'Witchcraft' and conflict: Exploring alternative discourses of insecurity

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: IDD


This project focuses on exploring three sets of questions: how do African borderland communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does 'witchcraft' feature in these articulations? 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? 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?

Scholars and policy-makers, for example, now largely agree that security threats should be understood not just through the eyes of generals, spies and other state actors but through those of individuals and communities themselves - particularly those in conflict-affected regions. This 'human security' perspective allows us to understand insecurity not just - or even primarily - in terms of foreign armies or terrorist attacks but also unemployment, starvation, disease and oppression. Indeed, the latter usually feature far more prominently and substantively as security concerns for most.

We know surprisingly little, however, about how communities in Africa articulate and perceive their own (in) security - their voices rarely feature in policy papers and academic studies, particularly those beyond the realm of anthropology. Moreover, little work has been undertaken in political science and history to study and understand indigenous (in) security narratives when they speak to themes and belief systems which differ dramatically from Western ways of thinking.

Communities on the Uganda/South Sudan border, for example, have historically come to frame much of what human security scholars would understand as 'security concerns' using the language and worldview of 'witchcraft'. Indeed, some view those human rights-based approaches to justice and security promoted by Western donors and their own governments as deeply problematic since they 'protect' witches at the expense of the community.

Policy-makers and practitioners face practical challenges in reconciling these worldviews with Western systems of justice and governance. More broadly, though, they and Africanist academics interested in security face a broader challenge - how to study, represent, engage with and respond to these narratives which are deeply meaningful for communities but fundamentally at odds with Western modes of thinking. Furthermore, how can and should researchers broach so sensitive a topic with communities?

This project will tackle these difficult questions head-on in a highly innovative collaboration between and across disciplines and continents. At its core will be a partnership between a political scientist and an historian who will work to combine different approaches from their respective disciplines in order to explore witchcraft as a discourse of insecurity in the Uganda/South Sudan border region - and to reflect on the wider methodological and epistemological questions raised above.

This will be undertaken in the context of a broader collaboration between a core group of UK and Africa-based academics from history, political science, development studies and anthropology - together with practitioners and policy-makers - who will help design the methodology, advise on the fieldwork and co-produce the outputs through participation in regular workshops in the UK and Africa.

In adopting this experimental, inter-disciplinary approach it will be possible to explore and debate the nature of human security - and the place of witchcraft discourses within this - in a dynamic and exciting intellectual space which goes beyond the limits imposed by individual disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, the project will seek to challenge, re-frame and guide key debates within African Studies, security studies, history and anthropology as well as within policy communities.

Planned Impact

The focus and concerns of the project are highly relevant to policy-makers, practitioners and civil society actors in both the North and Africa - particularly those focused upon security, governance and justice. They are also, of course, salient for the Ugandan and South Sudanese communities and policy-makers who will be engaged with as respondents during the fieldwork phase of the project. While discourses on 'witchcraft' may be dismissed by many policy/practitioner actors as irrelevant to their work, the project will focus on demonstrating to them that this is not the case. Initially this may require the team to place emphasis on areas such as gender/persecution of women and state marginalization of certain groups where current research on witchcraft and 'mainstream' development policy can be most intuitively linked.

While the researchers are committed to ensuring that the project does not become 'captured' by the agendas of external actors, we also recognize the importance of engaging openly and honestly with a wide range of non-academic stakeholders. The project's approach to impact, therefore, involves the incorporation of both UK- and Africa-based non-academic audiences into the core network throughout - thereby ensuring co-development of the methodology and co-production of some outputs among as wide a group of stakeholders as possible.

As a major provider of development and humanitarian aid worldwide (and in Uganda and South Sudan) - and a key historical funder of security assistance, capacity-building and security sector reform programmes - the UK government represents a major beneficiary of this research. Many UK development and humanitarian interventions are premised upon understanding and responding to (in) security concerns of communities and states in the South and thus research which seeks to provide further insight into these concerns 'on the ground' is clearly valuable, both to Whitehall officials and to FCO/DFID Staff on the ground in Kampala and Juba. The same is true for representatives of other major donor states and organizations in these two capitals, including UN agencies, the US and EU, and for many INGOs and other humanitarian actors and practitioners who are heavily engaged in development projects and humanitarian assistance in northern Uganda and South Sudan.

State officials across the region will also be major beneficiaries of the work, and are often overlooked in Northern-lead research projects. For Ugandan and South Sudanese national policy-makers, responding to security concerns of citizens has become an increasingly fundamental aspect of maintaining legitimacy while a focus on the content of 'human security' has become a growing subject of high-level discussion at the regional level (eg Tana Forum). For local officials, reconciling community demands for protection against witchcraft with Western-style legal structures is a constant challenge and thus the research will speak to their experiences directly.

The direct incorporation of local communities into these strategies, though highly desirable, introduces an element of risk which cannot be adequately mitigated in a project of this size. Language/interpretation issues aside, seating members of these communities at a table opposite local and national elites to discuss security/witchcraft or attempting to formally incorporate them into a network addressing such a sensitive topic may expose them to political and livelihood risks which we may not be able to fully prepare them for, or adequately insulate them from. The project will therefore seek to have a positive impact on these communities through seeking to improve policy-makers' and practitioners' sensitivity to, and empathy, for local concerns (Pathways to Impact). Representatives of 'umbrella' NGOs will also be incorporated into the network in order to seek informed advice on engaging these groups on behalf of local communities regarding the project's progress and findings.


