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Witchcraft and Conflict: Exploring alternative discourses of insecurity – Introducing a new research project

By Dr Jonathan Fisher (Senior Lecturer in African Politics, University of Birmingham) and Dr Cherry Leonardi (Senior Lecturer in Modern African History at Durham University).

In October 2016, according to Uganda’s main independent newspaper the Daily Monitor, residents of Bukoova village in Luuka District, eastern Uganda, passed a resolution banishing one of their number – Charles Magumba. The “impromptu security meeting”, called by the Sub-County Vice Chairman and attended by the Area Police Officer, saw Magumba accused of – and admitting to – using witchcraft to kill two men whose wives he had allegedly eloped with. Magumba needs to leave Bukoova by mid-January 2017 “or risks being lynched”.[1]

A year earlier, a UN report on “the situation on human rights in the Central African Republic (2014-2015)” recorded 32 cases of “torture or inhumane and degrading treatment against persons [mainly the elderly, widowed or those with disabilities] accused of practicing witchcraft” by groups linked to the rebel Anti-Balaka militia, in the midst of that country’s civil war. The report noted that when alerted to these acts by the UN’s Human Rights Division, state authorities “failed to take action to…bring the perpetrators to justice…in the vast majority of cases”.[2] Witchcraft itself, though, is a criminal offence in Central African Republic – formerly punishable by execution – and in some localities 40-50% of court cases have focused around witchcraft accusations in recent years.[3] Both the fear of witchcraft and the threat of witch-hunts can play a very real part in people’s experiences and definitions of in/security.

At the same time, magical, spiritual and supernatural forms of protection represent a source of security to communities in the African continent. There is, therefore, a deeply complex and ambiguous relationship between witchcraft  and in/security across Africa, as there is, of course, in many other continents and regions. These ambiguities raise critical questions not only about the role of civilian, state and international actors in negotiating and responding to in/security but about the nature of “security” itself – both in terms of what it “is” (as a concept) and what it “does” (the processes, practices and policies which seek to promote, deliver or maintain it.

These are not, however, questions which international agencies and national policy-makers in Africa have sought to engage with in an official sense – Western donor agencies, international non-governmental organisations and national governments have tended to frame security-related policies and interventions around tackling threats which relate to empirical and “observable” phenomena including terrorism, war, disease, unemployment, lack of education or food etc. This is not to say that these actors do not encounter or willingly engage with discourses on witchcraft in their everyday interactions with civilians for a variety of reasons, but rather that there is a disjuncture between this reality and the manner in which security is theorised and enacted by these groups.

Scholars are also yet to consider the relationship between witchcrafts and security – and what this tells us about the concept of security, at least in these terms. Though an emerging body of research in political science has begun to invert analysis and interpretation of in/security knowledge through exploring “vernacular security/ies”, much of this nascent field has focused on the UK and government policing and counter-terrorism practices, and their discursive reception and resistance in a range of communities.

A new, exploratory project lead by Dr Jonathan Fisher (International Development Department, University of Birmingham) and Dr Cherry Leonardi (Department of History, Durham University) takes the questions, contradictions and ambiguities highlighted above as its point of departure and as a means to both address some of the gaps in existing scholarship and to open up new conceptual space for exploring the nature of in/security as theory and practice.

The project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/N007956/1) brings together a political scientist (Fisher) and an historian (Leonardi) around three core questions:

  1. How do African communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does ‘witchcraft’ feature in these articulations?
  2. How do African and Western policy-makers, in turn, understand and articulate the major security threats faced by these communities and how far do they consider ‘witchcraft’ within this?
  3. Finally, how should Western researchers and Western/African policy-makers engage with these unfamiliar (in) security discourses, and what challenges does attempting to do so pose?

The project will run until October 2017 and take as its empirical focus borderland communities in north-western Uganda. This region was the site of a brutal insurgency (the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army) and sometimes equally brutal government counter-insurgency between c.1987-2006. During the same period it was also home to large numbers of South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan returnees fleeing the Sudanese civil war, and this cross-border movement is now being repeated as South Sudan is once again being ravaged by conflict since 2013. This sometimes tension-inducing mixing of boundaries, identities, mobilities and conflict/post-conflict experiences renders the border region a fascinating setting in which to explore the dynamic interactions between in/security and witchcraft – both of which, to some degree, draw from constructions of trust and suspicion related to ideas of “insiders”, “outsiders”, “internal” and “external”.

At its heart, the project represents an exercise in cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration – not only between the two project leaders but also across a broad network of academics, practitioners and policy-makers. The first of three project workshops was held at the University of Birmingham on 18 November 2016 as a means both to build a core network around the project and to thrash out some of the project’s central conceptual, epistemological and methodological questions. Following the workshop, which saw the project team joined by eleven leading experts on vernacular security, witchcraft in Africa, international intervention and the history and politics of northern Uganda/southern South Sudan, the research will move forward to fieldwork and to consider:

The spatial and temporal dimensions of in/security – how constructions of spatial and social boundaries (family, community, state) and historical experience feed into in/security as concept and practice.

Relationships and in/security – how in/security is produced and discursively negotiated around relationships of trust, identity and belonging, both at an interpersonal level and a socio-political one, and across national and international linkages.

Witchcraft represents a unique and exciting phenomenon to explore these issues given the degree of overlap it has with many understandings of security – as became clear at the Birmingham workshop. Both witchcraft and security are amorphous and debatable concepts and both derive meaning from the juxtaposition of fear, familiarity and the unknown. Both are also, ultimately, “discourses of action” (to borrow the phrase of one workshop participant): they are revealed and meaningful not so much in their intrinsic substance – which can rarely be pinned down – but in their effects and in the acts which they necessitate and which are promoted in their name.

For more information, please contact Dr Jonathan Fisher (j.fisher@bham.ac.uk) or Dr Cherry Leonardi (d.c.leonardi@durham.ac.uk).

[1] Yazid Yolisigira, “Luuka man banished over Witchcraft”, Daily Monitor, 21 October 2016 (available at http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Luuka-man-banished-Witchcraft/688334-3424380-10sjbhtz/index.html).

[2] http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CF/MINUSCA_9Dec2015.pdf (17-18)

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/hex-appeal/308103/