The best solution is coexistence

War, peace, and cooperation among herder-farmers in northeastern Uganda.

Pro-Jie graffiti on the roadside in the disputed area between Kotido and Abim districts. Image credit Sam Meyerson.

On the night of December 30, 1998, the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) arrived in Abim district, a mountainous area in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda. The LRA rarely ranged this far east, but sensing a soft target in the communities of minority Ethur farmers who lived in the towns and villages of Abim, the rebels struck their health centers and schools, stealing medical supplies and kidnapping medical personnel and students. The rebels, however, had underestimated the resistance they would meet in Abim. In Karamoja at the time, small arms were ubiquitous among local pastoral groups, and some Ethur farmers had also managed to acquire guns, which they immediately put to use combatting the LRA incursion. Heavily armed Jie herdsmen, who had driven their cattle west into Abim district in search of pasture during the dry season, came to the aid of the embattled Ethur, giving chase to the rebels, soundly defeating them and liberating the captured civilians.

The story of the joint Jie-Ethur victory over the LRA has been told and retold in both Jie and Ethur communities for more than two decades. For some, the tale is simply one of triumph over a feared adversary, but for many Jie herders and Ethur farmers, the story cannot be extricated from the tension and conflict that have characterized the relationship between the two groups for more than 30 years. Prior to the conclusion of the disarmament process in 2011, in which the Ugandan military seized weapons from the majority of Karamoja’s herdsmen, Jie herders frequently committed acts of theft and violence against Ethur farmers, who often did not have sufficient firepower to defend themselves. Since disarmament, tensions between the Jie and Ethur have taken the form of disputes over the boundary between the predominantly Jie district of Kotido and the Ethur-dominated district of Abim, which the central government carved out of Kotido district in 2006.

Animosity between the Ethur and Jie has also resulted in heated debates over the rights of Jie pastoralists to graze their livestock in Abim district, and, on occasion, deadly violence. Thus, some Ethur renditions of the story of the LRA attack on Abim leave out the participation of the Jie entirely, seeking to emphasize the bravery and self-sufficiency of the local Ethur farmers. “The Ethur people are very tough,” stated Ethur politician Lokinomoe Joseph, “When the LRA came to attack Abim … we would finish them off. A woman could even pick up a stick and cane a rebel, because we are very brave.” Some Jie versions of the story, on the other hand, cast the Jie as the benevolent saviors of the helpless Ethur, in order to underscore the injustice of present-day Ethur attempts to limit Jie herders’ access to pasture in Abim. “We used to save the Ethur from the LRA,” Jie herdsman Longok Lokolita insisted, “But when the Jie were disarmed, that is when the Ethur started refusing the Jie entry, that’s when they started making us pay for water and everything else.”

These ethnically partisan versions of the battle fit into an Africa-wide narrative of antipathy between herders and farmers that has made its way into international headlines with increasing frequency in the wake of bloody clashes over the course of the past four years in West Africa and the Sahel. Many Western narratives of these conflicts have cast herder-farmer violence in Africa as the product of primordial ethnic and religious hatreds or of the spread of Islamic terror networks south of the Sahara. In reality, however, much like the Jie and Ethur, pastoral and agrarian communities in West Africa have shared long histories of cooperation and coexistence, and the conflicts between them have their roots in resource scarcity, climate change, and the machinations of political elites.

Prior to the colonial period, the Jie and Ethur enjoyed a close relationship founded on economic interdependence and kinship ties, and many elders and oral historians from both communities state that, in spite of the conflicts that have arisen in the past several decades, the Ethur and Jie are “one people.” In light of the parallels between herder-farmer conflicts in northeastern Uganda and those in West Africa and the Sahel, the experiences of the Jie and Ethur people who fought together against the LRA and who have managed to flourish side-by-side in the years following disarmament, in spite of mounting tensions over land and grazing rights, offer an instructive example of how herders and farmers in sub-Saharan Africa can fruitfully coexist.

The polemical tales told by Lokinomoe and Lokolita bear little resemblance to the accounts of the survivors of the 1998 battle with the LRA, which uncover a longer history of Jie-Ethur economic cooperation and reveal the importance of immediate mutual interests in facilitating joint defensive action. Jie elders Lomongin and Apalopus (not their real names) were young men in 1998, and they happened to be grazing their animals in the vicinity of the town of Morulem in southern Abim district when the LRA struck. When the fighting broke out, Lomongin, Apalopus, and their fellow Jie herdsmen took up their guns and pursued the LRA attackers and their captives, finally routing the rebel force at a watering hole in the nearby Lango region.

In an interview in April 2018, Apalopus and Lomongin recalled that their primary motivation was the desire to rescue Jie women and girls who had been captured by the rebels while residing in local Ethur homes as part of the longstanding process known as agwer, in which Jie women aid Ethur families with the harvest in exchange for a share of the crops. However, Lomongin and Apalopus were also enticed by potential economic gains. “If the Jie girls had not been taken we would still have gone,” Lomongin recalled with a grin, “since the Jie love fighting, and we still wanted guns.” The social and economic interests that Jie herdsmen now shared with Ethur farmers in the fight against the LRA enabled Lomongin and Apalopus to fully consider the moral and inter-communal implications of the battle.

