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The Murle and the security complex in the South Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands

Perceptions of the Murle

In April 2016 the Ethiopian government accused the Murle community in South Sudan of staging a brutal cross-border attack into Gambella province of Ethiopian territory which resulted in numerous deaths, injuries and displacement.[1]  This led to Ethiopian forces crossing into South Sudan to recover children and cattle alleged to have been taken by the Murle community.[2]  This was an extraordinary attack on several fronts – the Murle community does not border with the locations attacked, and the brutality of the attack was not in keeping with usual cattle raiding patterns in the region. While some question whether the attack was indeed carried out by the Murle community (or factions within the community), others suggest possible political motivations behind the attack.[3]  However, official rhetoric has insisted on portraying this attacks as apolitical – and the result of ‘primitive and destructive forces driving the Murle community.’[4] Regardless of the ethnic affiliation of the perpetrators, absent security provision on both sides of the border create a lawlessness that hampers human security, enables impunity, resulting in loss of life, disruption of livelihoods, food insecurity, and mass displacement on both sides of the border.[5]

The narrative of the Murle as a “primitive” community – often seen as having apolitical motivations for its actions, and driven by their need to abduct children (and cattle) due to an infertility epidemic – is one that continues to hold considerable sway in the current context of South Sudan and wider region, making the whole community convenient scapegoats for any violence which is unclear, or too political to attribute.[6] However, this reductionist perspective diminishes the complexity of the Murle community, and underestimates the potential role of Murle leaders and community within the current South Sudanese political arena.[7]  As Felix De Costa (2013) asserts, “Accusing all Murle of responsibility for violence only serves to magnify the sense of marginalisation and isolation felt by the Murle as a whole.” [8]

At the heart of the dominant discourse around the Murle community is the claim that (only) the Murle abduct children and raid cattle. Yet the Murle community is not the only ethnic group in South Sudan where members of the community participate in these activities.[9] Nonetheless, a strong narrative, even believed by some Murle themselves,[10] asserts that the Murle community is more inclined to abduct children due to infertility, cultural practices and a more fluid sense of identity.[11] Other communities, for their part, claim they only abduct children as revenge for the Murle child-abducting practices.[12]  This feeds into the discourse of the Murle as a primitive and ungovernable community, and in turn has been utilised by political leaders to incite cycles of violence against the Murle as a whole.

At the most simplistic level, the Murle are divided into two groups – the cattle keepers who inhabit the Lotilla Plain, and the agricultural Murle, inhabiting the Boma Plateau. Despite a common ethnic identity and history, these two groups developed distinct livelihood strategies and cultural patterns – the cattle keepers following a seasonal transhumance pattern, with cattle at the heart of their society (much like their neighbouring Nuer and Dinka), and the agriculturalists culturally less cattle-focussed and employing a mix of other livestock and livelihood strategies.[13] [14] The Murle are also divided along various clan lines, age sets (buul), religious, and political ideologies.

While sharing an overarching ethnic identity, when it comes to issues of peacebuilding the Murle can be neither seen nor treated as a consolidated group.”[15]

The Murle as Stakeholders in Political Contests

The Murle community has long experienced deep divisions based on political allegiances. During the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005), the Murle were split between those who supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and those who supported the Pibor Defense Force headed by Sultan Ishmael Konyi.[16]  The Pibor Defense Force was formed to protect the Murle community from the predation by the neighbouring Dinka and Nuer, who dominating the leadership of the SPLM/A. Despite the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, and the Juba declaration in 2006 when Sultan Konyi joined the SPLM and his militia were integrated (somewhat) into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the split within the Murle community continued.

Although for many in South Sudan, the CPA created a period of relative peace and stability, for the inhabitants of Jonglei state, bordering with Ethiopia’s Gambella region, this era was characterised by almost constant inter-ethnic conflicts, fueled largely by cattle raiding, mass killings and abduction – often justified as revenge attacks for both current and historic grievances, often leading to mass displacement of populations into Ethiopia.[17]  Cattle raiding is endemic in Jonglie State, amongst the Murle as well as the other pastoral communities, as cattle are highly prized and central to their cultural traditions and values, in particular marriage.   This reciprocal cattle raiding is often a trigger and driver of conflict in the region, particularly in the absence of other livelihood strategies for the youth. Throughout this period, the Murle community continued to be at odds with the dominant Nuer and Dinka communities in Jonglei State – with very little representation in either the Jonglei State government in Bor nor the national government in Juba. During this period the Murle community also saw very little in terms of improved infrastructure, economic development or access to services and alternatives sources of livelihood.[18] This political and socio-economic marginalisation was reinforced by prevailing narratives and political discourses that portrayed the Murle community as the principal aggressors in the violence in Jonglei, which, according to Felix De Costa (2013), ignored the reality that the cycle of violence was the responsibility of all the communities involved, not just the one group.

