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This post is a brief history, intended to provide a contextual background for understanding the complex issues that the Enough Project works on. It is part of the series Enough 101.
The term “White Army” was originally used by predominantly Nuer followers of Riek Machar during Sudan’s Second Civil War. More recently, the name has been adopted by a 6,000-8,000-strong mostly Lou-Nuer youth militia that formed towards the end of 2011 in Pibor County in South Sudan’s Jonglei state.
This group of young fighters adopted the “White Army” name in December 2011 when it led an attack on two Murle towns in Pibor County. Inter-communal violence in the area has, in recent months, been on the rise; 1,100 people from both the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities have been killed and 63,000 have been displaced in Jonglei state from April through the end of 2011.
History of the White Army
The original White Army’s name “appears to derive from the physical appearance of Nuer cattle camp youth who typically cover themselves with light-colored ash as a protection against bugs,” according to a paper by the Small Arms Survey.
Cattle raiding has always been a part of South Sudanese culture, and traditionally, groups of young men live in cattle camps outside the villages to protect their herds. With the Second Civil War, youth acquired increasing numbers of small arms and weaponry and fought as part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, or SPLM/A.
The White Army is not real army and aren’t proper soldiers. Anybody with a gun can claim to be ‘White Army’ soldier. They are just local people who have guns and it’s just name given to gunmen in villages. - Lou Nuer elder
In 1991 the SPLM/A split, with John Garang (ethnically Dinka) leading the mainstream faction and Riek Machar (ethnically Nuer), the current vice president of South Sudan, leading the splinter group Nasir (later called United) faction. The original White Army was a decentralized constellation of armed actors that sometimes aligned with Machar’s group and sometimes served as proxy militias supported by the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Towards the end of the civil war, the Riek Machar group, including some elements of the White Army, reintegrated into the main SPLA under Garang. The SPLA signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, with the government of Sudan in January 2005, and the original White Army militias were effectively disbanded early during the CPA period that lasted from 2005 until 2011.
Intermittent fighting between the SPLA and White Army militias continued through 2006 until the militias suffered significant losses, ran out of ammunition, and subsequently retreated northward. The SPLA, aided by the U.N. Development Program, and monitored by U.N. Mission in Sudan Military Observers and Force Protection soldiers, carried out disarmament exercises through the Jonglei region, though the SPLA recognized that the disarmament was incomplete and it would be impossible to fully disarm the White Army militias. By the end of 2006, an independent report concluded, “The White Army militias of Jonglei and Upper Nile states have effectively ceased to exist as armed groups in themselves capable of broadly preventing the implementation of basic governance.”
From December 2011-Present
The new White Army was possibly consolidated by the late rebel leader George Athor, who was reportedly arming youth in 2011 to fight against the SPLA in Jonglei state. However, other sources suggest that the new White Army is actually an internet creation of Lou-Nuer diaspora fanatics in the United States.
The group’s public messages have called for radical measures against the Murle community in Jonglei state, offering mass extermination as the “solution” that would once and for all end the long-standing inter-communal conflict between Murle and Lou-Nuer and Dinka in Jonglei.
In an initial press release in December 2011 an alleged White Army spokesperson stated, “The Nuer Youth White Army will continue operations on the daily basis until all Murle are finished so that they will not raid the Nuer anymore,” in a spate of shocking rhetoric. “We call on SPLA soldiers who do not want to die this year to stay out of our way. The Nuer White Army is well armed and no power can stop it.”
According to one White Army press release, “Civil war in South Sudan has begun and the Nuer White Army will wipe out the SPLA army on the face of the earth. South Sudan independence was achieved through revolution and peace will also come through the same revolution.”
However, any communications from the White Army must be taken with a grain of salt, as the exact source is unclear. Some have suggested that these “spokespeople” may not even be connected to the White Army on the ground. The White Army’s organizational structure, as well as its relationship to community, religious, and political leaders remains unclear. Some evidence suggests connections with Lou-Nuer elements within the SPLA and Southern Sudan Police Service.
The South Sudanese government launched a disarmament campaign at the beginning of March to disarm Jonglei communities, including White Army and Murle armed groups. However, without a more comprehensive strategy, this disarmament campaign could result in stoking, rather than decreasing, the violence.