South Sudan Tribes

South Sudan is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries on the African continent. The country has over 60 major ethnic groups, and despite the presence of many commonalities between them, each one has many unique systems of social structure, livelihoods cultural traditions and a sense of identity. This diversity has at once presented both a unique opportunity for the country to enjoy the colorful richness of these traditions and a threat to national unity and a collective sense of national identity.

Indigenous people of South Sudan can be broadly categorized into the Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic and the South Western Sudanic groups.

  • Nilotic people include the Dinka, Nuer, Shiluk (Collo), Murle, Kachiopo, Jie, Anyuak, Acholi, Maban, Kuma, Lou (Jur), Bango, Bai, Gollo, Endri, Forgee, Chod (Jur), Khara, Ngorgule, Forugi, Siri, Benga, Agar, Pakam, Gok, Ciec, Aliap, Hopi, Guere, Atuot, Appak, Lango, Pari, Otuho and Ajaa.
  • Nilo-Hamitic groups include the Bari, Mundari, Kakwa, Pojula, Nyangwara, Kuku, Latuko, Lokoya, Toposa, Buya, Lopit, Tennet and Diginga.
  • The South-western Sudanic groups includes Kresh, Balanda, Banda, Ndogo, Zande, Madi, Olubo, Murus, Mundu, Baka, Avukaya, and Makaraka.

Nilote is a common name for many of the peoples living on or near the Bahr al Jabal and its tributaries. The term refers to people speaking languages of one section of the Nilotic subbranch of the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan and sharing a myth of common origin. They are marked by physical similarity and many common cultural features. Many had a long tradition of cattlekeeping, including some for whom cattle were no longer of practical importance. Because of their adaptation to different climates and their encounters, peaceful and otherwise, with other peoples, there was also some diversity among the Nilotes.

One group -- the Dinka -- made up roughly one-third of the total population. The Dinka were widely distributed over the northern portion of the southern region, particularly in Aali an Nil and Bahr al Ghazal. The next largest group, about half the size of the Dinka, were the Nuer. The Shilluk, the third largest group, had only about half as many people as the Nuer, and the remaining Nilotic groups were much smaller.

The larger and more dispersed the group, however, the more internally varied it had become. The Dinka and Nuer, for example, did not develop a centralized government encompassing all or any large part of their groups. The Dinka are considered to have as many as twenty-five tribal groups. The Nuer have nine or ten separately named groups.

Armed conflict between and within ethnic groups continued well into the twenty-first century. Sections of the Dinka fought sections of the Nuer and each other. Other southern groups also expanded and contracted in the search for cattle and pasturage. The Nuer absorbed some of the Dinka, and some present-day sections of the Nuer have significant Dinka components.

Relations among various southern groups were affected in the nineteenth century by the intrusion of Ottomans, Arabs, and eventually the British. Some ethnic groups made their accommodation with the intruders and others did not, in effect pitting one southern ethnic group against another in the context of foreign rule. For example, some sections of the Dinka were more accommodating to British rule than were the Nuer. These Dinka treated the resisting Nuer as hostile, and hostility developed between the two groups as result of their differing relationships to the British. The granting of Sudanese independence in 1956, and the adoption of certain aspects of Islamic law or the sharia, by the central government in 1983 greatly influenced the nature of relations among these groups in modern times.

The next largest group of Nilotes, the Shilluk (self-named Collo), were not dispersed like the Dinka and the Nuer, but settled mainly in a limited, uninterrupted area along the west bank of the Bahr al Jabal, just north of the point where it becomes the White Nile proper. A few lived on the eastern bank. With easy access to fairly good land along the Nile, they relied much more heavily on cultivation and fishing than the Dinka and the Nuer did, and had fewer cattle. The Shilluk had truly permanent settlements and did not move regularly between cultivating and cattle camps.

Unlike the larger groups, the Shilluk, in the Upper Nile, were traditionally ruled by a single politico-religious head (reth), believed to become at the time of his investiture as king the representative, if not the reincarnation, of the mythical hero Nyiking, putative founder of the Shilluk. The Shilluk King descended from a line that started in 1540, and is the strongest traditional leader in Sudan with influence over a significant ethnic group. The administrative and political powers of the reth have been the subject of some debate, but his ritual status was clear enough: his health was believed to be closely related to the material and spiritual welfare of the Shilluk. It is likely that the territorial unity of the Shilluk and the permanence of their settlements contributed to the centralization of their political and ritual structures. In the late 1980s, the activities against the SPLA by the armed militias supported by the government seriously alienated the Shilluk in Malakal.

