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)

Better understanding the relationship between justice and development in conflict-affected countries

Kirsten Ainley

Kirsten Ainley is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on the history and development of international criminal law, international political theory, human rights and humanitarian intervention.
She is currently the Principal Investigator of the ESRC Strategic Network on Justice, Conflict and Development, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Here, below, is a Q&A on the work of the Network, following the publishing of the Global Challenges Research Fund Protracted Conflict conference summary report.

Why is this research particularly necessary?

One of the most pressing challenges for many less-developed countries is how to achieve and maintain peace. Conflict makes development in any form (be that economic growth, poverty reduction or increased human rights protection) extremely difficult to achieve. This has been recognised by international organisations and aid donors, and much development assistance is now directed towards conflict resolution in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. This network focuses on one of the main ways in which states and the international community now approach conflict resolution: the promotion of justice initiatives. The use of ‘transitional justice’ (TJ) – judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses – including trials, commissions of inquiry, reparations and amnesties, has increased markedly since the 1990s, with justice seen as a way to end conflict and achieve societal reconciliation. Academic research has attempted to assess the impact of TJ on peace and development, but has produced inconclusive, even contradictory results. This leaves a significant research gap to find out what the real effects of TJ are upon peace and development – it is this gap that we are starting to fill.

What is the research looking to achieve?

The Justice, Conflict and Development network is motivated by a desire to better understand the relationship between justice and development by focusing on four conflict-affected countries (Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Uganda). Each of these states (or opposition groups, in the case of Syria) is currently making decisions on what kinds of TJ institutions to build, often under pressure from the international community, but without robust evidence about the likely impacts of their policy options. By bringing together academic and practitioner experts, plus civil society project partners, we aim to develop interdisciplinary research agendas to understand the interactions between TJ institutions and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. To achieve this aim, the network objectives are 1) Develop ambitious and impactful comparative research agendas on justice and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States; 2) Synthesise, map and disseminate existing research and identify knowledge gaps, including by engaging alternative sources of knowledge; 3) Foster interdisciplinary engagement by capacity and relationship building; 4) Engage policy makers, advocacy groups and publics in case sites and elsewhere.

What patterns have emerged in the research to-date?

We have met in Colombia and Uganda so far, and have picked up a number of interesting themes. The first is the way that the identity of ‘victim’ of conflict can be powerful if used in creative ways. We didn’t expect this as the victim status post conflict is often seen and experienced to be dis-empowering, yet groups in Colombia in particular have organised around the victim identity and gained power by doing so. We have also noticed the key role that land ownership plays post-conflict – in both Colombia and Uganda, land ownership, restitution and allocation are a key part of post-conflict politics and development, yet they are rarely considered as part of transitional justice programmes. And finally, our visits to Montes de Maria and Cartagena in Colombia and to Gulu and Kitgum in Uganda have underscored the necessity to get out of capital cities while conducting overseas research. The NGOs and policy makers in capital cities often have very different experiences of conflict than those who live outside, and sometimes very different ideas of which post-conflict justice and development policies should be pursued.

What has been the highlight of the project so far?

The highlight of the project so far has been being part of a new team with people who are incredibly smart, highly committed to their work, and keen to contribute to improved justice and development policies. We have faced some small challenges together – aggressive elephants in Uganda being the most memorable – and through spending two weeks together, in Colombia and Uganda, we have developed strong friendships and professional connections which have already led to co-publications and to a further major research grant application. There has, tragically, been a low point: we lost one of our network members, Vijay Nagaraj, in a car accident this summer. Vijay was an extraordinary man who left an indelible impression on anyone who knew him even for a short time. He was kind, clever, humane and politically engaged, and our project is diminished by his loss. His work in this field is tremendous, and listed here, alongside tributes to him from the network members.

What is it like ‘on-the-ground’ in the countries you are working with?

As a network, we are committed to speaking to people who are affected by conflict, and by the justice and development policies intended to alleviate the harms brought by conflict, with a view to generating detailed comparative knowledge.
This means visiting the countries we study: Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka, or getting as close as we can in the case of Syria. The main activities of the network are four workshops, all in the case sites (or nearby), in which all network members meet with each other and with key actors in the justice and development fields. So far, we have visited Colombia and Uganda, and in January 2018 we will meet in Sri Lanka.
The workshops are largely organised by those network members who work in the country locations, and we have therefore had an excellent level of access to a wide range of actors. At each workshop, we meet academics, civil society actors and politicians in the capital cities and in areas more severely affected by conflict.
Conflicts are no longer active in Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka in a conventional sense, but people are still under threat – particularly human rights activists. In Colombia for instance, we met with human rights activists who have body guards to protect them from the high incidence of attacks on rights defenders in the country. We also drove through areas which until only recently had been controlled by armed groups, which meant that the populations there were prevented from getting to market or travelling for work. In Sri Lanka, human rights activists are also under threat (though not murdered with the same frequency as in Colombia at the moment), meaning we are careful not to publicise the speakers at our events too widely and try to hold closed-door sessions with people who would rather their participation in our events stayed private. Fortunately, in Uganda, we did not hear about threats to those trying to build peace and some level of subsistence in the north, but the impact the conflict still has in the region is clear. Thousands of children are still missing, and the lack of young people is both a tragedy for families, but also an additional economic hardship in an area which is already extremely poor, as the loss of children means no one to tend land or earn for the family as parent’s age.

What does success look like in ten years’ time?

