Traditional methods a useful tool for conflict resolution in Africa.

Many African states are faced with long-standing armed conflicts. According to a ranking compiled by Minority Rights Group International in 2010, more than half of the top 20 countries in the world, where people are most under threat were in Africa. Many of these conflicts make headline news for various reasons, including the level of violence and the inter-state links. There are, however, several low-intensity conflicts between smaller tribes and communities in Africa that are little known. 

These conflicts exist for a range of reasons. One of the primary factors is shortages of land and water resources. In Karamoja, northern Uganda, pastoralists from different ethnic groups are in conflict over the area’s limited resources. 

‘When there is no rain, there is no harvesting. The place continues to remain dry and hot. The grass is scarce, water levels are low. People starve if not for international food aid,’ says Albert Lokuru from the Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme (KADP). 

‘Karamoja is an area marginalised by the state. Within Karamoja the smaller communities are marginalized by the dominant group,’ says Lokuru. ‘Karamoja has internal conflicts between ethnic groups who are fighting over livestock and pasture. The communities attack and threaten each other, which sometimes leads to bloodshed,’ he says.

The Karamajong are mainly cow herding pastoralists, although many have now taken to agriculture. Cattle-raids between communities are a common source of conflict. ‘The level of conflict is low. There aren’t many big raids. The rate of killings is not that high but it still happens,’ Lokuru adds. 

In Southern Ethiopia a pastoralist from the Borana community discusses similar issues. ‘The problems are mainly over land and food security,’ says one activist who did not want to be named because of security concerns. The Borana are also traditionally a cow herding community but more recently, because of issues of food security and land encroachment, some within the community are taking to agriculture.

‘People are desperately poor, they don’t have food to eat or water to drink. Children can’t go to school,’ he says. ‘When there is a drought, there is no grazing land.’ The situation of conflict worsens during the drought; as the quest for food, water and grazing land becomes direr. Lokuru explains that poverty exacerbates conflict and cattle raiding is seen as a solution to poverty. 

One of the main reasons the conflicts in both areas are slowly intensifying is because of the proliferation of small arms.  In Karamoja, the Ugandan government is running a disarmament programme, but Lokuru explains the complex issues that arise through such ventures. ‘People were voluntarily asked to hand over their arms. Soldiers come and take away animals in the hope that people will be forced to return their weapons, but by doing this they subject other beneficiaries in the household to difficulties and poverty.’

Activists from both the Borana and Karamoja community emphasized the need to rely on traditional community methods to help curb the violence and loss of lives. The Karamojong, for instance, have their own structures of using elders to negotiate an end to conflict.

However, these traditional methods have become neglected with the development of governmental structures. ‘Elders have informal ways of conflict resolution, they can send messages calling for a dialogue or a meeting to resolve the problems,’ says Lokuru. 

‘The community believes in negotiations through traditional leaders. People complain negotiations done by the government are not genuine, while the government considers traditional forms of negotiation as informal,’ says the Ethiopian activist. 

According to Lokuru, in Karamoja both systems are practiced depending on the situation. ‘When the conflict has escalated and two parties can’t come to an agreement the government takes on a formal approach. Sometimes this is positive, sometimes it is not respected by the community,’ he says.

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