“Witchcraft” and Conflict: Exploring Alternative Discourses of Insecurity

Principal Investigator

Dr Jonathan Fisher


Dr Cherry Leonardi (Durham University)

Research Institution

University of Birmingham

Project Summary

This project focuses on exploring three sets of questions: how do African borderland communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does ‘witchcraft’ feature in these articulations? 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? 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?

Scholars and policy-makers, for example, now largely agree that security threats should be understood not just through the eyes of generals, spies and other state actors but through those of individuals and communities themselves – particularly those in conflict-affected regions. This ‘human security’ perspective allows us to understand insecurity not just – or even primarily – in terms of foreign armies or terrorist attacks but also unemployment, starvation, disease and oppression. Indeed, the latter usually feature far more prominently and substantively as security concerns for most.

We know surprisingly little, however, about how communities in Africa articulate and perceive their own (in) security – their voices rarely feature in policy papers and academic studies, particularly those beyond the realm of anthropology. Moreover, little work has been undertaken in political science and history to study and understand indigenous (in) security narratives when they speak to themes and belief systems which differ dramatically from Western ways of thinking.

Communities on the Uganda/South Sudan border, for example, have historically come to frame much of what human security scholars would understand as ‘security concerns’ using the language and worldview of ‘witchcraft’. Indeed, some view those human rights-based approaches to justice and security promoted by Western donors and their own governments as deeply problematic since they ‘protect’ witches at the expense of the community. 

Policy-makers and practitioners face practical challenges in reconciling these worldviews with Western systems of justice and governance. More broadly, though, they and Africanist academics interested in security face a broader challenge – how to study, represent, engage with and respond to these narratives which are deeply meaningful for communities but fundamentally at odds with Western modes of thinking. Furthermore, how can and should researchers broach so sensitive a topic with communities?

This project will tackle these difficult questions head-on in a highly innovative collaboration between and across disciplines and continents. At its core will be a partnership between a political scientist and an historian who will work to combine different approaches from their respective disciplines in order to explore witchcraft as a discourse of insecurity in the Uganda/South Sudan border region – and to reflect on the wider methodological and epistemological questions raised above. 

This will be undertaken in the context of a broader collaboration between a core group of UK and Africa-based academics from history, political science, development studies and anthropology – together with practitioners and policy-makers – who will help design the methodology, advise on the fieldwork and co-produce the outputs through participation in regular workshops in the UK and Africa. 

In adopting this experimental, inter-disciplinary approach it will be possible to explore and debate the nature of human security – and the place of witchcraft discourses within this – in a dynamic and exciting intellectual space which goes beyond the limits imposed by individual disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, the project will seek to challenge, re-frame and guide key debates within African Studies, security studies, history and anthropology as well as within policy communities.



The focus and concerns of the project are highly relevant to policy-makers, practitioners and civil society actors in both the North and Africa – particularly those focused upon security, governance and justice. They are also, of course, salient for the Ugandan and South Sudanese communities and policy-makers who will be engaged with as respondents during the fieldwork phase of the project. While discourses on ‘witchcraft’ may be dismissed by many policy/practitioner actors as irrelevant to their work, the project will focus on demonstrating to them that this is not the case. Initially this may require the team to place emphasis on areas such as gender/persecution of women and state marginalization of certain groups where current research on witchcraft and ‘mainstream’ development policy can be most intuitively linked.

While the researchers are committed to ensuring that the project does not become ‘captured’ by the agendas of external actors, we also recognize the importance of engaging openly and honestly with a wide range of non-academic stakeholders. The project’s approach to impact, therefore, involves the incorporation of both UK- and Africa-based non-academic audiences into the core network throughout – thereby ensuring co-development of the methodology and co-production of some outputs among as wide a group of stakeholders as possible. 

As a major provider of development and humanitarian aid worldwide (and in Uganda and South Sudan) – and a key historical funder of security assistance, capacity-building and security sector reform programmes – the UK government represents a major beneficiary of this research. Many UK development and humanitarian interventions are premised upon understanding and responding to (in) security concerns of communities and states in the South and thus research which seeks to provide further insight into these concerns ‘on the ground’ is clearly valuable, both to Whitehall officials and to FCO/DFID Staff on the ground in Kampala and Juba. The same is true for representatives of other major donor states and organizations in these two capitals, including UN agencies, the US and EU, and for many INGOs and other humanitarian actors and practitioners who are heavily engaged in development projects and humanitarian assistance in northern Uganda and South Sudan. 

State officials across the region will also be major beneficiaries of the work, and are often overlooked in Northern-lead research projects. For Ugandan and South Sudanese national policy-makers, responding to security concerns of citizens has become an increasingly fundamental aspect of maintaining legitimacy while a focus on the content of ‘human security’ has become a growing subject of high-level discussion at the regional level (eg Tana Forum). For local officials, reconciling community demands for protection against witchcraft with Western-style legal structures is a constant challenge and thus the research will speak to their experiences directly.

The direct incorporation of local communities into these strategies, though highly desirable, introduces an element of risk which cannot be adequately mitigated in a project of this size. Language/interpretation issues aside, seating members of these communities at a table opposite local and national elites to discuss security/witchcraft or attempting to formally incorporate them into a network addressing such a sensitive topic may expose them to political and livelihood risks which we may not be able to fully prepare them for, or adequately insulate them from. The project will therefore seek to have a positive impact on these communities through seeking to improve policy-makers’ and practitioners’ sensitivity to, and empathy, for local concerns (Pathways to Impact). Representatives of ‘umbrella’ NGOs will also be incorporated into the network in order to seek informed advice on engaging these groups on behalf of local communities regarding the project’s progress and findings.

Contact Information

For further information, please email Jonathan at j.fisher@bham.ac.uk