The resolve of the Sudanese government against sharing power with southerners was hardened by the novel civilian peace and reconciliation conference held in Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal, under the auspices of the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC) in February-March 1999. 350 At Wunlit, the Nuer of the West Bank of the Nile agreed with their West Bank Dinka cousins to make peace and end that part of the south-south conflict, underway since the SPLA split in 1991.
Coincidentally, the Nuer of the West Bank attending the Wunlit conference were the Nuer from Blocks 1 and 2 (Leek ) and Blocks 5A (Jagei, Jikany, Dok) and 5B (Dok and Nyuong). The only West Bank Nuer who did not participate in the conference were the Bul Nuer, with minor exceptions.
Although the fighting forces prevailing in the territory of these Nuer and Dinka (SPLA and SSDF) did not end their military and political rivalry right away, the border war between the West Bank Nuer and Dinka ended at Wunlit, at civilian initiative. The civilians agreed to no more cattle raids, destruction of villages, abductions of women and children, or calling in their armed brethren to defend (and escalate) disputes. They covenanted that they would make sure that their people kept to the bargain, through pressure from the grassroots leaders, chiefs, and Christian and traditional spiritual leaders.
This was the Sudanese government’s worst nightmare: its political strategy, which had been so successful in gaining access to the southern oilfields, was to divide southerners from each other and displace them from the oilfields for the benefit of northern Sudanese and foreign oil developers. But though the Nuer-Dinka break was partially mended, there remained many other targets for “divide and displace” strategies, chief among them the Nuer themselves.
The successful Nuer-Dinka West Bank (of the Nile) peace and reconciliation conference held in Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal, on February 27-March 8, 1999, manifested an idea whose time had come. The decision to hold it was unrelated to the development of the oilfields; indeed, it was held months before the completion of the pipeline and export of oil. Political and military geography in this case overlapped with petroleum geology: the Sudanese government was focused on stirring up ethnic divisions, especially where there was oil to be had. The Nuer from the Western Upper Nile oilfields had been stirred up against their Dinka neighbors, and peace between them eventually spilled back to the oilfields.
Taban Deng, then UDSF/Riek Machar governor of Unity State, summarized the UDSF/SSDF understanding of the reconciliation conference:
Looking at Wunlit from the distance of Khartoum, Riek Machar possibly saw an opportunity to prove to the government that he and the UDSF still had a vital role to play. There was always the hope that the government would see the value of living up to the Khartoum Peace Agreement and awarding southerners, or some of them, a fair share of the oil revenues and benefits. The alternative threatened at Wunlit was a united south—united against the government. Hence, Riek Machar played a double or ambivalent role, supporting the meeting at Wunlit while hoping to benefit politically from the threat it posed to the government.
Riek Machar was walking a tightrope by supporting the Wunlit south-south reconciliation process so deeply distrusted by the Khartoum government—while at the same time insisting that his southern forces, not Khartoum’s army, had the right to control the southern oilfields. He negotiated this tightrope by, for instance, telling the government that the conference was going to be held, but not identifying its correct location. The organizers and participants feared the government would bomb the site and so maintained a press blackout on the location and the event until it was over.352
Relationships between the top leaders of the SPLM/A and the SSDF, John Garang and Riek Machar, were bad. The two had been in open warfare since 1991. Efforts at reconciliation at this level had proved fruitless. Riek Machar made an open deal with the government in 1996 rather than rejoin the SPLM/A under Colonel Garang. The people-to-people movement that took off at Wunlit was designed to sidestep these “top dog” or “big man” personality clashes. This movement sought to make peace between neighbors, regardless of whether the top leaders were able or even wanted to reconcile. The movement was responding to the impasse at the top of southern leadership that had permitted the Dinka-Nuer border war to drag on and on, with increasing casualties, abductions, stolen cattle, abandoned and destroyed villages, displacement, and poverty.
