Livestock are critically important in South Sudanese society1 and this is reflected in the role livestock play in the country’s conflict, both serving as drivers of conflict and being negatively impacted by the conflict, with the two often reinforcing each other in a vicious cycle.
This review drew largely on a mixture of academic and grey literature to assess the relationship between livestock and conflict in South Sudan. While gender issues were addressed to some extent in the available literature, the review found nothing on persons with disabilities.
Livestock are massively important in South Sudan. The sector is the main source of income and food for the majority of the population: pastoral farming is appropriate for South Sudan’s challenging ecology, characterised by flooding, drought, swamplands and so on. Livestock bestows social status and prestige. They are used for payment of dowries, to pay compensation and settle disputes, and – in the absence of an established banking sector – serve as a reliable way to keep assets. Livestock outnumbers people in South Sudan, leading to strain on natural resources – exacerbated by the fact that they are so revered that people rarely kill their animals for meat, preferring to pay for imported meat.
The South Sudan region has seen the almost continual conflict for the past several decades: first civil war between the South Sudanese and the Government of Sudan, then following South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the civil war within South Sudan. Since the outbreak of the latest conflict in December 2013, over 4.5 million people are estimated to have been displaced in South Sudan, including 2.47 million refugees (ACAPS, 2018). Given the centrality of livestock to South Sudanese economy, culture and society it is not surprising that livestock have an important role in conflict: both as drivers of conflict, and being negatively impacted by conflict. Moreover, these two facets are heavily intertwined, with one often reinforcing the other.
Cattle raiding has been a traditional practice among pastoral communities in the region, notably between the Nuer, Dinka and Murle tribes. However, this generally occurred on a small-scale and involved minimal violence. A number of factors have contributed to this becoming more intense, involving greater violence and taking place on a far larger scale in South Sudan:
- The proliferation of weapons in South Sudan: whereas traditional cattle raiding involved spears, bows and arrows, and clubs, now guns and heavy weapons are used. This has led to a far higher death toll in such attacks, including women and children;
- Exploitation by political elites of ethnic divisions and rivalries between pastoral communities: fostering the formation of armed groups such as the Nuer White Army and the Dinka Titweng (often based on pre-existing community defence groups) who engage in cattle raiding/conflict on their behalf as well as independently;
- Erosion of traditional constraints on cattle raiding: notably the moral and spiritual cost associated with any killing (to be alleviated through purification rituals and ceremonies), and the authority of tribal chiefs and prophets. This has come about partly because of changing governance structures, but also in large part because of deliberate attempts by political/military elites to remove what they saw as constraints on their ability to mobilize large armed groups to carry out their bidding;
- Cattle raiding is a particularly effective tool of war because it strips targeted communities of their most important assets – both economically and socio-culturally;
- Cattle are a spoil of war and therefore in themselves an incentive to fight. Insecurity in the country is exploited by criminal elements and those keen to settle old scores;
- Cattle raiding is also spurred by rising bridewealth rates: usually paid in cattle, without this young men cannot marry.
The review identified a number of ways in which South Sudan’s prolonged conflict has impacted
the livestock sector:
- Elite accumulation of large cattle herds: political and military elites have used resources gained during the war and post-independence to acquire massive herds – these, in turn, are used to build their own status and prestige, to cultivate networks of supporters (e.g. through payment of bridewealth and acquisition of wives), and to pay bridewealth for their soldiers to marry – thereby securing their allegiance. Distribution of livestock has thus changed, with the ‘middle classes’ squeezed out;
- Abnormal migration: pastoral farming in South Sudan traditionally involves seasonal migration away from flooded/dry areas to those with good grazing and water. Prolonged conflict has closed off routes/grazing lands and forced herders to go into new areas, putting a strain on resources there and leading to spread of tension and conflict, both between different pastoral communities and between herders and agriculturalists;
- Increased livestock diseases: factors such as abnormal migration and prolonged confinement of cattle in one place are leading to the spread of livestock diseases into areas where these were not found previously and/or the emergence of new diseases not seen when livestock can move normally. The problem is exacerbated by severe disruption of veterinary services due to the conflict;
- Reduced livestock numbers: disease, abnormal migration, reduced access to natural resources have all led to a drop in livestock numbers, though the literature stresses that it is very hard to make anything more than very rough estimates of these because of the insecurity in South Sudan;
- Livestock markets have been disrupted by various factors: including insecurity of trade routes; market closures or destruction; lack of demand; the departure of traders from some conflict-affected counties; and increased live animal imports from Uganda.
- Food insecurity: traditionally the South Sudanese rely on cattle for milk and milk products – they do not kill them for meat – supplementing these with small-scale farming, fishing and/or purchase of food including imported meat. The conflict has led to food insecurity, with people being forced to sell their livestock to buy grain, or kill them for meat. Other negative coping mechanisms now seen include marrying girls off at younger ages to secure bridewealth cattle for the family;
- Long-term poverty: loss of cattle poses serious long-term threats to pastoral communities. As well as income and food, livestock is critical for education and marriage and integral to South Sudanese culture and society. Any post-conflict recovery will have to include reacquisition of cattle for such communities.
The response to the problems facing the livestock sector in South Sudan has been poor, with all parties involved bearing some responsibility:
- Ineffective state response: Reduced income because of reduced oil production and diversion of funds (and effort) to fight the civil war are some of the factors which have led to the state’s inability to deal with conflicts over natural resources and livestock or to provide the services needed by pastoralists. Failings in the country’s legal system mean people can’t get justice for cattle raids and so take matters into their own hands;
- Neglect of pastoralism by donors/humanitarians: The literature points to a bias in donor/humanitarian programming towards agriculturalists, and a failure to value or invest in pastoralism. Difficulties in accessing pastoralists (because of conflict and their mobility) and under-representation of pastoral communities among local staff in donor offices also contribute to this neglect;
- Failure to address localised conflicts in the peace process: While localised conflicts over livestock are clearly widespread and having a huge negative impact in South Sudan, they tend to be dismissed as a cultural phenomenon and not included in mainstream dialogue about causes of conflict and prospects for peace. Peace agreements to date in South Sudan have been between the government and major opposition factions, and do not address localised conflicts and grievances.