Murle community of South Sudan

‘From Boma to Pibor, we all have the same language, the same clans, we are the same Murle. Every Murle from Pibor came from Boma.’ (Chief Ngantho Kavula)

Murle territory in South Sudan
The Boma Plateau seen from Boma town, 2013

Introduction & Geography

The Murle are a largely agro-pastoralist community living in what was until recently Jonglei state, and is now the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), in eastern South Sudan. At the most basic level, the Murle are divided into two groups. The larger and more dominant agro-pastoralist Murle who inhabit the Lotilla Plains, also known as the Lowlands, living along the plains spreading from Pibor, Veveno, Lotilla and Kengen rivers, and neighbouring Dinka Bor, Lou Nuer and Anyuak areas; and the agricultural Murle, living in the agriculturally fertile lands of the Boma Plateau, also known as the Highlands. Jebel Boma County is located on the south-eastern border of the GPAA, bordering Ethiopia to the east, and Kapueta East county in Eastern Equatoria to the south.

Social Institutions

Murle society is organized through three core interconnected social institutions: the age-set or generation system (buul); red chiefs (alan ci merik); and clans or drumships (kidoŋwa). These three social institutions bind the Murle together as a group and shape Murle discourses as a distinctive and cohesive ethnic community. Each age-set has its own red chiefs, with a hierarchy of authority determined by the clans, which establishes seniority within each age-set and across the Murle as a whole.

The Murle draw on four clans, or drumships, with respective sub-clans that divide between red chiefs and black commoners. Historically, red chiefs got their name from the crimson bird feathers they wore on their foreheads, although now they often wear a red hat and other red clothing. The term ‘black commoners’ refers to those that are not from red chief clans.

The two larger clans are the Taŋajon and ŋarɔti, followed by the Keleŋnya and ŋenvac. There are red chiefs in all four clans, with those from the Taŋajon considered to have the greatest authority, followed by the ŋarɔti, Keleŋnya and ŋenvac, respectively. Within each clan, there are also complex and nuanced hierarchies and sub-clans, that establish seniority. The issue, then, is not the absence of leadership structures as is often misconceived; rather, it is the ability to navigate and understand these complex leadership structures and social institutions.

However, it is also true to say that Murle society is acephalous and decentralised, in other words that there is no simple hierarchy of leadership and authority. Murle society is structured around the age-set system, which is the most distinctive aspect of the community’s social organisation. Age-sets, also sometimes known as generations, are social groupings primarily for men within a certain age bracket for which one will usually belong all his life, which in turn interlock with the clanship and red chief institutions to structure society and authority.

Despite a collective sense of group identity, the Murle community from the lowlands and highlands have had diverse experiences of recent history, ecology and landscape, thus also of livelihoods, legacies of conflict and even of the state. Landscape and ecological differences have meant that the lowland and highland Murle have developed diverse sociocultural patterns and livelihood strategies.

Socio-Political Context

Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that led to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, Jonglei state has been severely affected by communal and political conflicts. The rebellions of the late George Athor in 2010 and David Yau Yau in 2010 and again in 2012 contributed to a wide availability of weapons and ammunition. These also contributed to increasingly violent intercommunal conflicts, accompanied by mass killings, cattle raids and abductions of women and children, in addition to local feuds at the village level. Inter-communal conflict between the Lou Nuer and Murle escalated and became increasingly violent in 2009–2011, extending on to 2013. Targeting tactics changed, and attacks were no longer only about capturing cattle but also targeted entire villages, killing women, children and the elderly, and looting and destroying homes, state infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, and NGO facilities.

The Government of South Sudan responded by initiating another round of civilian disarmament of all groups in the area, the fifth SPLA-led disarmament campaign in Jonglei since 2007. The SPLA battalion responsible for disarmament in Pibor was made up of officers from the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups, who took the chance to avenge earlier Murle cattle raids and attacks on their own communities. By May 2012, the campaign had become a forced disarmament campaign, particularly in the plains of Pibor County, where, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rughts Watch, the SPLA committed rapes, simulated drowning and other serious abuses. In addition to previous unresolved political grievances, the SPLA’s violent disarmament campaign instigated David Yau Yau to resume his 2010 rebellion. The violent actions of the SPLA against Murle civilians also encouraged many Murle men to join the predominantly Murle rebellion known as the South Sudan Defence Movement/Army-Cobra Faction, as a way to protect their families and communities, capitalizing on the feelings of resentment, distrust and marginalisation among the Murle population toward the SPLA. The Cobra Faction was fighting the South Sudan government, calling for greater Murle government representation and the creation of a Murle state.