Young men often engage in tribal conflicts. The cattle- watching duties in the camps support macho/fighting aspects. Young men are expected to prove their strength and be willing to defend the cattle against raids from other groups. Cattle raiding continue to be the main way pastoralists increase the size of their herds. Dowry demands have risen in recent years, sometimes involving 50 to 100 head of cattle. Cattle are the main commodity in dowries, hence greater pressure on young men.

While men are the key actors in the theater of violence, women traditionally encourage male members of their households and clans to engage in livestock rustling to enhance family status. Women perform rituals designed to bless men before raids and to ensure their safe return home. They also prepare the food for the men to eat while on their theft missions.

Of the most visibly diverse practices are the languages, the livelihoods, everyday objects of life, marriage systems and the perceived relationship between each ethnic group and the rest, between the state and the "tribe." Cattle-owning communities values women as a source of income in the form of cattle. In order to marry, men traditionally give a woman’s family cattle as a dowry. When a girl turned 15, the daughter had value as she would be expected to receive a dowry upon marriage. Men who married in IDP camps without paying a dowry because of financial constraints and the breakdown of traditions find that their wife's family will demand the dowry to be paid upon return home. Reproductive choices for women are limited by dowry, since men who paid exorbitant dowries to marry believed they should have the final say in domestic decisions.

In the past few years, dowry prices have become extremely expensive. Dowry payment is one of the bases of household economics in the South, and families look to the girl child bring dowry wealth into the household. The families of men and boys seeking wives often resort to criminal activity, commonly armed cattle raiding, to pay the dowry when no other options exist. Dowry is connected to early marriage but it is equally related to lifestyle and the power realized by owning more cows than a neighbor, for instance. Power and status are measured by the number of cattle owned; the practice is deeply rooted in the cultures of southern Sudan and may be very difficult to change. Marriage involves the community as well as the families of the bride and groom.

The current dowry practice is a hardship on the family of the groom, but also puts a price tag on the bride who is treated as a ?purchase? and after marriage is considered the property of the groom and his family. This leads to a perceived justification of wife beating and forced labor for the bride. Southern Sudanese families allow their daughters to marry at very young ages because of the dowry. Years of conflict and extreme poverty have brought more focus on dowry and early marriage as economic measures for survival.

The most common form of marriage in South Sudan is polygyny, the practice in which a man can have more than one wife at the same time. In most instances, marriage is considered a union beyond the two individuals, a bond involving the two families, and in order for this bond to be cemented, marriage involves exchange of material goods, the kind of which depends on the ethnic group. For example, for cattle herders, a bride price is often paid in the form of huge number of cows by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. In other groups, the bride price may be paid in small livestock, money, agricultural implements or any other valuable asset such as labor, where a group of young men from the family of the groom can ascend on the family of the bride and till the soil for cultivation.

The exchange can be seen as serving either of two main purposes. One is compensation for labor of the woman that is now lost to her marital family. The other is to make marriages strong by involving the families, with the exchange of goods symbolizing eating together as a family. Above all, most South Sudanese will be heard talking about marriage solely as a way to procreate, and that has implications for the freedom of the woman to decide on her sexuality, childbirth and work.

Finally, who marries whom is a function of ethnic belonging, the mode of livelihood, and the level of tolerance that some ethnic groups to allow their children to marry into "tribes" other than their own. For example, if a boy from the Zande has interest in marrying a girl from the Nuer, the whole affair can be quite complicated with regards to what the Zande family would pay to the Nuer family, with cattle as a livelihood of one and farming the other. On the other hand, for a country in search for a collective national belonging, such cross-ethnic marriages might become among the fastest way to integrate all South Sudanese into a national identity that is determined by citizenship and not by ethnic identity. This is an example of how modern times force social change.

Some Southerners, whether living in the North or the South, are more receptive to islam then others, depending on their tribal and regional background. For example, the tribes in the Upper Nile region (Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer) are reportedly less susceptible to Islamization, given their strong tribal traditions and structures. Their cultural background, including experience with slavery and colonialism also makes them suspicious of outside influence. Tribes in Equatoria are, apparently, not at all open to Islam. Equatoria has no borders with the North and there has been historically little contact or assimilation. Most equatorians are followers of traditional religions and they maintain strong cultural and tribal customs. Slavery and its attendant warfare have made them hostile to outsiders, especially Muslims. In contrast, tribes living on the border with the north, due to long-term interaction with Northerners, are already somewhat assimilated and thus, more receptive to Islam. The tribes in Bahr el Ghazal, in the south east, have historically intermarried and mixed with the Northerners living on their borders. They have assimilated for convenience and are, as a result, more easily islamized.

Pervasive ethnic tensions in many parts of the country often resulted in the theft of cattle, which defined power and wealth in many traditional communities. Competition for resources to maintain large cattle herds often resulted in conflict. Longstanding grievances over perceived or actual inequitable treatment and distribution of resources and political exclusion contributed to conflict.

