Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies

Executive Summary

As weak African states face growing insurgencies, they do what weak states tend to do: subcontract certain security functions to non-state actors or vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities. This approach at times is viewed as a necessity, but is often dangerous, particularly in politically fluid and fractious states. The more fragile the state, the more it is dependent on vigilantes, but also the less able it is to police them or prevent abuse of power. The more successful the vigilante group against insurgents, the harder it is to demobilise, and the more likely it will become entrenched. As a result of ethnic rivalries and allegiances, community defence groups can morph into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the central state. Yet even when risks outweigh benefits, African leaders may not have the luxury of choice. At a minimum, African governments and their international backers should learn from the past, try to prevent abuses, guard against vigilantes’ mission creep and plan how to manage them once the conflict dies down.

By their very nature, vigilante groups carry inherent risk. Typically recruited from local communities, their members likely share the same ethnic or political identity, collective interests and threat perceptions, raising the odds that they will act as local militias – potentially more powerful than state authorities – and pursue narrow ethnic agendas; a short-term necessary evil that could pave the way for longer-term conflict. A solution for states in dire need of backing, vigilantes too often take advantage of their newfound capacity – and compensate for inadequate support and resources – by seeking to maximise their power and wealth through extortion, kidnapping, and other violent abuses.

But there are positive lessons to be learned too. Vigilante groups can be far more effective than state actors in providing local security. They generally enjoy greater legitimacy by virtue of community roots, and can be more efficient in identifying, tracking and combating insurgents thanks to their familiarity with local languages, geography and culture. Successfully managed by state authorities – and international actors – they can enable national leaders to forge lasting political pacts with provincial elites and bolster state legitimacy among local communities. In short, and while African and international policymakers rightfully may be concerned that empowering non-state forces will undermine the state, vigilantes also can serve as valuable intermediaries between local communities and central authorities.

Drawing on four illustrative cases – Sierra Leone, Uganda’s Teso region, South Sudan’s former Western Equatoria State and Nigeria’s north east – this report seeks to shed light on factors that determine vigilantes’ evolution and impact on security and stability with the objective of helping governments and their international partners navigate this dilemma.

Among these factors: regime neglect of, or hostility toward such groups (as in South Sudan) can give rise to new rebels, while unbridled state support (as in Sierra Leone) can empower armed groups controlled by strongmen and motivated in part by narrow self-interest. The clearer vigilantes’ objectives and mandate are set in advance, and the greater the oversight by national and local leaders, the state military and local communities, the more effective the group can be and the less likely it will veer away from community defence and counter-insurgency goals. This is more likely to occur in instances where the political interests of the central state and local leaders are roughly aligned (as in Uganda). By contrast, a less defined mandate – one that allows vigilantes to step into local governance roles – can be a recipe for trouble, prolonging the existence of vigilante groups and enlarging their scope, enabling them to consolidate their power and creating greater economic incentives for them to hold on to it. In the longer term, investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation and reintegration programs is key to offering vigilante members viable alternative livelihoods and due recognition. Transitioning selected members to community policing units also could help prevent their reactivation in more hostile guises.

Several broad lessons, each to be applied with due care for local conditions, emerge from the case studies. In particular, African leaders that enlist vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes should:

  • Engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes with the aim of settling on finite, mutually acceptable objectives within an overarching counter-insurgency strategy, and ensuring they provide political oversight over rank-and-file members;

  • Be clear upfront with vigilante leaders and foot soldiers as to what they should expect as reward for their efforts and compensation for any losses;

  • Provide vigilantes with adequate political and material support, including weapons when necessary, with the goal of ensuring they are able to pursue their objectives, thereby reducing the risk of extortion of resources from civilians;

  • Where possible, provide military oversight of, and ensure accountability for vigilantes’ abusive actions;

  • Put in place upfront a gender-sensitive plan to demobilise vigilantes once the insurgent threat has receded and to help them find work in locally-relevant sectors.

