War and Peace in South Sudan

With a shaky standing in the world, a relatively new country is stuck in a violent limbo

War and Peace in South Sudan
Wunthau cattle camp in Bor, Jonglei state, at dusk. (James Barnett)

Those who survived the attack in Kajo Keji dug two pits in which to bury their loved ones: one for the women — two bodies — and one for the men and boys — 24 of them. The pits sit side by side and are covered by dirt and bricks that the survivors purchased in the hopes of eventually constructing a memorial wall to be adorned with pictures of the departed — “Like they did in Rwanda,” as one young man from the community puts it. In the absence of any funds with which to pay the laborers to construct a proper memorial, someone has left a wreath of plastic flowers on each of the makeshift graves alongside shoes that belonged to the victims.

Everyone remembers the date of the massacre — Feb. 2, 2023 — because of the shadow it cast on Pope Francis’ historic first visit to South Sudan the following day, although the victims were Anglican rather than Catholic, and the only plot afforded to their families for burial was offered by the local Anglican diocese. In a country as devout as South Sudan, these distinctions matter. But in any case, it was not on the basis of their religion that 26 unarmed people were killed. It was because of disputes over land, or ethnicity, or because many of the country’s leaders seem to prefer keeping arms in the hands of various militias over building the national army that they pledged to create as part of the 2018 peace deal that formally ended the civil war.

“We have never seen new weapons from the government,” one police officer laments as he sits under the shade of a tree outside a makeshift checkpoint in the county. Grabbing one of the two AK-47s that his squad can field, he shoves the rusted rifle in my face for emphasis. “This is from Anyanya I,” he says, referring to South Sudan’s first liberation struggle against the Sudanese government from 1955 to 1972. The herders who attacked the villages of Lire Payam in Kajo Keji that night had heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. “We people of Kajo Keji are not having weapons like those Dinka Bor,” he says in reference to the attackers, shaking his head. “We don’t have powerful politicians in [the capital city] Juba to supply us weapons.”

Twelve years after gaining its independence from Sudan and five years after the peace agreement that sought to end the young nation’s horrific civil war, South Sudan is stuck in a violent limbo between peace and war. I came to the country to research cattle rustling and heard time and again that while the government refers euphemistically to such violence as “intercommunal conflict” and suggests that it is a minor problem in the hinterlands, this violence is in fact widespread and an acute symptom of a broader, fundamental crisis of statehood. Rivalries between South Sudan’s political-military elites and an incomplete peace process have pitted communities across the country against each other even as the government boasts of reconciliation efforts. This violence is compounded by the inability of the country’s once warring factions to form a unified army, which has deprived the state of its monopoly on the use of force, a shortcoming manifested most strikingly in places like Kajo Keji that are suffering from both violent land-grabbing and farmer-herder conflict.

Today, South Sudan has its place on the world map, but it is not meaningfully sovereign. And while the civil war has formally ended, it continues to manifest itself violently at the local level across the country, serving as a stark lesson for the “international community”(which, in the African context, usually refers to a handful of Western countries that provide aid to the region) that peace and security do not magically appear just because the big men in the capital have shaken hands.

“There was never any state-building in Sudan, starting from the Turkish days,” recounts one academic and veteran of South Sudan’s liberation struggle who, like many others, requested anonymity during our interviews. Sitting in his dusty office in Juba, he takes sips of sweet tea and shuffles various papers to clear off a large map of the country that lies on his desk, as if to suggest that South Sudan’s conflicts have been linked to its vastness.

“The Turks would go up and down the Nile establishing trading posts where they wanted and making local people chiefs to control their interests, but they never built a state,” he says while gesturing to the river that snakes through the center of the country. “Then the British came, and they built up a few administrative posts. … But they never tried to control this territory. They never had an idea of what they wanted to do with it.”

Until 2011, South Sudan was a part of the broader Sudan, itself a colonial amalgamation initiated by the Ottomans in the early 19th century and then continued by the British from 1899 onward. Like many other colonial states, development in Sudan was limited and lopsided, with a few regions in the north — typically considered more “Arab” by colonial administrators in contrast to the “African” south — receiving the bulk of infrastructure, commerce and education. The territories that would eventually become South Sudan, by contrast, were deprived of investment and only loosely administered by the British, whose low-cost colonialism relied on co-opting local tribal elites and invariably pitted different ethnic groups against one another.

South Sudanese take justified pride in the role that southerners played in helping Sudan achieve independence from London in 1956. But many of these southerners saw the new Arab regime in Khartoum as merely another colonial power. A southern rebellion quickly broke out, known as Anyanya after a local name for snake venom, and lasted until 1972, when a fragile peace agreement was reached that granted the south some internal autonomy. But Sudan was politically volatile — in the north as much as the south — and conflict erupted again in 1983 when Khartoum dissolved the autonomous southern administration and implemented nationwide Sharia.