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Description The aim of the project has been to explore how communities living in the Uganda/South Sudan borderland articulate their concerns about safety and security, and how far these align with the views and approaches of domestic and international policy-makers. The research has therefore focused on two countries on the DAC list: Uganda and South Sudan. Our main finding has been that everyday understandings of security in this region often differ markedly from definitions of security used by state and NGO officials. State officials view security primarily through the lens of "traditional" threats such as rebel activity, light arms proliferation and crime and see security as the private concern of the state. Borderland communities, however, worry mainly about issues such as land ownership and access, food security and resource scarcity, climate change and environmental insecurity. They also worry about issues which policy-makers and NGOs see as very much outside the realm of security - notably witchcraft and unexplained deaths. We find that there is therefore a mismatch not only between understandings of security but also of who is responsible for dealing with security threats; local communities feel the state should be more involved in some areas and this gap is usually filled by community elders and other hybridised versions of state/non-state authority. This raises important questions for policy-makers and practitioners (national and international) on where "their" responsibility for overseeing and managing particular areas should be, with critical implications for deployment of state and humanitarian resources.
Exploitation Route There are two main ways in which the outcomes of the funding can be taken forward by scholars and policy-makers, furthering the welfare of the relevant communities in Uganda and South Sudan:
1. Gaining a clearer understanding of local experiences of insecurity can help inform how Ugandan and South Sudanese state actors design and implement protection and security policies in practice. It can also help inform and nuance NGO/UN/donor interventions as part of humanitarian and development initiatives and ensure that these are designed in a sensitive and appropriate manner - not overlooking or exacerbating common community anxieties which might not seem immediately obvious. 2. Our research on understandings and experiences of insecurity in the context of the Uganda/S Sudan border can also help inform state, donor and NGO engagement on/in refugee settlements in West Nile region. The conflict in South Sudan has led to a large movement of South Sudanese refugees into West Nile and our research sheds critical light on areas of tension and opportunity in how inter-refugee, host community - refugee and host community-state relationships are managed and calibrated. It has also worked to bring representatives of these actors together in a workshop in Kampala to discuss different experiences, grievances, and opportunities in this regard.
In both cases, the research contributes in particular to SDGs 16 - Peaceful and Inclusive Societies for Sustainable Development - and 17 - Partnerships.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/government-society/departments/international-development/research/projects/2016/exploring-alternative-discourses-insecurity.aspx
Description In Autumn 2017, the number of registered South Sudanese refugees in Uganda - according to the UNHCR - topped one million. These refugees had fled civil war at home in South Sudan, a war which broke out in 2013 and intensified - particularly in the Equatoria region bordering northwest Uganda - from 2016 onwards. By 2017, over a quarter of those fleeing had settled in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, northwest Uganda - now the largest refugee settlement in the world - and taken together the South Sudanese refugee population has come to outnumber Ugandan citizen populations in several districts in the northwest - or West Nile - region of the country. It is within this context that our research project, which focused on local understandings of - and state/international engagement with - in/security in the West Nile borderland, was undertaken. Our examination of how Ugandan "host" and South Sudanese refugee communities living in West Nile - in villages, major towns and refugee settlements - experience in/security therefore fed directly into on-going debates and discussions among Ugandan, South Sudanese and international humanitarian policy-makers on the most appropriate and effective mechanisms to protect and support borderland communities. Our research on refugee-host community relations and security concerns in West Nile, for example. fed into a UK Cabinet Office assessment on famine and humanitarian crisis in Africa and implications for the UK and its engagement as a development partner. We were invited, in this regard, to submit a brief on this topic by the Cabinet Office's Early Warning Team in June 2017 and were informed - in April 2018 - that the submission had been "extremely helpful" and had "strengthened the evidence base and supported key conclusions regarding the causes and consequences of food insecurity in Africa". According to the Cabinet Office, our research "was cited in the final [UK Government internal] paper, which in turn was taken to a meeting of Cabinet where it informed a discussion of the UK's response to humanitarian crises". In this regard, the work has contributed to the addressing of SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals - and SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. The project has also fed into debates among key stakeholders engaged with the refugee response - including I/NGO officials, South Sudanese community leaders and activists, Ugandan community leaders and activists and Ugandan state officials (including from the Office of the Prime Minister, which is tasked with refugee response). In particular, the project team partnered with the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) to run a dialogue and workshop in Kampala in March 2018 focused on these issues. The event brought together over 40 participants from Ugandan, South Sudanese and international humanitarian/development organisations, Ugandan government institutions, civil society associations, and refugee-led organisations, who came together to discuss the security challenges (for refugees, host communities and other key stakeholders) presented by the refugee situation across three sets of relationships: refugee intercommunal relations (with a particular focus on experiences of different genders); refugee-host community relations and government (of Uganda)-host community relations. Presentations on these themes were given by Ugandan government officials, community leaders (of both Ugandan host communities and refugee settlements), Ugandan and South Sudanese NGO personnel who work with refugees and a variety of other stakeholders, with inputs on each panel from both men and women. The central theme which emerged from these discussions, and