Sudan issue brief no. 8: Responses to pastoral wars- A review of violence reduction efforts in Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya

from Small Arms Survey
Published on 30 Sep 2007
Cattle herders are widely dispersed throughout the border regions of southern Sudan, northern Uganda, and north-western Kenya. Known collectively as the Ateker,(1 ) these pastoralists share common community structures, languages, and ethnicity. Inhabiting the political, social, and economic periphery, they have long suffered marginalization at the hands of central governments, while at the same time seeking to protect their own independence and cultural autonomy. Competition between the pastoralists over common property and resources is ongoing, often taking the form of armed cattle rustling. Once limited to isolated incidents these lowintensity conflicts have, however, been transformed by the contagious effects of civil wars in southern Sudan and northern Uganda-and by the accompanying diffusion of high-powered assault rifles-into larger-scale violent clashes. These 'pastoral wars' go largely unreported.

This Issue Brief reviews the causes and consequences of, as well as the responses to, conflicts in pastoralist areas in the Sudan-Uganda-Kenya region. A perspective that transcends borders is crucial: cross-border intertribal clashes frequently erupt in these areas (see Box 1), as well as among groups within each of these countries. Pastoral conflicts have become increasingly bloody and protracted, thereby contributing to a spiral of retributive violence. Over time they have also become entangled with outside political and commercial interests. The human costs range from widespread and indiscriminate intentional killings to long-term displacement of households and severe livestock depletion.(2)

State responses to pastoral violence in Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya are often politically driven and typically consist of coercive measures that focus on disarmament without reconciliation. Although favoured by governments, weapons collections alone seldom reduce violence over the long term. Paradoxically, they can engender new vulnerabilities for some populations as well as stimulate violent resistance. Even when disarmament of pastoralist groups is peaceful, recent experiences in South Sudan demonstrate that promised security often fails to materialize, subjecting the same communities to violent attacks.

More positively, a number of civil society organizations (CSOs), often in cooperation with regional and international agencies, are stepping in to support traditional approaches to conflict mediation and resolution. Notwithstanding their limitations, these initiatives are helping to foster community safety where state presence is virtually absent. These initiatives are undercut, however, when states-sometimes with international support-engage in heavy-handed tactics to recover weapons from these communities.


(1) The term Ateker refers to primarily Itung'aspeaking Nilotic people whose ancestry can be traced back to the area between the Blue and White Niles in present-day Sudan. The Ateker include the Buya, Didinga, Jie, Murle, Nyangatom, Tenet, and Toposa of southern Sudan; the Dassenach and Nyangatom of Ethiopia; the Turkana of Kenya; and the Karimojong of Uganda.

(2) According to ITDG (2004), more than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of pastoralist conflicts in northwestern Kenya.