then this is ignorant to the fact of tribal perception of the conflict. Therefore, IGAD need to clearly lay some condition for this interim government where it can be rotational on yearly basis Kiir (2014) Riek (2015) and Wani Iga (2016) and these three should not seek re-election after interim period. The interim government should work out the formula of power-sharing, overhaul of civil services organ and issues of National army or armies created during the period of conflict plus other issues of resource sharing.

C). Constitution making and the question of federalism: Within a period of one year, the permanent constitution can be drafted based on federal system and it implementation should begin in 2015 after a constitutional referendum.

D) National healing and reconciliation: It is will be sustainable to engage in a very systematic reconciliation process through civic education not just through lips of politicians.

I rest my case here

Steve Goi Gatluak is a South Sudanese citizen currently residing in East Africa. He can be reached via email.  

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  1 comment for “Ethnic realities of South Sudanese conflicts: Why is it squared on Dinka and Nuer?

  1. May 20, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Please I am you talk about massacre you are talking about Bor County and not Dinka sub-tribes in the region. Also you are fueling already exists among Dinka Twi, Dinka Nyarweng, Dinka Hol and Dinka Bor. Here is link:


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