International donors and partners face a similar conundrum. They too should benefit from relatively strong state authorities enjoying a monopoly over the use of violence. But when the state is too weak to confront an insurgency alone, or when the insurgent group doubles up as a terrorist organisation threatening outside interests, the temptation will be great for international actors to support a militia or vigilante group – with or at times without the state’s consent. Those international actors’ interests would be best served by working in concert with state authorities, helping them manage relations with vigilante groups, cautioning against the pitfalls of unfettered support or counterproductive repression. To the extent international players interact with vigilante groups, they should avoid providing direct support, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining position. Instead, they should be willing to assist states with resources to better control vigilantes and more effectively demobilise and reintegrate them.

Reliance on vigilante groups often is a faute de mieux solution for states facing a threat they cannot address alone. But as the cases in this report illustrate, there are better and worse ways of doing so, and of ensuring that a short-term expedient not turn into a long-term headache.

Nairobi/Dakar/Brussels, 7 September 2017


African states confronting insurgent groups face a dilemma when civilians mobilise and take up arms to protect their local communities. These forces can play a major role in fending off attacks and provide regular armed forces with critical local knowledge, thereby bolstering the effectiveness of counter-insurgency campaigns. But vigilante groups also can undermine central authority, widen conflict by targeting ethnic or political rivals or threaten longer-term stability by continuing as an autonomous armed force after the original conflict has subsided. To use them is to wield a double-edged sword.

This report examines four cases in sub-Saharan Africa: the Kamajors, who fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002); the Arrow Boys of Teso, who confronted the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in eastern Uganda (2003-2007); the Zande Arrow Boys, who battled the LRA and later rebelled against South Sudan’s Dinka-led regime (2005-present); and the Civilian Joint Task Force, which has worked closely with the armed forces and police to counter Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria (2013-present).

Although primarily based on field research conducted in 2016 and early 2017 in Sierra Leone, Uganda, South Sudan and Nigeria, the report also incorporates analysis from Crisis Group’s past work, putting into wider geographic and historical perspective more than fifteen years of analysis regarding the conflict in Sierra Leone, the LRA in Uganda and subsequently the broader region, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. This research also draws on Crisis Group’s wider research into curbing violent religious radicalism.

Crisis Group uses the term vigilantes to refer to members of civilian self-defence groups, community defence forces and civil militias, which are formed to protect their communities from non-state or state actors or to combat insurgents. This term, widely used in the African context, is not meant to imply that their activities are illegal, even though they initially might have lacked state authorisation.

II.A Recurrent Policy Dilemma

Vigilante groups have formed and continue to exist in weak African states where governments are unable or unwilling to protect civilians from security threats ranging from large-scale insurgency, to political or ethnic violence, to low-level banditry. The nature of the threat shapes the kinds of activities that vigilantes undertake, whether counter-insurgency roles typically played by the military or more policing-type duties. Yet, regardless of circumstance, the phenomenon of vigilantes faces an essential problem: states too weak to provide security on their own are most prone to enlist non-state armed actors and delegate some local security functions to them, but also most likely to lack resources and capacity to control vigilantes and prevent them from abusing power for their own individual or group interest.

This report examines cases of vigilante groups formed in response to insurgent threats as opposed to general lawlessness, since vigilantism in non-conflict settings presents a related but different set of challenges and policy implications. The four cases – historical and current cases from West and East Africa – were selected to assess what factors ultimately determine the outcomes – positive or negative – of reliance on vigilantes. While Crisis Group does not claim that these form a representative sample of vigilantism in African conflicts, they cover a range of experiences, from the relatively positive (Arrow Boys in Teso, Uganda) to decisively harmful in terms of human suffering and political instability (Kamajors in Sierra Leone and Arrow Boys in South Sudan). Case selection also was informed by Crisis Group’s institutional expertise and fresh field research.

A.Kamajors in Sierra Leone

Over eleven years (1991-2002), one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars unfolded in Sierra Leone, killing tens of thousands and displacing up to a quarter of the population. Among the most powerful fighting groups were the Kamajors, who evolved from bands of young men defending their villages to the core of a state-armed national militia fighting alongside both the regular army and foreign forces. The Kamajors (whose name means hunter in Mende, the predominant language and tribe in the Southern and Eastern provinces) became a highly divisive entity. Many Sierra Leoneans still revere them for their bravery in defending first their home areas and later a democratically-elected government. But they also are reviled as a brutal tribal militia, which looted and killed suspected rebel collaborators and further destabilised the country. Such diverse, but not necessarily incompatible, views reflect ethnic and political prejudice and how people’s experiences of the Kamajors differed over time and in different places.