A peace deal signed in May 2014 led to the end of the two year armed conflict between the government’s SPLA and the Cobra Faction, and culminated in the creation of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), that included Pibor and Pochalla counties, and was largely equivalent to a state.

Prevailing Narratives

The Murle community are stigmatised and portrayed by international, national and local political discourses as the main source of instability in Jonglei and neighbouring areas of Ethiopia ‘despite the reality of a politically and economically marginalized Murle’ (Laudati, 2011: 21). As an example of a typical yet unfortunate representation of how national and international actors portray the Murle as exceptionally violent, overwhelmingly (and disproportionately) blamed for violent events and raiding across Jonglei and elsewhere, we can take a recent quote from a 2019 WFP/FAO Report: ‘Although raiding is traditionally common amongst the Nuer, Murle and Dinka tribes, recently, cattle-raiding is increasingly exercised by the Murle tribe.’ The reality is far more complex. In fact, the extent of Nuer and Dinka raiding in Murle areas over the last years have left most family herds depleted and unable to re-stock. The profound entanglements between political and communal violence have also changed the ways in which raidings are conducted.

The stigmatisation and scapegoating of the Murle has largely been fostered by the interlocution of their better represented and politically powerful Dinka Bor neighbours in the initial colonial encounters with this region and sustained by the dominance of Dinka Bor and other neighbouring groups in subsequent governance structures. In 1949, B.A. Lewis, a British district commissioner in Pibor later turned ethnographer observed that ‘The tribe calls itself “Murle”. It is better known to the world as the “Beir Tribe”, but this is the name given to it by the Bor Dinka.’ That the Murle were known to colonial authorities as ‘Beir’, the Dinka term to refer to them (meaning ‘enemy’), is indicative that their relationship to the government was, and remains, mediated by Dinka Bor representations of the Murle as the aggressors. As explained by Edward Thomas (2015, 70), ‘At the time, Bor people paid tax, while Murle and Nuer people did not. Both Murle and Nuer groups raided Dinka areas, and British punitive patrols on non-taxpaying groups, using Dinka irregulars, were sometimes cast as ‘protection’ of taxpayers from raids’.

After Sudan’s independence in 1956, Hassan ŋacingol, the first Murle to be appointed a District Commissioner allied himself to Khartoum, which reinforced the negative portrayals of the community. During the SPLM/A’s struggle against the Khartoum government, the Murle were split between those in Boma, who largely supported the SPLM/A, and those who fought with Sultan Ismael Konyi’s Pibor Defence Force (PDF). The PDF, locally known as the ‘Brigade’, was a local Murle militia in Pibor established by Ismael Konyi and aligned with the Khartoum government to protect the Murle community from ‘predation by the neighbouring Dinka and Nuer, who dominated the leadership of the SPLM/A’ (McCallum, 2017). Decisions regarding the side on which people fought were often based on practical concerns, such as who was in control of the location where a person was or had been displaced to, rather than political or ideological considerations.

But the most notable prevailing rumour propagated by the media, poorly informed NGOs and even senior government officials accuses Murle of suffering from infertility and link this to child abduction practices across Jonglei. Child abductions constitute an important element in the history of conflict in Jonglei and elsewhere in South Sudan and are practiced by various ethnic groups. However, abductions are most often attributed to the Murle and explained by political narratives of Murle infertility, which have no scientific basis. These claims state that the Murle suffer from untreated sexually transmitted diseases that produce high rates of infertility, and therefore abduct children to replenish their numbers. Although further research is needed on the complex political economy of abductions, what is certain is that there is no evidence that Murle have higher infertility rates than other groups, nor that they are the only groups practicing child abductions.

These historical contingencies and a strong political narrative have all contributed to the demonisation of the Murle community in South Sudan.

Woman on a canoe in Pibor River during the rainy season crossing between Pibor town and Lukurynyang, September 2018
Murle Map

Map of South Sudan and map of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (former Jonglei state) (both from Felix da Costa, 2018. ‘Changing Power among Murle chiefs’).
Cattle grazing in the plains. Photograph by Jon Arensen, circa 1980s.
Cattle drinking water in Pibor. Photograph Jon Arensen circa 1980s