DISPLACED AND IMMISERATED: The Shilluk of Upper Nile in South Sudan’s civil war, 2014-19

DISPLACED AND IMMISERATED: The Shilluk of Upper Nile in South Sudan’s civil war, 2014-19

By Dr. Lam Akol
By Dr. Lam Akol


Comments  By Dr Lam Akol  on:                                                                                        

DISPLACED AND IMMISERATED: The Shilluk of Upper Nile in South Sudan’s civil war, 2014-19:

28 September 2019

A publication of the Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan project, by Joshua Craze, September 2019.


This publication is extremely important and timely. It deals with a tragedy that has befallen the Chollo (Shilluk) nation as a result of deliberate government policies targeting their land and very existence. The author gives an excellent analysis of these policies that led to the displacement and immiserating the Chollo people. It draws significant conclusions worthy of note.

However, on the issue of tribal boundaries and the genesis of the Chollo-Dinka land dispute, the report suffers from flawed assumptions and inaccuracies that render some of its conclusions hazy. It is this aspect of the report that this comment will focus on.

The author of the report makes the following assumptions about the land dispute between the Chollo (Shilluk) and Padang Jieng (Dinka):

  • The nature of the contemporary conflict is neither historical nor based on territorial disputes that pre-date the CPA period (p. 19).
  • Nothing in the present allows us to decide that one historical period, rather than another, should be central to the process of determining justice and boundaries in the current political situation (p.19).
  • The historical record will not allow us to determine the absolute borders of the two groups, because their ways of life during the period of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium were not commensurate with absolute borders (p. 20).
  • The claims to absolute and exclusive ownership emerged during the CPA period (2005-2011), and cannot be explained by prior historical claims to territory (p. 20).
  • The British attempted to impose ‘the simplified forms of absolute borders’ between tribes (p. 20).

In the process of advancing these assumptions the author makes errors some of which seem deliberate. We shall refer to them in the course of making this comment.

Genesis of the dispute

It is not true that the nature of the current land dispute is neither historical nor does it not predate the CPA period. In fact, the conflict is both historical and predated the CPA period. The author himself states that “both sides make historical claims to contested territories in Upper Nile” and goes on to give the version of each side (p. 19). Therefore, each side has its claims grounded in that it owned the land in some time in history. If that is not historical, what is it? Where the author fails as a researcher is in two areas: firstly, he did not weigh the claims of both sides against other well established historical sources1 to judge for himself which claim was right or wrong and secondly, he failed to realize or accept that for any such historical claims to be just there must be a definite time in history that should be used as the reference point relative to which such claims are evaluated. For example, the Chollo acknowledge that most, if not all, of the land they occupy today was previously Funj territory before they moved in. Can that historical fact be used to judge that the land today belongs to the Funj rather than the Chollo?

It is unanimously agreed previously within Sudan and currently in South Sudan that the reference point in all administrative and boundary issues is the 1/1/1956 border. This was agreed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and subsequently in all conferences held in South Sudan since 2005. Even recently in the height of polarization engendered by the imposition of the 28 States (later to become 32) the IBC members who went to the States found that all sides were agreed that the 1st of January 1956 boundary was the accepted cut-off date in dealing with tribal and administrative boundaries in South Sudan. Therefore, it is rather puzzling for the author to claim that “nothing in the present allows us to decide that one historical period, rather than another, should be central to the process of determining justice and boundaries in the current political situation” (p.19).