The Kamajors’ trajectory over the course of the long war demonstrates how vigilante groups can be effective community protectors and, at times, military auxiliaries, principally by virtue of their superior local knowledge. It also illustrates the dangers of helping vigilantes become militarily powerful forces operating outside their communities, without adequate state monitoring or control, particularly in countries riven by ethno-political tensions.

1.From community protectors to unwieldy paramilitary force

Sierra Leone’s civil war began in the early 1990s as a battle between government forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Originally based in Liberia, the RUF launched attacks on both military and civilian targets, principally in the Eastern and Southern provinces. In response, local leaders started mobilising young men, including Kamajor hunters, to defend their home areas. A former army captain and local chief, Sam Hinga Norman, organised youth around Bo, the country’s second largest city. Thanks to his military experience and strength of character, Norman soon became the Kamajors’ national leader and figurehead. As fighting spread, other tribes formed defence groups in their areas, but the Kamajors in the south and east remained by far the largest and earned a reputation as the fiercest.

The beleaguered government, recognising the local forces’ effectiveness and the usefulness of their local knowledge, allowed them to act as army auxiliaries, serving principally as guides and informants. But distrust between Kamajors and soldiers soon undermined cooperation. To counter the insurgency, the government rapidly expanded the army, quadrupling its numbers from about 3,000 before the war to approximately 13,000 by 1992. Rapid expansion, coupled with deficient leadership, training and equipment, saw some front-line troops become so-called sobels (soldier/rebels) who preyed on civilians, sometimes in collaboration with insurgents. In response, the Kamajors defended their communities against both rebels and soldiers.

To compensate for its military weakness, the government hired a private South African military company – Executive Outcomes – which fought rebels from 1995 to early 1997. They relied heavily on the Kamajors’ local expertise. Their joint operations ushered in a period of sufficient stability to allow elections to be held in February 1996; these brought the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to power. Norman, the Kamajors’ best-known leader, became deputy defence minister, and the state ramped up its support to the local defence forces. In 1996, to reassure those who believed the Kamajors were becoming the ruling party’s army, the government established a national umbrella organisation for all vigilante groups, known as the Civil Defence Forces (CDF). A central coordinating committee, including representatives from diverse tribal defence groups, used government funds to buy arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies, which it distributed to field units.

Despite this façade of national unity, the Civil Defence Forces’ ethnically distinct units operated largely independently of each other. The Kamajors remained numerically dominant, partly because Mendeland saw the most insurgent activity, and received the lion’s share of government resources. Jealousy and fear of these irregular, largely Mende, forces helped fuel further army discontent, prompting a May 1997 coup by junior soldiers who established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the rebel RUF to join their government. “The SLPP tribal hunter militia, the Kamajors, received logistics and supplies far beyond their immediate needs”, wrote a coup leader, arguing that the ruling party was favouring a “private army over our armed forces”. Only a small portion of the military remained loyal to the toppled government, now exiled in Conakry, Guinea. That government appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for help and regional troops deployed under the banner of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) pushed the rebels and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council out of Freetown in February 1998. While this made possible the government’s return, the war nonetheless dragged on for another four years.

According to a former British high commissioner, the Kamajor-dominated Civil Defence Forces were crucial to restoring state control. It fought on behalf of the elected government, both independently and in coordination with ECOMOG troops. The Kamajors were a significant battlefield force in part due to their size and spread. The number of enrolees mushroomed to some 37,000 members, most of them rural, uneducated youth. Some joined to access weapons and other resources; others to settle scores. In joint operations with ECOMOG troops, they typically served as guides for troops unfamiliar with the territory or people. They also frequently were in the vanguard during attacks on rebel positions, with troops from the ECOMOG firing heavy artillery from behind. In advance of the rebel attack on Freetown in January 1999, ECOMOG airlifted Kamajors to help defend the capital.

