Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 2

Nuer and Dinka White Army


Andrew McGregor

An unprecedented cattle raid by members of South Sudan’s Murle tribe on the Nuer “holy city” of Wec Deang on January 14, 2012 yielded some 4,000 cattle (with some 15 civilians killed by the raiders), but invited sure retaliation from the Nuer White Army. Wec Deang is without doubt the single most important historical and spiritual site in Nuerland as the burial place of the Prophet Ngundeng and the location of the Bie Dengkur, a massive sacred mound erected in the 1870s by thousands of Nuer under Ngundeng’s direction. The mound was partially destroyed by the British in the 1920s as a symbol of Nuer resistance but was left untouched by an unspoken agreement between all sides in the Second Sudanese Civil War. 

Reports that the Murle had attacked the mound itself during the January raid led Ngundeng’s grandson, Gai Lel Ngundeng, to issue a religious decree “ordering all Nuer in the world to fight [the] Murle tribe.” [1] A White Army statement said that “The Nuer youth were enraged after hearing [of] the attack on Wec Deang because it is an affront to all Nuer, including Nuer of Ethiopia, that the place of Ngundeng’s pyramid could be attacked by Murle. [White Army military leader] Bor Doang concluded that Murle deserters of the SPLA who did that must pay a price for insulting Prophet Ngundeng.” [2] Prior to the launch of the “Savannah Storm” operation against the Murle, Nuer White Army leaders travelled to Wec Deang to ritually slaughter bulls and receive blessings from Gai Lel Ngundeng. [3] Murle raiders also rely on the blessing of a local alaan ci meeri, or Red Chief, a religious figure who is believed to be in direct contact with the spirits.

The emergence of the White Army occurred simultaneously with an influx of small arms into eastern Upper Nile Province in the early 1990s and the 1991 split in the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This left largely Nuer pro-Khartoum forces under Riek Machar (the SPLA Nasir-faction), fighting a civil war within a civil war with the largely Dinka-led SPLA-Torit faction under the late Colonel John Garang. While Machar’s main military support came from SPLA deserters and other pro-Khartoum tribal militias that feared Dinka domination of the South Sudan or preferred Southern separation to Garang’s vision of a “New Sudan,” the loosely organized White Army was raised from the Nuer cattle camps and was never absorbed into the formal hierarchy of any of these groups despite efforts to bring them under one command or another. Part of the problem was that there was no formal or even stable, leadership to co-opt. Membership in the White Army was informal and based on availability, civilian status and possession of a modern firearm. [4]

It is likely that most of the arms that made their way into the hands of the White Army and other pro-Khartoum militias originated with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Possession of weapons allowed Nuer youth to disregard and undermine the authority of traditional community leaders. The militia was formed on an ad hoc basis, usually in response to some real or perceived threat to the Nuer community, though many members clearly saw membership in the White Army as a means of acquiring arms, cattle and wives. White Army columns typically coordinate their movements through the bush using Thuraya satellite telephones. These rapidly mobilized groups, consisting largely of Lou Nuer, are usually armed with a mixture of machetes, clubs and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The absorption of pro-Khartoum militias into the SPLA followed the 2006 Juba declaration and the SPLA’s simultaneous disarmament campaigns and appeared to put an end to the White Army, at least temporarily. In many places, the disarmament campaign was supported by Nuer civilians who had tired of the arrogance and violence of Nuer youth affiliated with the White Army. Many elements of the militia were not prepared to disband, however, and ignored Riek Machar’s orders to do so before being destroyed by the professional soldiers of the SPLA in 2006. [5]

The White Army is now believed to be operating in sympathy with Riek Machar. A 2012 statement from the militia acknowledged Riek Machar as the founder of the militia in 1992; however, the statement also asserted that “we do not recognize Riek Machar as a Nuer leader. He is responsible for all the killings we experience today, because it was he who armed [the] Murle tribe in 1997 when he signed [the] Khartoum Peace Agreement with Omar Bashir.” The statement, signed by military leader Bol Koang, went on to provide a succinct summary of the militia’s purpose: “We want to state, in no uncertain terms, that the Nuer White Army has no political objective. The primary objective of the White Army is to defend the Nuer livelihood from Murle who carried out attacks against the Nuer civilians.”