We are primarily concerned with the ways in which the impact of post-conflict justice and development policies is evaluated. There is a high level of disagreement in the literature about what the impacts are of transitional justice mechanisms (trials, truth commissions, reparations schemes and so on) and various kinds of development policies. We intend, through comparative work, to understand in more depth the impacts of different policies in the four cases we focus on, with a view to researching a greater number of cases if we are successful in obtaining further funding. In the next decade, it should be possible for researchers in the field to map out the impacts and interactions of justice and development policies in specific cases and to draw comparisons with relevantly similar cases. This should enable countries emerging from current and future conflicts to take informed decisions on which approaches to dealing with past conflict and confronting development challenges are most likely to lead to stable peace.



What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?


Dr Rachel Kerr

Dr Rachel Kerr is a Reader in International Relations and Contemporary War in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research is in the area of law and war, in particular war crimes and transitional/post-conflict justice, and she co-directs the War Crimes Research Group at King’s. Dr Kerr is currently leading a major new AHRC-funded GCRF project investigating Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community (www.artreconciliation.org), of which she explores in this blog.

What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?

How do we contend with the legacy of violence in the aftermath of conflict?

Is there a way for people to come back together in the wake of inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence and atrocity crimes?

Scholarship and practice in this field has grappled with this issue, employing a range of mechanisms and approaches to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses, with varying degrees of accountability, reparation, truth-seeking and exclusion.  In vogue now is the search for so-called ‘guarantees of non-recurrence’, which suggests a transformative approach and a broader conception of justice, beyond accountability to foster structural change, sustainable peace and reconciliation.

Our project

Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’ seeks to interrogate the concept and practice of reconciliation, and to investigate more effective ways of evaluating reconciliation activities, focussing on the potential role of the arts and artistic practices.

The project focuses largely on the Western Balkans, where reconciliation – however it is conceptualised – may seem a distant goal still at the political/state level, but there are nevertheless plenty of everyday practices that might be characterised as reconciliation.

The immediate impetus was that large amounts of money have been spent funding ‘reconciliation’ projects in the Western Balkans (and elsewhere), with very little evidence of positive outcomes.  Indeed, in some cases, such activities seem only to have reinforced animosities among different groups.  There is therefore both a gap in knowledge about what has been done and an even larger gap in terms of what might be possible.

Mina Jahić from the Rescuers Project PCRC, Credit – Dr Paul Lowe

We are starting from an agnostic position regarding reconciliation.  Rather than impose our own definition, we are interested in finding out how the term ‘reconciliation’ is understood and practiced in different settings and with diverse constituent groups.

Broadly, the project seeks to integrate interdisciplinary work spanning the arts, humanities and social sciences in three strands:

  1. Histories – How has reconciliation been conceptualised and practised over space and time? What can we learn from ‘episodes’ of reconciliation/anti-reconciliation not normally featured in discussions about Transitional Justice, drawing on examples from the Ancient World to more contemporary histories.
  2. Discourses – How is reconciliation talked about? What are the common narratives/understandings of reconciliation?  What are the expectations of those involved in reconciliation ‘practices’?
  3. Activities – What is the extent of reconciliation activity? What kinds of activities have been funded?  What are the aims and objectives, as understood by donors, deliverers and so-called beneficiaries?  What is the actual and potential role of arts and artistic practices in reconciliation activities?

What have we found?

We are still in the early stages, but our initial research has provided the following insights:

  • Reconciliation is a contested concept, not only in terms of its meaning, but more strikingly evident in resistance to using the term. There is a great deal of resistance to the so-called ‘reconciliation industry’ and a sense in which it has grown to accommodate donor priorities and wish-lists rather than in response to, or really tailored to, any grass-roots support for such activities.
  • Art and reconciliation are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. Whilst there is evidence of the potential role of the arts to help people come to terms with trauma, and the power of visual media to relate traumatic experience – where everyday language fails us, we cannot assume that all artistic interventions are aimed at peace and reconciliation – they can also be divisive, resisting narratives of inclusion and cohesion.  The use of the arts also raises significant ethical challenges around issues of appropriation – who has the right to reproduce testimony for artistic purposes? – and carries a risk of creating secondary trauma?
  • On a more positive note, as well as opening up new pathways or ‘sites’ of reconciliation, we’ve found art can help us reconceptualise reconciliation as ‘dialogue’. Rather than look for end-state outcomes, we can think of it as a process through which people can come together in ‘mutual respect’ to hear and acknowledge others’ stories and narratives.
  • Art and culture are important sites of reconstruction and resilience, as well as reconciliation. There is a great deal of activity on the arts front that might be characterised ‘reconciliation activity’ but is not conceived of in those terms.  In this context, artistic practices can help reclaim identity and culture where destruction has been the aim of one or more party to the conflict.
  • There is a serious evidence gap in terms of evaluation of reconciliation activities and evaluation of arts interventions. Both are challenging on their own, let alone together. Translating what is commonly understood to be an intrinsic ‘good’ of fostering arts and cultural activities into measurable outcomes is immensely difficult.  We are grappling with the question of how we might demonstrate evidence of the impact of these activities on peace and/or reconciliation, whilst also taking seriously resistance to the ‘instrumentalisation’ of the arts?  We can observe how people experience such interventions and how they interact with and shape them, but can we measure the impact of this on how they might interact with politics and political discourse?  Is the art of making histories and telling stories in and of itself enough impact?  Is the art that results authoritative as a source of evidence of impact? Can we make a strong enough theoretical argument for the inherent value of arts and culture supporting social cohesion and resilience?  Or, do we need to find ways of substantiating this empirically?

You can follow the progress of the research and access our publications, event and outputs on our website: https://artreconciliation.org/.