The Complex Causes of Cattle Raiding in South Sudan


Ding Yual, Consultant,  Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

Recent trends of violent cattle raiding in South Sudan has drawn attention to the underlying causes of the phenomenon and ways of addressing it as part of the quest for security in Africa’s newest country. Many have called for in-depth research into the situation towards informing understanding of the cause-effect relationships around the issue. Since the communities involved in the conflict are also known to use cattle for bride price payments, it has been assumed, in many circles, that the on-going cycles of cattle raiding are influenced by the rise in bride price. This requires closer scrutiny.

Most South Sudanese marriages are dominated by the payment of bride prices. This is true of the Nuer and Dinka tribes of South Sudan. While other South Sudanese tribes are not exempt from the same practices, Nuer and Dinka represent the extreme example of the tribes where demand for bride price ranges from 35 to 200 head of cattle. With the current market rates of $300 per head, the cost usually ranges between $10 000 and $60 000 dollars. Taken from these figures, one would therefore conclude that South Sudanese marriages, i.e. Nuer and Dinka, are no doubt some of the most expensive marriages in the world.

Some researchers have thus drawn a correlation between the rising cost of dowries and cattle raiding in South Sudan. They have argued that South Sudanese young men are increasingly unable to meet rising dowry demands and as a result enlist in militias, join cattle raids, or seek wives from different ethnic groups or countries. Some of these arguments have been based on field visits and interviews conducted in certain parts and sections of the country. However, a broader consideration of the history and nature of the crisis in the country raises questions about the actual direct link between cattle raiding and the cost of bride price, especially if such conclusions are weighed against the underlying principles of South Sudanese marriages, the practical costs and social implications of cattle raiding, and the overall changing dynamics of South Sudanese cultures.

Firstly, marriage in all parts of the world is a union between two people and sometimes two families. In South Sudan, however, marriage is more than that; a marriage between two people is a union between their families, clans, villages and, sometimes, a nation in cases where the marriage happens between couple from distant tribes. As a result of this wider social implication, marriages are never left to the discretion of the marrying youth. The marriage institution sees the involvement of the family from start to finish and this includes a rigorous process of background checks of the individuals the family is getting involved with. Families generally frown upon individuals with questionable characters, including involvement in criminal activities such as cattle raiding. In situations where a young man is found to have such a record, South Sudanese families are typically opposed to marriages with such individuals.

Secondly, the risks involved in raiding are such that they are not commensurate with the logic of its use for the payment of bride price. Cattle raids in communities are perpetrated by structurally organised youth groups of about 500 people. For someone who simply wants to marry, the task of raising and seeking the consent of such a big group is a lot to ask. And even if one is able to mobilise such numbers, the risks involved in raiding is enough to frighten off someone who is doing this only to pay the bride price. More importantly, one must factor in the underlying cultural implication of this act and the effect it has on the marriage and extended family if the in-laws are to find out about it.

Additionally, in South Sudanese societies, the burden of shouldering the cost of bride price is usually not left to the groom alone but borne by the family. What is expected from a young man in a typical family context is the declaration of intent. The family then takes care of the rest. The process does not exert direct pressure on the youth to think about raiding cattle to pay the dowries. The costs are equally shared among family members, each contributing according to rights and commitment. Though cattle inherited from raids can still be used in marriages, the raiding itself may not have been organised with the sole aim of meeting the high dowries costs and might therefore only be an unintended use indirectly related to the cost of bride price.

Whilst it is true that bride prices in South Sudanese mariages have seen an increase in recent times, the changes are mostly taking places in urban cities. From what is known, rural people are still using the same number of cows applicable fifteen and twenty years ago. Nuer still use the figure of thirty five, while Dinka require one hundred head of cattle as the standard price.  According to a recent report by experts Marc Sommers and Stephanie Schwartz, the rise of the bride price in urban areas is caused by wealthy individuals who want to meet exorbitant demands because it provides these men with a higher social status - it becomes an ego issue.  “Instead of negotiating a dowry price down, wealthy men want to meet exorbitant demands. The more you pay, the higher the status the husband and his new wife receive. Many claimed that powerful government officials flush with are the main cause of dowry price inflation. This makes it more expensive for everyone else,” these researchers say.

The current trends of cattle raiding is quite recent and holds no ground to explain the concerns embedded in the South Sudanese institutions of marriage which has been in existence for centuries. The explanations for the rise in cattle raiding instead need to be posited within the context of the general breakdown of rule of law and the collapse of the norms and social order in many South Sudanese societies. This has become the basis for crime and disrespect for the norms and cultural practices of the communities, which required neighbours to live in peace and to respect and protect each other’s property. The underlying cause of the rise in the phenomenon of cattle raiding is exacerbated by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons as a result of the more than two decades of war with Sudan. An appreciation of this is important if the right solution is to be proffered for addressing the menace in the new country. In this case, the solution lies in reconstructing the social order in South Sudanese communities, educating the youth as part of a robust demilitarisation process, and disarmament.