South Sudan’s Tribal “White Army” Part Two: Arms and the Overthrow of Traditional Order

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2014

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 Ngungeng 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 unspoken agreement of all sides in the Second Sudanese Civil War.


The Bie Dengkur at Wac Deang, c.1902

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 of 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 was simultaneous 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) which 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 the 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 following the 2006 Juba declaration and the SPLA’s simultaneous disarmament campaigns 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 the 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]

Though the White Army is believed to be now operating in sympathy with Riek Machar, a 2012 statement from the militia acknowledged Riek Machar as the founder of the militia in 1992, but 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 and 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 combatting the Murle, a late December statement allegedly issued by the militia informed 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,