South Sudan has a long history of cattle raiding, often resulting in territorial, ethnic, and communal conflicts over migration patterns, access to water, and land, in addition to theft. Following the decades of civil war, cattle rustling became more deadly because of the widespread use and availability of small arms. Cattle rustling is common in Southern Sudan, especially at the end of the dry season when water is the most scarce and herds must travel the furthest. The Lou Nuer are not the only victims of rustling in Jonglei, as all cattle herding groups in the region, including Dinka and Murle, have explained that intertribal, and even interclan, cattle raids are a fact of life. Cattle herders are unwilling to disarm largely because of a lack of confidence in the Government's ability to provide security, a general distrust of the Government, and because no one wants to be the first to disarm and leave themselves vulnerable to the other raiding groups.

Despite unifying events such as the 2006 Juba Peace Accord, which brought significant numbers of formerly pro-Khartoum Southern Sudan Defense Forces militia into the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), greater Upper Nile region, which includes Upper Nile, Unity, and Lakes states in addition to Jonglei, remains the most unstable region in Southern Sudan. Underlying the political conflict has been traditional tribal cattle-raiding, as well as lack of well-established government security forces in rural areas and unsuccessful disarmament in the region due to the fact that some groups will not voluntarily disarm in the absence of government security. In general, the lack of effective policing and governance hampers the ability of former combatant groups to transition to civilian governance structures. Small arms are widely available and carried by civilians in rural areas. In this environment, traditional cattle-raiding and resource conflicts easily escalate into violent encounters.

The Nuer and the Dinka, the two largest ethnic groups in the South, historically have primarily inhabited Upper Nile and Bahr al-Ghazal. Both groups traditionally moved through each other’s areas to water cattle during migrations to and from swamp areas. Although one group occasionally raided the other group’s livestock, the Nuer and the Dinka avoided full-scale conflict in the border area until the civil war resumed in 1983. As many studies have shown, historically, there have been numerous ways in which Dinka and Nuer have utilized each other’s resources to survive. These two groups raided each others livestock; traded cattle, grain, and ivory; and intermarried and expanded kinship networks. The case of the Dinka people provides a window into the process of societal dissolution in southern Sudan. The family support network and social norms and rules, which had protected the Dinka through the past crises, began to break down under the strain of the war. Their economy, based on cattle, agriculture, trade, and fishing, has been compromised by frequent raids by the Nuer. The death and disappearance of large numbers of Dinka men has resulted in increased insecurity for women and a loosening of social networks in a society that places a great importance on family name and lineage. Traditional systems of “ghost marriages” (temporary remarriages, often within the family, to ensure the continuation of a family line if a women’s husband is absent for too long), which Dinkas believe ensure their survival, have weakened as fathers fail to provide for the mothers and their children. The influx of relief agencies into Dinka society led Dinkas to inflate population figures or pretend to be needy, a condition normally stigmatized in Dinka society. As a result, Dinkas became increasingly dependent on outside aid, and their traditional survival networks began to erode.

The Nuer incursion into Dinka territory in the early 1990s was matched by the intensity of the conflict within Nuer society itself. The biggest conflict was between factions that had allied with (or been supplied with weapons by) Khartoum. Arguably, the intra-Nuer conflict was as devastating to Nuer society, as was the Nuer-Dinka conflict to Dinka society.

The euphoria over a new nation being born was short-lived. Barely six months after South Sudan gained its long fought for independence from Sudan in July 2011, deep fissures among the population threatened the young country’s chance for long-term stability and prosperity. Ethnic conflicts had plagued the region long before it became South Sudan, but any hope that separating from Sudan would unite the people and help quell the violence has proven at best premature and at worst totally unfounded.

Given the diversity and even disagreements between the ethnic nations, the long history of the liberation war did not force South Sudanese to think of themselves as one people, bound by a cause. That history spanned 200 years of resistance to foreign occupation, from the slave trade to Ottoman rule to British Colonial order and the racist regimes of the old Sudan. In later 2011 the fighting, often escalating retaliatory violence over cattle rustling among tribes in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei, grew increasingly deadly. This was in no small part due to the country being awash in weapons from its struggle against Sudan.

Clearly, allowing the tribes to settle differences on their own did not work, as whatever mechanisms for peaceful intertribal conflict resolution existed before, if there had been any, were either insufficient or absent, perhaps victims of gun proliferation. Unfortunately, the fledgling government found itself struggling to impose its rule in this power vacuum in the troubled areas. The military was stretched thin, poorly equipped, and after years of fighting against the Sudanese not a particularly adept peacekeeping force. Thus, Sudan’s tribal regions lacked both intertribal conflict resolution mechanisms and a sufficiently strong South Sudanese military presence.

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