A sense of insecurity – violence, gender and agency in South Sudan


Marjoke OosteromMarjoke_Oosterom200

In South Sudan, people’s sense of insecurity tells us something about the bottom-up view of the political settlement of the new nation. People feel the (new) state doesn’t offer sufficient security, so they continue to use some of the tactics they employed during the civil war to protect themselves and their families. How they act upon this feeling also tells us about gender relations in the post-war context. Here is a taster of my ongoing research in South Sudan; one of the case study countries in the project Power Violence, Citizenship, and Agency.

South Sudan gun in front of hut

The high number of arms in the community is considered a major cause of violence escalating. These are allegedly provided by politicians, who are therefore accused of instigating violence. Yet it is the decision taken at village level to use arms against other communities, even when only a few men are involved.

This story is based on in-depth case study research among the Latuko of Eastern Equatoria State, in the south-east of South Sudan. In the post-civil war era and since South Sudan’s Independence, the Latuko experience various forms of violence and insecurity. Land and border disputes between communities, often between different clans over their territorial boundaries, are common. Cattle raiding is common among various ethnic groups in Eastern Equatoria. Raids are usually accompanied by severe lethal violence that claims many victims. In the villages where I work, an everyday form of violence is physical fights among the men, and alcohol plays a strong role in this. Women I talked to ranked domestic violence as the most frequent form of physical violence they experience in daily life.

A sense of insecurity went beyond the violence that was actually taking place in people’s home area. Feelings of insecurity were deepened by news about the Murle people who infiltrated the northern part of Eastern Equatoria and kidnapped children. News could be fragmented and rumours were enough to concern people. A sense of insecurity was also deepened by news about the Yao Yao insurgents in Jonglei state – a long distance away. The men said: ‘It can be like a bush fire. Any moment it can quickly come your way.’

Tactics to keep safe
Their sense of insecurity reflected how citizens at the local level perceive South Sudan’s political settlement from below. A sense of insecurity was compounded by the perception that the state was not capable to resolve those conflicts. Moreover, people felt many conflicts were caused by politicians. Thus, since Eastern Equatoria has its own politicians such conflicts might just as well happen here.

woman adding herbs to a kaleba (drinking vessel)

The picture shows the kalebas. After settling a dispute all parties involved will drink from the same kalabebas with these herbs added to the drink.

For these reasons, people felt they had to rely on their own mechanisms for protection. Tactics have their roots in customary institutions and were used during the civil war. Both men and women were always looking out for signs of ‘enemies’ in the area. Men discussed news about any form of insecurity, far or near, in the Amangat – the place where the council of adult men meets. They discussed they should be vigilant and always united in case they needed to face the enemy one day. They would tell the women to look out for strangers when they went to fetch water or firewood. Women are not supposed to move after 8PM. To some fathers, a sense of insecurity is a reason to keep girls at home instead of sending them to the school that is a long walk away. Protection, in practice, becomes restriction. Tactics that were used during the civil war are used today.

Women’s security and strategies
Customary authority forbids women to enter the Amangat. Thus, formally they are not allowed a say on security matters. But they have their ways. They’ll sing songs to call for peace or to encourage men to fight. A senior woman may call a man from the Amangat and whisper the view of the women in his ear. But they are not the ones that take the decision whether to fight or to talk. Therefore, women often use avoidance tactics to stay safe; don’t walk far distances alone, avoid the ‘bush’ where robbers might hide.

In the context of a developing nation there is a lot of talk about how women participate at all levels of government, including on security issues. Take for instance the National Action Plan on UN Resolution 1325. Equally important for women in rural areas is how they can gain influence over those other authorities play a strong role in women’s security, as long as the state is perceived to leave gaps in the protection of its people.

Marjoke’s work in South Sudan is part of the programme on Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency at IDS. This case study is funded by ICCO and carried out in collaboration with Voice for Change. The case study report on South Sudan is expected in April 2014. The report will discuss how men and women exercise agency in response to each form of insecurity, including land disputes and domestic violence. It will highlight the roles of state, customary and social leadership.