Neither national leaders nor ECOMOG (itself accused of complicity in Civil Defence Forces abuses) were willing or able to control such a large, decentralised, undisciplined and mostly untrained force. The Kamajors’ reputed fearlessness – reinforced by initiation rites that were supposed to render fighters immune to bullets – was matched by their brutality, especially when operating outside their home areas. In larger cities such as Freetown and Bo, they robbed and harassed civilians, killing those suspected of collaborating with the enemy; in rural areas they were accused of committing massacres in supposedly pro-rebel villages. There lies in this a cautionary tale: the state’s willingness to empower civilians to fight on its behalf can trigger mass, unregulated recruitment, swelling a vigilante force beyond the state’s ability to oversee, let alone control, it.

2.A bitter legacy

At the end of the war, the government and international partners faced multiple imperatives: to disarm and demobilise the Kamajors alongside other combatants; recognise and reward their efforts; uphold justice and hold accountable those who committed abuses; and reconcile former enemies. Although the government took steps on all fronts, former Kamajors saw its limited support for reintegration as a sign of ingratitude and assumed the prosecution of their leaders was politically motivated.

The July 1999 Lomé peace accord soon was broken and fighting only died down after Britain dispatched 800 troops in May 2000 to stop a rebel advance on Freetown. A year later, a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process got underway for more than 72,000 former combatants, including the Civil Defence Forces (CDF). Most, incentivised by the promise of reintegration support, quit willingly. In January 2002, the government formally disbanded the CDF and banned all tribal militias. An estimated 20 per cent of CDF fighters were integrated into the security services. Others chose to continue their education. Most returned to their rural home areas or moved to provincial cities and tried to find work.

Government and donors paid less attention to reintegrating former fighters than to the disarmament and demobilisation phases; administrators acknowledge that vocational training courses were too short and did not fit economic needs. Many Kamajors, both leaders and foot soldiers, remain aggrieved, even bitter, that they did not receive the support to which they were entitled.

From 2002 to 2004, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to heal the societal wounds caused by atrocities on all sides. Former Kamajors were among those who admitted their crimes, apologised to victims and asked the families of those killed for forgiveness. In 2002, the government and UN set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to try those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for crimes against civilians and UN peacekeepers. Its prosecutor indicted thirteen people: nine Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council rebel leaders plus then-Liberian president Charles Taylor (who backed their insurgency) and three CDF militia leaders, including Norman, who died in custody after undergoing medical treatment. Many Kamajors believe Norman’s indictment was designed to stop him from competing for the presidency and that his death at a military hospital in Senegal was no accident.

Such suspicions reinforce the conviction among former Kamajors that the government failed to appreciate their sacrifices and ultimately betrayed them. Their leaders, especially Norman himself, had promised them recognition, including medals, and the transformation of the CDF into a reserve force, although these proposals never received cabinet approval. There remains little public recognition of the group’s contributions. A small monument next to the central roundabout in downtown Freetown bears a plaque reading: “To commemorate the work of the Civil Defence Force (CDF) in pursuit of peace and democracy in Sierra Leone, 1997-2002”.

Today, former Kamajors, especially in rural areas, still bear these grievances; the power shift to a northerner-dominated government since 2007 has compounded feelings of marginalisation in Mendeland. Still, the absence of a collective Kamajor voice and emergence of new political leaders and rivalries, including within the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party, over time diluted the political significance of this perceived betrayal of the Kamajors.

B.Arrow Boys of Teso in Uganda

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by self-styled spirit-medium Joseph Kony, emerged in the late 1980s among disaffected ethnic Acholis in northern Uganda. It sparked an extraordinarily violent rebellion that would kill, mutilate and kidnap thousands of civilians in four countries over nearly three decades. The Ugandan army fought back, but could not or would not protect civilians from the LRA’s brutal attacks, prompting some to form vigilante or self-defence groups. Among the most effective were the Arrow Boys of Teso, a sub-region of eastern Uganda.With military backing and leadership (though minimal resources), local recruits – often led by ex-rebels who had once fought the central government – took up arms against the LRA in June 2003, driving it out of Teso by the end of that year.

Their success testified to their fighting ability and community support as well as their local leaders’ ability to secure national-level backing. Operating among their home communities under close political oversight by national and local leaders and a degree of military oversight by the national army, few Arrow Boys abused their power. However, because of a flawed demobilisation process, many Arrow Boys returned home without pay or lasting state support and grew resentful of the central government.

