Customary Law, Livelihoods Change, and Conflict Mitigation in the Karamoja ClusterThe Case of Uganda

Under a two-year research project with funding from Irish Aid/Kampala, FIC researchers are studying how groups are using customary mechanisms to respond to the changing social, political and economic environment in Karamoja. In particular, we seek to understand how customary law and community institutions work to curb violence within and between groups, bring accountability to violators, and mend relations among hostile communities. We are examining the institutions, structures and practices of traditional justice and conflict mitigation and how these are viewed by different community members. At the same time we are studying the ways in which customary mechanisms mediate existing and new livelihood systems, chronic poverty, vulnerability, and adaptations to shocks and threats.

We are focusing on the Karamoja region of Uganda due to the profound and widespread changes that are occurring on multiple levels, including shifts away from traditional pastoral livelihoods and a radically changed security environment due to the on-going disarmament campaign. We seek to understand the ways in which customary mechanisms and community institutions are able to respond (or not respond) to these changes. In particular, we are examining how these mechanisms and institutions mediate diversified livelihood systems, interact with new security structures, and address the protection gaps emerging in the absence of self-protection through weapons ownership.

The goal of this study is to better understand how these systems operate and the potential they have in creating a more stable environment in a system characterized by profound vulnerability and rapid change. We hope that the findings will indicate additional avenues for national and international interventions in peace-building, social protection, livelihood support and diversification, access to services, governance, and improvements to the security sector.

The Karamoja Cluster, encompassing territory within Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia, is an arid region inhabited by pastoral and agro-pastoral populations who rely on seasonal animal migration to varying degrees. These groups are minority populations within their respective countries and are often at odds with each other and the governments in the regions where they live and move with their herds.

Human development index indicators rank these groups among the least developed populations within their countries, with the lowest rates of access to basic amenities such as health clinics, schools and clean water. Populations live in chronic poverty and many are dependent on food aid. The respective state governments largely marginalize the pastoralist groups politically, economically and socially, further limiting their resiliency to drought or external or internal shocks.

The livelihood systems of pastoral and agro-pastoral groups necessitate the seasonal movement of herdsmen and women with their livestock into areas where grazing land and water are present. This often requires migration into areas occupied or accessed for similar reasons by other groups. This sharing of resources can lead to increased tensions and the outbreak of violence between groups. Coupled with poor economic development and widespread poverty, many groups resort to cattle raiding to bolster herd populations or to benefit economically by quickly selling stolen animals.

Additional factors that contribute to increased criminal activity include maladaptive coping systems in response to the erosion of traditional livelihoods, government policies limiting human and animal mobility, widespread insecurity and other “natural” phenomena such as climate change. In turn, these maladaptations towards criminal behavior lead to further insecurity, loss of livelihood assets and increased vulnerability. Combined with a general lack of law and order, criminal activity including cattle raiding, theft and murder often occurs with impunity.

However, some pastoralist groups in the Karamoja Cluster are seeking to curb criminal behavior by their members and stem the spread of violence through the application of customary law and use of traditional conflict prevention strategies. Our research seeks to understand the ways in which customary mechanisms are addressing the rapidly changing economic order of the region.

Some of the trends and patterns we are documenting and analyzing include:

  • Trends in the capacity of customary law institutions to apply sanctions and mediate conflict.
  • Trends in the extent to which local actors (e.g., male youth and local councilors) recognize customary law.
  • Patterns in the modification of customary law and community institutions in response to internal and external factors, e.g., security shifts, internal and external shocks, livelihoods diversification and climate change.
  • The impact of livelihood diversification on attitudes and expectations of official state (e.g., police, military and district officials) or customary institutions in mediating economic activity and/or rule of law.
  • The extent to which customary mechanisms and community institutions are recognized and understood by outside actors, including district officials, local police commands, military detaches, local courts, local human rights actors, and international agencies and organizations.
  • Trends in the procedures employed by customary institutions, the Ugandan police and the Ugandan Peoples’ Defense Force (UPDF) in pursuing local objectives of peace and stability with particular attention on the handling of male youth crime and violence.
  • People’s perceptions of what customary law is and what role it has or should have in a changing social, political and economic order. This will include perceptions of male youth, women and men.
  • The recognition and application of customary law in mitigating and controlling internal and external tensions and violence with examples of when customary law has been effectively used.
  • The types of economic opportunities desired by communities and groups affected by chronic poverty.

Within Karamoja we are sampling a range of ethnic/tribal/territorial groups with diverse experiences in terms of livelihood change, security systems, access to services, and relations with other groups. Anecdotal evidence points to variations in the ‘power of the elders’ in these different groups, with some groups thought to have experienced greater erosion in the age-based hierarchical system than others. In northern Karamoja we will examine the Dodoth and Jie and in southern Karamoja we will focus on the Matheniko and the Tepeth.

To date, only a handful of studies have attempted to document and analyze the customary law structures and community institutions that govern political, social and criminal activities in Karamoja. The first phase of this project will include a broad contemporary review of customary law in pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in the Karamoja Cluster (and elsewhere) and the role of customary law in mitigating conflict.

Formal outputs geared directly to the donors and other interested stakeholders will include a briefing paper on the findings of a literature review and a final report at the end of the project. In addition, the team will prepare one or two academic articles for publication in peer-review journals that will reach a broader audience than the project reports. Informal outputs will include regular discussions and informal briefings with the donors on developing findings.

Our goal is to help inform and improve policy, programming and advocacy, and we will work closely with the donors and other relevant stakeholders throughout the course of the project to achieve these ends.

We will design and hold a photography exhibit in Karamoja in the latter stages of this project. The objective of the traveling exhibit will be to construct a forum in which local people can engage with the research team and each other regarding the findings and themes of the research project. We tested this method of community-feedback in October 2009 with great success. We believe that this means of sharing with the subjects of our research is not only an important ethical addition to our work, but also allows for greater understanding and connection among communities which may in and of itself have a positive result in regard to peace-making.

We are committed to long-term positive change in Karamoja and believe that there are important lessons to be learned within Uganda from the experiences of other countries in the Greater Horn of Africa regarding pastoral policies. To this end, we expect the findings from this project to feed into a Karamoja Cluster Initiative, in which we will work to increase sharing and dialogue among national and international stakeholders in the extended region on key issues such as food security, livelihoods adaptation, conflict resolution, and social protection. We hope to work in partnership with committed donors, international organizations, and national bodies to achieve this end.

Tradition in Transition: Customary Authority in Karamoja, Uganda

This study examines the evolution of customary authority among four population groups: the Jie, Dodoth, Matheniko, and Tepeth

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Summary: Tradition in Transition: Customary Authority in Karamoja, Uganda

This is a summary of a larger report, funded by Irish Aid Kampala, that examines the evolution of customary authority among four population groups: the Jie, Dodoth, Matheniko, and Tepeth.

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This project is funded by Irish Aid/Kampala.