South Sudan’s gelweng: filling a security gap, or perpetuating conflict?

Saferworld explores the role and history of the galweng in Warrap and Lakes states through two personal testimonies from the field which highlight that the process of rearming the gelweng risks perpetuating a long and bloody cycle of violence.

The resumption of civil war in South Sudan over a year ago has brought the uncertain role of the gelweng – cattle protectors, in Dinka – in South Sudan to the fore. A quasi-organised group of armed men with their origins in Sudan’s second civil war, the gelweng have come to occupy a difficult place in local conflict and security. Past (albeit informal) systems of accountability and discipline that regulated their behaviour have eroded, while their relationships with the national police service now vary from intermittent cooperation to outright conflict. The continued existence of the gelweng has raised a more pressing security dilemma: while these forces have generally sat apart from state security structures, they appear to fill gaps in local security provision and response that official institutions remain unable to. 

The 16 February announcement by the Government of South Sudan that upwards of 10,000 additional people will be recruited into the police service in Lakes and Warrap states raised the uneasy prospect that the gelweng will again be reinforced, furnished with arms and uniforms, and transformed into an irregular police force. These two personal testimonies put the latest developments in Lakes and Warrap into context.

Personal testimony, Warrap State

“The role of the gelweng during the second civil war was in some ways quite clear in Warrap State.

In the 1990s, these young men moved across Warrap’s six counties protecting their cattle and working as a sort of ‘home guard’. As the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – or the SPLA, then a rebel force – fought on other fronts, against Northern Sudan and other Southern militia, the gelweng in Warrap provided security at home, protecting cattle against raids and attacks. The gelweng answered to the chiefs. They were also relatively disciplined – the SPLA (with the support of the chiefs) dealt seriously with cases of misconduct. The gelweng supported the war effort, transporting military equipment across big and difficult terrain and providing a large and mobile reserve of manpower. These factors and others meant the gelweng were generally well supported by communities.

Things started to change when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, ending the war. Access to SPLA military bases and family connections meant an influx of new weapons to the gelweng. Their informal security role also became more problematic as the role of other security actors began to formalise – as the SPLA transitioned into a national army, and as a new national police service was established. Those institutions faced their own challenges of course – and still do. But the point is that these young men suddenly sat outside the new security architecture. Largely because of that, they weren’t absorbed into security sector reform and demobilisation processes launched in South Sudan since the CPA.

But their exclusion from formal institutions did not mean the gelweng became weaker. Quite the opposite. Where they used to see their role as protecting the cattle, the gelweng have recast themselves as protectors of communities and villages – and as ‘community police’. Local authorities have sometimes encouraged the gelweng to play this role, providing them with uniforms, weapons, deploying them to reinforce the SPLA, and carrying out recruitment drives to increase their numbers. While their exact strength is unknown, we know they vastly outnumber the police. And as their role and numbers have expanded, oversight over their activities has also become more confused. The gelweng sometimes answer to the Executive Chief, other times to the County Commissioner. But often it’s unclear who they report to at all.

The ambiguous status of the gelweng in Warrap has laid the basis for a power struggle between them and the police. In addition to being considerably greater in number, the gelweng are often better armed than the police. They’re more mobile – and more accustomed to crossing difficult terrain, and this means they can reach parts of Warrap the police simply cannot. They sometimes attempt to take on tasks that are really the responsibilities of the police or judiciary, pursuing criminals for example, sentencing people, demanding fines. This has caused a lot of frustration among ordinary people. There have been skirmishes between the gelweng and police in the past.

It’s not all bad. There are signs the gelweng may have a more constructive role to play in Warrap State. Dialogue and cooperation between the gelweng, the police service and local communities has improved since 2012, with each of these groups now participating in regular community security meetings in which local roles and responsibilities for security provision and response can be discussed and clarified. In April 2014, the gelweng were credited with stopping conflict spreading to Warrap by repelling rebel attacks from neighbouring Unity State. In the past year, they have at least managed to avoid being drawn into the national conflict in any sustained way.