One Nuer chief elsewhere expressed the view of many southerners, that the war between Nuer and Dinka was not a traditional conflict but a new type of war: the war of the educated elite, or “the war of the doctors,” namely Dr. John Garang (agronomy) and Dr. Riek Machar (mechanical engineering):
As one Dinka former SPLA soldier said to another anthropologist, the Riek Machar-Garang power struggle was cloaked in the rhetoric of “groups under attack” in order to convince ordinary people to join the fighting:
By the time their chiefs first met for reconciliation, in June 1998, there had been more serious clashes between the West Bank Nuer and Dinka than between the Riek Machar and Paulino Matiep Nuer factions—the burning of Ler did not occur until late June 1998—or the Nuer and the government. The Nuer-Dinka cattle raiding and fighting had been transformed from customary raids to military attacks upon the civilian support base of the “other” ethnicity by involvement of the SPLA soldiers (on behalf of their Dinka kin) and of Riek Machar’s forces (for the Nuer).
The Wunlit conference did not include all Dinka and Nuer: large numbers of both lived on the East Bank of the Nile and elsewhere, but their complex relations were scheduled to be taken up after the resolution of Nile West Bank differences.355 For the process to take place, however, the people on the ground had to be committed to it; where one side was not committed to resolving differences, meetings sponsored by the NSCC could not work and would not be held.
The Nile West Bank came first because the chiefs and local leaders had responded with more readiness to the initial peace feelers by the churches. Eight chiefs, Dinka and Nuer of the West Bank, met in the presence of church facilitators and foreign observers in Lokichokkio, Kenya on June 3-11,1998, for a small people-to-people reconciliation conference. They concluded that a larger reconciliation conference should be held inside the south, where the greatest number of affected people could participate.356
An area in Bahr El Ghazal under SPLM/A control seemed most likely to provide adequate security for all concerned. The organizers chose Wunlit, in Tonj County, Bahr El Ghazal, which was in Dinka territory but near the disputed Nuer/Dinka West Bank border. The Dinka represented at Wunlit were those whose counties bordered on Nuer territory on the West Bank, including Gogrial, Rumbek, Tonj, Twic, and Yirol counties.357
The Nuer represented at Wunlit included the Leek, Jikany (Western), Jagei, Dok, Nyuong, and a few Bul Nuer. (Maps C and D) The Bul Nuer, who shared a border with Bahr El Ghazal’s Twic Dinka population, were invited to Wunlit, but because they were allied with Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep at the time, only the Bul Nuer of Cmdr. Philip Bapiny’s group (which had left Paulino Matiep and joined the SPLM/A several months before) attended.358 Due to logistical problems, the Bul Nuer representatives came on foot, as the conference was adjourning, bringing with them a Dinka prisoner to free as a sign of good faith.359
The word of possible peace was excitedly spreading in the south because of confidence-building measures between the traditional leaders of the West Bank Dinka and Nuer, following the Lokichokkio meeting in June 1998. The NSCC arranged and funded special flights to take chiefs on visits to each others’ territory. This NSCC ability to fund flights through access to international donations was crucial to the months’ long confidence-building process, because transport on foot (the alternative) was dangerous, time-consuming, and for elderly chiefs not even possible.
The chiefs on both sides returned home with glowing tales of how their former enemies had welcomed them with respect, slaughtering bulls for them. Both Nuer and Dinka tried to outdo each other in hospitality: some visiting chiefs were carried aloft by a welcolming crowd from the plane, as women trilled traditional greetings and bulls were slaughtered at the airstrip for them to step across. As one chief remarked: “They washed my feet. Even my wife does not wash my feet!”360 The chiefs exchanged pledges of security.
Riek Machar sent a political/military UDSF/SSDF delegation from Khartoum to the conference, a surprise to the organizers, who had sought Riek Machar’s approval for West Bank Nuer to attend but had not invited him.361 The Wunlit organizers refused to let the UDSF/SSDF delegation address the conference, on the grounds that it was a people-to-people conference only, and that the SPLM/A was neither attending nor invited, except for opening and closing remarks by the regional commander and the governor. The UDSF/SSDF delegation, however, was permitted to attend as observers. The members of the delegation sat up front, listening to what the Dinka and Nuer representatives had to tell each other about past misdeeds and the need to stop draining their populations in continual fratricidal conflict. The UDSF/SSDF leaders also circulated among the chiefs and others, renewing old acquaintances.