1.The “little army within the army”

The Teso Arrow Boys emerged in June 2003 in response to LRA attacks. Unlike other groups, they did not evolve from traditional tribal networks, such as the hunter societies that would become Sierra Leone’s vigilantes. They earned their name, according to a former commander, not because they shot arrows but “because they were like an arrow, which flies silently – like it knows where it is going”. Many of their leaders were former insurgents, who had honed their skills during the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) 1986-1992 uprising, as well as earlier rebellions. “We had so many revolutions [in Uganda] that there were many ex-combatants in the villages”, said one former Arrow Boy field commander.

After the Uganda People’s Army’s so-called Teso War ended, some ex-combatants were integrated into Anti-Stock Theft Units (ASTU) or Local Defence Units (LDU) to provide security against cattle raiders who repeatedly made sorties into Teso from the Karamoja region to the north east. Others simply returned to their villages. Thus the area had a pre-existing, albeit rudimentary, community defence structure. Local leaders initially reacted warily to the LRA’s arrival. Some preferred to let the group “pass through Teso unhindered”, fearing that confronting it would “endanger the lives of their people”. Given the brutality of the government’s counter-insurgency operations just a decade earlier and the desire to avoid further conflict in Teso, initially there was limited enthusiasm for joining hostilities on either side.

That changed when the LRA unleashed its violent campaign of child abduction in Teso; its methods convinced the community to mobilise. “We reacted as a tribe”, said the mayor of Soroti, Teso’s capital. “It was an issue of survival”. The emerging Arrow Boy leadership argued that the community itself must take the lead in opposing the rebels as army presence in the Eastern region was thin; troops were based in urban centres, unable to respond quickly to the LRA’s guerrilla tactics. “A snake had entered our house”, said a local official and Arrow Boy officer. “You do not wait”.

Senior Teso political leaders – who notably included Musa Ecweru, a regional district commissioner, and Captain Mike Mukula, a former pilot who was then minister for health – held a meeting in early June 2003 to mobilise the community. Radio stations called for recruits and local church networks relayed the message. The Anglican bishop of Soroti raised donations to pay volunteers. Using a few dozen arms supplied by the internal security agency, the Arrow Boys launched their first attack on 22 June, routing LRA rebels taken by surprise.

To survive future attacks and reprisals, Teso leaders needed to convince President Museveni to provide significant support. The decision involved risks for both sides. For the president, it implied giving weapons to former insurgents in a historically anti-government region. For Teso politicians, it meant persuading local combatants to put aside their distrust of the army and accept its oversight.

Given the magnitude and immediacy of the LRA threat, however, neither side had much choice. The Uganda People’s Defence Force (the regular army) or UPDF was overstretched, lacking local intelligence, and reluctant to conduct anti-guerrilla operations in difficult terrain. The Arrow Boys could not effectively protect their communities without the logistical support – especially weapons – only the army could supply. Museveni accepted the gamble, but to oversee the counter-insurgency campaign and make sure the Arrow Boys did not get out of hand he travelled regularly between Kampala and Teso. For their part, local politicians set aside ethnic or regional resentments, assuring the government that the Arrow Boys would “assist” army troops rather than act independently. In effect, they formed “a little army within the army”.

The government distributed roughly 7,000 rifles to the Arrow Boys, who were organised as an auxiliary force divided into twelve battalions, each under the command of an army major. The estimated total size of the force was 9,000 including some unarmed members who focused on scouting or logistics roles, among them women. Relations with the army at times were fraught. The Teso combatants chafed under the army’s “formal way of doing things” and resisted demands they speak Kiswahili, the language used by soldiers, but the collaboration was militarily effective. The Arrow Boys proved to be a highly motivated, mobile force that took the fight to the guerrillas, pursuing them on foot into the swamps of the Lake Kyoga basin. They harried the rebels relentlessly, a former army officer said, denying them the chance to rest and resupply. Because they enjoyed the trust of local communities, the Arrow Boys provided the army with up-to-date intelligence, including through a network of village churches.