That the dispute between the Padang Jieng and the Chollo predates the CPA is a well- established fact2.  It started in 1980, when the Court President of Atar Ardeb area wrote to the Regional Government in Juba claiming some Collo areas around Khorfulus stream. A team of Surveyors was sent to the areas claimed by the Dinka and their findings were that these areas belonged to the Chollo. In 1982, a violent conflict erupted in the area which was resolved by the Regional Government in Juba by again ruling that the findings of the Surveyors sent there in 1980 must be respected. The basis of these rulings was the 1/1/1956 boundaries. On the 1994 petition of the Padang elders to the Sudan Government claiming that Malakal was part of Dinka land and the Chollo intellectuals’ response to it in 1995, the author claims that “neither of these claims was resolved”(p. 24) quoting Akol3 as the source. This is a misrepresentation. Akol actually stated that “the government decided to respect the 1/1/1956 borders and that Malakal town is part and parcel of Collo land”4 (emphasis mine). In reality, what President Salva Kiir did through his decrees creating the 28 States in 2015 which became 32 in 2017 was to use the state power to rule on this tribal dispute dating back to the 1980s between the Padang Jieng and the Chollo in favour of the Padang Dinka. Pure and simple. The Chollo understood it as a brother standing by the side of his brothers. Period. The policy pursued by the government in displacing Chollo people from their land and immiserating them is precisely to implement this decision.

Tribal and Administrative Boundaries

The administrative units in South Sudan, whether the former districts or the current counties, were based on tribal boundaries and date back to the Anglo-Egyptian condominium when administration was based on the authority of chiefs and local potentates. This was the application of Lugard’s  concept of  ‘Native Administration’. It was a policy dictated not only by parsimony but also the colonial attempt to keep the detribalized elites away from administration. But despite other changes in administration these tribal units endured all through the national governments up to the present.   Hence, the author’s “putatively neutral series of administrative institutions”(p. 22) has no place in South Sudan at the moment as the tribal and administrative boundaries are interlinked. Herein lies the origin of what he calls “absolute territorial claims”.  It doesn’t escape the notice of the author that land in South Sudan belongs to communities and communities are tribal, his semantics about ‘people’, ‘tribe’ and ‘group’ notwithstanding. The granting of a particular tribe grazing rights over another’s land, or the shared use of land, is based on the recognition of the right over land of the tribe granting those rights as his example of the Seleim Arab and the Chollo demonstrates (p. 14). As such these lands too belong to one tribe not more.

Again the author got it wrong when he contends that “the confrontation over the status of Malakal only really emerged at the end of the second civil war, when in 2004, the leader of the SPLM/A, John Garang, established four Shilluk counties in Upper Nile, …”(p. 24). We have already mentioned that claims and counterclaims over Malakal and indeed the entire east bank of the Whilte Nile date back to the 1980s. These Shilluk counties, just like the other 75 counties in SPLM administered areas by then, were based on the chieftaincies because as mentioned earlier, this is the basis of constituting administrative units. Where would John Garang have created “counties with no definitive ethnic status” (p. 24)?  The creation of these counties far from being “no doubt a concession to Akol” was a recognition of the reality on the ground as these areas were administered by the SPLM-United that Akol led and which united with the SPLM/A in 2003.

The author’s narrative about Akoka and Pigi ‘counties’ leaves a lot to be desired but space will not allow a robust comment on that here.

The Chollo Predicament

The author claims that “many people in Upper Nile were suspicious of the Shilluk due to Akol’s role in the SPLM/A split in the 1990s and the presence of his forces , with backing from the GoS, on the west bank of the White Nile for much of the 1980s  and into the 1990s. For much of the second civil war, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) controlled the west bank of the White Nile, and it was thus not an SPLA area.  The sentiment that the Shilluk were not a true part of the SPLA intensified after the signing of the CPA” (endnote 50 p. 103). These claims deserve attention.

