With the increased tensions and violence in South Sudan, many are left wondering who is who in a conflict halfway around the world, specifically when it comes to the White Army. Here’s some of what you need to know about the White Army, more properly called the Nuer White Army.
When South Sudan declared independence in July, 2011, it became the world’s newest country, but also one of the poorest. South Sudan is approximately 248,776 square miles in the middle of Central Africa, roughly the size of Texas, with 11,090,104 inhabitants, slightly less than Ohio. In a region already perennially beset with unrest, South Sudan has to contend with an adult literacy rate of 27 percent and underdeveloped infrastructure combined with widespread poverty.
The origins of the Nuer White Army extend two decades prior to the formation of South Sudan. As the economy and culture of the region are based around cattle, it is a vital resource that is protected by any means necessary. With the acquisition of weapons, cattle camps were transformed into the militant organization known as the White Army, generally aligned with the forces of Dr. Riek Machar.
The modern conflicts involving the Nuer White Army are both political and ethnic in nature. Nuer is the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan, behind the Dinka, of which Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, is a member. Machar was his vice president until being dismissed in July, 2013.
With the blending of political and ethnic concerns in the situation, tension naturally arises. The origin of the latest violence is of a contested nature: Kiir says Machar stage a coup d’etat. What we know for certain is Dinka members of the presidential guard attempted to disarm Nuer members on December 15.
What’s happened in South Sudan is that people are reverting to their ethnic identities in the face of political struggle, and the White Army became one of the major parties in the violence under Machar, who is now a rebel leader.
Kiir has said, “The original leaders and all African leaders should have come in with military support” to help defeat the White Army. The White Army, named such due to the ash they spread on their bodies (to protect against insects or as war paint, depending on who you ask), claimed to have captured the key town of Bor; Machar has denied the alleged coup and said he is willing to talk peace.
The origin of the violence will be determined by the victor and the history books if a peaceful ceasefire cannot be managed between the military of South Sudan and the White Army.