By: ANTHONY DiROSA
The politics of ethnic and cultural identity are of major concern to peacebuilders and policymakers when understanding how to stem the risk of armed conflict and mass atrocities in regions plagued by intercommunal violence. According to Diana Felix da Costa at the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, one such place is Jonglei State, South Sudan, where ethnic cleavages that divide tribes are a major focus for international and national policymakers seeking to specifically target and contain such risk factors. Jonglei State represents a setting where tribal groups are defined by multiple identities but marginalized as a whole for the actions of a few. These inter-group distinctions are significant as the cattle-keeping Murle, who are endemic to the lowlands of Pibor county, embrace a distinct identity compared to the agrarian Murle living in the Boma. Although the Murle share an overarching ethnic identity, it’s hard to view or treat them as a unified group. As the risk of violence and mass atrocities has been escalating in Jonglei recently due to fresh SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), Yau Yau rebel and Lou Nuer militia fighting, comprehensively understanding the scope of ethnic and tribal identities, specifically within the Murle culture, has never been more crucial to both Juba, the UN and international actors. Doing so may be a crucial ingredient in formulating responsive solutions to both inter-Murle violence and the more widespread fighting between Yau Yau rebels and SPLA/ Lou Nuer forces.
The Murle are an ethnic group that originally migrated from Ethiopia to southeastern Jonglei hundreds of years ago, before moving further north and settling around Pibor. They are a largely pastoralist group that live in the flat open lowlands of Jonglei, while a smaller group of farmers inhabit the Boma Plateau and surrounding areas. According to Diana Felix da Costa’s fieldwork in Pibor County, although these Murle enclaves associate with a larger collective ethnic identity, they are known to associate and dissociate selectively in situations where it may be advantageous or when their collective security is in jeopardy. This makes sense when understanding the differences in lifestyle from the lowland Murle, which is oriented around cattle, and in Boma, where Murle people live an agrarian lifestyle and have no cattle. While cattle raiding lies at the core of much of the violence occurring in Jonglei state, there is no evidence that the largely agrarian Murle near Boma are involved. Regardless of their guiltlessness they are vengefully targeted by rival clans simply because of their Murle identity. Thus, amongst the Boma Murle a new term of self-identification, “Ngalam”, meaning “without cattle”, has been increasingly used as a means of dissociating themselves from the cattle-raiding Murle. The fragmentation and inter-group violence within the Murle community is even more pronounced as Murle from Boma often report incidents of child abductions and rape on behalf of their Murle neighbors from Pibor. On the other hand, Murle from Boma have aided their fellow in-laws from Pibor and Maruwo Hills when these sub-groups faced conflict from rival groups in their areas. Diana Felix da Costa postulates that this may be an example of in-group survival, especially given the sense of marginalization and insecurity the Murle feel within South Sudanese society.
From these examples it’s understandable why da Costa believes that Murle identity construction is both situational and interactive. Murle identity seems constructed relationally and is subject to changes according to specific interests and circumstances according to da Costa. The Murle also negotiate, accept and challenge identities that are projected onto them by others. On the other hand, there is evidence that Murle identity can also be fixed, as a Ngalamit is viewed, by the Murle, to always be a Ngalamit. These crucial micro-level idiosyncrasies make it hard to view them as an unified ethnic group. Likewise, it’s important to differentiate between the lowland and highland Murle, but also more specifically between the minority of lowland Murle behind the raids and the majority who are not, according to da Costa. Furthermore, not all Murle support cattle raids, child abductions and violence, just as all Lou Nuer or SPLA forces don’t support raids, child abductions and indiscriminate violence against civilians.
Deciphering Murle identity is doubly important given the context of both intercommunal violence and the more widespread militia based combat between the Murle backed Yau Yau movement and the state backed Lou Nuer youth rebels. It is important to note that amongst the three main forces fighting in Jonglei, major ethnic and tribal affiliations lay at the core since much of the rank and file of the SPLA is made of Lou Nuer, a historic rival of the Murle. Recent news out of Jonglei indicates that local Murle leaders are planning to convince Yau Yau, who is also a Murle, to end his rebellion against the government in Juba because of their shared ethnicity. This potential leveraging of Murle identity to promote peace comes at an important juncture where SPLA soldiers are indiscriminately targeting Murle civilians on the assumption they are Yau Yau supporters. There is both a strong incentive and ripe opportunity for the Murle and the international community to capitalize on ethnic and tribal affiliations to help assuage the violence that has wreaked havoc on Jonglei. Doing so would reverse the recent history of unsuccessful negotiations, porous peace agreements, botched local disarmament campaigns and a failure to enforce and follow-through with community driven recommendations for peace.
Peacebuilding initiatives must take these initial steps to understand the dynamics of Murle identity on top of addressing the root causes of violence and mass atrocities in. These acts are fostered by an environment lacking basic state security assistance and free flow and access of humanitarian aid. They are also fueled by the weakening of traditional authority and dispute resolution mechanisms and the manipulation by local and national elites of local grievances and ethnic identities, according to da Costa. Since fighting began to intensify around March 2013, over 100,00 civilians have been cut out off from humanitarian assistance and 120,000 forced to flee their homes. As the international community turns its attention to South Sudan’s current worsening crises, it is indeed important to understand the outstanding grievances and deep-seeded motivations behind such violence and to work to ensure these issues are addressed. What’s equally important is that external policy prescriptions be crafted by first understanding the nuances of the Murle identity so that peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives can harness them for peace.