Cattle-Camp Politics

Letter from Leer

A Dinka stands next to his cows in a cattle herders camp near Rumbek in central South Sudan, December 15, 2013. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

The ongoing conflict in South Sudan is often seen as a power struggle between the “big men,” as the South Sudanese call their political and military leaders, namely President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. But intertwined in the politics at the top are the local “cattle-camp politics,” the intertribal tensions that existed long before the start of the civil war.

On the surface, the fighting in South Sudan began at the end of 2013 when Kiir’s camp accused his then vice president, Machar, of plotting a coup. The truth behind this allegation is unclear, although Machar never hid his presidential ambitions. Indeed, tensions within the new government were there from the day South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The internal struggles were not obvious, though, so most outsiders did not predict that the new country would so quickly degenerate into interethnic violence between Kiir’s Dinka ethnic

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