This second struggle, which eventually led to South Sudan’s 2011 independence, was spearheaded by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Formed in the Marxist-Leninist mold of the time, the SPLM soon found that it had its strongest international support in the U.S., where its charismatic leader, Dr. John Garang, learned to downplay the movement’s leftist origins and sell the struggle in terms that Americans appreciated: a liberation movement of “African” Christians in the south fighting against a genocidal “Arab” and Islamist regime in Khartoum. This narrative gained even greater traction after 9/11, and while it was not entirely wrong — Khartoum’s crimes in the south are amply documented — it elided the persistent divisions between the various southern peoples, chief among them the largest Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.

Notably, under Garang’s leadership, the SPLM never advocated for the bifurcation of the country but rather the creation of a “New Sudan” that would unite north and south in a semisocialist, panethnic state. Garang was a gifted intellectual whose ideas, however compelling on paper, were less of a motivating factor for ordinary southerners to join the ranks of SPLM than their animosity toward the north.

“Already in that period, many southerners did not understand Dr. John’s idea of New Sudan,” one SPLM veteran remarks as we drink tea at a cafe along the Nile in Juba one morning. “They would ask, ‘Why should we fight for all Sudan? Even the Arabs?’ But we couldn’t tell them we were just fighting for the south at that time, because the Ethiopians wouldn’t want to hear that.” (The SPLM received covert support from neighboring Ethiopia, which was battling its own separatist movement in Eritrea at the time.)

As with many popular uprisings, the liberation struggle of the SPLM was built more on mutual rejection of the status quo than a clear, shared vision for the future. But unlike most African revolutions in the 20th century, this one received strong support from the U.S. government owing to Garang’s effective lobbying, coupled with the end of the Cold War and attendant shift in American priorities in Africa from anti-communism to humanitarian interventions — and, after 9/11, anti-Islamism.

Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, shortly after the historic signing of the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the north. Salva Kiir succeeded him as the leader of the SPLM, surrounded by a coterie of advisers who were intent on separation rather than achieving the sorts of reform within Sudan that Garang had advocated. After the six-year transitional period stipulated by the CPA passed, South Sudan held an internationally monitored referendum in which, with much fanfare, 99% of the country voted for immediate separation from the north.

A few months later, on July 9, 2011, South Sudan marked its independence with jubilation in a ceremony in Juba attended by world leaders, including senior U.S. officials. Then, just two years later, the country erupted into a brutal civil war that lasted until 2018, killed some 400,000 people and displaced nearly 10 times as many.

South Sudan’s tragedy was not simply that it descended into fratricidal war so soon after gaining its freedom but also that the spark of the conflict was a parochial power struggle between elites, specifically Kiir and SPLM factional leader Riek Machar. This largely personal feud pitted Kiir’s Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat massacres and ethnic cleansing. Both men were implicated in grave human rights abuses during the conflict, and the price of South Sudan’s present fragile peace is that neither of them were forced to retire from politics: Kiir remains president (elections are tentatively scheduled for the end of 2024, but few observers are confident in this timetable), and Machar is one of the country’s five vice presidents (albeit effectively living under house arrest) under the terms of the complex 2018 power-sharing arrangement that ended the war.

South Sudan is today in its “roadmap” phase, a reference to an agreement signed in August 2022 to extend the country’s transitional period by another two years. Much more than a peace agreement, the roadmap and the peace agreement that preceded it are a United Nations-supported blueprint for state-building, with clauses calling for a constitutional convention, transitional justice and reconciliation efforts, gender quotas, and the formation of anti-corruption and environmental protection agencies, among other ambitious goals. Government ministries are divided between members of Kiir’s SPLM, Machar’s IO (the SPLM “In Opposition”) and a third coalition of various other opposition parties. The U.N. maintains a 20,000-strong peacekeeping force in the country, with a mandate that lasts until March 2024 but could well be extended.

The peace agreement and subsequent “roadmap” have been a blessing in the most basic and essential sense. Violence is far more limited than it was during the height of the civil war, when tanks blasted away in Juba and massacres of hundreds of civilians were commonplace. When viewed against this backdrop, a peace of sorts clearly exists.

Except it is an incomplete peace, and South Sudan’s leaders have dragged their feet in implementing most elements of the “roadmap.” Ministries are not properly resourced or staffed, corruption persists at mind-boggling levels and, perhaps most importantly, intense mistrust permeates South Sudan’s politics. The country’s elites seem committed to a ceasefire, but little more.