Tut Deang, a White Army spokesman, has explained that the militia is a youth organization that rejects the leadership of traditional chiefs (Sudan Tribune, January 6, 2011). However, the influence of traditional Nuer “prophets” (sometimes styled as “magicians”) remains an important factor in the direction taken by Nuer militias, and their blessing is vital before undertaking a campaign. The White Army was revitalized in 2011, when a Nuer prophet named Dak Kueth claimed to have been possessed by spiritual powers. He began recruiting thousands of of Nuer youth under the military command of Bor Doang to repress the Murle, who were engaged in local cattle raids and abductions of children (Sudan Tribune, May 31, 2013). Dak Kueth urged Nuer youth to refuse to participate in the government’s disarmament campaign before he escaped the SPLA by fleeing to Nuer communities in neighboring Ethiopia.

Despite the White Army’s apparent focus on combating the Murle, a late December statement allegedly issued by the militia stated that the White Army was now attempting to form an alliance with the Murle against the Dinka leadership in Juba, a development that reflects the growing political instability of South Sudan: 

The problem of Nuer and Murle is now Dinka leadership in Bor and Juba. The Nuer and Murle have a common interest, that is, removal of Dinka government is the only solution to end cattle rustling which was introduced by Dinka… We therefore warn the UN that it is possible for genocide to take place in the coming weeks when we attack Bor town… The solution is for Murle and Nuer to unite to confront the Dinka who have an agenda against both the Nuer and Murle. From today onwards, the Nuer White Army will not fight Murle anymore. The focus is now to topple the Dinka government in Juba. [6]


1. Gai L. Ngundeng, “The Grandson of Prophet Ngundeng Criticizes Attack on the ‘Holy City,’ Calls upon Nuer to Fight Murle and SPLA Defectors,” Decree No: 001/1/12, . For Nuer prophets, see: Douglas H. Johnson, Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997. For the Murle, see: Bazett A. Lewis, The Murle: Red Chiefs and Black Commoners, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972.

2. “Nuer and Dinka White Army to Launch ‘Operation Savannah Storm’ against Murle Armed Youth,”  Leadership of the Nuer and Dinka White Army Media Release, Uror County, Jonglei State, South Sudan, February 4, 2012,

3. Ibid.

4. Arild Skedsmo, Kwong Danhier and Hoth Gor Luak, “The Changing Meaning of Small Arms in Nuer Society,” African Security Review 12(4), 2003, pp. 57-67.

5. John Young, The White Army: An Introduction and Overview, Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, June 2007,

6. “Both the Murle and Nuer White armies will work together to remove the Dinka regime,” December 27, 2013,


Andrew McGregor

After four years of counter-terrorist operations and a state of emergency in Nigeria’s three northeastern provinces since last May, Nigeria’s security forces appear to have made little progress in restoring security, though their efforts may be complicated by the ruthless political style of northern Nigeria as the nation approaches general elections in 2015.

The deeper roots of political violence in northern Nigeria (of which Boko Haram is only a symptom) were well displayed in the January 14 suicide bombing in Mogadishu that killed 43 people (Daily Times Nigeria, January 15). The explosion occurred close to a JTF military post at mid-day on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, when the city center was certain to be filled with people (Salafists reject observance of the mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday).

Soon after the blast, hundreds of youths wearing shirts and hats bearing the insignia of the All Progressives Congress (APC – a 2013 alliance of Nigeria’s four main opposition parties) armed with clubs and machetes began targeting vehicles believed to belong to supporters of the former state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, and the current state deputy governor, Zannah Mustapha, both APC members (the vehicles were identified by the widespread use of political party stickers). The rioters were on their way to the homes of Sheriff and Mustapha when they were intercepted by security forces. Sheriff was in the city for the first time in 11 months and left shortly after the blast. Other APC-clad youth actually tried to attack the local APC office while chanting: “We are going see the end of Ali Sheriff and his accomplice, Zannah Mustapha, who have brought this calamity to us. They are behind this bomb explosion” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 15). Sheriff helped the current governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, into office in 2011, but the two APC members are now engaged in a bitter rivalry, with Sheriff indicating that he plans to campaign to take the office back in 2015.

