Popular Struggles and Elite Co-optation: The Nuer White Army in South Sudan’s Civil War

The Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan project is pleased to announce the release of a new Working Paper by John Young.

JUL/07/2016, SSN;

This paper reviews the limited literature on the history, organization, and operation of the White Army in the context of the civil war that erupted in December 2013. Based primarily on interviews, it provides a broad picture of the contemporary white army and attempts to give its fighters a human face.

Second, and in particular, it examines the motivation of white army fighters, their understanding of the war and the peace agreement, what they want for the future of South Sudan, their response to accusations of human rights abuses, and other issues.

The white armies of the Eastern Nuer figured prominently in Sudan’s second civil war (1983–2005), were a major source of instability during the transitional and independence period (2005–13), and served as the main fighting force of the opposition to the government in the South Sudanese civil war that broke out in December 2013.

Despite the long and significant role of the white armies in these conflicts, no major studies of them have been published and only a handful of less than comprehensive research papers.

As a result, the role, interests, organization, hierarchy, relationship to other political and military actors, and general attitudes of white army fighters are poorly understood.

One of the objectives of this study is to attempt to understand how white army fighters view the war and assess their attitudes to the peace agreement and peace process at the time of writing.

The second component of this study takes up issues of a ‘technical’ nature, in particular a comparison with other irregular South Sudanese forces, the organization of the white army, its leadership and hierarchy, its links to Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) regular forces, its components, recent internal changes, and the way in which it fought government forces.

The study is also based on the conviction that the interests of the white army fighters need to be addressed, even though they are poorly articulated and understood, if there is to be any hope for sustainable peace in South Sudan.

Among the paper’s key findings:
The war of the Eastern Nuer white armies against the Government of South Sudan was a popular war that had the almost complete support of the communities from which the fighters came and involved very little outside support.

The white armies of the Eastern Nuer can be distinguished from other community-level youth-based self-defence groups and militias that developed in South Sudan by their measure of autonomy from external military and political forces, lack of a formal military hierarchy, internal mobilization, strong links to the fighters’ communities, and capacity to fight beyond these communities for broader objectives.

The 1991 attack on Bor led by Riek Machar marks the birth of the Nuer white army, and that attack involved widespread abuse of civilians and looting that were motivated by deep-seated hatred of the Dinka and a desire for revenge.

White army attacks on government-held towns in Jonglei and Upper Nile in the wake of the mid-December 2013 killing of Nuer civilians in Juba, which white army fighters held to be the responsibility of Dinka in general and President Salva Kiir in particular, involved similar motives.

It is common to attribute the December 2013 war to a power struggle within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership, and both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led negotiations and the Arusha SPLM reconciliation talks were based on this assumption, and thus have focused on elite power sharing and SPLM reconciliation.

However, not one white army fighter interviewed during the course of this research said that this was his motivation for fighting, and nor did any of them say they fought because Riek Machar was removed from the vice presidency or to gain positions for Nuer in a post-conflict government.

Without exception, the fighters said the reason they fought was revenge for the killing of Nuer civilians and family members in Juba in mid-December 2013 and to free members of their families from government-occupied towns.

Although SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar claimed in testimony to the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AU CoISS) that from 17 December 2013 he was in control of all the armed opposition forces, which necessarily includes the white army, this claim is not borne out by this study.

An examination of the history of the white armies going back to 1991 suggests that neither he nor anyone else can be said to control them, and nor did Riek or his representatives have any role in the mobilization of the white army after the Juba killings.

Lam Akol’s statement to the commission of inquiry that Riek ‘took over a rebellion that was not his’ (AU CoISS, 2014, p. 131) is thus an accurate assessment.

It is the white army and not the black or regular forces of the SPLM-IO that largely captured the government-controlled towns of Jonglei and Upper Nile, but the fighters’ lack of interest in sustained military operations meant that they soon returned home, leaving the towns to the regular SPLM-IO forces, who proved incapable of holding them.

Although attacks by white army fighters on government-held towns has led to the popular perception of them as wild, violent, and beyond control, in their home areas they have generally been well behaved, followed the direction of elders and the civil authorities, and are being used by local SPLM-IO administrations as an important element in preserving security.

The fact that Salva Kiir, whom the white army fighters hold responsible for the killing of Nuer civilians in Juba, remains the president of South Sudan and the continuing presence of Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers in the white army’s homeland means that, irrespective of the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, white army fighters do not recognize that the war has ended, at best only a ceasefire exists, and in the present circumstances there can be no consideration of a civilian disarmament process, which is critical to any sustainable peace.

The SPLM-IO has made no effort to politically educate the white army fighters and as a result most of them fought simply out of a desire for revenge and hatred of the Dinka.

But the limitations of this approach are becoming clear and the fighters are not happy with the outcome of the war, are increasingly distrustful of the SPLM-IO leadership and the peace agreement, and a minority have concluded they have been betrayed and want to resume the war.

Popular Struggles and Elite Co-optation (HSBA Working Paper 41) is available for download from http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP41-White-Army.pdf

For more information, please contact:
Yodit Lemma
HSBA Project Coordinator
Small Arms Survey

Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan
Small Arms Survey
Maison de la Paix, Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2E
1202 Geneva, Switzerland
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