“Violence has been outsourced,” says one religious leader I speak with in Juba. “Most of [South Sudan’s elite] are politicians now, so they cannot formally be at war.” But in a society with no rule of law and lingering ethnic divisions, conflict between communities is ubiquitous, and politicians are accused of meddling in these disputes to advance their interests.

“This violence, it is cooked here in Juba and consumed in the community,” the religious leader remarks.

Though less deadly than what the country experienced during the civil war, this persistent violence constitutes a major hurdle for the young country’s development given the massive humanitarian crisis it continues to feed. Nearly 5 million South Sudanese, almost half of the country’s estimated population, are either internally displaced or living as refugees in neighboring countries. A fear of intercommunal violence and a resurgence in the broader civil war have prevented many people from returning to their communities, so they remain in camps managed and subsidized by the U.N. and various aid agencies. In both public statements and private conversations, it becomes clear that many of these (predominantly Western) donors are growing impatient with the intransigence of South Sudan’s leaders.

“It’s hopeless. If I could have, I would have closed our embassy in that country years ago,” one retired senior U.S. diplomat remarked to me prior to my travel to Juba. If other foreign officials and aid workers I spoke to were less drastic in their recommendations, they nonetheless expressed frustration regarding the slow implementation of the “roadmap,” the intractable violence across the country, and the corruption among the country’s political elite, both in government and the opposition. Perhaps no other country on Earth has received so much goodwill from the international community, only to disappoint its benefactors so deeply and quickly.

But if South Sudan is to achieve meaningful independence and become more than just a ward of Western donors, the opinions of the citizenry should be of principal concern to the government. Traveling to what had been one of most violent battlefields of the civil war, I find that here, too, disappointment and frustration abound.

The burning dung shrouds the Ankole cattle in a pungent, antiseptic mist as the sun sets over Bor. Dozens of these majestic, long-horned cows, dusty from the miles they have trekked during the day, are hurried through the gauntlet of smoke by young men with thin sticks who use the heat to cleanse the cattle of the swarms of dark flies that hover above. The care with which the herders tend to their cattle is remarkable. Young men circle around them, brushing off dust and affectionately letting out rhythmic clicks while gently pulling their heads by the horns this way and that, occasionally stopping to pose dramatically for my camera. These are people for whom cattle are not merely a commodity but an essential part of their culture, symbols at the heart of the shared rituals through which collective identity is formed.

“When there was peace, Murle, Nuer and Dinka would all bring their cattle here. Even some Mundari tribe from Equatoria,” says Mading Alier Ghai, gesturing to the prized Ankole around him. As the head of the Wunthau cattle camp, he is seated in the center of a row of plastic chairs hastily assembled in the middle of a dusty patch between the neatly cultivated dung heaps. Another row of men stands behind him leaning on their long herding sticks while a gaggle of young boys peer at me from behind.

“But now it is only us Dinka and some Nuer who bring the cattle here because of the conflict,” Ghai continues through a translator. The Murle tribe from the neighboring Pibor region no longer come to rest and feed their cattle at these camps. Instead, they raid Dinka camps on the outskirts of town to steal cattle and children, according to Ghai. The roads have become unsafe, and the Dinka must be careful whom they allow into their cattle camps.

“Dinka Bor are not traditionally nomadic. But we are now moving around more because of cattle disease and these attacks,” Ghai adds.

Bor, the capital of South Sudan’s populous Jonglei state, changed hands multiple times during the civil war and saw intense conflict between the Dinka and Nuer, including some of the war’s most notorious massacres. These days, however, the Dinka and Nuer largely live in harmony, one of the few, if essential, positive developments South Sudan can boast of five years into the peace agreement. The conflict between Dinka and Nuer was merely “political,” according to many in Bor, a result of the divisive strategies and rhetoric employed by Kiir and Machar. But with the end of the “political” conflict in 2018, hatchets were buried and the bonds that had previously formed over the generations through intermarriage and commerce once again came to the fore. That, and a growing threat from a common enemy in the form of the Murle people.

“We don’t spend one day in Jonglei without somebody killed,” says one woman who works in the market in Bor. The principal source of conflict, according to those in the state, is cattle raiding between the Murle people from Pibor on the one hand and the Dinka and Nuer of Jonglei on the other. In the absence of a functional justice system or reliable security forces, cattle raiding escalates in a retaliatory manner, with relatively minor instances of cattle theft sometimes sparking violence that eventually leaves dozens dead and villages torched. Cattle raiding within and between ethnic groups is a practice that has existed for generations, but it has taken on a deadlier form in recent years and escalated in the aftermath of the civil war.