Presuming, as did the Sudanese government, that the hand of the SPLM/A was behind the conference, a UDSF member remarked: “What does Garang want? We want a program.”362 The political delegation was surprised again to find out this was not a Garang-planned conference. He, like Riek Machar, faced a grassroots movement that he had not created.
The SPLM/A had a minimal presence at the conference. SPLA Bahr El Ghazal commander Salva Kiir and the SPLM/A-appointed governor of the state, Nhial Deng Nhial, left after greeting the delegates and did not return until the closing ceremony. SPLA Cmdr. James Ajongo Mawut, whose headquarters comprised a couple of huts some twenty minutes from Wunlit, oversaw the protection of the gathering.363
The conference opened out of doors in multifaith style, with Dinka and Nuer spiritual leaders, masters of the fishing spear (Dinka) and earth masters (Nuer), forming in a big circle around a tethered white ox, Mabior (Dinka and Nuer for “white ox”), chanting their desire for him to take away all the bad blood between Nuer and Dinka. Then the ox, which fiercely resisted, was slaughtered in the traditional (Dinka) manner, horns wrestled to the ground by young men, and throat cut with a knife. Throughout the conference, Mabior and his sacrifice were referred to by the participants.364 Inside the specially-built long hall of mud and thatch deemed necessary for the important meeting, a Christian pastor gave a long benediction.
Following the format of the earlier reconciliation conference in June 1998, the representatives of the bordering Nuer and Dinka counties were given the opportunity to vent all their grievances against each other. Each county had an hour and a half for its three representatives to speak. Under the rules, no one could interrupt the speaker. They all had to listen and try to understand the hurt that they had caused each other during the eight years of cross-border raiding, looting, and killing.
Next, the conference broke down into groups that would work on resolutions addressing the problems identified. The list of issues to be tackled illustrated how much harm had been done. One working group dealt with the all-important issue of cattle raiding; central to both Dinka and Nuer societies for nutrition, social relations, and trade, cattle remained the primary form of wealth. Another working group addressed resettlement of more than one hundred villages on the Nuer-Dinka border that had been abandoned due to raiding and insecurity. Those villages, it was decided, would be repopulated and rebuilt.365 Another group addressed the problem of abducted women and children, working out procedures consistent with customary law to return the abductees or regularize the marriages of those previously unmarried women who freely (in front of their relatives) chose to remain with their abductor-husbands. This was to apply also to unmarried women who had been abducted by Nuer or Dinka rebel soldiers, including those whose abduction may have been carried out to avoid payment of the bridewealth.366 Other working groups dealt with sharing of grazing lands and resumption of trade. These were some of the first resolutions to be implemented.
The resolutions passed at the conference were ceremonially signed by the participants, including female delegates, an important gain for women’s participation in local government. In the weeks that ensued, events moved swiftly as the delegates returned home to inform their people of the agreements. Quickly, trade resumed: reportedly five to six thousand Dinka traders from the Yirol area, portering goods for sale on their heads, journeyed to Nyal and Ganyliel in Nuerland to restore trading relations. Food monitors then noted the product of that commerce: many cattle began to be sold from Western Upper Nile/Unity State through Dinkaland to Uganda later in 1999.367
Following Wunlit, pastures were formally consecrated for joint use, and Nuer and Dinka cattle were put to graze together. Many people returned temporarily to their abandoned villages well ahead of supplies needed to rebuild them. Planting would start with the rains in May, only two months after Wunlit ended, if the returnees had the seeds.
As promised, the NSCC in September 1999 held a follow-up conference to create a civilian governance structure that would make sure that the commitments of Wunlit were put into practice. Those attending that conference had been chosen by their communities to represent them, instead of being appointed from higher up; there, too, women took part, with the requirement that one of the three delegates from each county be a woman.
A watershed for southerners, the Wunlit conference ended some of the south-south fighting which had destroyed hundreds of villages and killed perhaps thousands of civilians from 1991 to 1999.368 It gave many southerners hope that there was a way to surmount the conflict that had cost them so dearly.
