South Sudan Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Allison Waithe-Benton

Allison has been a history teacher for nine years. She holds a master's in teaching.

The South Sudan civil war has its roots in the complex relationships between South Sudan's ethnic groups. There are more than 60 ethnic groups in Sudan, although more than half of the South Sudanese population is either Dinka or Nuer.

The People of South Sudan

South Sudan's people can be generally classified by whichever language their culture speaks. Two branches of the Nilo-Saharan language family - Northern Nilotic and Eastern Nilotic - are represented in South Sudan. The vast majority of ethnic groups speak these dialects. One group - the Azande - is unique because it is the only ethnic group that belongs to the Niger-Congo language family.

About 36% of South Sudanese are Dinka, and about 16% are Nuer. The rest of South Sudan's population belongs to the Shilluk, Azande, Bari, Kakwa, Murle, Mandari, or other ethnic groups.


The Dinka form the largest ethnic group in South Sudan. In general, it is also the group that enjoys the most economic and political powe. South Sudan's first President - Salva Kiir - is of Dinka heritage.

Along with most other ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka are prolific cattle herders, also known as pastoralists . Cattle play a prominent part in traditional Dinka daily life. Dinka bulls boast long, gracefully curved horns, which are painstakingly trained into shape from birth by Dinka cattlemen. The number of cattle a man has reflects his wealth and status - and even plays a part in whom he will marry. A young woman's parents set a bride price in number of cattle. If a man wishes to wed, he must transfer ownership of part of his herd to his bride's family. The Dinka, as well as many other ethnic groups, practice polygyny - meaning a man may take more than one wife. This is a legal practice in South Sudan today.

The Dinka were the first Sudanese group to convert to Christianity. Through Christian missionaries, they were exposed to European-style education - more than any other South Sudanese ethnic group. Christian Dinkas were able to occupy the majority of the top positions in business, government, and the Christian Church in southern Sudan.

Southern Sudanese separatists fought a violent civil war against Sudan's government, nearly non-stop, from 1962 to 2011. John Garang, a prominent Dinka leader, commanded the region's military the war for independence from Sudan. For the Dinka, as well as most other South Sudan ethnic groups, this created a major disruption in traditional life.

People from all ethnic groups in what is now South Sudan were displaced by the decades of warfare, losing their all-important cattle in the process. The Dinka were especially affected. Their traditional lands border Sudan, and so did the majority of the fighting. Nonetheless, in the new independent nation, the Dinka's political and cultural influence continues to predominate.


The Nuer live in the northeastern part of the country, as well as in neighboring Ethiopia. The conflict between Nuer and Dinka is historic, and based on the groups' proximity to one another. The Nuer are also traditional cattle herders, and came into conflict with the Dinka over land. The Nuer and Dinka (as well as other groups) frequently attack each other and take cattle - as has been the case since the 1800s, when the Nuer first expanded into territory controlled by the Dinka.

The Nuer and Dinka are similar in some ways. They speak Northern Nilotic languages, and of course, each group venerates cattle. Both Nuer and Dinka male names are the same as the name of their most important cow (although how the cow-name is used is slightly different between the two groups). They are both semi-nomadic, following their herds seasonally to the best pasturelands.

Unlike the majority of Dinka, the majority of today's Nuer are animistic. Animism is a type of belief system that is common across sub-Saharan African religions. Animists believe that animals, plants, objects and natural elements like water and air are imbued with spirits, or animated. Certain objects - such as the cow for the Nuer - have especially powerful spirits and therefore have an important place in daily life. Complementing the animistic nature of the Nuer religion is their belief in one god and creator, called Kowth.

In April 2016, Riek Machar was sworn in as Vice President of two-year-old South Sudan. Machar is Nuer, and had previously served as South Sudan's Vice President. However, tension between Machar and Salva Kiir, President of Sudan and a Dinka, forced Machar from office.

The conflict between the two men mirrored the wider ethnic conflict in South Sudan - primarily fought between the Dinka, Nuer, and Murle groups. In 2013, Kiir accused Machar of planning a coup and removed Machar from his post as Vice President. Machar led mostly Nuer rebel forces against Kiir's mostly Dinka military, but was forced to flee South Sudan. His return was part of a peace agreement.


Pastoralists like the Nuer and Dinka, the Shilluk are unique because they trace their ancestry to their own independent kingdom. They live in an area formerly ruled by the Shilluk Kingdom, which is now part of South Sudan's Upper Nile State. Their region is also home to Dinka and Nuer groups, but the Shilluk live mostly along the Nile.

Because of their proximity to the Nile, whose waters provide irrigation, the Shilluk rely much more heavily on agriculture. While the Dinka and Nuer were traditionally semi-nomadic, the Shillluk have largely always lived in permanent settlements. The Shilluk have their own language, which belongs to the Eastern Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family.

The Shilluk's religion and political organization are linked. They believe the kingdom's founder and their common ancestor was a mediator between the gods and humans. Their social organization reflects this belief. The Shilluk's highest religious leader - the Reth - is believed to have descended from the founder of the Shilluk Kingdom. Local chiefs, who in turn act as the Reth's advisors, elect the Reth. The Reth and the council of chiefs also perform the functions of judge and parliament.

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