No End in Sight to South Sudan’s Violence over Land



Tribal fighting in South Sudan killed nearly 200 people on Sunday. Murle tribesmen reportedly attacked an encampment of refugees from the Lou Nuer tribe, killing 185, mostly women and children, but also including soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the U.S.-backed armed force of the breakaway Government of South Sudan. The soldiers were assigned to protect the refugees.

So far this year, more than 1,000 people have died in fighting over farmland and pastures. A persistent drought affecting all of Central Africa means there is less and less acreage to support crops and animals. The violence has a domino effect. Fighting over one parcel of land displaces thousands of local residents: 50,000 were scattered when the Murle and Lou Nuer did battle in March. The refugees settle somewhere new and begin looking for farmland and pastures. This puts them at odds with the locals, who have probably already claimed all the good ground. Fighting results. The losers flee, and set in motion the same tragic phenomenon in a new area.

This problem is not confined to South Sudan. We see it in Chad and Central African Republic, as well — and similar tension over resources has helped fuel the Darfur crisis, as well. Borders mean little to famines and clans.

Simply put, there are too many people in Central Africa, and there’s too little viable land. The absence of strong institutions to mediate conflict means many confrontations over land escalate into bloodshed. Breaking the cycle requires establishing government that can forge compromise between clans, enforce stability, and begin eeking more out of Central Africa’s dwindling arable land.

In Chad, the U.N. has stepped in to mediate clan conflicts. But that’s easier said than done. Most U.N. operations in Central Africa fall under the umbrella of the High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mandate is to care for refugees. That means the U.N. provides land, equipment and agricultural services to displaced peoples, but not necessarily to non-displaced people. That gives refugees an advantage over native populations on local markets. In southern Chad, the U.N.-assisted refugees began putting local farmers out of business last year. The tension got so bad that the U.N. had to begin offering services to non-refugee populations, too, just to level the playing field.

In Central Africa’s “vortex of violence,” even trying to help, can hurt. The only thing that might offer broad relief, is rain. But global climate change might have permanently altered the region’s weather patterns. The current drought might be permanent. And that means the violence will continue.

(Photo: David Axe)