Monday, December 26, 2011

Modern nomads

In my conversations with South Sudanese politicians in the western part of the country (the states that cozy up to the CAR), few topics elicited such energetic entreaties to action as the presence of the Mbororo. The Mbororo are nomadic, or at least itinerant, herders. Originally from West Africa, where they're also known as Peulh, they have spread as far east as Ethiopia. (By some accounts, the most violent conflict on the South Sudan/Ethiopia border pits Mbororo against Hausa – two groups usually thought of as West African.) Sedentary folks, maybe especially farmers and politicians, often portray the Mbororo as recent arrivals, as invaders who destroy fields. Though it may be true that the level of armament held by the herders has increased in recent years (a response to rises in cattle thievery and other defensive imperatives, whatever other offensive goals they may harbor), most are not newcomers. Mbororo have made use of western Sudanese space for some two hundred years.

I gained a window onto contemporary nomadism while talking with an Mbororo chief in Wau, Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state. (I should note that the category Mbororo is a nested one in western Sudan. In Darfur, both Mbororo and other groups of West African provenance, like the Fulani, are placed in the broader category Falata. This “Mbororo chief” – how he described himself to me – was probably technically Fulani, for he sold traditional medicines. His willful elision of such distinctions may indicate new solidarities taking shape.) In explaining the exactions meted out against his people (massacres of humans and livestock, theft), he portrayed himself as a law-abiding, yet victimized, South Sudanese citizen. But when he started showing me his treasured collection of faded family snapshots, a different picture emerged: “These are my children in Moundou (eastern Chad)...this is my mother in Ndjamena...this is my wife and daughter in the Congo...this is my wife in Kampala...this is my wife in Rwanda...” He learned English in Nigeria, Uganda and South Sudan. His life has stretched from Senegal (where his grandfather lived) to Sudan.

The professed pacifism of people like this Mbororo chief has not stopped politicians from seeing them as a danger in need of eradication. The fear is that they are “tools” of the government in Khartoum. In this reading, the Mbororo are simply the next group the North has unleashed on the South – invaders sent to squat and appropriate land. “We learned the lessons of Abyei,” was how one politician put it. That is, they see the Mbororo movements as analogous to those of years past involving Misseriya herders, who some southerners see as having planted themselves in borderlands in order to further northern claims to disputed territory. This is not a full picture of either region's politics, but it is an analysis that has proven an effective mobilizer. Other criticisms of the Mbororo include that they collaborate with the Lord's Resistance Army and that they are the authors of rapacious environmental destruction, particularly through hunting and gathering honey (one of the region's main products) with poison.

In all of these accounts, despite being a tiny minority, Mbororo appear an existential danger, in the manner so evocatively described by Arjun Appadurai (channeling Mary Douglas) in Fear of Small Numbers. Support for anti-Mbororo measures reaches to the highest level of government. South Sudanese president Salva Kiir Mayardit recently gave a speech in Raga, north and west of Wau, in which he exhorted his compatriots of the need to get rid of the nomad menace. One appointed official I met in Wau stated that South Sudanese troops are standing guard on the border to prevent any Mbororo from entering. He explained, “Everybody in Africa has his country. They should go back to their country!”

I asked him, “What is the Mbororos' country?”

“We don't know!” he replied, and he and the assembled crowd of suit-clad functionaries (most sported a South Sudanese flag lapel pin) burst out laughing. When the chuckles subsided, he added, “They are not part of our citizens. They are not among the tribes in South Sudan.”

Back in Juba, I rang mobile phone after mobile phone in hopes of reaching high-level officials. Every call ended with the message that the subscriber could not be reached, the tell-tale sign of a switched off phone. In the weeks before and after Christmas the city empties. The INGO and diplomatic crew decamp for northerly climes, and the government descends to Kampala and Nairobi, where their families live. Schools in South Sudan remain basic (universities have yet to re-open after independence last July), and so anyone who can afford to do so keeps his clan in another regional capital with better educational opportunities.

If “everyone in Africa has a country”, why are only some forms of (opportunistic) nomadism visible, and vilified, as such?


  1. The purported connection with the LRA was brought up at a conference I went to last summer when we were discussing the LRA and the Sudan/DRC/CAR border region. Do you think there is any truth to the allegations?

  2. It's possible. Likely that they trade from time to time. Much more substantial collaboration than that seems unlikely, though possible in the future.

  3. We had several Azande speak to us about the LRA attacks on their communities in Sudan and the formation of "arrow boy" self defense groups- it was really facinating

  4. As a final thought I'd just remind again of the diversity within the category "Mbororo"...