A series of inter-communal attacks targeting the Murle, with alleged support from the SPLA who armed the Dinka Bor and Lou Nuer youth in 2011 and 2012 combined with heavy-handed forced disarmament of the Murle community, resulted in a rebellion headed by former payam administrator, David Yau Yau, leading to an unprecedented flow of arms and ammunition and the mobilisation of youth. According to Todisco (2015), “The specific grievances of Yau Yau and his close entourage aside, the struggle had progressively embodied a feeling of marginalisation shared by most Murle people against the state government headquartered in the state capital, Bor, which they perceived as hostile and Dinka-dominated.”.[19]

In 2013, Yau Yau and his militia group re-entered negotiations with the Juba government, and on 9 May, 2014, Yau Yau signed a landmark peace agreement with President Salva Kiir, but committed to stay neutral in the wider conflict in the new civil war that had erupted in December 2013.[20]  The peace agreement between resulted in the formation of a new Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA) along the South Sudan-Ethiopia border, combining the Pibor and Pochalla counties of Jonglei State,[21] primarily inhabited by the Anyuak, Jei, Kachepo, and Murle.  The political apparatus of the GPAA was now controlled by the previously-marginalised Murle political leadership, with David Yau Yau appointed as the Chief Administrator. Todisco (2015) noted that while the post-CPA era was characterised by protracted violence and displacement in Pibor, the collapse of the country into civil war in 2013 resulted in a considerable improvement of security for the Murle communities in the GPAA.[22]

Because of the newly erupted civil war, the Murle community moved from being the enemy that the other communities in Jonglei state despised and worked together to attack, to the potential lynch pin who could potentially swing the war one way or another. As Todisco (2015) stated: “Yau Yau has repeatedly pledged neutrality, but if the new troops were deployed on the Pibor–Akobo corridor they would represent a significant new military advantage for the government.”.[23]

Figure 1 Map of decreed 28 States of South Sudan, including Boma state

The formation of Boma state in October 2015, along with the removal of Yau Yau from the leadership and the installing of long-term SLPA/M member, Baba Meden, in December 2015, resulted in a resumption of intra-community violence.[24]  Rejected by the section of the community that supported Yau Yau, Meden was struggled to establish his capital in Pibor town, until he was replaced by Sultan Ismail Konyi in January 2017.  The 2016 attack in Gambella attributed to the Murle community was blamed upon Meden and his government in Boma – who countered by blaming Yau Yau’s militia for the attack.[25] Currently, the political context in Boma county remains fragile, with continued internal Murle divisions, and little improvement in their relationships with their neighbouring communities. However, the fact that they are no longer under the political domination of their neighbouring communities (at least at the State level), provides more opportunities for a measure of political autonomy and influence.

The failure to engage the Murle as a community with legitimate grievances and concerns, and continuing to treat them as being predisposed to certain forms of violence and behaviours, will only perpetuate continued cycles of violence and revenge, which will continue to spill over the South Sudan-Ethiopia border.


Politicians, and some researchers, present the violence in the border areas of South Sudan and Ethiopia as the result of primitive practices of cattle raiding and child abduction, apportioning blame according to ethnicity, while whitewashing the marginalisation and political motivations that may also be driving this violence. As Rolandsen and Breidlid (2013) assert, the violence in this region is more a result of the prevailing security vacuum and the political economy of civil war and large-scale violence than because of inter-ethnic conflict, cattle raiding and child abduction (although they do play a part). As communities continue to feel marginalised and insecure in their relationships to their neighbours, they will continue to arm themselves, and the cycle of violence will continue.


NGOs, Researchers, and media must use conflict sensitivity when reporting on violent conflicts to avoid reinforcing harmful stereotypes and feeding into cyclical patterns of conflict and revenge. It is important to avoid attributing violent acts or behaviours according to specific ethnic groups – and recognise that acts of violence and criminality cut across all ethnic groups.

