Resolving conflicts between neighbors and communities across borders in East Africa prevents violence that threatens the peace and prosperity of the region.
“Conflict is part of human nature. We know we can’t stop conflicts from happening, but we can change how we resolve them. And we are resolving them non-violently.”
Olwa Nickson is the deputy head of Uganda’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Unit, and part of his job is to see that the words he lives by become a way of life for his countrymen. It hasn’t been easy.
As droughts increase in frequency in Uganda and neighboring countries, so does the risk of conflict stemming from competition over increasingly limited natural resources. These conflicts can displace people from their homes, claim lives, destroy infrastructure and, ultimately, halt economic growth. Conflict also often breeds a chaotic atmosphere that can be exploited by illicit groups such as wildlife traffickers and terrorists.
“If you anticipate the dry period, then you expect herdsmen to move. The risk of conflict becomes very high as the resources they are sharing get depleted — not just water and grazing for animals, but also the availability of drugs and food,” Nickson says.
To prevent these negative cycles, USAID’s Peace III regional program is supporting communities to work peacefully together to manage their resources and build systems to alert people to early warning signs of conflict. USAID launched the program in 2014 to strengthen the management of conflict along the Kenyan borders with Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda.
The activity promotes stability in the region by strengthening the relationship between communities and local governments in cross-border areas and improving the ability of regional and national institutions to respond rapidly and effectively to conflict.
“The early warning system is very important,” explains Nickson. “If there is conflict brewing, our community structures will pass that information to the relevant authorities, and enable us to respond to the conflict in a timely manner, to avoid it turning violent, and to avoid local conflicts bringing whole countries into conflict.”
Rapid response networks now reduce tensions by quickly mobilizing mediation councils, youth groups, livestock marketing councils, networks of rural women’s groups, local radio stations and community policing units. USAID’s Peace III project works with groups of community leaders such as tribal chiefs, elders and local elected representatives and volunteers who receive extensive training in conflict early warning and response.
These networks are supported by 21 community-based organizations that are linked with other actors at the national, regional and county levels. Together they work to increase dialogue between people in these communities, encourage conflict prevention and reconciliation, support mediation, return stolen livestock and develop cross-border peace and agreements about how to share resources.
Women Engaged Toward a Better Way to Live
The network also plays an important role along the borders of northwestern Kenya, southwestern Ethiopia, the southern border of South Sudan and northeastern Uganda, where cattle raids frequently occur during droughts. Lucy Erica, one of 90 women from the area who is involved in USAID-sponsored peace-building activities, says the early warning networks have been able to address this issue.
“Now, when our fellow women in South Sudan hear that their people plan to come across to the Kenyan side of the border for raids,” says Erica, “they call us and inform us, so we can go and tell the people in the kraals, and the raids can be avoided.”
Better dialogue has not just reduced deadly conflicts and animal raids, it also fostered a stronger sense of unity among the neighboring ethnic groups, some of whom had been previously locked in long-standing, low-level conflict.
Since the start of the project, organizers have put on nearly 170 events to support peace and reconciliation. During these events, communities that have historically been in conflict come together to showcase their diversity through songs, dance and drama, and explore how culture could be a means of livelihood through, for example, annual cultural festivals that could attract tourists.
“PEACE III has given us a better way of living,” says Erica. “Now we talk to each other, we talk to the women of South Sudan. When they have problems, like this year there was a lot of drought, we welcomed the women and their children in our villages. If we do not receive them, where would they go? They would suffer because no one would give them food. We women are not for always fighting — sometimes we sit down and bring peace.”
Selina Wanjiri of the National Steering Committee on Peace Building and Conflict Management — the name of Kenya’s Conflict Early Warning and Response Unit — explains the impact of the collaboration: “Before the partnership, women were less engaged. However, because of PEACE III’s work strengthening female representation, women are more fully engaged in peace processes.”
Women such as Erica believe the early warning and response system is making a difference in her community, “There is something good happening on our border. As much as we still have challenges, we now have networks to relay information.”
Peace-building Tools towards Resilience
Communities that are part of the Peace III project have worked together to plan and build schools, markets and health clinics for their joint use. They jointly manage the assets through official committees with representation from both sides.
Another mechanism for mitigating conflict in cross-border areas is the development and implementation of resource sharing agreements. For example, despite major drought conditions in 2017, a resource sharing agreement that PEACE III negotiated between the Dodoth of Uganda and the Turkana of Kenya in 2016 has held; the area has remained peaceful while neighboring communities have fought over water and pasture.
Due to the prevailing peace, communities have been able to invest in a cross-border market, enhancing trade and furthering the connections between the communities. For the first time in its history, the Turkana were allocated land to cultivate in Uganda, highlighting how peace and development are mutually reinforcing.
The five-year program, continuing through 2019, seeks to contribute to stability in the Horn of Africa by strengthening linkages within and between local, national and regional conflict management actors.
Regional Resilience Coordinator Chip Bury summarizes why strong community networks are so important, “Research has shown that building stronger social networks between communities, and especially between communities across borders, is one of the strongest building blocks for resilience in East Africa. The goal of this type of programming is that eventually the need for humanitarian assistance will decline. We aim to make sure communities will ready to resolve their own conflicts so that the communities on both sides of the border can benefit from economic growth activities.”
About the Author
USAID’s East Africa Regional Mission supports 10 countries and is based in Kenya.