By Rajab Mohandis,
Jan 6, 2016(Nyamilepedia) —- Soon after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, community vigilante groups called Arrow Boys emerged in the former Western Equatoria State (WES), now split into Amadi, Maridi and Gbudue States. Recent formations of armed groups in the area however, do not fit the basic characteristics of the Arrow Boys. Some of these groups can be accurately described as insurgents while others are bandits but camouflaging as Arrow Boys. This article is meant to add a little clarity on the observable differences among these groups.
In my long experience of work and interactions with communities in the former WES, Arrow Boys had the following characteristics:
Formation of Arrow Boys was spontaneous. There was no planned formation of Arrow Boys but after a village suffered armed attacks mainly by the LRA, youth groups in the community would mobilize to protect their people against similar attacks in the future. The LRA was a Ugandan rebel group fighting the government of President Yeweri Kaguta Museveni since it came to power in 1986.
This group was partly based in South Sudan, receiving support from the Sudanese government. After the signing of the CPA, a peace agreement that ended Sudan’s two decade long civil war and set the ground for the independence of South Sudan, the LRA shifted from the areas along South Sudan-Uganda border to operate along the border of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the South Sudanese part of the border is the versed territory of WES. As a brutal rebel group, the LRA frequently attacked, abducted, tortured and killed civilians in the area. Arrow Boys therefore, emerged spontaneously in most communities that suffered and those that anticipated LRA attacks especially between 2006 and 2012 to protect their localities against this rebel group.
Operation of Arrow Boys did not stretch beyond their local communities. Groups of Arrow Boys emerged in most rural population centers and provided protection to civil populations within those localities. In some situations however, Arrow Boys in neighbouring communities could join hands in patrols and in fighting LRA forces.
Arrow Boys did not make political demands to the government. They were pre-occupied with vigilante activities aimed at protecting their communities and made no political demands to any level of government in South Sudan.
Throughout WES, Arrow Boys were subordinate to community governance structures. They would report their achievements and challenges to community leaders especially chiefs in their localities. In a peace conference held in Yambio in September 2010, Hassen Peni, the Paramount Chief of Yambio county, who is also the Chairman of the Council of Traditional Authorities in WES and the proposed heir to the throne of the Azande Kingdom, proposed that the Arrow Boys be called “Home Guards”. This name was adopted in the conference but did not effectively replace “Arrow Boys” partly because the outcome of the conference was not widely disseminated. The suggestion made by Chief Peni demonstrates the level of authority of community leaders over the Arrow Boys.
Arrow Boys had collaborative working relations with government and other legitimate forces in the country. In Maridi County for example, after LRA silently killed over forty people in Mburoko, a suburb of Maridi town in December 2008, Hon. Col. Mathias Boyi Onzi, the county commissioner of Maridi at the time instructed all men in the county to arm themselves with any form of weapon available and face the LRA if they came again to the area. The attack took place after mid night when residence of the area had retired from Christmas celebrations to their beds. It was barbaric in nature.
They used machete, axe, hoes and wood to kill the people including women, children and the elderly. Hon. Col. Onzi was reported to have shaded tears at the scene of the incident the following day and said he would lead the men, now Arrow Boys by definition, to fight the LRA so that this rebel group would reach the women and children again only after they had finished all the men in the local community. The Arrow Boys were also instrumental in sharing information with government forces and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) on the locations and movements of the rebels. A contingent of UPDF was deployed in WES to fight the LRA. In some situations Arrow Boys and the UPDF pursued the LRA together. At that time, government authorities and legitimate armed forces in the country recognized the community vigilantes as an important partner in the fight against the LRA.
The Arrow Boys used no military ranks, uniforms and command structures. Leaders of the Arrow Boys were either youth leaders or brave boys in their local communities. They were simply known as “leaders” of their local vigilante groups with no military ranks or command structures. They relied on the community for their intelligence and used no military uniforms and gears.
Finally, Arrow Boys posed no threat to their communities. Primarily the Arrow Boys emerged to protect their communities. Throughout their known existence, they did not threaten community security. For example, they did not abduct torture, robe and displace communities or raped women. Their fight against perceived community enemies was purely voluntary and a matter of prestige to protect one’s own relatives and family members.
Recent formations of armed groups in WES however, do not share these characteristics with the Arrow Boys. Even if some claim and others are known by the same name, these recent armed groups qualify to be known as insurgents and bandits. In Maridi and Mundri areas, these vigilante groups fought with LRA and armed pastoralists. In Yambio county, there are two prominent groups: the South Sudan National Liberation Movement/Army (SSNLM/A) and the Aparanga Aguanza – In Opposition (Arrow Boys – In Opposition). SSNLM/A has a military command structure and is negotiating a political settlement with the government while Aparanga Aguanza – In Opposition group consists of loose units now in armed confrontation with government forces. The former is based in the southern part of Yambio town while the latter is based in the northern part of the town. Whereas some of these armed groups could still be Arrow Boys, the characteristic behaviour of some of them is contrary to that of the Arrow Boys.
