The shadow networks that govern migration across Africa

The centrality of land in the new economic and social spaces and relations produced by conflict and displacement.

PTP camp for Ivorian refugees outside of Zwedru, Grand Gedeh, Liberia. Photo by Ingunn Bjorkhaug.

The global refugee crisis has resulted in over 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with 20 people displaced every minute as a result of conflict-related violence. Currently, 26 percent of the world’s refugee population resides in Africa. This constitutes an alarmingly high 18 million. These multitudes of displaced often find themselves positioned in ambiguous spaces that blur formal and informal economies, institutions, and regulatory arrangements.

Special types of informal networks that merge the public and private, political and economic, emerge from situations of conflict-related displacement.  These fluid formations can meld cross-border areas into an interconnected economy, presenting alternative sources of economic livelihood and political governance, but may also maintain regions of prolonged instability. Characterized by a lack of central authority, the conflict networks can mobilize grassroots institutions and leadership, as well as perpetuate violence and disempowerment in the borderlands. The emerging shadow networks comprise shifting and fluid nodes of authority that creatively build on informal and formal norms and institutions, and have profound implications for security. The recent OECD report (2018) indicates that criminal economies generate significant illicit financial flows that undermine development, livelihoods and ecosystems on the continent. In these illicit networks, politics, business and crime often converge, complicating governance and reinforcing inequality and violence.

Inside a church in Kitgum, Northern Uganda, where refugees sought shelter from LRA who fired rocket-propelled grenades to break into the church. The images of two crucifixions were added after the attack. Photo by Morten Bøås.

The central role of land in the new economic and social spaces and relations produced by conflict and displacement has frequently gone unnoticed. Several recent studies from West as well as East Africa illuminate the dynamics of land as defining economic livelihoods, political governance, as well as personhood and identity in the proliferating displacement economies.

Land was central in the emergence of trans-African networks of illicit trade and trafficking in northern Mali. Its once dominant Tuareg ethnic group had suffered increasing marginalization during the country’s authoritarian regime of the 1980s-90s, resulting in massive insurgencies. The Tuareg rebellion originated in local grievances over the loss of pastoral land and traditional cattle-keeping livelihoods in the region. The rebel leaders who were co-opted to formal governance systems with the 1992 peace agreement between Mali’s government and the insurgents, gained new access to political and economic resources. The resulting administrative decentralization led to the consolidation of Tuareg leaders and paramilitary “big men” around regional and cross-border illicit trafficking of contraband, drugs and migrants — occurring along the centuries-old trans-Sahara trade routes. New economic resources in these shadow networks have altered traditional power configurations in Tuareg society, leading to competing informal regimes who struggle to control illicit global commodity chains — further exacerbating conflict in the region.

PTP camp for Ivorian refugees outside of Zwedru, Grand Gedeh, Liberia. Photo by Ingunn Bjorkhaug.

Land relations emerge as central also in the displacement economy of northern Uganda, East Africa — albeit in somewhat different and contrasting ways. The internally displaced people’s camps in northern Uganda that were established during the Lord’s Resistance Army uprising (1986-2006) constrained people sometimes in a plain view of their abandoned homesteads. The resulting “prison economies” that lasted for decades were violent worlds of inactivity, with limited livelihood activities and little room for agency and creativity. The conflict saw over a million people relocated into IDP camps by the Ugandan government army, isolating them from the rest of the country and restricting their economic options and political participation. In the course of post-conflict return of the displaced, land became a central means of not just economic livelihood but also identity and belonging. The complexities of post-conflict landholding were reflected in its material and symbolic dimensions. To highlight the permanence of land property and through that one’s ethnic and territorial belonging, the use of cemented graves and cement pillars as land markers became rapidly widespread in Acholiland and Ikland of North Uganda.

The recent exodus of Gueré refugees arriving in Grand Gedeh, Liberia from western Côte d’Ivoire shows land as a central mediator in integrating refugees in the economic and political lives of local communities. In the aftermath of the political crisis resulting from the Ivorian election of 2010, large numbers of Ivorian refugees crossed the border to Liberia. Land access and other economic interactions between the refugees and local residents were mediated through the customary Liberian institution of “stranger-father” that traditionally regulates the allocation of land resources to newcomers. Although this constitutes an efficient mechanism of inclusion of outsiders, it also subjects them to a pre-existing social and political hierarchy, preventing newcomers from participating in substantive decisions regarding land and labor.

PTP camp for Ivorian refugees outside of Zwedru, Grand Gedeh, Liberia. Photo by Ingunn Bjorkhaug.

As a consequence, despite close historical and ethnic affinities between Gueré refugees and Krahn hosts, the former remained at the margins of political and economic life in Grand Gedeh border communities. The customary institutions at work here served both a as mechanism of inclusion and systematic exclusion on broader levels, and in the contexts of displacement, these power dynamics were increasingly mediated through land relations. Even though as the refugees of Gueré origin were seen as special guests — persons of a different social status from that of any other stranger — they were still guests among the local people. And any guest, no matter how special, eventually has to leave.

The new issue of the African Studies Review contains a Forum on “Land and Displacement in Post-Conflict Africa” (co-edited by Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Lotte Meinert) that explores the role of land in new social ties, informal networks, and modes of governance that are produced by displacement, and the impact of land property and exchange to agency and coping strategies. The ASR Forum brings together ethnographic articles from Uganda, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa that analyze various forms of forced mobility and their impact on social hierarchy, political authority, kinship, and personhood. The Forum highlights the issues of scale in land disputes — ranging from intimate levels among generations, neighbors and kin to broader inter-ethnic or national levels. The discussions offer novel perspectives on how the chaotic and uncoordinated processes of decentralization resulting from displacement affect local power configurations and produce new ways of relating — both to people and the ground below that sustains them.

Further Reading

Sudan in Berlin

“Berlin isn’t Germany. Just like that website you write for—it’s really its own country.” – Mohamed Jeballa, partner in a popular Sudanese restaurant in the city.

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.