The remark was made in relation to the formation in June 2009 of the SPLM-DC. We shall come to the latter later. If the ‘suspicion’ was the excuse for devastating Chollo land, then it was wrong both in terms of facts and moral grounds. Let us examine the facts.  First, the claim that the presence of Akol’s forces “on the west bank of the White Nile for much of the 1980s and into the 1990s” with “backing from the GoS” is mere fiction.  At no time did the GoS exist on the west side of the White Nile in the period mentioned except in a few fortified garrisons of Lelo, Wau, Lul, Kodok and Detwok.  Tonga and the entire countryside were under full control of the SPLA under different rubrics. The area was under the direct command of the C-in-C, Dr John Garang, up to July 1987 when Akol took over the command.  In 1987-88, Akol was the SPLA Zonal Commander of Northern Upper Nile (which includes that particular area). He was replaced by Cdr Martin Manyiel Ayuel (a Dinka from Gogrial) who served for the period 1988 to 1990 and then by Cdr Stephen Duol Chol (a Nuer from Nasir) in 1990-91. All fell under the command of Dr John Garang.  Where does the GoS come in here? And if it did, that cannot be blamed on Akol alone who left the area in 1988.  After the split in 1991, the area was under the command of Cdr Akwoc Mayong Jago. It was not until 1994, when the SPLM-United split, that Akol again took command of the area. History records that since that time until the reunification of the two factions of the SPLM/A in 2003, there were no clashes between the forces on the west bank of the White Nile with neither the SPLA nor the SSIM under Dr Riek Machar. How could that happen if they were backed by the GoS?

Second, granted that the area was not an SPLA (under John Garang) area but it was under the SPLM-United not SAF. Third, it goes without saying that there were prominent Chollo serving Juba in the CPA period. The Secretary General of the SPLM and the Chief of the General Staff of the SPLA were both Chollo, in addition to others in the government by then. It defies logic that a regime they serve under targets their people simply because one of their own is a dissenting voice.

Therefore, the ‘suspicion’ could not be explained in terms of the past SPLM/A problems. The fate of the entire tribe cannot be tied to one person. All Nuer areas were not ‘SPLA area’ and they even fought against the SPLA. Yet, the Nuer were not subjected to the same mistreatment as Chollo. Explanation must be sought in Salva’s resolve to grab Chollo’s land and give it to the Padang Dinka, as the subsequent events clearly showed. Whenever, the Padang Jieng attacked a Chollo village, any response from Chollo is always met with SPLA’s brute force5. In this dispute, the Chollo were not facing the Padang but the regime in Juba with all its might.

In the same vein the author avers that “Tensions between the Padang Dinka and the Shilluk worsened after the prominent Shilluk politician Akol and his followers split –once again- from the SPLM/A in June 2009 and created the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-Democratic Change (SPLMC…)”(p. 29), adding that a 4 September attack on Bony-Thiang (sic) was blamed on the SPLM-DC and that the government mounted revenge attacks on the Shilluk settlements at Abaneim and Nagdiar. This is a mix-up. The tensions between the two communities had already boiled over in January 2009 and there is no evidence that there was escalation due to the creation of SPLM-DC. In fact, the attacks on Abaniem and Nagdiar were in January 2009 well before the birth of SPLM-DC.  The SPLM/A didn’t want a competitor and were hell bent on strangling the SPLM-DC. Towards this end they used all kinds of accusations including owning militia6.

True, the Shilluk felt abandoned in relation to being fought by the government on behalf of Padang Dinka. They also felt marginalized at the State level politics. However, it is inaccurate to suggest that “it was partly to address this feeling of abandonment that Akol created the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democratic Change (SPLM-DC) in 2009” (p. 30). The SPLM-DC was a national movement that addressed the misrule, injustice and corruption prevalent under the regime led by the SPLM/A in Juba. These issues are spelt out in the statement on launching the SPLM-DC7. Nowhere is it mentioned that the SPLM-DC was established to address Chollo’s feeling of abandonment. The situation in Chollo land features as just one example of the injustices meted out against the people by what was supposed to be their government.

Divisions among the Shilluk

The author correctly points out that the creation of the 28 States “remained a sticking point in the ARCSS” (p. 70). But what follows is full of errors and inaccuracies. In fact, it would not have been possible to form the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) in April without the IGAD 55th Session of the Council of Ministers’ Communique on 31st January 2016. It will be recalled that the Communique ordered for the freeze of the Order creating the 28 states and formation of a National Boundaries Commission that would study and recommend the appropriate number of States, failing which the country continues with the ten (10) states stipulated in both the Constitution and ARCSS 2015. Although there was agreement on 1st June 2016 between the President and the two Vice Presidents to form such a commission none was actually formed. Kiir insisted to go ahead with his project.