“Another thing that motivated us was the atrocities we used to hear the LRA were committing,” Lomongin explained, “they would mutilate [people], cut off their lips and leave them. A person would come home looking like an animal. When we heard about that … we thought, ‘Let’s go.’” Apalopus went on to elaborate on the ways in which their alliance against the LRA fostered, if only temporarily, a more amicable relationship between the two groups: “During the time of the LRA, the Ethur would accept the Jie to come and be around them, because they knew that the Jie were their bulwarks and their protection against the LRA.”

Similarly, shortly after expressing their opposition to the migration of Jie pastoralists into Abim district during the dry season, a group of Ethur women stated of the 1998 LRA attack, “Fortunately, our brothers from Jie were also there. Since they were armed, they really helped us.” In short, for local Ethur farmers, the moment of cooperation and mutual defense created by the threat of the LRA transformed Jie herdsmen like Lomongin and Apalopus from an armed menace into key allies and “brothers.” Since the threat of rebel violence disappeared with the expulsion of the LRA from Uganda in 2008, tensions have mounted between many Jie and Ethur communities due to disagreements over rights to farmland and pastureland. Much of the land in dispute is located along the recently established border between Kotido and Abim districts, where communities known as “resettlement camps” have begun to spring up since the conclusion of the disarmament campaign in 2011.

During the decades of warfare in northeastern Uganda, Jie and Ethur civilians had been forced to seek refuge in overcrowded towns and villages, where soil erosion and overgrazing threatened their agrarian and pastoral livelihoods. After disarmament, Ethur and Jie people began to make for the fertile farmland and pastures located between Abim and Kotido districts, which had previously been rendered uninhabitable by the threat of rebel attacks and cattle raids, giving rise to the resettlement camps and prompting questions over whether this land belonged to the Ethur of Abim district or the Jie of Kotido. The ethnic homogeneity of many of these resettlement camps has encouraged inhabitants of predominantly Jie camps and their counterparts in predominantly Ethur camps to regard each other with suspicion and hostility. Lojok Peter, a Jie resident of the resettlement camp of Kotidany, underscored this climate of ethnic and political polarization when he warned darkly that, if the disputed territory falls under the authority of Ethur-dominated Abim district, “it will be the Jie who will be under the Ethur. So, those people will celebrate and try to chase us away and kill us. But we will not accept to be killed and leave those people alive. They will all die.”

In spite of the fear and hostility that exist within the resettlement camps in the disputed territory between Kotido and Abim, some communities have managed to revive the spirit of pragmatic symbiosis and cooperation that inspired Lomongin and Apalopus to fight alongside the Ethur against the LRA back in 1998. Founded by Ethur elder and former politician Othu Marino Abala in 2010, the resettlement camp of Somalia is located along Kotido-Abim road in the heart of the disputed territory. The stretch of road where Somalia is located was notorious for armed banditry prior to disarmament, earning the comparisons to the volatile nation in the Horn of Africa from which the community’s tongue-in-cheek moniker is derived. Its troubled history notwithstanding, Somalia has emerged as an exemplar of Jie-Ethur cooperation and coexistence in the midst of rising herder-farmer tensions along the Abim-Kotido boundary. Before founding Somalia, Abala served as a sub-county chairman in Abim district and earned a reputation as a fair and balanced leader capable of forging compromise between Jie and Ethur communities. He has used his stature among the residents of Somalia to build a multi-ethnic community committed to the principles of coexistence and economic cooperation. Regarding the Kotido-Abim boundary dispute, Abala argued that, “Whether this place is to be Kotido district or Abim district, the best solution is coexistence. That’s something very important for the local community. The local leaders at the local and government levels should embrace and encourage that.”

Abala’s sentiments were echoed by Agiro Surambaya, a Jie resident of Somalia, and his friend Obura Kallisto Okidi, an Ethur. Surambaya asserted that, in the event of large-scale land conflicts in the area, the people of Somalia, “would stand strong and say, ‘No, let’s resolve things peacefully … Why do you want to divide people?’” Seeking the guidance of Abala and other local elders, the people of Somalia collaboratively solve local disputes arising from disagreements over boundaries between farmers’ fields and incursions by Jie livestock into the plots of Ethur farmers. Their shared struggle to eke a living out of what was, only several years ago, uninhabited bush has allowed the Ethur and Jie residents of Somalia to form a united front against elites seeking to instrumentalize land disputes and herder-farmer conflicts for their own political and economic ends. In a moment of frustration, Abala accused these elites of attempting to sow inter-ethnic divisions through “cheap politicking.”

“Do you realize that it’s not us, the common men, who are causing these issues but the leaders back on the other side?” Agiro Surambaya asked his neighbors at a community meeting, “Have you forgotten that, in those days, there used to be a lot of conflict between people, but now people are staying together … So why do the leaders want to divide us?”

Given the severity of recent herder-farmer violence in regions like Nigeria’s Middle Belt and southern Mali, the sort of coexistence achieved by the residents of Somalia might seem like a dream nearly impossible to realize. However, the experiences of individuals like Abala, Lomongin, and Surambaya show that the road to coexistence begins not with utopian visions but in the mutual pursuit of common interests and in the joint struggle to defend them, whether against armed adversaries or against elites seeking to exploit historical divisions within communities for their own gain, a factor that has played a major role in herder-farmer conflict throughout the continent. Acknowledging their shared interests can initiate shifts in how pastoral and agrarian communities interpret their histories of interaction and imagine their shared futures.

When herders and farmers work together to secure their mutual survival and prosperity, they can slowly begin the arduous transition from “enemies” to “brothers.”

Further Reading