Note: This is not the official flag of the Arrow Boys, but rather a reproduction containing the flag of South Sudan (as this is the country they are active in).
The Arrow Boys are a South Sudanese-based militia known for their usage of traditional bow and arrow weaponry. Originally formed in the mid-2000s (Schomerus, 2017, p7), the term ‘Arrow Boys' is used to designate community-based-protection militias based in the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan. They are a self-defence militia formed in response to the ongoing Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in South Sudan and the wider Congo border area (Schomerus, 2017, p8). These groups are not militarily offensive in nature but rather have been formed in order to repulse attacks on their villages and their farmland by the LRA (UNMIS, 2009). Due to an increase in attacks, several religious leaders from the Great Lakes Region, especially the two bishops of the Yambio Episcopan Church in Sudan (ECS), have successfully campaigned for the Arrow Boys to receive modern arms and official training from the South Sudanese government. This is through the allocation of over 5 million Sudanese Pounds (over USD $2 million) from the government's state budget in order to more effectively fight against the LRA in South Sudan (Ruati, 2010).
History & Foundations
Originally formed in 2005, the Arrow Boys are a loose grouping of militia organisations from varying villages in the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan. Created in order to combat the abduction of local children by the Lord's Resistance Army, they have fought back using traditional bow and arrow weaponry (and hence their name). They are being utilised as a non-traditional approach to combating the LRA threat in the region by the local government as they are mobile and “they can move at night and go to locations where the soldiers can't go” (UNMIS, 2009). Their style of weaponry is also additionally not inhibited by terrain and provisions as they can replenish their arms in the natural environment, something that the LRA struggles with in the region. Although they have historically used traditional weapons, they are being given modern arms and training (Ruati, 2010). Originally created in Teso in the Eastern Region of Uganda, they were so effective at combating the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, that he was forced to flee and abandon operations in Teso as a whole (Castelein, 2014).
Objectives & Ideology
Although not subscribing to any particular set of ideologies, the Arrow Boys are instead a self-defence militia aimed at defending villages and farmland. This lack of an overarching ideology has not impeded their fight against the LRA and instead may have allowed them to unify against a common threat. This unification against the LRA threat has provided the Arrow Boys with an objective, which is to simply defend against, and remove the LRA, from areas which they occupy.
The group does not follow a traditional military formation or structure. Instead, it is composed of village ‘cells’ which defend against raids and attacks by the LRA, henceforth signifying that their military abilities are somewhat limited by their overreliance and usage of traditional weapons. Their use of the bow and arrow is quite peculiar, for they coat their arrows with a thick black powder which is believed to be poisonous (UNMIS, 2009). The Arrow Boys have also been spotted using clubs as weapons.
Despite their lack of structure (compliant with the traditional structure of designated units led by an officer, for example), the Arrow Boys have not suffered from a lack of results. Their success has subsequently led to their utilisation by the local government to great effect. Indeed, their flexible militia-based approach to fighting allows them to “go to locations that soldiers cannot go to” (UNMIS, 2009). Due to their unofficial status they are bound by little to no legal basis and therefore their ability to enter areas is uninhibited by law as the military approach does not “always yield success” (Ikelegbe and Okumu, 2010, p27). As they are a community militia with a ‘lack’ of structure they have not been used as a combatant force by the government and instead are self-reliant and not a part of the government's military structure. This prevents them from being used as a combatant force through official channels, however with the emergence of new security threats and deteriorating security in Sudan they may be integrated into the official state structure in a similar fashion to the RSF (Rapid Support Forces) in Sudan.
Approach to Resistance
Although the Arrow Boys employ violent tactics, its use of violence is not offensive in nature and instead finds its roots in its self-defence oriented organisation. The group is involved in the tracking of LRA forces and the subsequent removal of them from land near encampments inhabited by villagers (Snapp, 2010). Consisting of mainly farmers from an area that saw “little fighting” in the North-South civil war in Sudan, they are not a formal militia organisation (Heaton, 2010). As such, their approach to resistance has been hindered by a lack of coordination amongst themselves and also through a lack of coordination with the armed forces of South Sudan.