350 The NSCC was created by the Sudan Council of Churches based in Khartoum, to serve as a branch office for the many Sudanese Christian congregations being cut off from their headquarters in Khartoum by the war. The NSCC, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, comprises Sudanese Protestant and Catholic churches part or all of whose congregations and activities are located in rebel-held areas of southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. The SCC and NSCC consider that they are one council, periodically meet together, and issue joint statements across the political-military divide.
351 Taban Deng, interview, July 26, 1999.
352 International observers and journalists were invited as much to deter government bombing or other military action against the conference as to witness the event.
353 Jok and Hutchinson, p. 10.
354 Ibid., p. 13.
355 The organizers planned next to reconcile the East Bank Nuer, split into many different armed factions. Upon achieving peace among the East Bank Nuer, the organizers’ aim was to promote reconciliation among all East Bank tribes: the Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Murle, Anuak, and others. Several other meetings among and between hostile southerners were planned. Ultimately, the NSCC’s plans called for a reconciliation conference between the Dinka and the Baggara. Statements of NSCC organizers at Wunlit conference, February 28, 1999.
356 S.E. Hutchinson, interview, April 18, 2001; Hutchinson attended the Lokichokkio June 3-11, 1998 meeting and the Wunlit meeting.
357 The county names in Western Upper Nile roughly conform to the names of Nuer ethnic groups, i.e., Jagei County is populated mostly by Jagei. With some exceptions, the county names in Bahr El Ghazal do not correspond to the ethnic groups living there. The Dinka ethnic groups living in the Dinka West Bank counties represented at Wunlit were the Atwot, Luaich (or Luak-jang), Agar, Gok, Manangyer, and Twic. (See Map D)
358 There have been many spellings of the name of this commander, including Bipam and Bipany. We have used the Bapiny spelling because it is more common in Nuer.
359 S. E. Hutchinson, interview, March 22, 2000.
360 Rev. Bill Lowrey, peace facilitator consultant to NSCC, Human Rights Watch interview, Nairobi, August 22, 1999.
361 SSDF officer, interview, August 3, 1999.
362 Samuel Aru Bol, Union of Sudanese African Parties (USAP), Human Rights Watch interview, Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal, February 28, 1999 (deceased 2000).
363 Cmdr. Ajongo Mawut identified himself as the most senior SPLA officer to take an active part in the Trojan horse scheme in Wau, Bahr El Ghazal, in January 1998, whereby he and his forces pretended to defect to the government in order to relocate inside Wau, the second largest town in the south. James Ajongo Mawut, SPLA commander, Human Rights Watch interview, Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal, February 24, 1999. See Human Rights Watch, Famine in Sudan, pp. 53-54.
364 Observation by Human Rights Watch, Wunlit, Bahr El Ghazal, February 1999.
365 Note that one area heavily raided by Nuer in 1996, Makuac, Tonj County, later (after the Wunlit covenant) became a place of refuge among Dinka for Nuer driven from their homes in the oilfields by the government forces. Isaac Magok and Lino Madut, Human Rights Watch interview, Paliang, Tonj County, Bahr El Ghazal, August 1999.
366 The bridewealth was traditionally paid in cattle by the family of the bridegroom to the family of the bride in installments not completed until after the birth of at least the first child. D. H. Johnson, email, April 30, 2001. By abduction, soldiers married without waiting until they had enough cattle to afford the bridewealth. At times they abducted women they already hoped to marry, but at the cost of enraging the wife’s family members, who did not receive any cattle, not to mention violating the woman’s rights.
367 April to June was the time when livestock were typically put on the market for sale, but the two major cattle trading centers for Western Upper Nile/Unity State, at Zeraf Island and Mayom, had been cut off to many Nuer on account of hostilities since May 1999. Nuer displaced by the fighting were also under financial pressure to sell even more cattle (when they still had them) than usual. As a result, the Dinka of Yirol, known as the main cattle traders from Twic County to Bor to Ganyliel, bought the Nuer cattle and resold them into Uganda. William Fielding, WFP consultant, Human Rights Watch interview, Lokichokkio, Kenya, August 16, 1999.
368 See Human Rights Watch, Civilian Devastation.