“Cattle raiding is part of the culture of some tribes,” South Sudan’s livestock minister, Onyoti Adigo Nyikwec, tells me. “They used to raid with spears and sticks. Now they are raiding with modern weapons.”

Nhial Bol, an opposition politician and member of the livestock committee in South Sudan’s still embryonic Parliament, places much of the blame for the current spate of cattle-related conflict on South Sudan’s one-party state model, which he claims has eroded traditional norms that stigmatized rustling. Now, young men see rustling as a quick way to acquire sufficient cattle to pay for expensive dowries.

“In my day, it was taboo to steal cattle,” Bol continues. “To an extent there was rule of law, traditional law. But there is no more rule of law. … The SPLM undermined these traditional authorities during the liberation struggle because they did not want parallel authorities to impede their mobilization. Traditional authority is now purely symbolic. Those positions are occupied by former generals appointed by the government.”

This situation is a cause of concern for Jonglei’s governor, Denay Chagor, a young man raised in the South Sudanese diaspora in the U.S. who speaks incisively on a wide range of topics when we meet one afternoon at his residence in Bor. Jonglei is the country’s “fault line,” says Chagor, meaning that if conflict escalates in the state — especially between Dinka and Nuer — the rest of South Sudan will follow. Fortunately, relations between those two communities are presently cordial, but the conflicts over cattle and kidnappings between the Dinka and Nuer of Jonglei and the Murle of Pibor are testing people’s patience with the government.

“We’ll sign peace agreements [between communities] but the youths won’t know about them or will ignore them. We need to disarm these communities to stop cattle raiding,” Chagor tells me.

But any initiative to persuade communities to disarm is dead on arrival. Disarmament requires a legitimate, capable state that can provide a baseline of security and protection to its citizens. Until South Sudan becomes such a state, its peoples have no other recourse but to maintain their own arms.

As one of the herders at the Wunthau camp bluntly notes: “If we give up our weapons, the Murle will raid us, and the government will not protect us.”

The international system of nation-states that South Sudan has fitfully entered is the product of generations of wars in Europe up to the 20th century that redrew boundaries and broke apart empires, and militaries have likewise played a foundational role in the formation of national identities. South Sudan’s roadmap embraces this philosophy, with one of the central tenets of the agreement being the unification of the various armed factions into one military, the logic being that there is no national unity without a national army. The SPLA, as the armed wing of the SPLM and then South Sudan’s post-independence military was first known, has thus duly been renamed the South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF).

South Sudanese officials say the unification of forces is an uphill struggle but that there has been significant progress in the past year. Most analysts whom I speak with are far more skeptical, and in private, even some members of the ruling SPLM concede that the progress has been largely superficial. It would be hard to imagine otherwise given the mistrust between the various political factions that remains in the aftermath of a brutal, ethnicized civil war.

“I’m from the opposition, and I can confirm that neither party wants a unified army,” one politician in Machar’s SPLM-IO tells me. “Salva fears a professional army might overthrow him. And IO doesn’t want a strong army because we fear it could be used against us.”

Traveling to the SSPDF headquarters on the outskirts of Juba is an illuminating experience in this regard. At the outer gate of the massive compound, I am eyed suspiciously and asked to state my business. Such is standard protocol at any military site, and I have already started to call the SSPDF spokesperson with whom I have my appointment to get clearance to enter. This would normally not be an uncomfortable situation, except in this instance the soldier on duty at the gate is visibly intoxicated. When I hand him the phone to speak to the SSPDF spokesperson, a major general, he aggressively grunts a few words in Juba Arabic (the lingua franca of the capital) and then hands it back to me. The lack of any recognition of the superior rank of the person on the other end of the line does not inspire much confidence. Nor do the sights inside the gates: vehicles lying in disrepair, livestock grazing in various parts of the compound, and officers in mismatched uniforms walking about, some of whom are, for lack of a better word, ancient.

When I arrive at my meeting with SSPDF spokesperson Maj. Gen. Lul Ruai upstairs, I ask him about the elderly men I had seen milling about below, many of them dressed in what appear to be officers’ uniforms.

“Some of them are veterans of Anyanya I,” he remarks, referring to the first liberation struggle that began in the 1950s. “We call them ‘excess officers.’”

Rank inflation, Ruai explains, is one of the major challenges to the unification of forces. The roadmap calls for a set number of officer roles in the SSPDF to be allotted to the SPLM and the various opposition factions. But each of these factions has more self-proclaimed officers within their ranks than their respective allotments, leaving many officers without any assignment in the new SSPDF even as they retain their nominal ranks. They become “jobless, but not demoted,” idle officers who are neither fully in nor fully out of the army, entitled to a pension even as they are left to roam about aimlessly.

