Give elders a say in East African justice, report urges

Written by: Natasha Elkington

A woman prepares lunch at the Kobulin Transit Centre, 70 km (43 miles) southwest of Moroto in Karamoja, eastern Uganda, March 27, 2007. REUTERS/Euan Denholm
A woman prepares lunch at the Kobulin Transit Centre, 70 km (43 miles) southwest of Moroto in Karamoja, eastern Uganda, March 27, 2007. REUTERS/Euan Denholm

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LONDON (AlertNet) – Elders’ arbitration is likelier to solve conflicts in East Africa than modern governance, a report released on Tuesday said. Research in Karamoja, part of northeast Uganda, showed traditional methods of resolving conflict had worked well for centuries and were key to justice today, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) said. “In a society like Karamoja where there is a lot of illiteracy, many people don’t fully understand the procedures of modern law and find traditional law more appropriate and relevant,” said Simon Nangiro, from a local group helping pastoralists and who worked with MRG. “They understand the context, it is efficient, effective and cheaper,” he told AlertNet by telephone from Karamoja. The study focused on Karamoja and another remote region, Teso, where central government is largely absent and sometimes mistrusted. There, traditional principles of coexistence have helped keep the peace. For instance, Karamoja faces drought for almost half the year. Traditionally, the Karamojong people relied on their Iteso neighbours for water and pasture in the dry season while the Iteso needed the Karamojong for oxen to plough their land. But recently government-imposed restrictions, the creation of boundaries and lack of resources have led to increasing conflict between the groups. “We are advocating to the government to give a place to customary institutions, for elders to play a role in the justice system, because they are the ones living with the people,” said Nangiro, who heads the Karamoja Pastoralist Development Programme, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). “In issues of land disputes and boundaries, the elders have been around for many years and are the ones who have better knowledge of where the boundaries are.” The report found that using a system of negotiation, compensation and imposing collective sanctions created a feeling of responsibility on the part of the family or clan, and results were immediately visible to the whole community. However, elders’ councils and other traditional methods are not without flaws. They may not guarantee equal rights and the system of compensation does not fully punish offenders. Nangiro said non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could play a role here by bridging the gap between governments and isolated communities through research, dialogue and education. “In Karamoja most of the assemblies are male-dominated,” he said. “NGOs can help give women a greater role.”

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