The Borana and Fur Conflicts:
Similar Features, Different Outcomes
The relatively tranquil settings of the Jebel Mara massive in northern Darfur in western Sudan and the Boran area in southern Ethiopia were profoundly disrupted during the 1980s by prolonged drought, which had persisted with minor interruptions, since 1967.
In the past, when faced with deteriorating natural conditions, people would move to a nearby virgin area (mobility being way of African life). There were enough empty corridors, then. Now, there are practically none. Climatic variations, large-scale mechanised agriculture for export purposes and urban consumption, as well as large increases in human and livestock populations have all conspired to limit or deny access to new resources. Ultimately, these ecological buffer zones have gradually lost their distinction as areas of refuge and as borders of cooperation among neighbouring peoples.
With the persistence of the drought, pastoral groups, in the Fur as well as in the Boran areas, began to fall apart. Livestock died in large numbers and their owners began to dispose of the rest for next to nothing. Soon after 'the year of meat' ended, ‘the year of famine’ began and the city merchants turned away from the collapsing economies, leaving them to their own fate. Abandoned by both nature and the market, life became a real struggle. These rural societies became ripe for dislocation, turbulence, and, ultimately war. At the height of the drought, in the mid-1980s, violent conflicts erupted in the Boran and Fur areas.
A closer look at the two conflicts reveals great similarities in their ecological, political and social aspects:
In both conflicts, pastoralists suffering from persistent drought (the Zaghawa and others in Darfur and the Abore and others in the Boran area) were seeking refuge in the lands of the Fur and the Borana respectively, which are richer in water and pasture. The conflict is, therefore, taking place along the ecological borders between rich and impoverished ecozones, the so-called 'desert versus the oasis syndrome'.
The current need of the pastoralist groups and their animals to stay for unspecified long periods in the lands of the Fur and the Borana has led to the breakdown of all previous mutual agreements that allowed pastoralists limited access, in times of scarcity, to pasture and water. For example, the ‘Arab’ pastoralists were previously allowed to enter Jebel Mara from January to the first rains, usually in May.
In both cases, there were no inherent ethnic or religious differences between the two adversaries. The Fur and Arabs are Muslims, the Borana and their opposing 14 volksgroups have similar traditional religions. Ethnic barriers were easy to surmount, for example, an Arab pastoralist, who settled among the Fur, soon became one with all duties and rights of a typical Fur and the opposite was also true. Ethnic dichotomies are more a product of the conflict than a cause of it.
Far away from the capital city and now with little appeal to traders, government intervention in both conflicts was relatively limited. In essence, we are dealing here with armed conflicts of local people against each other.
Mutual also is the introduction of modern arms in the traditional conflict arena, especially in Darfur, where the proximity of the Chadian/Libyan war brought in large amounts of cheap modern weapons as well as the possibility of military training of combatants from both sides of the conflict divide. For example, the price of an AK47 with accessories was about US$40, far less than its international price. It was estimated that in 1990 there were more than 50,000 modern weapons available in Darfur, one for every man above 16 years of age.
Since their inception, several attempts at resolving the conflicts through peace conferences initiated by central and regional governments have not succeeded in bringing peace to the regions.
The Fur and Boran conflicts are typical to the Sahel and Horn of Africa regions. Weakened by prolonged drought, pastoralists and their animals, move into areas of better pasture and more water with the apparent intention of staying there for as long as it takes. Previous agreements that allowed limited and temporary sharing of water and land resources become no longer binding. The inhabitants of the relatively richer lands refuse entry to the desperate pastoralists and whenever there are no mitigating powerful third parties the friction ultimately leads to violent confrontation.
The Borana conclude peace, while the Fur continue the fight
In March 1993, in a great traditional religious ceremony, the Borana blessed a peace agreement with the Abore and the 14 ethnic groups (the Konso, Tesmay, Hammer, Dasenech etc.), against whom they were fighting in and around the Umo-valley, south of Ethiopia near the Kenyan border, (Bauerochse, 1993). A year later the Borana concluded a similar agreement with their Somali enemies, the Garri.
After years of violence around water holes and grazing lands, and after all appeals to the government failed to solicit any positive response, the elders of the Abore and the Hammer decided it was time to meet the elders of the Borana to settle the conflict in a fair and equitable way. The first meeting went well, and so, on the 13th January 1993, ten young Borana visited the Abore to negotiate details of the peace accord. Meanwhile, and as a prelude to peace, all livestock were allowed free access to the buffer zone between the Borana and the rest.