Those working to resolving the ongoing civil war must recognise that political settlements and peace agreements need to be comprehensive to address wider grievances. It is important to also recognise that the resolution of one conflict may cause a resurgence of other conflicts that have been suppressed or remained dormant during the wider conflict, and ensure ongoing conflict analysis and direct resources towards these emerging conflicts to ensure they do not destablise the political settlement.

INGOs, Donors and national government representatives must recognise that grassroots inter- and intra-ethnic conflict transformation is critical to ensure that political settlements are sustained and address deep-seated narratives of grievance and revenge. Whilst political settlements and peace agreements provide the critical space for peace, if these agreements are not bolstered and supported at the grassroots level through genuine conflict transformation between communities, the likelihood of a return to conflict is high.

Judith McCallum (PhD) holds a PhD in Cultural Geography from York University, Ontario, Canada. Her research focused on the impact of the Sudanese civil war on the identities of the Murle community in Jonglei, South Sudan. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Life & Peace Institute.


[1] ‘Death Toll tops 200 in cross-border Ethiopia raid’ 2016-04-18.

[2] Tekle, Tesfa-Alem. 2016. ‘Ethiopia launches military action against S.Sudan’s Murle group’. Sudan Tribune, Tuesday, 19 April 2016.

[3] ‘7 questions about the Gambella raid in Ethiopia.’ Radio Tamzuj. 21 April 2016.

[4] Despite the incident in question happening around the same time as Riek Machar’s planned return to the Juba capital through Gambella region, the Ethiopia premier “confirmed” that the attackers were neither affiliated with the South Sudan government nor the SPLM-IO (Tekle 2016).

[5] Rolandsen, Øystein H. & Ingrid Marie Breidlid. 2013. ‘What is Youth Violence in Jonglei?’, PRIO Paper.

[6] Laudati, Anne. 2011. ‘Victims of discourse: mobilizing narratives of fear and insecurity in post conflict South Sudan – the case of Jonglei State.’ African Geopolitical Review 30(1): 15-32.

[7] Felix da Costa D. 2013. ‘‘We are one, but we are different”: Murle identity and local peacebuilding in Jonglei, South Sudan’, June Policy Brief, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), Oslo: NOREF

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jal, Gatluck Ruon. 2014. ‘Cross Border Conflicts in Gambella Regional State (from 1991 to 2011): the impacts of the Cross Border Conflicts in Gambella Regional State.’ Public Policy and Administration Research Vol. 4. No. 6 pp 52-61p 56

[10] To distance themselves from others in the community, it was not unusual to hear Murle community members blaming other factions of the community for child abduction. For example, the highland Murle on the Boma plateau have sought to differentiate themselves as a separate ethnic ground to distance themselves from the Murle community on the Lotilla plane.

[11] for a more through discussion on this, see the author’s PhD dissertation 2013.

[12] Jal (2014:56)

[13] Andretta, Elizabeth H. 1989. ‘Symbolic Continuity, Material Discontinuity, and Ethnic Identity among Murle Communities in the Southern Sudan.’ Ethnology 28, no. 1 (1989): 17-31. doi:10.2307/3773640.

[14] Santschi, M., Leben Moro, Philip Dau, Rachel Gordon and D. Maxwell. 2014. ‘Livelihoods, access to services and perceptions of governance: An analysis of Pibor county, South Sudan from the perspective of displaced people.’ Working Paper, Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, September 2014.

[15] Felix De Costa (2013)

[16] McCallum, J. 2013. ‘Murle Identity in Post-Colonial South Sudan’, doctoral dissertation. Toronto: York University.

[17] Rolandsen, O. & Breidlid (2013:4)

[18] Santschi et. al. (2014).

[19] Todisco, C. 2015. ‘Real but Fragile: The Greater Pibor Administrative Area.’ Small Arms Survey HSBA Working Paper 35. Pg. 5.

[20] Ibid

[21] The counties which have fewer inhabitants from the Dinka Bor and Lou Nuer communities.

[22] Todisco, C. 2015. ‘Real but Fragile: The Greater Pibor Administrative Area.’ Small Arms Survey HSBA Working Paper 35.Pg. 61.

[23] Ibid: 8.

[24] ‘South Sudan President summons Boma governor over military clashes.’ Sudan Tribune, 29 February 2016.

[25] ‘Boma government accused of being behind massacre of Ethiopia citizens.’ Sudan Tribune. 22 June 2016.

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