which informed relationship-building and dialogue at the event and subsequently, was that though the numbers of South Sudanese refugees entering Uganda has gradually stabilised since 2017, Ugandan government and international responses remain in crisis mode. It is critical, then, that key stakeholders move toward developing longer term solutions and addressing the root causes of displacement. Many participants highlighted, in this regard, the importance of engaging in dialogue among communities impacted by the refugee response and approaching the issue through the lens of conflict mitigation, in order to prevent escalating tensions among refugees, as well as between refugees and their respective host communities. The workshop, and wider research from the project, also underscored the importance of international actors engaged in refugee response focusing greater attention on particular challenges faced by women and girls in refugee settlements, and the broader gendered experiences of (in)security presented in the settlements. It also highlighted the importance of state officials moving beyond narrow, "traditional security" approaches to understanding, and engaging, with in/security concerns in the region. While one state official focused on the refugee response, for example, underscored during our research that "the border and the gun is the issue I pay attention to", many participants in the workshop - and among our respondents - emphasized more "human security" issues including, for example, high rates of alcoholism among men in the refugee settlements, often due to the lack of employment opportunities, as well as the effects of traumatic experiences, together with issues such as access to and ownership of land, for both refugee and host communities. We were also invited - together with IRRI - to submit evidence to a parliamentary inquiry on forced displacement in Africa by the International Development Committee (IDP; UK Parliament) in December 2018. Our submission summarised the findings of our research and the Kampala workshop across the three sets of relationships mentioned above and emphasised in particular the everyday, gendered dynamics of (in)security discussed among respondents - including the particular challenges women and girls face in refugee settlements, including child marriage, domestic violence, polygamy and SBGV, citing concerns raised by one of the Kampala presenters, a (female) member of a Refugee Welfare Committee in a refugee settlement. This contributed to a number of recommendations in the published IDP report (published February 2019) around women and girls impacted by forced displacement - notably that the UK Government and its international partners consider placing local women leaders and organisations at the forefront of responses to forced displacement in Africa and that it prioritise enabling self-reliance among displaced women. DFID agreed with these recommendations and reiterated its commitment to both. In this regard, the research continues to contribute to SDG 5 - Gender Equality.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Contribution to Cabinet Office Assessment on Famine
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact Our work contributed to a UK Government assessment regarding the effectiveness of UK engagement in situations of famine and humanitarian crisis in Africa.
Description Invited submission to Parliamentary Inquiry on Forced Displacement in Africa
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
URL https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/international-developmen...
Description Partnership with International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRR) 
Organisation International Refugee Rights Initiative
Country Uganda 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We are collaborating with IRRI on the policy engagement side of the project, drawing-on their close links with the Ugandan humanitarian intervention community and refugee rights network.
Collaborator Contribution IRRI will be co-organising and co-hosting a high profile dissemination and discussion event on refugee policy in West Nile in Kampala in March 2018. Participants will include figures from the Ugandan government, refugee settlement leaderships and the Ugandan NGO community and include those based in Kampala and West Nile itself.
Impact Policy workshop, Kampala, 29 March 2018 (report will be made available from April 2018)
Start Year 2017
Description Participation in conference on Protracted Conflicts, Aid and Development (British Academy, October 2017) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This conference brought together senior policy-makers, high-level representatives of humanitarian aid and development agencies, and researchers in the field of protracted conflict. The ambition was to initiate a more focussed interaction between policy, practice, and research, advance academic debate and create the conditions for better real-world outcomes. I presented early findings on our research into everyday security concerns in NW Uganda and engaged with a range of participants on this, including representatives from the UK Government and other international humanitarian aid and development agencies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/171219/
Description Stakeholder workshop on Security Dynamics in the Refugee Response in Northern Uganda (Kampala) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This workshop - entitled 'Addressing Security Dynamics in the Refugee Response in Northern Uganda' - was held in Kampala, Uganda, in March 2018 and was organised by the project team in partnership with the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI). The event brought together over 40 participants from Ugandan, South Sudanese and international humanitarian/development organisations, Ugandan government institutions, civil society associations, and refugee-led organisations.

The workshop addressed the security dynamics associated with the large number of South Sudanese citizens seeking refuge in West Nile (and elsewhere in Uganda) since the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan in 2013 and, in particular, the intensification of fighting - including in the Equatoria region bordering Uganda - since 2016. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Uganda is now host to over one million South Sudanese refugees - over 270,000 of whom are based in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement - and the workshop focused on the security challenges (for refugees, host communities and other key stakeholders) presented by this situation across three sets of relationships: refugee intercommunal relations; refugee-host community relations and government (of Uganda)-host community relations.

Presentations on these themes were given by Ugandan government officials, community leaders (of both Ugandan host communities and refugee settlements), Ugandan and South Sudanese NGO personnel who work with refugees and a variety of other stakeholders.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018