The SSPDF may indeed be a symbol of the nation in that regard: a national institution in name but not in mission, one that has no meaningful presence in most of the country and does not offer any clear role to those nominally within its fold.

It is also an army without weapons. Most uniformed men in South Sudan are unarmed, apart from a few of the president’s preferred security units, namely the National Security Service and the Tiger Force, the latter of which can be spotted in their red berets zipping around Juba in gun trucks. Yet there is no shortage of weapons in the hands of “the communities,” as South Sudanese officials say.

“South Sudan is maybe the cheapest place in the world to buy weapons,” one politician in Juba remarks. “In my own community, we buy guns from the army. Each community has its guys in the army. They’ll say, ‘Our children are dying, we can’t be unprotected,’ and then they will get arms from their guy.”

The disparity between the degree of arms in civilian hands and those in government stocks is apparent. During my travels around Jonglei, for example, I see three or four times as many AK-47s in the hands of civilians along the roads as in the hands of uniformed officers. Visiting an ostensible army base in the state, the gate of which is perpetually open, several broken-down tanks, a few unarmed soldiers hanging laundry and some grazing goats are visible — but nothing nor anyone that looks capable of killing.

South Sudanese officials blame the U.N. and its arms embargo, which has been in effect since 2018, for depriving the young state of its monopoly of force. Kiir’s government has repeatedly called on the U.N. to drop the embargo, only to be rebuffed by an international community that worries that flooding the fragile country with weapons will lead to a repeat of the bloodletting of 2013-2018. These concerns are warranted, as is the South Sudanese government noting the paternalism inherent in telling an independent state that it is not allowed to arm its own soldiers.

But the government’s indignation over this infringement of its sovereignty would come across as more genuine if the same government would assume responsibility for basic service provision within the capital, to say nothing of the more peripheral regions. Instead, Juba feels less like the seat of a national government than a proving ground for international nongovernmental organizations to compete for more funding. The city’s roads are clogged with Land Cruisers emblazoned with the logos of their respective NGO operators, most of the aircraft at the international airport belong to the U.N. and Red Cross, and every major intersection has a billboard promoting peace and reconciliation or some development initiative emblazoned with the logo of one Western aid agency or another. Even the camps in Juba for people displaced by the conflict are provided for courtesy of foreign aid, and the roads around the capital are patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers in their signature white armored vehicles.

While the 2018 peace agreement has failed to produce any of the state capacity that it promised, it has carved out a relative sanctuary of security in Juba by reducing the “political conflict” between the big men. This progress should not be understated, as anyone who was in the city during the civil war can attest.

“I was here in 2013. It was very tough, killings in every neighborhood,” one local journalist remarks as we share a lunch of goat meat in the capital. “And in 2016, I was in the presidential palace when the coup was underway. They were shooting at each other right inside the compound.

“And then again, in that building over there,” he continues, gesturing to one of the government complexes across from the roadside stall where we are seated, “I nearly escaped the gunshots when one of the vice president’s bodyguards started firing on soldiers.”

“That was also in 2016?” I ask.

“No. About two hours ago.”

Unlike the fighting from 2013 to 2016, that day’s incident is hardly political: a drunken officer, reportedly angry over delayed pay, shoots a fellow soldier in a murder-suicide that is over within a minute. But it speaks to the challenges of building a professional military and suggests that Juba’s relative calm might be attributable, at least in part, to the fact that the thousands of soldiers and ex-rebels who walk around the city in mismatched uniforms each day are unarmed — in other words, attributable to the infringement of South Sudan’s sovereignty that is the arms embargo.

As the journalist and I finish our lunch, we witness a convoy of U.N. peacekeepers drive past. The disproportionate concentration of peacekeepers in Juba is a source of frustration for many South Sudanese who believe that the U.N. should be more proactive in patrolling the less secure hinterlands. As we hail a pair of motorbike taxis, I ask my interlocutor his thoughts about the U.N. mission.

“They’re here to collect their salaries, that is all,” he says with a revealing chuckle. “If there is an attack, they sit in their bases until the fighting is finished. Then they come out and write their reports.”

I ask if he thinks the U.N. is an acceptable substitute for a national army, if only in the interim. It’s clear from his expression that this is a silly question.

“We need a real army. And we are trying, I think.” But the problem is lack of trust, he elaborates. “Our soldiers were killing along tribal lines during the war. At least the U.N., we know they don’t have a side.”

This trust deficit between the people and the state may not be so apparent in Juba, where police officers direct traffic, many of the city’s landmarks are named after old heroes from the liberation struggles, and elites have learned to speak the NGO-ized language of “reconciliation,” “capacity building” and such. But when I travel south toward the Ugandan border, it becomes clear the extent to which, for many communities, the South Sudanese state is at best absent and at worst complicit in their suffering.

