Politics, Prophets and Armed Mobilizations: Competition and Continuity over Registers of Authority in South Sudan's Conflicts

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Spiritual and divine authorities play a prominent role in mobilizing armed violence. This article provides a micro-history of a contemporary Nuer prophetess (guan kuoth) in South Sudan who mobilized hundreds of armed men including in support of current anti-government rebellions. The article grapples with apparent paradoxes in her approach to kume (a broadly defined notion of government) and customary law. This prophetess rejects logics of authority associated with the kume. At the same time, she champions the continuity of the language and imaginaries of customary authority that are deeply associated with government registers of authority in this context. The article argues that at the heart of the prophetess’s approach is her attempt to overturn historic government initiatives that separated the political and religious nature of institutions, and to assert that governance without government is possible. Previous attempts to govern without the divine have interrupted the customary law’s ability to offer healing including from the spiritual and physical dangers of killing. Her ability to mobilize people to arms is partly based on political claims to reconstitute the divine authority behind the customary law.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-62
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Eastern African Studies
Issue number1
Early online date9 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2020


  • Armed mobilisation
  • customary authority
  • public authority
  • Nuer
  • prophets
  • South Sudan

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