There were reports that many of the rioting youth were actually members of the “Civilian JTF,” a local anti-Boko Haram vigilante group that also appears to be available for hire in regional political disputes (Daily Post [Lagos], January 12; Sahara Reporters [Lagos], January 14).

The Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states of northeast Nigeria have been under a state of emergency since last May. The Borno state capital has not been targeted by bombings since the multi-service Joint Task Force (JTF) and other security forces established a security regime in the city last May. There was no claim of responsibility for the latest Maiduguri bombing, though the military blamed Boko Haram (PM News [Lagos], January 14). The bombing was the first in Maiduguri proper since the city’s market was attacked in March 2013.

A statement issued a day after the blast in the name of Sheriff’s campaign manager, Bako Bunu, claimed that the Maiduguri bombing was actually the work of “evil state government officials in Borno who are doing this in the name of scoring cheap and irresponsible political goals,” referring to Sheriff’s political opponents within the APC (Premium Times [Lagos], January 15). However, a week later Kolo said he was surprised to see his name on the statement, claiming he had been away in Chad and heard nothing of the matter until his return, while adding that he had denied making the statement without any external coercion (Premium Times [Lagos], January 21).

Borno State governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, was pelted with stones in Maiduguri in January 11 after word spread that he had intended to humiliate Sherrif by hiring “Civilian JTF” vigilantes, various thugs and elements of the security services to prevent Sherrif’s arrival in the city. Sherrif revised his plans and arrived to a chorus of supporters chanting “The Leader is back, the leader is back, we don’t want Kashim Shettima’s style of leadership” (Daily Post [Lagos], January 12).

Four days after the Maiduguri blast, Boko Haram members attacked Banki, a town along the Cameroon border. The militants attacked the police station with RPGs first, driving away police before starting to go door-to-door slitting the throats of residents (Osun Defender, January 18). Two nights later, the Islamists struck Alau Ngawo village in northeastern Borno State, burning houses and killing 18 people in a two-hour rampage before security forces arrived (Reuters, January 20).

Boko Haram was blamed for a January 8 attack on a mosque in the Kano State village of Kwankwaso, about 20 miles from Kano city. However, there were indications the attack was actually politically motivated by opponents of the state governor, Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso, who hails from the village and defected to the opposition only a month before the attack (Reuters, January 8).

Boko Haram has shown little respect for Nigeria’s armed services, repeatedly attacking military installations rather than avoiding them. Hundreds of fighters stormed Maiduguri’s international airport and air-base on December 2, 2013, damaging two helicopters and three decommissioned military aircraft (al-Jazeera, January 14). It later developed that the attackers had badly damaged equipment belonging to the civil Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, forcing the cancellation of all civilian flights into the airport until next March (Osun Defender, December 31, 2013). Attacks on military targets in the last few months have allowed Boko Haram to build a considerable arsenal.

Residents of the three states under emergency rule have consistently complained of a casual attitude toward collateral damage and civilian casualties amongst the security forces deployed there. The issue came to national attention on January 12, when a Nigerian jet fighter mistakenly targeted a convoy carrying Senator Muhammad Ali Ndume in the Gworza area of Borno state. Though the convoy was escorted by marked army and police vehicles, the pilot dropped four bombs, all of which landed on the nearby village of Pulka. The attack highlighted the Nigerian Air Force’s tendency to mount bombing runs without coordination with ground forces (Premium Times [Lagos], January 13).

With criticism of the military effort in the northeast spreading two days after the Maiduguri blast, President Goodluck Jonathan sacked Nigeria’s military leadership, appointing an air force officer from the northeast (Adamawa State), Air Marshal Alex Badeh, as the new chief-of-defense-staff. Brimming with confidence, Badeh has promised to finish counter-insurgency operations in the northeast by the time the state of emergency expires in April: “I can only say that this thing is already won” (AFP, January 20).

In the current climate, political violence can be expected to increase over the next year in northern Nigeria, with attackers needing to do little more than yell “Allahu Akhbar” to have the incidents blamed on Boko Haram. At the same time, Boko Haram remains very active in the rural areas, particularly along the borders of the northeastern states. Cross-border security cooperation, especially with Cameroon, remains poor. Improved security in the urban areas of the region has inadvertently left the unemployed youth of the vigilante groups with little to do, creating a useful pool of recruits for political thuggery in the run-up to the 2015 elections.