Kajo Keji has the status of a “town” and county seat on most maps of South Sudan, but it is really a string of a few small, interconnected villages and a smattering of tiny hamlets that intersperse the forested mountains and valleys on the west bank of the Nile near the Ugandan border. Though the county is only 70 miles south of Juba, the lack of any paved road connecting it to the national capital means that those who can afford it travel to and from Kajo Keji on short domestic flights in cramped Cessnas.

The region is verdant and quiet on the days I visit during the start of the rainy season in late May. “Edenic” is the word one elderly resident uses to describe the scene before us as we watch the sunset from the forested hills outside of town. The inaccessibility of the unpaved, winding mountain roads leaves each hamlet relatively isolated and quiet, with only the occasional hum of a motorbike or an even rarer four-wheel drive moving from one hamlet to another.

The isolation of these communities also proved to be their vulnerability in February 2023. Those in the hamlets in Lire Payam did not have any vehicles to escape the attack by Dinka herders early in the morning of Feb. 2, as locals recount. Just as tragically, the soldiers and police who received the distress calls were helpless to respond when it mattered. It was many hours before they could muster up the requisite vehicles and fuel to travel from their makeshift camps to the hamlets, by which time the assailants had already finished their grisly work.

The February massacre briefly generated some international headlines only because of the juxtaposition it presented to the pontiff’s simultaneous, historic visit to South Sudan, during which he urged the country’s leaders to make good on their pledges to embrace peace. South Sudanese officials first tried to censor news of the attack and then downplayed it to their visitors, assuring them that the killing was localized and did not presage a new round of wider conflict. They were not entirely wrong, as there was no nationwide fallout from the killings, which seem to have been largely forgotten outside of the county itself. But such “local” disputes are of national significance insofar as they speak to the inability of the state to mitigate the aftereffects of the civil war, which are still playing out violently across the country.

The residents of Kajo Keji are primarily Kuku, a minority ethnic group poorly represented in national politics. Most residents fled into neighboring Uganda during the civil war, particularly during the bout of fighting in 2016 that was vicious in Central Equatoria state, of which Kajo Keji is part. When the Kuku began to return to their homes in 2019, they found that Dinka herders, many of them displaced from earlier rounds of fighting, had taken advantage of the exodus of Kajo Keji’s residents to bring their families and herds into the county’s lush valleys.

Confrontations between the Kuku farmers and Dinka herders reached a boiling point in 2022, when Kajo Keji saw an additional influx of herders who had been pushed out of Jonglei due to unseasonably heavy flooding.

“The herders passed through here and spoiled the crops,” one middle-aged woman remarks as she gestures to the sorghum fields that surround her small mud-brick house. “They never spoke to us. They were armed, and they move with their whole families and herds.”

The local commissioner and other officials attempted in late 2022 to negotiate with the Dinka herders and even invited officials from Jonglei, who traveled to Kajo Keji and urged the herders to return home. “The meeting was good, and the commissioner [from Jonglei] was very helpful,” one of the local officials who attended it recalls. “The herders complained of the floods and the problems with the Murle people, but the commissioner told them he would provide security and land. The herders agreed at the end of the meeting to return to Jonglei.

“And yet the next day, the massacre occurred,” he continues. “There was no strategic reason. They were just angry that they had been forced to leave.”

This narrative of a massacre out of the blue may reflect some local biases — statements from officials in the wake of the massacre indicated that it may have been a form of retaliation for a previous killing of herders in the area by a local rebel group. But few of those whom I interview in Kajo Keji connect the two killings or even seem interested in understanding the proximate cause of the Feb. 2 massacre. The principal conclusion they seem to have drawn from the massacre was simply that it could have been avoided if the Kuku had been better armed.

“The Dinka can get weapons from politicians and generals. That is how the herders attacked us,” one resident in a small hamlet laments. “We Kuku don’t have generals to protect us.”

The chief of the hamlet concurs: “We don’t have weapons to defend ourselves against the herders. We use sticks for tending our cattle, not guns.”

The killings further strained relations between the community and the government, the only tangible manifestation of the latter being the garrison of soldiers (all Dinka, for that matter) who were unable to respond to the attack in time. But the roots of the mistrust are deeper and date to 2017 — if not earlier — when most Kajo Keji residents had fled into Uganda.

Around that time, an odd thing began to happen: a reverse migration, in which more and more members of a neighboring Ugandan tribe began crossing the border into war-torn South Sudan. There had often been disputes between the communities along the poorly demarcated border, but this influx was more concentrated than it had previously been, and these Ugandans were crossing into South Sudan at great personal risk. They were drawn to Kajo Keji for the same reason that Dinka herders were flocking to the area around the same time: fertile land devoid of tenants.

