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Cash, costly brides, rampant guns fuel South Sudan’s cattle wars

Armed herders are launching increasingly deadly military-style attacks on rival camps

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A man carrying a gun walks past cattle at Kirgui village in Udier.

Weak rays of early morning sun seep through the smoke rising from smouldering piles of dried dung, keeping flies away from the precious cattle.

Children instinctively reach down for the white ash, a natural mosquito repellent, and rub it on their skin as women set to milking and men prepare for a long day seeking pasture at the peak of the dry season.

The passing of centuries seems to have changed little in the ebb and flow of life for herders in remote South Sudan, whose cattle serve as a bank account and play a core role in every aspect of life.

There has, however, been one devastating shift.

Cattle roam around in front of villagers ahead of vaccinations administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with the help of local community workers, at Kirgui village in Udier. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Instead of their traditional spears, cowherds now carry automatic rifles that have transformed cattle raids, a generations-old phenomenon, into massacres that have unleashed brutal cycles of vengeance.

“It is good to have a weapon because it helps you to protect the cattle,” said Puk Duoth, 25, a herder from a camp outside the northeastern village of Udier.

While South Sudan’s elites signed a power-sharing truce in September 2018, cattle raids have worsened, highlighting the herculean task required to resolve local conflicts in a society shattered by war.

According to the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS, 218 members of herder communities were killed in January in tit-for-tat attacks – almost three times the toll of 73 in the four months from October 2017 to January 2018.

Observers blame a deadly cocktail of factors for the rising body count: a breakdown of law and order in the war-torn nation, an influx of guns and inflation in the bride price – paid in cattle.

Cash cows

In these parts, cows are everything.

In the culture of the Nuer and Dinka peoples — South Sudan’s largest herder communities — boys are named after a favoured bull, and songs are written to glorify the long-horned beasts.

“If you are sick, then the cow can be sold and the money used for treatment,” says Beny Chuer, a Dinka chief from Amading camp outside the central city of Rumbek — one of the areas worst affected by raids and revenge killings.

“If a mother dies leaving a small baby, that child will live because a cow will be milked to feed it.”

Cattle is currency — each head worth about $500 (440 euros). The more a man owns, the more admiration he garners.

“If you are sitting in a community meeting and you are talking rubbish, but people know you have many cows, you will be honoured,” said Peter Machar, of the NGO Saferworld working on local conflicts.

In his 1940 study of the Nuer people, British anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard found this single-minded preoccupation frustrating in his research efforts.

“I used sometimes to despair that I never discussed anything with the young men but livestock and girls and even the subject of girls led inevitably to that of cattle,” he wrote.

Costly brides, rampant guns –

“For us, a cow is the source of money,” said chief Chuer, well over two metres (6 feet, 7 inches) tall — a genetic legacy perhaps of tall women being viewed as more valuable in herder communities.

He boasts that his tallest daughter earned him a whopping 250 cows.

This is part of the cause of conflict, said Peter Machar’s colleague Majok Mon, his own first name a Dinka word for the markings on a bull.

A woman milks a cow at the Kirgui village in Udier. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Bride prices soared as donor money poured into the country after independence from Sudan, allowing politicians, military men and the well-connected to enrich themselves and “get a lot of money” to pay for a wife, he said.

The average price went up from about 20 head of cattle to 100, in a country where the majority of people follow the tradition.

Suddenly, many young men could not afford to get married unless they raided cattle from other communities.

Guns flooded the country between the war for independence, achieved in 2011, and the internal conflict that erupted two years later as President Salva Kiir and rival Riek Machar fell out.

Both sides armed young herders and mobilised them to fight, said Peter Machar.

As any semblance of law and order collapsed, the warring also destroyed traditional systems, managed by tribal chiefs, for settling feuds.

“What brought the issue of cattle raids is the gun… if you don’t have a gun, then you will be monitored slowly, slowly until you are shot and your cows taken, but if you have your gun, then you can shoot” in defence, said Chuer.

Out of control

While fighting has stopped in most of the country as a result of the peace deal, this has changed nothing for herder groups nursing long-standing grievances unrelated to the national tug of war for power.

And with the attention elsewhere, armed herders are launching increasingly deadly military-style attacks on rival camps, with women and children among the victims.

Villagers herd their cattle ahead of vaccinations administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with the help of local community workers, at Kirgui village in Udier. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

The reality in these remote communities “is very far from what is happening with the elites in Juba,” United Nations special envoy David Shearer told AFP.