But their recruitment into the police threatens to change that. The move will turn the gelweng into a quasi-military government force whose status remains deeply unclear, and which lacks the internal command and control needed to guarantee minimal accountability. While the step will have immediate implications for conflict and security in Warrap, the longer-term risks are also likely to be significant."

Personal testimony, Lakes State

"The SPLA armed the gelweng in Lakes State in 1993 to protect communities and cattle from attacks by other militia in South Sudan.

As in Warrap State, they had a lot of support from communities back then. They helped to secure the cattle camps and communities while the SPLA fought elsewhere. They periodically supported the SPLA directly, carrying weapons and contributing to the ‘liberation’ of Rumbek, Yirol and Tonj in 1997 from the control of the central government in Khartoum. It was generally young men who joined the gelweng – boys of roughly 20 years and upwards. You needed to be strong enough to carry the weapons, and if needs be to fight for several days without much food or water.

Things have changed a lot since then. Where the gelweng used to be seen as protectors, after the end of the civil war in 2005 these young men began to turn their guns on each other – and on other communities. We’ve seen them fragment: gelweng now organise by county, protecting their cattle camps against attacks from other counties and, often, from other Dinka ‘sections’ (or clans), the majority ethnic group in Lakes. Since 2014, fighting between the gelweng has surged. A decade old conflict between the Dinka Thuyic and Gonyi sections started up again in August 2014, when Gonyi Paramount Chief Apareer Chut Dhuol – brother of the Lakes State governor – was murdered. At least 18 women were raped and property destroyed in retaliatory violence. Further clashes in late 2014 and in January and March this year left scores dead.

The resurgence in fighting has caused a huge amount of fear among communities. Women in parts of Rumbek have stopped cultivating because they fear attacks by armed men. Confidence in the police is rock bottom. The gelweng out-number and out-arm the police in Lakes State, and police seeking to respond to outbreaks of fighting will often find themselves at great risk, and forced to retreat. The government has deployed joint security patrols to respond to the violence – mixed forces that include members of the police service, the army and wildlife forces. Paramilitary Auxiliary Forces previously posted in and around Wau have also joined them in Rumbek, along with reinforcements from Juba.

The government’s response to the problem posed by the gelweng has been marked by a destructive cycle of support and coercive disarmament. The South Sudanese government has launched several disarmament drives in Lakes since the 1990s – in 2000, 2006, 2008 and 2010. Disarmament drives have been accompanied by reports of serious violence against the civilian population, and have often been followed by new fighting between authorities and the gelweng.  In early 2014, the state government released a large stockpile of weapons to arm the gelweng against attacks from neighbouring states, the precursor to the new upsurge in fighting later that year.

The recent announcement that some 5,000 civilians are being recruited into the Lakes State police risks fuelling this dangerous dynamic. It is likely to strengthen the position of young men who are deeply embroiled in the current violence and provide fresh justification for distributing firearms. With over 3,000 police officers already on the payroll in Lakes State, it’s also unclear that funding exists to deliver the training, salary and sustenance needed to keep a new force loyal and stable – or that expanding the police pool is the right response to Lakes’ security dilemma. In the immediate term, the move will empower young men with a history of inflicting serious violence on other communities, including sexual violence, and risks leading to another uptick in attacks in this already restive state.

Residents in and around Rumbek have started to articulate some alternative paths for addressing the current violence that need to be taken into account. In interviews carried out by the NGO Saferworld in late 2014, armed cattle keepers stressed the need for disarmament to be grounded in a more comprehensive and long-term strategy if it is to be effective. Economic empowerment and the creation of employment schemes, they stress, are of critical importance to drawing (and keeping) young men away from fighting. Steps are needed to address the trauma inflicted on today’s youth by years of fighting, and to deal with its ongoing impacts. There have been some positive efforts to consult the gelweng and communities about options for brokering a sustainable solution to violence in the past, but these have often been cut short and overtaken by forcible disarmament. The government would do well to prioritise consultation looking forward, as a first step towards improving dialogue between the gelweng and between communities and the security services."

Find out more about Saferworld's work in South Sudan.

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