“Those communities came to us some years ago to ask for land to cultivate,” one elder in Kajo Keji recalls. “We agreed because during the war, we were friends with Ugandans. They were hosting us [as refugees] so we agreed to give them land.”

“They were supposed to go back after cultivating but they refuse,” he continues. “They think it’s theirs now.”

One activist in Kajo Keji says that while land-grabbing has long been an issue, it became more institutionalized on the part of the Ugandans during the civil war. He claims that a prominent Ugandan business owner is behind much of it, handing over small plots of land to his fellow tribesmen in a sharecropping system as well as expanding an illegal logging enterprise. While showing me a list of names of evicted Kajo Keji residents and their respective farming plots, he lets out a sigh. “I’ve written reports [for Juba], but nothing happens.” The reason, he suspects, is because this business owner has been cutting soldiers on both sides of the border in on the action.

“Soldiers have escorted charcoal out of Kajo Keji in vehicles with Ugandan license plates,” he says. “There was previously direct collaboration between UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Force] and SSPDF in this trade as well. But the SSPDF no longer do this because our youths put them on notice,” he adds, in an oblique reference to recent violence between Kajo Keji residents and Ugandan land-grabbers.

In contrast, the Ugandan military can get away with murder in South Sudan — quite literally, as seen in an incident in May 2023, when Ugandan soldiers entered South Sudanese territory and killed a Kajo Keji resident and injured several others during clashes between the Kuku and Ugandan settlers. In another incident in 2020, Ugandan soldiers killed three SSPDF soldiers near the disputed border in Kajo Keji during another intercommunal clash, and similarly deadly clashes have been reported in recent years in neighboring Magwi County.

The South Sudanese government has largely stayed quiet about these incursions by Ugandan soldiers, which may be explained by the close relationship between Kiir and Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. Kiir has a long personal history with Museveni, who decisively intervened during the civil war by sending helicopter gunships to attack Machar’s forces as they marched on Juba, thereby saving Kiir’s government from a takeover. Many consequently suspect that Kiir is tacitly giving away a slice of South Sudan’s land to Uganda as unofficial compensation for the latter’s repeated interventions. But similar land-grabbing has been reported along South Sudan’s border with Kenya to the east as well, suggesting that the problem may be more widespread.

“South Sudan is a weak country and our neighbors are taking advantage of that,” one local NGO worker assesses. “They don’t respect our sovereignty.”

If South Sudanese are being spared the horror of another full-scale war, it comes at the cost of living in a fragile limbo that is not quite peaceful either, in which the specter of spasmodic violence is ever present. Such an existence can be alternately painful and numbingly dull, as the experience of those in Kajo Keji suggests.

In a small village near the Ugandan border, a group of men sit aimlessly on wooden benches outside the only open shop one afternoon, smoking cigarettes and trying not to think too hard about the precarity of their lives. One man crouches on the dirt in the center of this informal circle, pouring a jerrycan of warm, locally brewed gin into an empty Fanta bottle that he then passes around. As they drink, the men explain that they recently returned from refugee camps in Uganda to reclaim their land and evict the Ugandan settlers.

“We came back and saw that our houses were burned, our cattle and goats were stolen,” one of the men remarks. “Now we don’t have jobs or farms.”

Thunder clouds form in the sky above us ahead of the imminent seasonal downpour. If these men had crops to cultivate, they might be more concerned about the recent flooding. But most of the farms in the area are abandoned.

Shifting subjects, I ask the men about the massacre that occurred in the county in February and whether it was somehow linked to the land-grabbing issue. They shake their heads.

“The Dinka herders and Ugandan land-grabbers come separately for their own reasons. We Kuku are just stuck in between.”

The first heavy raindrops begin loudly hitting the corrugated metal roof, and I consider how I had heard Kajo Keji described the previous evening — Edenic. Whether it’s land-grabbing by foreigners or trespassing by herders, the alluring natural endowments of this county have too often been a source of pain for its inhabitants.

After a moment, one of the men sitting in our circle lets out a bitter, gin-laced grunt followed by some slurred sentences that his friend translates. He could be speaking for countless South Sudanese or however many others who are displaced around the globe.

“We don’t want to live like this. We drink out of frustration.”