A report on the “militarisation” of cattle raiding in South Sudan, published last year in the Journal of International Humanitarian Action, warned that leaders like Kiir and Riek Machar, “having undermined the traditional mechanisms that once governed violence in order to further their individual political interests, no longer have control over these raiders either.”

All these factors bode ill for prospects of peace in a country whose youth has known nothing but conflict.

“This generation were born in the war and grew up in the war… they are a majority and they are the ones who are fighting, so how do we really transform that?” said Mon.

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East Africa News

President pardons 4 jailed opponents in Comoros

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May

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Comoros President Azali Assoumani pardons 4 political opponents

Comoros President Azali Assoumani has pardoned four opposition figures jailed for life for an attempted coup in the Indian Ocean islands. In a decree issued Saturday, writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui, lawyer Bahassane Ahmed Said, Mohamed Ali Abdallah and El-Had Ibrahim Halifa were “pardoned from all of their remaining sentences”.

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May when 17 other jailed opponents were pardoned. The charges were linked to unrest that followed a controversial constitutional referendum to extend the president’s term last year. 

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Bahassane is the younger brother of Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, a former vice-president to Azali now living in exile in Tanzania after denouncing the president’s authoritarianism. The pardons follow Azali’s re-election in March, in which he pledged “appeasement measures” to quell accusations of voter fraud.

He was credited with nearly 60 per cent of the ballot, an outcome rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. Comoros has had a volatile political history since independence in 1975, enduring more than 20 attempted coups, four of which were successful.

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Azali initially came to power in a coup, then ruled between 1999 and 2006. He was re-elected in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

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East Africa News

Tanzania mourns 69 who were killed in fuel tanker blast

“We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter

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A Tanzanian security officer controls the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker is seen

Tanzania was in mourning Sunday, preparing to bury 69 people who perished when a crashed fuel tanker exploded as crowds rushed to syphon off leaking petrol. President John Magufuli declared a period of mourning through Monday following the deadly blast near the town of Morogoro, west of Dar es Salaam.

He will be represented at the funerals by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an official statement said. “We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter to the national hospital in Dar es Salaam,” Majaliwa told residents in comments broadcast on Tanzanian television. 

The number of injured stood at 66, he said. The burials will start Sunday afternoon, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jenista Mhagama announced during the morning after relatives identified the dead.

“The preparations for the burials have been completed. Individual graves have been dug and the coffins are ready,” Mhagama said, adding that experts would be available to offer psychological counselling to the victims’ relatives. 

DNA tests would be carried out on bodies that were no longer recognisable, Mhagama said, adding that families could take the remains of their loved ones and organise their own burials if they preferred.

Two men carry the remains of a burnt out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded in Tanzania
Two men carry the remains of a burnt-out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Fuel tanker blast kills 10 in Nigeria

In the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa, 39 seriously hurt patients had been taken to hospital in Dar es Salaam while 17 others were being treated in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of the economic capital of Tanzania.

Footage from the scene showed the truck engulfed in flames and huge clouds of black smoke, with charred bodies. The burnt-out remains of motorcycle taxis lie scattered on the ground among scorched trees. A video posted on social media showed dozens of people carrying yellow jerricans around the truck.

No-one wanted to listen

“We arrived at the scene with two neighbours just after the truck was overturned. While some good Samaritans were trying to get the driver and the other two people out of the truck, others were jostling each other, equipped with jerricans, to collect petrol,” teacher January Michael told reporters.

“At the same time, someone was trying to pull the battery out of the vehicle. We warned that the truck could explode at any moment but no one wanted to listen, so we went on our way, but we had barely turned on our heels when we heard the explosion.”

Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker
Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt-out fuel tanker is seen along the side of the road following an explosion on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Tanker accident in Tanzania claims 57 lives

President Magufuli called Saturday for people to stop the dangerous practice of stealing fuel in such a way, a common event in many poor parts of Africa. He issued a statement saying he was “very shocked” by the looting of fuel from damaged vehicles. 

“There are vehicles that carry dangerous fuel oil, as in this case in Morogoro, there are others that carry toxic chemicals or explosives, let’s stop this practice, please,” Magufuli said. Last month, 45 people were killed and more than 100 injured in central Nigeria when a petrol tanker crashed and then exploded as people tried to take the fuel.

Among the deadliest such disasters, 292 people lost their lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2010, and in September 2015 at least 203 people died the South Sudan town of Maridi.

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Culture & Tourism

Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

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“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

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He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

WATCH: Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

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