Next, it was agreed that the peace between the Borana and the Abore could not be complete without the inclusion of all affected parties. All 14 ethnic groups were, therefore, invited to the final and crucial general assembly in the homeland of the Abore. The meeting took place on the 8th of March 1993, in Gonderaba, a traditional religious centre of the Abore people.
The peace conference affirmed two fundamental principles to be strictly adhered to in making peace in the region:
The Abore and all other ethnic groups agree that the Borana have all traditional rights over their land. Traditional right over land is understood as right of use, not absolute ownership.
The Borana accept that all rival groups and their animals have an inalienable right to survival.
To adhere to both principles, it was decided that the other groups and a limited number of their animals is allowed to access Boran lands after harvest time and stay there for a limited period, depending on the rain situation.
Further measures were decided upon, namely:
The agreement shall be overseen by a council of 40 members representing all ethnic groups.
A boarding school shall be built for the children of all groups so that they may know more about each other and befriend each other.
An agricultural centre should be established to improve the health of the herds.
Water management schemes in the area should be supported.
Improving the quality of life of the people and their herds was thus considered vital for lasting peace, because it entailed greater social security
What this peace settlement shows is that in areas or in times of scarcity the prerequisite for peace is temporary, asymmetric and sustainable sharing of contested resources, and the respect for the fundamental right of stricken people and their animals to survive. ‘The winner [owner] takes-all’ mentality and an insistence on so-called historic rights, which totally exclude all others in need, is a sure recipe for confrontation.
Three years later, peace is still holding in the Boran land.
Why did the Fur conflict fail to reach peace? Or the 'boys from town syndrome'
The most obvious cause of failure to reach peace in the Fur conflict is the exclusion of local leadership from peace negotiations. All meetings and peace conferences were dominated by professionals from both sides of the conflict, teachers, lawyers, medical doctors and so on, that is, by 'the boys from town', (Suliman, 1993).
The boys from town were not able to understand the significance of two crucial principles associated with the conflict:
1. In spite of their apparent temporary economic insignificance, pastoralists and their animals do constitute an organic and important part of the economic and ecological systems of the region: the desert and the oasis are inherent parts of the same ecosystem.
The problem should not be seen as ‘us against them', but as to live and let live. This solidarity is necessary for both sides and not an act of sheer generosity of one side towards the other.
2. Land right was understood as absolute ownership of land (i.e. as mere economic space). The boys from town consistently argued in terms and concepts of Western and town law, namely that ownership allows absolute hegemony over land. Most rural Africans understand customary land right as right of use, not as absolute, unrestricted ownership. For them land is concrete space, the soil, the grass, the trees, the hills, the river, the ancestral burying ground, and the place for rituals. Land is thus economic, social and spiritual space, or simply, land is life.
Because of these two principles, it is possible for local leadership to understand the necessity for temporary, asymmetric sharing in times of need, namely, the right of other peoples and their animals to survive.
However, instead of dealing with the most pertinent issues of sustainable sharing of the contested natural resources, the boys from town spent valuable time quarrelling about the sharing of political power in regional and central government. They were more concerned with their own town interests than with those of their respective peoples.
Lessons to learn from this comparison
The first lesson to be learnt from this comparison of two very similar violent conflicts and their diametrically opposite conclusions is that in local conflicts local leaders should be the major actors in conflict resolution. Left to themselves, most people tend to choose cooperation most of the time, and if provided with the right assistance, all people will choose cooperation all the time.
The second lesson is that the principle of temporary, asymmetric and sustainable sharing in times of crisis is a necessity for conflict resolution and for long-term survival, not only for the suffering side, but for both adversaries.
The third lesson demands that outsiders appreciate the particular understanding of land ownership of most traditional African societies, namely, that of right of use, rather than right to absolute ownership.
The insistence on so-called historic rights to ownership of land and other natural resources and the imposition of urban concepts of ownership on societies in turmoil, cannot facilitate the processes necessary to resolve simmering or raging conflicts.
May the Borana and Abore wisdom prevail in all similar conflicts!
1. Lothar Bauerochse, ‘Bauchspeck für den Frieden’, Der Uberblick, 3/1993, p. 63.
2. Mohamed Suliman, War in Darfur, IFAA Reports, 1994.