Witchcraft and conflict: Exploring alternative discourses of insecurity

Jonathan Fisher

Jonathan Fisher is a senior lecturer at the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. His research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is focused on the place and agency of African states in the international system, particularly in the realm of security and conflict. Within this he is interested in the role played by African governments in shaping how they are perceived and engaged with by Western actors. He has a particular interest in eastern Africa and the influence of guerrilla heritage on contemporary patterns of governance, conflict and cooperation across the region. He is also interested in how ‘knowledge’ on African security and conflict is negotiated and constructed in a range of settings.

In October 2016, according to Uganda’s main independent newspaper the Daily Monitor, residents of Bukoova village in Luuka District, eastern Uganda, passed a resolution banishing one of their number – Charles Magumba. The “impromptu security meeting”, called by the Sub-County Vice Chairman and attended by the Area Police Officer, saw Magumba accused of – and admitting to – using witchcraft to kill two men whose wives he had allegedly eloped with. Magumba needed to leave Bukoova by mid-January 2017 “or risk being lynched”.

A year earlier, a UN report on “the situation on human rights in the Central African Republic (2014-2015)” recorded 32 cases of “torture or inhumane and degrading treatment against persons [mainly the elderly, widowed or those with disabilities] accused of practicing witchcraft” by groups linked to the rebel Anti-Balaka militia, in the midst of that country’s civil war. The report noted that when alerted to these acts by the UN’s Human Rights Division, state authorities “failed to take action to…bring the perpetrators to justice…in the vast majority of cases”. Witchcraft itself, though, is a criminal offence in Central African Republic – formerly punishable by execution – and in some localities 40-50% of court cases have focused around witchcraft accusations in recent years. Both the fear of witchcraft and the threat of witch-hunts can play a very real part in people’s experiences and definitions of in/security.

At the same time, magical, spiritual and supernatural forms of protection represent a source of security to communities in the African continent. There is, therefore, a deeply complex and ambiguous relationship between witchcraft and in/security across Africa, as there is, of course, in many other continents and regions. These ambiguities raise critical questions not only about the role of civilian, state and international actors in negotiating and responding to in/security but about the nature of “security” itself – both in terms of what it “is” (as a concept) and what it “does” (the processes, practices and policies which seek to promote, deliver or maintain it.

These are not, however, questions which international agencies and national policy-makers in Africa have sought to engage with in an official sense – Western donor agencies, international non-governmental organisations and national governments have tended to frame security-related policies and interventions around tackling threats which relate to empirical and “observable” phenomena including terrorism, war, disease, unemployment, lack of education or food etc. This is not to say that these actors do not encounter or willingly engage with discourses on witchcraft in their everyday interactions with civilians for a variety of reasons, but rather that there is a disjuncture between this reality and the manner in which security is theorised and enacted by these groups.

Scholars are also yet to consider the relationship between witchcrafts and security – and what this tells us about the concept of security, at least in these terms. Though an emerging body of research in political science has begun to invert analysis and interpretation of in/security knowledge through exploring “vernacular security/ies”, much of this nascent field has focused on the UK and government policing and counter-terrorism practices, and their discursive reception and resistance in a range of communities.

An exploratory GCRF project lead by Dr Jonathan Fisher (International Development Department, University of Birmingham) and Dr Cherry Leonardi (Department of History, Durham University) takes the questions, contradictions and ambiguities highlighted above as its point of departure and as a means to both address some of the gaps in existing scholarship and to open up new conceptual space for exploring the nature of in/security as theory and practice.

The project, funded by the AHRC brings together a political scientist (Fisher) and an historian (Leonardi) around three core questions:

  1. How do African communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does ‘witchcraft’ feature in these articulations?
  2. How do African and Western policy-makers, in turn, understand and articulate the major security threats faced by these communities and how far do they consider ‘witchcraft’ within this?
  3. Finally, how should Western researchers and Western/African policy-makers engage with these unfamiliar (in) security discourses, and what challenges does attempting to do so pose?

The project will run until the end of April 2018 and take as its empirical focus borderland communities in north-western Uganda. This region was the site of a brutal insurgency (the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army) and sometimes equally brutal government counter-insurgency between c.1987-2006. During the same period it was also home to large numbers of South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan returnees fleeing the Sudanese civil war, and this cross-border movement is now being repeated as South Sudan is once again being ravaged by conflict since 2013. This sometimes tension-inducing mixing of boundaries, identities, mobilities and conflict/post-conflict experiences renders the border region a fascinating setting in which to explore the dynamic interactions between in/security and witchcraft – both of which, to some degree, draw from constructions of trust and suspicion related to ideas of “insiders”, “outsiders”, “internal” and “external”.

At its heart, the project represents an exercise in cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration – not only between the two project leaders but also across a broad network of academics, practitioners and policy-makers.

For more information, please contact Dr Jonathan Fisher (j.fisher@bham.ac.uk) or Dr Cherry Leonardi (d.c.leonardi@durham.ac.uk)

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