In his now familiar theme of targeting Akol, the author claims that “with the ARCSS dead in the water, Akol was looking for a new way to insert himself into the South Sudanese political process” (p. 71). The assertion suggests that Akol wasn’t part of that process and has to “insert” himself to become one. This reflects either the author’s full ignorance of the events that took place in South Sudan then or a deliberate attempt at denigration. Akol was Chairman of the National Alliance, the only effective opposition group in the country in the period 2013 -2016. The National Alliance was part of the peace negotiations in Addis Ababa right from the beginning until its delegation was prevented by the government from going to Addis Ababa on 23 September 2014. Yet, it continued to influence the negotiations from Juba. Akol was put under house arrest in Juba for a month, extending from April up to May 2015, and thereafter prevented from travelling outside Juba. All these actions were because the government feared that Akol’s position in the talks was going to put the government at a disadvantage.  The portfolio Akol occupied in the TGoNU was that of the National Alliance. Pursuing his line, the author alleges that the NDM “was now a faction in search of a people”! This is meaningless. Is there any party or movement in the world that doesn’t look for people to join it ranks? Also it is not true that there were SPLM-IO that defected to the NDM, let the author mention just one. It is the same lack of doubt that drives the author to state with certainty that Gen Johannes Okiech was from northern Shilluk (p. 83). Wrong, he is not. His association with Gen Aywok Ogat is more on principles than region within the Chollo land.

The author’s conclusion “that Akol then brought Tanginye….indicated the desperation of Akol’s position” is superficial. A few personal interviews here and there do not make up for serious research. The devastation visited by Tang Ginya on the Shilluk land in 2003/4 which the author refers to was the work of some Chollo in the Sudan Government by then (led by one of them who was Deputy Governor of Upper Nile State. It was him who went to Canal Mouth to flag off the attack on Chollo land) following the reunification of SPLM-United and the SPLM/A in October 2003. Therefore, informed Chollo saw that as government policy, nothing to do with Tang Ginya as a person. In fact, a similar and more devastating attack on Chollo land was conducted by the Anya-nya 2 (comprising Nuers) in 1987. Similarly, Olony (and not Olonyi) was used by Juba to fight the SPLM-IO in 2014 and when he was approached by Dr Riek to join him in 2015 that wasn’t ‘desperation of Riek’s position’. What was the difference?  Counterinsurgency wasn’t after all the monopoly of Khartoum. The truth is that when Gen. Gabriel Tang Ginya applied to join NDM in 2016, he did not belong to any armed Movement and there wasn’t any justification to reject him.

The problems of the Technical Boundary Committee (TBC) and the Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC)

Here the author attempts to apply his assumptions which were enumerated in the first part of this comment. He rejects the British records on the boundaries as “incomplete, and often, inaccurate set of documents” without showing as to why this is the case simply to advance his so-called “shared rights”.

The author asserts that:

“The TBC mandate repeats the errors of the British colonial administrators, who attempted to create a series of ethnically bounded ‘states’ from a series of interconnected groups, out of the areas in which these groups had shared rights.” (p. 91).

The British didn’t create anything. Rather they made use of the extant tribal set-up to further the objectives of their ‘native administration’. These “errors” were not evident then and after independence. He continues:

“The creation and limits of the TBC in the R-ARCSS thus repeat the errors of prior peace processes in southern Sudan. In the CPA, a TBC was also created, and was also asked to delimit and demarcate the border between Sudan and South Sudan as it stood on 1 January 1956. It was a bureaucratic mechanism designed to resolve political crises in the present by appealing to a historical record, which could appear neutral in relation to the group’s differing interests. Predictably the TBC was politicized, and on the basis of an uncertain documentary record it collapsed.” (pp. 91-92).

In the first place, there was no TBC in the CPA “to delimit and demarcate the border between Sudan and South Sudan…” Thus, the wild claim that it collapsed is an imagination meant, again, to give credence to the author’s unfounded assumption that there were “uncertain documentary record”.

