Cattle Raiding in Warrap and Unity, South Sudan

Cattle Raiding in South Sudan, particularly cattle raiding in Warrap and Unity, has long been associated with rebel movements; in fact, P.A. Nyaba asserts in his 1997 book The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan that historically, many soldiers who joined the military or rebel groups did so with the motivation of acquiring weapons which could be used for cattle raiding or to settle local disputes. Media sources recently reported the deaths of 42 people on Friday in what appeared to be a cattle raid in Warrap as well as an attack on civilians, and local sources attribute the raids to heavily armed militias, likely associated with Unity State rebels.

Conflict Dynamics along Warrap-Unity Border, January 2014

Map copyright 2014 Daniel Thompson, Map East Africa,

Map copyright 2014 Daniel Thompson, Map East Africa,

This map really reminds me of cattle conflict that occurred when Peter Gadet was leading the SSLA in 2011. Less than two weeks after I visited Akop, contacts in the area fled heavy violence. Cattle conflict continued on and off that November, after Matthew Pul Jiang had taken over leadership of the SSLA.

Cattle raids in Warrap took place just before reports emerged of SPLA offensives against Leer, Riek Machar’s hometown. Perhaps the rebels were pushed into Warrap State; or maybe they took advantage of their proximity to large herds of cattle in Warrap, some of which belong to government officials.

Cattle Raiding: Seasonal Conflict

Cattle Raiding in South Sudan is somewhat of a seasonal phenomenon. The wet season (June-August/September) often sees the toich (floodplain) areas filled with water; before the water arrives in May and June, and after the water recedes around October are generally heavier times of cattle raiding. The border between Warrap and Unity States, which also reflects the ethnic boundary between Dinka and Nuer, is one of the most volatile areas for cattle raids. Depending on the year, raiding may take place year-round; however, during wet years the Bahr al-Kiir and other toich areas often prevent raiders from crossing. Furthermore, as the toich fills with water, cattle herders leave their cattle camps and move back toward the villages. Dry-season cattle camps are often several walking hours away from herders’ home villages. Cattle raiding by no means takes place primarily across ethnic boundaries; intra-ethnic conflict over cattle is just as common, though it often does not cause as many casualties as inter-ethnic cattle raiding.

Young cattle keepers guarding calves near Wunlit Payam. Photo by author.

Young cattle keepers guarding calves near Wunlit Payam while the main herds are taken to water. Photo by author.

Even from wet season to wet season, significant variations occur in the amount of water that fills up toich areas. This affects the proximity of cattle camps on opposite sides of the toich, bringing potentially conflicting groups closer together during dry years and keeping them farther apart during wetter years. The maps below show the difference between surface water coverage after the 2007 and 2009 wet seasons. The Jur and Kiir rivers appeared much more full during 2007, based on Near Infrared reflectance (NIR) values derived from composite imagery.2011_SS_SAT_07_09


Cattle raiding in Warrap has been going on for a very long time, but became much more violent following ethnic violence that ripped through South Sudan in 1991. Warrap and Unity are by no means the only areas that see heavy cattle raiding; all of South Sudan’s states see their fair share. However, in my experience of monitoring conflict in the Sudans, Cattle raiding in Warrap and Unity is often more violent and demonstrates the continuing salience of perhaps the most critical ethnic divide in South Sudan.

What are your thoughts?