Unity is the only mono-ethnic Nuer state in South Sudan and the birthplace of Riek Machar, the leader of the SPLM/A-IO. During the 1990s, amid the horrors of the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005), a series of Bul Nuer commanders fought against (and sometimes with) Riek Machar for control of the state (Craze and Tubiana, 2016, pp. 22–28). In this conflict, all sides received backing from Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Among those coordinating relations between the Bul Nuer militias and their Khartoum handlers was Tut Kew Gatluak, Bashir’s adopted son (Young, 2020, p. 62). Thirty years on, Bul Nuer militias remain in control of Unity state, except that the capital on which they now rely for support is Juba, not Khartoum, and Paulino Matiep, the Bul Nuer militia leader, has been replaced by Nguen Monytuil, who was once Matiep’s personal doctor. Tut Kew Gatluak remains their handler.

During the South Sudanese civil war (2013–18), southern Unity was the wellspring of support for the opposition movement. All the state’s Nuer sections—with the exception of the Bul—backed Machar. Since the signing of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in 2018, the SPLM/A-IO’s control of the state has eroded, while Nguen, one of the longest serving governors in South Sudan, has increased his grip on power, at the expense of the beleaguered deputy governor, Tor Tungwar.

Prospective elections have the capacity to totally disrupt this continuity. In the former Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Rubkona county, IDPs talk about taking revenge against the Bul Nuer. Nguen knows that survival requires staying in power, and an election risks throwing open the political situation. In this context, Nguen and Tut Kew would rather delay elections. South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, however, is set on a vote, and the loss of his party’s political control of Unity state, and the likely ensuing violence, could be a price that the president is willing to pay for the legitimacy he hopes elections will bring.