Wau is the state capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal and the centre of the greater Bahr el Ghazal region—the wellspring of support for South Sudanese president Salva Kiir. Western Bahr el Ghazal has also long been the site of inter-communal tensions between the Fertit and Luo communities, on the one hand, and Dinka groups, on the other. These tensions became more pronounced during the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005), when the Fertit initially resisted joining the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) because they thought it was trying to advance a narrowly Dinka communitarian agenda (Thomas, 2010). In response to SPLA encroachment and looting in the area around Wau, an armed Fertit opposition group known as Qwat Salem was formed, and similar armed defence forces emerged in Raga county (Blocq, 2014; Vuylsteke, 2018). Khartoum utilized these forces in its struggle with the southern rebels until 1991, when Qwat Salem joined the SPLM/A. Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, Qwat Salem was demobilized, and a conference of the Dinka, Fertit, and Luo communities attempted to address the tensions between them.

After the signing of the CPA, however, disquiet grew among the Luo and Fertit communities, as Dinka politicians, emboldened by their prominent place in the government in Juba, attempted to obtain greater control of politics in Wau, while also bringing large herds of cattle into the Jur River area, antagonizing Luo pastoralists. In 2012, tensions came to a head following a proposal to move the administrative headquarters of Wau county away from Wau town to Baggari, 19 km to the south-west—a proposal that some Fertit thought would be a means of expanding Dinka domination in the state. The proposal led to protests in Wau and the violent repression of dissent by the security services (Amnesty International, 2013). In a speech that is still referenced today, Kiir addressed a crowd in Wau stadium on 24 December 2012, warning the people of Western Bahr el Ghazal that he could destroy the town in an hour, while directing the Fertit to ‘go back to their place’.[1]

Kiir’s speech was followed by a violent crackdown on protesters; some of the Fertit who fled this assault subsequently became the core of a force that joined the SPLA-IO—initially under the command of Ashab Khamis, a former leader of Qwat Salem—once the South Sudanese civil war broke out in December 2013.[2] Although the war initially focused on the Greater Upper Nile area, conflict came to Western Bahr el Ghazal in 2015, when militarized cattle herders from Lakes and Warrap advanced into areas south of Wau town, destroying crops and attacking the Fertit and Luo populations. This in turn led to clashes between the SPLA and SPLA-IO, as ethnic cleavages were mapped onto political divisions (Craze, 2022b, pp. 51–52). Worse violence followed in 2015–16, when largely Dinka troops from Bahr el Ghazal launched a counter-insurgency offensive in Wau county, pillaging the areas they attacked, and killing civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Further offensives occurred in the period 2016–18.

Since the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) was signed in 2018, and the subsequent return to an administrative system of ten states in South Sudan (Small Arms Survey, 2020), Western Bahr el Ghazal has been relatively peaceful. As elsewhere in the country (Craze, 2022a), Kiir’s regime has had great success in persuading SPLA-IO commanders to defect to the government, fracturing the opposition, and establishing a firm military grip on the state, without being able to address the substantive reasons for conflict in Western Bahr el Ghazal.

[1] Author interviews with Fertit commanders in the SPLA-IO, Juba, November 2019 and February 2020; author interviews with politicians in Wau, November 2019 and September 2022.

[2] Author interview with Ashab Khamis, Juba, February 2020.