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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder4 Local conflict
View the document(introduction...)
View the document4.1 Conflict and resources
View the document4.2 Wars of subsistence
View the document4.3 Breaking the continuity


Many studies of conflict in Africa have focused upon its national and international dimensions. During the Cold War and at the height of South African reaction, there was clearly a justification for this approach (Mozambique, 1986/87; 1987/88). With the recent change in international relations, however, a situation has been revealed in which, rather than declining as might have been expected, conflict continues. In the case of Angola and Mozambique, for example, the present situation is one in which it is now realised that little is known of the internal dynamics of these conflicts (Mozambique, 7/11/90). It is for these reasons, together with evidence that many internal wars use local conflict as a vehicle, that understanding local conflict is important for this report.

4.1 Conflict and resources

A shrinking resource-base has immediate implications for semi-subsistence groups who depend upon those resources for their physical existence. Environmental and resource questions can provide a useful context in which to discuss the growth of conflict and insecurity. In fact, a good deal of recent academic work has been carried out in this field (see Ulrich, 1989). Although the depletion of resources can be said to be an underlying and pervasive influence in many of the local conflicts and internal wars current in Africa, at a local level there are two other factors to consider. In the first place, local and inter-state warfare has a long (pre-colonial) history in Africa. Secondly, although resource questions may underlie conflict, at a more immediate level violence is also a means through which groups express their self-identity and political aspirations. This political and cultural dimension of conflict is of vital importance if one is to understand the dynamics of modern African warfare and its devastating effects.

4.2 Wars of subsistence

The previous chapter briefly touched upon some characteristics of subsistence economies (3.5 and 3.6), notably the relationship of reciprocity between producers and the environment. Relations of reciprocity were a widespread feature of subsistence societies. They not only linked people to nature, they linked people themselves in the form of diverse and complex exchange relations both within and between groups. However, just as subsistence societies were neither democratic or egalitarian, relations of reciprocity also encompassed conflict: warfare between both segmentary and state systems was a normal feature of social change and ecological adaptation in precolonial Africa.

The Lower Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia, although populated by a number of relatively small agro-pastoralist groups, provides evidence that is relevant here. Until relatively recently, this area had been fairly isolated (Alvarsson, 1989). Under subsistence conditions warfare was bounded by rules. Raids, for example, should not be too frequent, the booty taken should not be excessive, and fatalities should be kept to a minimum (Almagor, 1979). In this fashion, periods of sporadic raiding or homicides, often lasting for several years or more, would separate major confrontations between groups. Such confrontations were also governed by rules of reciprocity and cultural observance. Who should take part, what arms should be used and when, were important issues 9. There was, consequently, a lack of what could be called serious military strategy.

It is important to realise that from within a subsistence ethos, a pastoralist group, for example, is not interested in physically controlling territory. What is at stake is free access and use. Major confrontations therefore were more concerned with projecting an attacker's political rights. Before an attack, ceremonies would be held to confirm that right. Surprise was not employed: it would have served no political purpose. Loose, frontal attacks in broad daylight were common. If firearms were used, they were fired wildly at a distance with little or no attempt at riming. In this manner, their effect was to frighten and cause confusion among the enemy. When used for killing, they were employed at close quarters, reflecting the operation of traditional weapons. No simultaneous attacks were launched, and no follow-up attacks upon weakened enemies were made. On the contrary, the attacking group would retreat and await a response, even if this may have been months or years in coming: they had made their political position in the area clear. For the group that had been attacked, its own political survival now depended upon being able to mount a retaliation of similar weight. If it were unable to do this, a compromise may have been possible, such as confronting a weaker ally of the attacking group. Once a response had been made, the way was then clear for the most important tasks to begin: ceremonies between the two groups to conclude a peace, redraw the boundaries separating them, and suitably adjust oral histories to reflect the new balance of political power.

Although this description pertains to segmentary societies, similar rules of reciprocity governed warfare involving state systems. Here, however, rather than a changing system of alliances, expansion through the incorporation of subordinate groups was often the intention. Reciprocity related to the fluid nature of ethnicity, allowing absorbed groups to change their identity to that of the dominant group.

Turton (1989) has analysed the recent history of the Mursi in Southern Ethiopia, a segmentary agro-pastoralist group, in the above terms and makes several key points of relevance to this report. Under subsistence conditions, conflict is a normal means of allowing groups to adjust to underlying economic and environmental change. It can only play this role, however, in so far as it is part of a balanced system of reciprocity. Finally, and most importantly, under subsistence conditions, there is no distinction between physical and political survival. The only way that individuals, families and groups can conceive of staying alive is through the survival of their way of life.

Central to this report is the position that conflict has a long history in Africa but, in recent times, this continuity has been broken by the collapse of reciprocity and the growth of imbalance: conflict, rather than being a means of adjustment, has become a widespread source of instability and a destroyer of traditional ways of life.

4.3 Breaking the continuity

Tracing the point in the history of Africa when warfare changed from being a means of adaptation to being an agent of destruction would be a complex and lengthy task - indeed, a new area of study. All that can be attempted here is an outline for future research.

Given that local conflict was common in pre-colonial Africa, colonialism, with varying degrees of success, attempted to police this situation. It did so by virtue of armed superiority and a monopoly of weapons. The decay of governance in many parts of Africa since the 1970s, and the spread of modern automatic weapons among peripheral groups, are important ingredients in the process of transformation. Other factors have been discussed in the previous chapter, concerning the increasing instability of semisubsistence. This instability is synonymous with a general decline in reciprocity. Many peripheral groups, for example, have become increasingly dependent upon agriculture at a time when, due to climate and adverse market conditions, it has become a marginal activity. In such circumstances exchange relations between groups, including agriculturalists and pastoralists, begin to break down (Almond, 1989). A shrinking resource-base, reinforced by core economic and social programmes, further undermines reciprocity. Under conditions of stress, ethnic identities can tend to harden and, with the transformation of family relations, especially between generations, traditional lines of authority are also weakened. It is as if, under present conditions, the threat to the way of life of peripheral groups has never been greater, yet at the same time, both the external (governance) and internal (reciprocity) means of resolving the inevitable violence are at their lowest ebb.

In order to indicate the nature of the background of local conflict from which many major internal confrontations appear to be constructed, a useful example is the fate of pastoralist groups across the Sudano-Sahelian belt. The upswing in the commercialisation of agriculture during the 1970s, together with the effects of drought, prompted both the loss of assets and a territorial push into the farming areas to the south. This instigated many violent disputes between farmers and pastoralists over access to land and water (Earthscan, 1984). Similar strife has also crossed boundaries. During the same period, enviro-economic movements of pastoralist groups embroiled the Sudan/Kenya/Ethiopia/Somalia border areas in fierce grazing disputes. The most spectacular of these conflicts led to the clash between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden in 1977. Instability in the area has continued with, among other things, more clashes over grazing in Southern Ethiopia during the mid-1980s (El-Hinnawi, 1985).

Attempting to chart the recent development of local conflict in Africa is no easy task. One is not dealing with an unchanging reality. The dynamics of conflict are generated by the changing and unstable nature of semi-subsistence. Just as asset-based coping strategies change, so too do the ability and fortunes of different groups in relation to conflict. In attempting to select examples of this process, the problem faced is not the lack of possible material. It is the opposite: instances of local conflict in Africa are rife. There are also many examples of the 'peaceful' resolution of internal conflict which, nevertheless, never seem able to quell continuing local insecurity and periodic outbreaks of group conflict. What is remarkable is that not only has this situation received little serious attention but, except as a short-term difficulty, it is seldom regarded as having relevance for the formulation of policy.