, NYAL, Nov 27 – One of Africa’s longest-running wars left this land in ruins and battling a bitter legacy that threatens prospects for peace – a stockpile of weapons spurring cattle raids and banditry.
After seceding from the north in July, South Sudan begun a clean-up to rid civilians of arms taken up during the brutal two-decade civil war with the Khartoum army in the north.
But despite the efforts, many continue to live in fear of rampant livestock theft committed by men who carry guns.
James Gatluak, 24, and fellow cattle herders were recently forced to drive thousands of long-horned cows from remote countryside grazing lands to relative safety at a camp close to Nyal village, in Unity state – a four-hour trek.
“This issue of cattle raids is too much of a headache. Those who have guns frequently attack,” said Gatluak. “The government should disarm all the civilians so that nobody can steal.”
South Sudanese authorities are disarming civilians in the central Lakes state, as well as in Unity and Warrap states to the north, all notorious for cattle rustling and bloody clashes between rival groups.
The United Nations in September raised concerns over multiple raids in South Sudan, which it said could plunge the newly-independent country into a fresh crisis after 600 people were killed in inter-ethnic clashes in the vast Jonglei state in August.
Lakes State Governor Chol Tong Mayay insists the population in the area under his control has been disarmed, and said authorities have seized 4,000 weapons from the state’s 700,000 inhabitants.
But in Unity, herder Gatluak is not convinced.
“We live in fear. You never know if in other counties disarmament is done,” he said – one of many residents who publicly laud the disarmament but worry that the same is not being done in neighbouring regions.
With rebel movements and other armed groups still operating, insecurity still reigns and South Sudan faces a tough task mopping up weapons and restoring stability.
The task has not been made any easier by ethnic groups disarmed in previous drives subsequently being attacked by rival armed gangs.
Last month, authorities in Unity State accused a rebel group, the South Sudan Liberation Army, of sabotaging the disarmament campaign after an attack there that claimed 80 lives.
The independent monitoring group Small Arms Survey said disarmament in the past has not been systematic.
“Disarmament was generally poorly planned and sporadically implemented … and had a minimal impact on security,” a report on earlier efforts reads.
“The number of weapons collected is probably a small fraction of the total holdings in each of the affected communities.”
Circulation of arms has also been driven by persistent border conflicts between Sudan and its newly independent southern neighbour.
The two sides have failed to resolve their border dispute since South Sudan’s July 9 independence, raising tensions and resulting in clashes recently that have drawn international concern.
For the International Crisis Group think tank, disarmament should be propped up by a comprehensive strategy to not only improve security, but also the standard of life.
“Removing guns from the hands of civilians is indeed a necessity, but not a wholly sufficient remedy,” it said in an October report.
It also called for youth employment, food security, better local governance and infrastructural development among other measures to “overcome a culture of cattle-raiding violence in the long term.”
Matur Majok Magol, a county commissioner in Lakes state, voiced hope the disarmament will succeed, but said the true test will come during the upcoming dry season, when people move longer distances with their cattle.
That will likely bring rival groups into contact, as herders compete to find fresh grazing.
“We will see how it goes during the dry season. Now movement is difficult because of the swamps,” Magol said.