The decision by the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly to arm and train the so-called Arrow Boys to protect against Lord Resistance Army’s attacks raises many concerns. The assembly’s action underlines the inability of South Sudan’s army to protect civilians while raising the risk that the new militia could constitute an effective private army for local politicians seeking influence in light of the upcoming referendum.
Arrow Boys in southern Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, or WES, took up arms in the last two years in response to LRA incursions from Central African Republic and Congo, particularly around August 2009. So far they have consisted of groups of civilians armed with locally manufactured guns who conduct daily and nightly patrols. As Enough has previously noted, the Arrow Boys receive tacit support and resources from the local and state officials, but the legislative assembly’s decision means that these fighters, estimated at just fewer than 1,000, will soon officially receive military support – to the tune of an astonishing $2 million, enough to sustain this small army for a long time.
This is not the first time civilians were tasked with protecting against LRA attacks. The Ugandan government first instituted the practice in Uganda around 1987, when it created the so-called Arrow Boys, Rhino Boys, or Local Defense Units.
The history of the Ugandan Arrow Boys showcases the risks associated with using civilians to do the job of the professional army. The Ugandan government has been criticized for endangering the lives of civilians by using poorly trained Arrow Boys who frequently committed abuses, such as attacking and killing neighboring Karimojong cattle herders. Arrow Boys in Uganda were used to intimate voters on behalf of the ruling party during the election campaign of 2005.
Parallels with the Sudanese Arrow Boys are striking. As Enough has already documented, by the end of 2009 the Arrow Boys in WES behaved as a police force “by apprehending criminals and people who cause trouble” and have clashed with Mbororo pastoralists who move into southern Sudan in search of pastures for their cattle.
In light of recent uprisings of militia leaders in South Sudan, there is legitimate concern that the Arrow Boys could be hired as a private army by southern Sudanese politicians trying to gain influence prior to secession, the widely expected outcome of the 2011 referendum.
The Arrow Boys in southern Sudan came about to fill the security vacuum created by the inability of the southern Sudanese army or SPLA, to protect civilians from LRA attacks. Despite a significant presence in WES (at least 3,000 soldiers by the end of 2009), SPLA units have consistently shown they are unable and at times unwilling to face the LRA. The answer to continuing LRA violence is not to arm local militias but to modernize the SPLA into a force capable of providing security in southern Sudan.
Photo: Arrow Boys in southern Sudan (Enough/Laura Heaton)