The Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Community Life: A Comparative Field Study of the Transformative Impact of Sudan’s Unresolved War

Sharon E. Hutchinson, Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jok Madut Jok, History, Loyola Marymount

Research Grant, 1999

Our original research focused on the militarization of Nuer and Dinka community life, with special attention devoted to the role of ethnic conflict triggered off by the 1991 splitting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The tremendous surge in Nuer/Dinka violence precipitated by that event mercifully came to an end in January 2002, after the SPLA was reunited by Dr. John Garang and Dr. Riek Machar. Inter-Nuer tensions, however, began to escalate after the SPLA’s reunification, with some of Riek Machar’s former allies turning against him, with the encouragement and military assistance of the government of Sudan. Oil exploration activities in Nuer and Dinka regions of the Western Upper Nile, moreover, continued to gain momentum, with an estimated 174,000 Nuer and Dinka civilians within the oil zone having lost their homes by early 2003. While US-monitored peace negotiations currently taking place between the government of Sudan and the SPLA are expected to yield a “framework peace agreement” in a matter of days or weeks, the potential for continuing North/South and South-on-South violence remains very high.

Inter-Nuer tensions, however, began to escalate after the SPLA's reunification, with some of Riek Machar's former allies turning against him, with the encouragement and military assistance of the government of Sudan.

We have continued to carry out fieldwork on evolving patterns of inter- and intra-ethnic violence in war-torn regions of the Western Upper Nile (a.k.a. Unity State), southern Sudan—including six months of intensive field research carried out between mid-December 2002 and mid-June 2003. Owing to some of the publications generated by my 1998–2000 field studies, carried out with your support, as well as to longstanding research association with southern Sudan and to my fluency in the Nuer language, some of my writings attracted the attention of several U.S. State Department officials. As a result, I was asked to serve as an official “monitor” on a newly created, US-led international team of observers—known as the “Civilian Protection Monitoring Team”—stationed in southern Sudan. The team’s formal mandate was broadly defined. Basically, the team was responsible for “investigating, confirming and reporting” on all attacks on “civilians or civilian property” carried out by the SPLA, the GOS or any of their allied militias. Since nearly all of the military attacks against southern Sudanese civilians that occurred during my term of service took place in Nuer regions of the oil-rich Western Upper Nile province, we played a prominent role in the collection of first-hand accounts of such attacks from civilians and military personnel involved on both sides of the conflict. Because no one else on our team spoke Nuer, we took responsibility for interviewing nearly all of the civilians, IDPs, local chiefs, POWs, government officials, militia leaders, regional commanders, and rank-and-file soldiers on the war front. After four months of service with the CPMT, we served an additional two months of service with USAID, carrying out more detailed investigations on displaced Nuer populations in the western and eastern Upper Nile.

Since September 2003, we have also been deeply involved in a major class action suit, raised under the Alien Tort Claims Act in a U.S. Federal Court, by current and former residents of southern Sudan, alleging that Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company, collaborated with the Sudanese government in a policy of ethnically cleansing civilian populations to promote oil exploration activities. Thus far, we have developed a series of geographical and historical maps, documenting military attacks in the oil zone, tracking the successive movements of the displaced, identifying the placement of new government garrisons and, more generally, exposing the overall impact of continuing military violence on Nuer communities throughout the region. Drawing extensively on previously established contacts in the region as well on our translation skills, we have tried to ensure that cross-cultural communications run as smoothly as possible between an excellent team of American lawyers and the predominately nonliterate southern Sudanese plaintiffs represented in the case. We have also been developing educational materials in the Nuer language in the hope that a future peace accord will permit the reopening of schools in the region. In these ways, we have sought to transform the extensive field experience I have gained through our academic investigations over the past twenty-three years into something that will be able to better serve the immediate needs and aspirations of the communities we have studied.

  1. Hutchinson, Sharon E. and Jok Madut Jok."Gendered Violence and the Militarization of Ethnicity: A Case Study from South Sudan." In Werbner, Richard (ed.). 2002. Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa. New York & London: Zed Books. p. 84-108.

  2. Hutchinson, Sharon E. 2001 "A Curse from God? Political and Religious Dimensions of the Post-1991 Rise of Ethnic Violence in South Sudan." Journal of Modern African Studies. 39 (2): 307-331.

  3. Hutchinson, Sharon E. and Jok Madut Jok. 1999. "Sudan's Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities." African Studies Review 42 (2). p. 125-145.

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