In recent years, the group’s responsibilities and operations have expanded beyond solely combatting the LRA. The Arrow Boys have now also taken on the policing of local areas – a change in their objectives which has raised concerns about the potential over-reliance upon them by the South Sudanese government (Heaton, 2010). The willingness to police their own areas has emerged out of a lack of resources for the official police forces who are stretched thinly and may not be able to respond effectively; however there are initiatives in place in order to increase the cooperation between local peoples and the police (UNMISS, 2014).
International Relations & Potential Alliances
The group has no international relations owing to its formation as a local self-defence militia group. Instead, the group has allied itself to the South Sudanese government in order to secure backing (both capital and kinetic), arms, and training which could help them to defend their local areas even more effectively. The provision of arms to the Arrow Boys has been undertaken by the government and this indicates a widening level of support that the group has been given by the central authorities (Ruati, 2010). However, due to the Arrow Boys’ militia formation and the central government’s overreliance upon them to police local areas, the concern is that they may be exploited by rival powers such as the Khartoum-based Sudanese government. The emergence of a potential civil war in Sudan has effectively sidelined any potential interference within South Sudanese internal politics by the Sudanese government as they are more concerned with dealing with the insurrection threat posed by the RSF. Instead, large amounts of Sudanese refugees have fled into South Sudan which will pose a problem for the country, which already faces large famine and droughts regularly (Reuters, 2023). This aforementioned worry arises out of a concern that, when the LRA threat in South Sudan is reduced to a negligible amount, then the Arrow Boys will no longer be needed and will potentially be disarmed. This could hence potentially lead to exploitable tensions in the region (Heaton, 2010).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Castelein, Klaas. “Seminar: As Sharp as an Arrow: Reconstructing the ‘Arrow Boys’ Phenomenon in Eastern Uganda.” African Studies Centre Leiden, 17 Feb. 2014, www.ascleiden.nl/news/seminar-sharp-arrow-reconstructing-arrow-boys-phenomenon-eastern-uganda.
Heaton, Laura. “Field Dispatch: The Arrow Boys of Southern Sudan - an Army of the Willing.” The Enough Project, 11 Mar. 2010, enoughproject.org/reports/arrow-boys-sudan.
Ikelegbe, Augustine, and Wafula Okumu. “Militias, Rebels and Islamist Militants : Human Insecurity and State Crises in Africa.” Institute for Security Studies EBooks, Institute for Security Studies, 2010, p. 27.
Reuters. “South Sudan Receives about 10,000 Refugees Fleeing Sudan Fighting | Reuters.com.” Reuters, 23 Apr. 2023, www.reuters.com/news/picture/south-sudan-receives-about-10000-refugee-idUSKBN2WL0MT.
Ruati, Richard. “Arrow Boys in W. Western Equatoria to Be Armed against LRA - Governor.” Sudan Tribune, 28 Sept. 2010, beta.sudantribune.com/article36144/.
Schomerus, Mareike. Informal Armies: Community Defence Groups in South Sudan’s Civil War. Saferworld, 2017, p. 7, www.researchgate.net/publication/315797200_Arrow_boys_armed_groups_and_the_SPLA_Intensifying_insecurity_in_the_Western_Equatorian_states.
Snapp, Trevor. “Sudan’s ‘Arrow Boys’ Challenge Militants.” NPR, 2 Aug. 2010, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128803831.
UNMIS. “Fighting Back.” UNMIS, 27 July 2009, unmis.unmissions.org/fighting-back.
UNMISS. “Local Leaders Learn about Community Policing - South Sudan | ReliefWeb.” Reliefweb.int, 25 Feb. 2014, https://reliefweb.int/report/south-sudan/local-leaders-learn-about-community-policing