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The Prophet

This is chapter 17 of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. You can skip ahead and read the full text here or
June 6, 2014, 11:00am

The members of the White Army are defined by being Nuer and wear red headbands to avoid shooting one another. Photo by Tim Freccia

Riek Machar can seem like an enlightened Westerner, with his casual English accent, Christian values, and genial dismissal of conspiracies, superstitions, and other things that are not backed up by logic and facts. But in this time of need, Machar must rely on the White Army to rise again to power. And they will oblige him only if a prophet invokes them to appear.

Initial reports of the large, armed tribal groups that came to be known as the White Army appeared in the late 1900s, as Nuers expanded their territory by raiding and burning the villages of Dinka cattle farmers.

Machar first harnessed the power of the White Army when he formed his breakaway SPLA-Nasir faction with his wife Emma McCune in November 1991. Urged on by the prophet named Wurnyang, mobs of armed men left their cattle camps and villages to attack the Dinka. Murder, rape, and pillage flared up around Bor, leaving 3,000 dead. Then the White Army vanished back into the bush, as quickly as they had come, leaving the outside world to wonder what exactly had just happened. Machar refused to take responsibility until his tearful admission ten years later.

A normal army is trained to carefully weigh risk, enemy strength, and secondary impact. The White Army is driven by divine purpose, immune to fear and tactical considerations. Their modus operandi is to attack as a sort of flash mob with spears, clubs, and machetes, driven by a divine confidence in victory that in their minds has been guaranteed by their prophet. Their lack of restraint is usually enough to make opposing armies flee.

The White Army fights in small, clan-like groups that form a larger, overarching structure of ragtag fighters who overwhelm and brutalize their enemy. When given weapons, purpose, targets, and permission—as it appears Machar has afforded them, possibly via Khartoum—the White Army transforms from a mob of cowherds with blunt and bladed objects into a swift and totally unpredictable killing force. The White Army prefers to move and attack on foot to avoid assaults from gunships and artillery—one of the main reasons why the Ugandans used those cluster bombs to decimate the widely spaced groups that were threatening Bor.

The power of the prophecies Ngundeng Bong made to the Nuer at the turn of the past century has positioned the White Army as a critical part of any military or political alliance. When the British made a big deal about returning Bong’s dang, or divine rod, in 2009 to celebrate South Sudan’s move toward independence, Machar kept the magical wooden staff in his vice presidential residence. Machar’s consultation with the latest prophet and commander is done in secret, away from cameras or recording devices.

While we sit under the shade of the trees, Amos explains the odd pressure valve that triggers the White Army. “In the Nuer culture we think everyone is equal, but at the same time Nuer always think they are in charge. The Nuer are always patient; they can take a lot of dirt.

“Since 2005 the Dinka have been getting the good jobs. We didn’t start the fight—they tried to disarm the Nuer in the Tiger presidential guard, and now the White Army will come.”

Machar has more than mass violence on his side; he has religion. Bong foretold that the country will be run by a left-handed Nuer without the traditional tribal marks. Machar is happy to fulfill that prophecy.

As we are sitting there chatting, Machar’s former mortal enemy, General Peter Gadet, strolls up.

Gadet is responsible for having almost destroyed the country of South Sudan before it began—by defecting in spring 2011 and fighting for six months before integrating back into the army as leader of the Eighth Division. Before that he battled with Machar over control of the oil fields. Then, in December, he defected again to Machar and attacked Bor with the White Army and went as far as threatening to attack Juba. The Ugandans managed to stop him. Now he sits in a council of war with Machar, planning their next moves. Their strategy is not spiritual. They are planning to attack the north, marching toward the oil.

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