Sultan Ismael Konyi is for many people the greatest Murle leader that has ever lived. He was one of the most prominent political, military and spiritual leaders of the Murle community, until he passed away age the age of 80 in Juba on the 10th March 2021. Over his long life, he successfully drew upon and strategically deployed multiple sources of authority to strengthen his position amongst his community as well as his political position at national level. This includes his role as a red chief, a prominent senior politician, a government official and a military commander who was the founder and head of the Pibor Defence Forces (PDF), aligned with Khartoum since the 1980s. The case of Sultan Ismael Konyi also sheds more specific light on both the intersection of and tensions between spiritual and government authority in Murle society.
His life in his own words:
‘I was born in 1942 in a village called Muur. In 1943, when I was still young, my father migrated here and settled in Tenet in a place called Kavachoch, nowadays known as ɔle ci Meri50 I grew up here. Since I migrated here, [to Pibor] I studied in Pibor Boys Primary School. After primary school in Pibor, I went to Kodok Secondary School [in Upper Nile]. In secondary school, one day I left for traditional dancing without permission of the teachers and was chased out of school. So I went to Malakal and found that the government was recruiting police and searching for people who knew how to read and write. I submitted my application and was called for an interview that I passed and was recruited as a police officer in Malakal.
In 1972, an order was sent from the police headquarters in Khartoum saying that all educated policemen were needed in Khartoum to join the army. I qualified to join the army but was first taken for military training in Khartoum for six months, after which I returned to Malakal as an army officer. In the same year of 1972, I was transferred from Malakal to Juba and then on to Bor as security intelligence, representing Pibor for two years until I resigned and came to Pibor in 1976.
People in Pibor were desperately looking for a good person to be appointed as chief. I was among 12 nominees competing for the position and was appointed as paramount chief in 1980. I started
my work in 1980, attending some workshops in Bor in 1981. By 1983, the SPLA war broke out. But to me, Murle people were safer in the hands of the Khartoum regime, so I came to Pibor and advised the Murle youth not to join the SPLM/A, and instead mobilized them to protect our cattle, our families and our land, and they agreed.
During 1984 and 1985, the SPLA were always attacking us here. Then in 1987, the SPLA displaced us from the barracks and we had to run to Malakal. While we were in Malakal, an order was sent from Khartoum saying we need you and your youth to be soldiers in our army, and I accepted. Some of my forces joined the SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] and were promoted to officers and I was promoted as a major general.
In 1993, I was appointed as the commissioner of Pibor and I worked as commissioner for ten years. In 2003, I was appointed as governor of Jonglei [State] and then in 2005 I was later appointed to the legislative assembly. In 2007, I was appointed as presidential advisor for peace and reconciliation. In 2009, I was removed from being an advisor and appointed the deputy chairperson of the peace and reconciliation committee for the [ten] states. I held that position until 18 January 2017, when I was appointed by the president as the governor of Boma State. Throughout these roles, I remained as the sultan of Pibor.’
(Interview to Sultan Ismael Konyi by Diana Felix da Costa, Pibor town, 21 October 2017).
This report authored by Diana Felix da Costa and published by the Rift Valley Institute in 2018 offers further insights into sultan Ismael’s astute negotiation of multiple sources of authority over his long life. It also challenges the view that Murle society has no organic leadership structures—an idea often linked to negative stereotypes of the Murle community.