Violence, legitimacy, and prophecy

Nuer struggles with uncertainty in South Sudan

by Sharon E. Hutchinson and Naomi R. Pendle

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Contemporary South Sudanese Nuer prophets play powerful roles in interpreting the moral limits of lethal violence and weighing the legitimacy claims of rival government leaders. Their activities remain largely invisible to external observers investigating the making and unmaking of fragile states. Focusing on South Sudan's tumultuous 2005–14 period, we reveal these hidden dynamics through analysis of the two most-powerful living western Nuer prophets. Gatdeang Dit, a male prophet of the divinity Deng, rejects all forms of violent aggression and fosters relations of peace and intermarriage with Dinka neighbors. Nyachol, a female prophet of Maani, inspires thousands of armed Nuer youth to retaliate against Dinka cattle raiders and other external threats while insisting on purification for Nuer–Nuer homicides. Despite their differences, both prophets invoke God's superior powers to push back against the simplified, secularized, and objectified forms of violence glorified by rival government elites.