Within the region, the force enjoyed overwhelming support for stopping rebel killings and kidnappings. There is little evidence that members abused civilians or engaged in criminal activity. “Crimes by the Arrow Boys against the community were very rare”, a former field commander said, though he admitted that “some of the boys were a bit lawless”. Veterans of the force say discipline was closely monitored with infractions punished by their own commanders or by army courts-martial.

2.Flawed demobilisation

By the end of 2003 – only six months after local leaders met to plan community defence – the Arrow Boys had forced most LRA guerrillas out of Teso. The force was then gradually demobilised and the last three battalions were disbanded in 2007. Some members simply “deserted”, returning to their villages as the LRA threat declined (though a former commander said they were quickly found and returned their weapons). The majority went through a formal process, which meant relinquishing their rifles and uniforms theoretically in return for payment. A small number joined the army, police or the Local Defence Units created mainly to repel Karamojong cattle raiders. Some former Arrow Boys eventually joined the large Ugandan army contingent in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a highly desirable posting given its salary and demobilisation payment. But despite their military success against the LRA, few met the educational requirements (a secondary education certificate) required to join the armed forces.

Although each demobilised Arrow Boy was supposed to receive 840,000 Ugandan shillings (worth almost $500 in 2007 when the demobilisation process ended), former commanders say army officers stole much of the funding earmarked for this purpose. Nor did families of those killed in action receive promised “burial support”. Instead, army officers beat some of those who requested compensation and sent them back to their villages empty handed. Local religious and political leaders have complained publicly about the government’s failure to offer the Arrow Boys adequate material or symbolic recognition for their service. “I blame the government I serve for not rewarding [the Arrow Boys] with medals”, wrote the force’s ex-chairman, “and yet I see the government giving out medals to different groups across the country”.

The absence of an effective demobilisation program and the government’s failure to properly acknowledge Arrow Boys’ services fuelled a strong sense of disillusionment with Museveni’s regime. So far at least, however, this has not had a visible impact on political stability in the Teso region which has remained largely peaceful since the LRA left. (Karamojong cattle raiding also has declined due to a government disarmament operation in the region). There appears to be a broad sense that security in the region substantially improved – a point Museveni regularly stresses – and opposition political support does not appear to have coalesced around the Arrow Boys.

Although most of the rank-and-file Arrow Boys did not benefit significantly from their service, its leadership – particularly Musa Ecweru and Mike Mukula – were politically rewarded. Ecweru was promoted from regional district commissioner for Kasese in western Uganda to MP for Amuria (a Teso constituency), and also has served as state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees since 2006. Mukula was MP for Soroti municipality until 2016 and now serves as national vice chairman for the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Eastern Uganda. Ecweru reportedly also enjoys good relations with President Museveni, and campaigned on the same platform during the 2016 general election. He reportedly provides money for former Arrow Boys – in particular to pay for funeral costs – even though such occasional patronage cannot compensate for the government’s failure to properly implement a demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program. Although the 2016 election evidenced growing anti-Museveni sentiment in the region, Arrow Boys do not appear to be a major factor in this.

C.Zande Arrow Boys in South Sudan

By the mid-2000s, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) largely had been pushed out of Uganda into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and what in 2011 would become South Sudan. Pursued by the Ugandan army, which worked with its neighbours’ national forces, small groups of LRA fighters attacked unprotected villages to seize supplies, kidnap new recruits and then disappear back into the jungle. In South Sudan’s Equatorias region, some ethnic Zande communities (referred to collectively as the Azande) had in 2005 formed defence forces to repel ethnic Dinka pastoralists who drove cattle onto land they considered their own. They took on the name previously used in Uganda: Arrow Boys. From 2008, the threat of LRA attack spurred the growth of Arrow Boy units.

These civilian forces proved most useful for reconnaissance and early warning. Mutual distrust between the Azande and the armed forces, rooted in longstanding ethnic and political tensions, hampered their effectiveness, however. It also ultimately drew the Zande Arrow Boys into the civil war that roiled South Sudan from 2013. As the LRA threat declined, the central government’s approach to the Arrow Boys – a mix of neglect and hostility toward a group that demanded to be armed, mobilised and paid, but not subject to central government control – helped fuel their transformation from self-defence groups into rebels.