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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

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.