The author confidently avers that “That the TBC did not determine anything is, paradoxically, perhaps the best possible outcome” (p. 92). Well, the bad news is that the TBC did determine at least two things. First, it produced a reference map based on 1 January 1956 boundary lines showing clearly the tribal boundaries in South Sudan which is now authentic. Second, it compiled the claims of all sides in the tribal boundaries in dispute all over South Sudan. The author’s statement that “…the TBC of the R-ARCSS was unable to come to a conclusion about political borders via a technocratic process”(p. 92), is misplaced. The TBC was never tasked to deal with political borders; only tribal.

The author turns to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that arbitrated the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC)’s report and concludes that:

“The PCA was not an adequate form for discussion of these forms of rights. Indeed, the PCA arbitration failed, in any event, to resolve the problem of the borders of Abyei, and its recommendations were left unenforced.” (p. 92). 

What we know is that the PCA did draw a map of what constitutes the Abyei area that will be subjected to the referendum on whether to join Southern Sudan or remain in Kordofan in Sudan. This map was accepted by the two sides in the arbitration case. Therefore, the PCA arbitration had succeeded to resolve the borders of Abyei area. What failed was the conduct of the referendum on the status of Abyei area and that has nothing to do with the PCA.


The administration in South Sudan today is based on the boundaries inherited from the colonial period which in turn are based on tribal boundaries extant at that time. Hence, historical records are unavoidable. The good news is that the British kept accurate and reliable set of documents on the matter. The neighbouring tribes have coexisted all these years knowing very well where their boundaries were.

The author imagines a situation in which what he calls “secondary rights” are incompatible with absolute rights. He also wrongly asserts that the CPA produced “new forms of borders”. It did not. The boundaries did exist for more than a century and the dispute between the Padang Jieng and Chollo over their boundaries predate the CPA by a quarter of a century. What he calls “Garang’s (2004) infamous memorandum creating four Shilluk counties” was actually in line with and on the same basis as his previous orders establishing the other 75 counties in Southern Sudan. There was nothing special about the four Chollo counties.

The import of President Salva Kiir’s action by issuing the decree dividing the country into 28 states was in effect to use state power to settle the land dispute between the Chollo and the Padang Dinka in favour of the Dinka, the tribe he hails from. The author’s excellent analysis on immiseration and recomposition of the Chollo population fits very well into that scheme.


  • Such sources include: Kelly, R.C., The Nuer Conquest, Ann Arbor:The University of Michigan Press, 1985; Willis, C.A., The Upper Nile Handbook, edited by Douglas H. Johnson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; Udal, J.O., The Nile in Darkness, A flawed Unity, 1863-1899, Norwich: Michael Russell, 2005. In fact, no discussion on the administration of Upper Nile is complete without reference to the seminal work of C.A. Willis referred to above. This does not appear anywhere in the report under consideration.
  • Akol, L., Collo Boundary Dispute, 2nd, Khartoum: Laser Printing, 2006, pp. 6-7.
  • Akol, L., Collo Boundary Dispute, South Sudan Publishing House UK, 2005, pp. 6-16, p. 6.
  • The attacks on the Chollo settlements in Anakdiar and Abaniem in January 2009, were carried out by the SPLA. Chollo members of the National, Southern Sudan and Upper Nile State Assemblies wrote a petition dated 10 January 2009 to the Governor of Upper Nile State on the unprovoked attack on Anakdiar (see Akol, L., 2nd edn, op.cit., pp. 48-50).
  • The SPLM has shown morbid hostility against the SPLM-DC right from its birth accusing it of owning militia (not specifying where they were). In fact, in November 2009, the Government of South Sudan issued an order banning the SPLM-DC from practising politics in Southern Sudan. This order was contested by the SPLM-DC before the Constitutional Court and the Court ruled in its favour in January 2010. It was on the strength of that court’s decision that the SPLM-DC was able to take part in the 2010 elections.
  • SPLM-DC, Statement on the launching of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement- Democratic Change, 6 June 2009,


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