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Rita Willaert

Working paper: Grazing and cross-border conflict between the two Sudans

Michelle Djekić | 06 September 2013

The working paper titled "Dividing Lines: Grazing and Conflict along the Sudan-South Sudan Border" explores socio-economic issues within the context of the 2011-2012 dry season (October through May); the first grazing period since the self-determination of Southern Sudan. Conflict has transformed the migratory season, blocking many grazing routes, causing huge casualty rates and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. 

This publication is part of a series of Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) working papers for Sudan and South Sudan. HSBA is a multi-year research project overseen by the Small Arms Survey and funded by the US Department of State, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the United States Institute of Peace. Author, Joshua Craze provides valuable insight into the border-conflict between Northern pastoralists and Southern host communities; a key cause for upheaval along the Sudan-South-Sudan border. Border demarcation and seasonal pastoralist movements through the borderlands remain a point of contention between the two Sudans and their periphery communities. 

Contested grazing areas have become a dimension of the wider conflict, impacting livelihoods and human security. It has led to militarisation and conflict over land and natural resources. Craze conducts and assesses five in-depth case studies: the Northern Bahr el Ghazal–East Darfur border; Abyei; the Unity–South Kordofan border; the Upper Nile–South Kordofan border; and the Upper Nile–White Nile border. This new and noteworthy analysis is carried out at the micro-level, exploring the current local dynamics of migrating communities, governance structures, legislation and defence.

A broader picture

The borderlands of Sudan and South-Sudan present a ‘dry-season space’ for pastoralist groups from both sides - seeking transitory grazing areas for their livestock. The most pressing issues are flagging ‘community coexistence’ between host communities and pastoralists; over-taxation of migrant groups; border militarization; and widespread differences in cross-border relations. 

Prior to South Sudan’s independence, there had always been a sufficient nexus between dry season pastoralists and host communities. Cross-border joint grazing was based on Northerners herding in the South during dry season, while Southern labourers migrated North. Today, a new level of ‘asymmetry along the border’ has taken shape. Northern pastoralists still seek entry into the South, but, Southern migration to the North has declined due to persecution in Sudan. Conflicts over land and resource use have led to incessant clashes between communities i.e. violent conflict, attacking and/or stealing of cattle.

Inter-community tensions and militarization

Under continuous strain, cattle-grazing agreements are no longer implemented at community level, which has weakened community harmony between migrant pastoralists and host communities from both sides of the border. Core decision-making authorities include state government bodies and the army.

Craze effectively highlights the significance of ethnic tensions and grazing/land rights disputes in light of the current wider conflict. Land is the most precious resource, for cultivation and grazing since none of the disputed areas contain oil, with the exception of the Unity–South Kordofan border and Abyei.

Northern migrants travelling South are now hindered by administrative constraints at various state-levels and encounter heavy border patrol by the South Sudanese government’s armed forces: the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Northern migrant pastoralists face frequent harassment from the SPLA, which serves to highlight South-Sudan’s ambiguous approach towards securing migrant safety. This ‘reorientation of grazing agreements’ has exacerbated military, ethnic and economic complexities in the border region.

The long-standing tactic of waging a ‘low-intensity proxy war’, which stems from the second civil war period (1983–2005) is also brought to light. The Government of Sudan (GoS), is known to have armed rebel militias in South Sudan in a deliberate attempt to challenge the Government of  the Republic of  South Sudan (GRSS). Examples include the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) providing arms support to the Southern armed rebel group - the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) in Unity State in South Sudan.

In turn, disarmament agreements between host communities and pastoralists are undermined by herdsmen. Northern pastoralists still carrying small arms when in South Sudan, deem it necessary in the face of ‘extensive harassment’ by SPLA forces. Given the delicate circumstances, small arms disarmament will continue to be rebuffed by pastoralists, reports Craze. Border militarization is, therefore, a primary focus area, comprising a variety of ‘armed actors’ incl. armed rebels.

Red tape restrictions

Befuddling administrative agreements over grazing routes have created further havoc between pastoralists and host communities, e.g. in Maban county, in Upper Nile, South Sudan, where legal border matters are handled on a county level rather than being settled between communities. Complex taxation matters are also a massive cause for the exacerbation of cross-border reciprocity tensions between pastoralists and host communities; different tax rates for different areas by different actors. In the case of major breakdowns in inter-community relations, some areas do depend on government intervention to ensure grazing accessibility. However, militarization of the border in other places, where there is little community tension, has only served to complicate trade and migration matters. Current differences in cross-border affairs are, therefore, highly comparable to former group relations witnessed during the second civil war. These groups now reside on either side of the Sudan-South Sudan border.

In all, active hostility surrounding grazing routes continues to be on the rise due to the vast number of ethnic groups claiming land rights along the disputed border. The human and physical security of pastoralist societies remains a grave concern due to conflict escalation, arms and militarization. The demarcation of a putative national border separating Sudan and South-Sudan has been in a game-changer in cross-border relations since South Sudan’s independence. 

Photo credit main picture: Rita Willaert