Marjoke Oosterom is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Read previous blogs by Marjoke Oosterom


The real story after ‘Kony2012’


Marjoke Oosterom

NB: This post is an expanded version of a piece recently published on the African Arguments site.

The ‘Kony2012‘ documentary film was put online on March 5, by the US-based organisation Invisible Children. Within days the film raised $5m and within a week attracted 70m viewers worldwide. The film calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Acholi region of Uganda. Although the film shows the acute suffering of LRA victims, especially children, what really remains invisible are wounds of a society years after the LRA left.

Since its release, the film has been surrounded by social media hype and the film and the organisation behind it has been subject to much criticism. Concerns have been raised about Invisible Children’s finances; how the ‘slick Hollywood style’ plays straight into the emotions of the (American) audience when seeing children suffer; and how the simplicity of the story doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the war. Critics have made an effort to give details about the style of the campaign and have challenged the notion that a ‘US solution’ would be the right solution. Quite a bit has been said about problematic video advocacy and manipulation. But here is the real story for after Kony2012, as told in the recent film The Governance Gap to stop Kony does not put an end to the suffering of people.

The Governance Gap demonstrates the enduring – often invisible – legacy of the LRA war through the story of Nighty, a 44 year old Acholi woman. First of all, the Acholi developed a ‘survival mindset’ to cope with decades of violence, from both the LRA and the Ugandan military. Food and safety were people’s priority, not the ordinary governance processes. The conflict undermined the capabilities of the Acholi as citizens and their confidence to re-engage in democratic processes after war. Having lived in a militarised environment, people are still reluctant to raise issues they perceive to be sensitive. Moreover, they have little experience with a developmental state. For years, all they asked for was security and now that they have it, many won’t ask for more. This undermines the ‘demand side’ of governance; Acholi lack experience to actively engage in the reconstruction of their region and in decision-making. Nor are they actively invited to.

Second, it shows the gap in how Acholi perceive themselves as part of the country. ‘We are like slaves being brought into Uganda‘, Nighty says. The role of the Ugandan state is key in this. Acholi feel treated as second-class citizens. Current post-war reconstruction efforts do not sufficiently target these feelings.

Third, it shows the gap in post-conflict interventions in Acholi, which was one of the reasons to make The Governance Gap. Existing recovery efforts by the government and international donors focus on ‘hardware’; rebuilding physical infrastructure and services. This is important. Poverty in the Acholi region is far worse than in the rest of the country due to the war, and clearly visible. What is not visible is how the past experiences of war and life in the camps are carried on into the present. Interventions should therefore also focus on the ‘software’; building citizen capacities to re-engage in decision-making and democratic processes. And as The Governance Gap shows, reconstruction should include a process of national reconciliation in which the state acknowledges the atrocities committed by the military as well as its failure to end the war. Up to now citizens have few opportunities to have voice in the reconstruction process.

A campaign film such as ‘Kony2012’ may not be expected to provide the detailed nuance of a story. What it did, was remind the world of a ‘forgotten conflict’ where injustice had been done to thousands of people since the late 1980s (and don’t forget, not just by the LRA but also by the Ugandan government, and as some would argue… even by failing humanitarian actors). And true, Kony and his LRA continue to cause suffering. Every victim is one too many. They need to be stopped. They also need to be brought to justice, whether through the International Criminal Court or local forms of justice that seem more culturally accepted and appropriate.

But; if Kony is captured, the objective of Kony2012 campaign, this might solve a forgotten conflict, but not its aftermath. Since Kony left Uganda five years ago both the tangible and invisible consequences are still very real. And deserve as much attention as capturing Kony.

Marjoke Oosterom is a PhD candidate in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies. She works on citizenship and participation in (post)conflict settings. The film The Governance Gap is based on her PhD research in the LRA affected areas of Northern Uganda, where she spent a year in a rural village just 10km from the border with South Sudan.

See more insights from Marjoke Oosterom’s research.