The tragedy in Kajo Keji reveals the shortcoming of viewing South Sudan’s ostensible peace through the lens of Juba politics alone. Not far outside the tranquility of the capital, a cycle of violence is at work: Herders are forced from their homes due to conflict with a neighboring tribe, so they move into the fertile lands of a distant community that is still displaced from the recent civil war. Mistrust abounds and property rights are nonexistent, so violent conflict ensues. The disparity in how communities access arms based on their proximity to political power creates the impression, rightly or wrongly, that these land disputes are actually a proxy conflict waged by the politicians in Juba. At minimum, we can say that the violence is enabled by a government that loudly insists on enjoying the trappings and privileges of sovereignty without assuming any of the associated responsibilities, security chief among them.

In interviewing South Sudanese about these issues, my nationality is nearly always brought up, as if I should have some special insight into the country’s challenges given the American shadow that looms large. The United States, I am repeatedly told, “midwifed” South Sudan into being through its support for the SPLM, and one of the few questions about which there appears to be some national consensus is that the U.S. bears responsibility for the country’s present state, for better or worse.

Most of those whom I interview express disappointment with a U.S. policy that they see as abandoning the aspirations of the South Sudanese people to placate the ambitions of Kiir, Machar and the various coteries of so-called generals around them. The country’s problems are a result of selfish leadership, they say, and U.S. policy appeases those leaders when it could be empowering the people instead.

Peter Ajak, a charismatic activist in de facto exile whom I met in Washington, D.C., prior to my travels, pithily articulates this view. One of the “lost boys,” as the young men who fled the civil war with the north before 2005 are called, Ajak went to high school in Pennsylvania, where he developed a deep appreciation for American civic culture. He begins our conversation that afternoon at a cafe in Dupont Circle by listing the various American statesmen he has come to admire over the years — including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — before lamenting that U.S. foreign policy to Africa shows none of the values that those men espoused. The only thing that the U.S. government cares about in Africa is “great power competition,” he says, but this is the last issue of relevance for most Africans.

“South Sudan hasn’t failed because of China or Russia. It failed because the U.S. government stood with warlords rather than true leaders.”

It is hardly news that African activists feel that U.S. foreign policy across the continent is too accommodating of corrupt leaders and dictators. And though their criticisms are valid, the dilemma is that there is not much in the way of a successful precedent for the sorts of “people-centric” foreign policy they advocate in countries like South Sudan, where the rule of law has yet to replace the rule of the gun. (Seeing as it is the politicians, not the NGOs, who control the guns.)

But if many in civil society are upset with Western policy toward South Sudan, the political elite that have been the principal beneficiaries of the 2018 power-sharing agreement are also hardly enthusiastic on this question. There is a striking sense of entitlement that emanates from the country’s political class, a feeling that the U.S. will indefinitely extend lifelines to the government out of either sentimentality or as a result of Juba’s shrewd geopolitical maneuverings. Despite — or perhaps because of — the inordinate degree to which Western governments and the U.N. have subsidized, if not assumed direct responsibility for, the state’s fundamental responsibilities, South Sudan’s ruling class does not feel any urgency to alter the status quo and achieve meaningful independence.

I interview one SPLM veteran over drinks at a hotel in Juba toward the end of my trip. Over the course of our late-night conversation, he lays out with refreshing clarity the political calculations of the ruling elite: essentially, that the U.S. and its partners have succumbed to a sunk-cost fallacy in which they feel they have invested too much in the country to allow it to now be “lost” to a geopolitical rival.

“The West will not allow us to collapse,” he says repeatedly. South Sudan can always move closer to China, already the primary investor in the country’s oil sector, or Russia. Doing so will make Washington wary of chastising the likes of Kiir and Machar, according to this political veteran. Kiir has ample cards to play to ensure the continued flow of Western aid accompanied by only mild rebukes about the corruption or abysmal human rights situation.

I suggest to my interlocutor that he may be overstating American investment in the country. Sure, the U.S. has made clear it aims to compete with China in Africa in some form or another. “But Africa’s a big continent,” I note. “What if Washington looks at South Sudan and says ‘Christ, this is a basket case. We can leave this mess to the Chinese and focus our efforts on the coastal countries with ports, the big economies, the countries with rare earth minerals,’ or something like that?”

He listens thoughtfully but then shakes his head.

“They will not allow us to collapse,” he repeats. “If nothing else, conservatives will continue supporting us through the churches.”

For all I know, he is not wrong to place such confidence in the power of ecumenical bonds. Certainly, the late Garang, the revered founding father of South Sudan, was shrewd to downplay the SPLM’s Marxist origins and begin preaching to Western Evangelicals in the 1980s. This shift, perhaps both genuine and calculated, gained his movement the international support it desperately needed at a crucial juncture and ultimately helped give birth to the country.

And today, the families of those massacred by a roving militia do not look for any support from the state that failed to protect them. Instead, they turn to the church in search of a plot for a dignified burial.

This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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