The formation of these groups appears to have been planned and followed some level of mobilization and recruitment. In Yambio for example, there was widespread abduction of young men to join these groups especially in October 2015. Such a form of mobilization demonstrates planned formation rather than spontaneous emergence of these armed groups.
Almost all the current armed groups in WES made political demands to the government. The group in Mundri demanded for a state while the one in Yambio has a long list of demands in its negotiations with the government under the mediation of a faith based group. Among other things, they have asked for equitable sharing of power and national resources in the country. The name “SSNLM” itself is an indication of a group with political ambitions. It is therefore, misleading when referring to such a group as Arrow Boys.
These armed groups tend not to be subordinate to community governance structures. For example, the SSNLM does not consult with or use community chiefs in their negotiations with the government.
These groups do not also have any collaborative working relations with the government. Each of the groups emerged as an opposing force to the government. At no point did these armed groups pursue a common objective/enemy alongside legitimate forces in the country. This clearly distinguishes them from the Arrow Boys.
Some of the current armed groups in WES use military ranks, command structures and uniforms. Aparanga Aguanza – In Opposition is headed by a brigadier general and a self-imposed Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) who promoted himself from a civilian to a lieutenant general in a foreign country within a month. The brigadier general leads the group in their base in Yambio while the C-in-C does so single handled on internet. SSNLM leaders on their part refer to themselves as commanders eg overall commander, commander for operations etc. Members of these groups put on uniforms known to be for the military and other organized forces in South Sudan. Although analysis of the authenticity of their ranks is beyond the scope of this article, it is an indication that they are more militant than ordinary community vigilante groups.
It has also been observed of late that some of the armed groups in WES posed serious threats to the safety and security of the civil population where they operate. They are known to be killing, looting and raping women, including old women and under aged girls. In Yambio for example, members of the armed groups broke into several houses and went away with property including vehicles, computers, money and telephones. In late December 2015, they broke into a mission compound of the Catholic Church in Yambio and gang raped a seventy year old foreign nun and went away with two Land Cruiser vehicles, computers and other valuables.
Prior to that, another group in Ezo managed to vandalize the compound of international aid agencies and took away huge amounts of food meant for Congolese refugees in the town. In addition to continuous gunshots every night, these attacks made several people to flee their homes. Most of the citizens in the northern half of Yambio town deserted their homes by late December 2015. They moved to the southern part of the town while others in both Yambio and Ezo crossed the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This level of displacement and threat to the safety of the local population differentiates these groups from the Arrow Boys whose primary objective was protection of their local population.
Lastly, membership of the recent formations of armed groups in WES is not limited to the local community where they are mainly based. For example, the SSNLM is based around Gangura village in Yambio County but their membership includes people from across WES and other states of South Sudan including the former Central Equatoria state. As such, their political demands to the government reflected a broad range of national issues including full implementation of a federal system of governance in the country. It is therefore, misleading to refer to such a group as community vigilantes or Arrow Boys.
Given that most of the armed groups currently operating in WES do not share common characteristics and objectives with Arrow Boys, it is appropriate to refer to them by their right names. An organized armed group like the SSNLM qualifies to be labelled as an insurgent group while those with unclear names and objectives but responsible for the mass displacements especially in Yambio and Ezo are bandits at best.
If these armed groups are not Arrow Boys, why would they and people stick to the name “Arrow Boys” for almost all of them? In my humble opinion, most of the members of these armed groups were members of the Arrow Boys. This means locally, people still know them as Arrow Boys even when their objectives and organizational structures have changed. Broadly, the only civilian groups known to be armed in WES were the Arrow Boys and this makes people to mistakenly refer to insurgents and bandits in the area as such. Finally, some of the groups appear to be interested in benefiting from the clean records of the Arrow Boys in their local communities. In this case the name is used to earn community respect and acceptance. For example, the name “Arrow Boys – In Opposition” attempts to create a connection of acceptance for both the local community and the armed opposition headed by the former Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar.
It is likely that Arrow Boys can still emerge spontaneously in any community especially where legitimate security institutions may not be able to adequately deal with security situations. The LRA in WES was a typical example where the rebels could attack anywhere and at any time yet both government forces and the UPDF pursuing them could not practically deploy themselves in every household, village or population centers.
Given the recent level of displacement of populations, loss of lives and property caused by some bandits in WES, it is likely that everyone will view the emergence of community vigilante groups in future with high suspicion.
Considering the different groups of insurgents that emerged in South Sudan since independence in 2011, what remains quite important for South Sudanese to address is the ease with which insurgent groups can be formed in the country and why insurgency is a quick option all this while. By understanding which groups are Arrow Boys, insurgents and bandits, engagement with each of them can be appropriately formulated to ensure peace prevails throughout WES.
The author, Rajab Mohandis, is a South Sudanese expert on the Arrow Boys with keen interest in political developments in the country and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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