By Esther Lee

Sudan still experiences rampant intercommunal and interethnic warfare despite the referendum in 2011 that seemingly united the country in claiming South Sudan’s independence from its Northern counterpart. Though internal conflict predates the division of the two Sudans, 2011 saw an alarming rise in armed groups and tribal clashes. This rise started in the contentious Abyei region between the borders of North and South Sudan. It then spread to neighbouring territories like the Jonglei state, where a lack of government-enforced security and unrestrained proliferation of weapons have aggravated community-based rivalries.

Violence precipitated by cattle raids and disputes over grazing rights have led to systematic clashes between the Murle and the Lou Nuers communities. These conflicts have attributed to the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, an unaccounted number of casualties, and the interruption of humanitarian services by United Nations agencies and Médecins Sans Frontières.

Ongoing disputes for cattle have been the primary cause of seasonal intertribal violence. Accumulation of cattle and land act as subsistence resources where opportunities to produce for financially viable markets are scarce and institutionalized education or employment is absent. In the past, cyclical shortages have led to raids for looting and survival.

The absence of a government-maintained security infrastructure and the surge of small arms have transformed these seasonal clashes into systematic violence. Tribal militias operate with the means to completely debilitate communities. Cattle raids involve indiscriminate firing against civilians and retaliatory ambushes.

The 2012 increase in rebel militia activities against Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), such as the Murle insurrections led David Yau Yau, has further impaired the state of security for civilians of the Jonglei state. As of August 2012, Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that over 100,000 people have become displaced since 2011. With aid agencies unable to meet basic needs of the displaced, the population remains volatile.

The absence of decent security measures and the threat of militia ambushes have led civilians to adopt small arms. Weapons are widely accessible; there are no legislated controls for the sale (and resale) of small arms in unofficial markets through illegal trades. Government-led operations for disarmament have been accused of using coercion for the collection of weapons. Human rights reports suggest that — in contrast to what the government believes to be slanderous coverage — SPLA soldiers use violence to extract information regarding whereabouts of small arms. In rural areas where government-led programs are absent, proactive means for halting the illicit commodification of weapons also remain stagnant.

Soldiers’ coercive measures further contribute to the disenfranchisement of youth, many of whom believe that much-needed security can be provided through joining militia rebel groups. In a volatile environment where education and employment opportunities are extremely scarce, some youth feel that grievances will be better addressed in the somewhat secure lifestyle of a militia soldier rather than a refugee or victim.

Patterns of violence without localized, community-based authority have motivated youths of Murle and Lou Nuer tribes to mobilize independently to protect cattle and retribute violence. The 2013 anti-insurgency campaign against Yau Yau has also amplified SPLA-based incidents of arbitrary looting and sexualized violence targeting civilians, further fuelling the grievances of the youth demographic. In 2013, Nuer and Dinka White Army claimed that the rebel group had a reserve army of 30 000 well-armed youth from Jonglei, with the specific aim of combatting Yau Yau’s youth army.

Weapons acquired for protection have further encouraged violence within intercommunal conflicts and intensifed the magnitude of civilian injuries. Ironically, arms proliferation has also extended the scope of rebel militias, which accumulate previously civilian-owned weapons through village raids.