Automatic Rifles and Social Order Amongst the Daasanach of Conflict-Ridden East Africa

Article excerpt


It has been reported that the proliferation of automatic rifles in East Africa has increased the seriousness of conflicts during the past thirty years in East African pastoral societies. Some researchers insist that pastoral societies have been inundated with escalating levels of violence. This violence is associated with young men who have new types of firearms that are more sophisticated and deadly than traditional weapons and that destroy social order. However, most of the analysis in these studies is subjective in that it narrowly attempts to understand this region in a techno-deterministic way. This study clarifies that the Daasanach and neighbouring groups in the border regions of Ethiopia, Kenya and the Sudan have actually controlled the extensive use of violence and maintained local order, even with the proliferation of automatic rifles, and without government assistance.

Keywords: inter-ethnic relation, violence, balance of power, disarmament, East African pastoral societies


The purpose of this article is to show how pastoral peoples in East Africa have maintained local order, even after the proliferation of automatic rifles, while living under governments that do not have the capacity or will to protect their citizens.

In East African pastoral societies, low-intensity conflicts have occurred intermittently for many years. A widely held belief is that the proliferation of automatic rifles, such as the AK47 and G3, has increased serious conflicts during the last thirty years. Since the end of the 1970s, when several political upheavals at the national level occurred in East Africa, automatic rifles have become readily available to local citizens, particularly the pastoral people in the border region (Mkutu 2008). Reports indicate that an estimated five million small arms are circulating in East Africa and that many of them are illegally used by pastoralists (Simonse 2005: 244). (1)

Some researchers insist that pastoral societies are inundated with 'naked' violence perpetrated by radical youth and young adults with new firearms. The expression 'naked violence' refers to physical violence exercised without any social regulations. For example, Abbink (2000a; 2001) has pointed out that among the Suri of southwestern Ethiopia, where automatic rifles were introduced around 1987, the traditional authority of the elders has been replaced by that of young men and the rules on the battlefield, which traditionally regulated the intensity of violence, have now declined under the lead of aggressive youth. He describes this change thus: 'The new technology of violence itself transformed ritual violence into real violence due to the decline of the role of what Robin Fox has called "circuit breakers"' (Abbink 2001: 137). 'Circuit breakers' are social norms that control the appearance of real violence or 'naked' violence in social life. According to Abbink, 'the new technology of violence itself', which means the destructive power of automatic rifles, has destroyed these social norms and 'naked' violence has become widespread.

Research on northwestern Kenyan and northeastern Ugandan pastoralists agrees with this analysis. According to Gray et al. (2003), traditional livestock raiding was a suitable adaptive strategy in an uncertain environment in semiarid areas, and contributed to maintaining community identity amongst the Karimojong of Uganda. After the proliferation of the AK-47s, the intensity of violent conflicts in and among the Karimojong and neighbouring communities escalated. 'AK-47 raidings' have become so destructive that the viability of pastoralism as a sustainable subsistence system is disappearing. (2)

On the other hand, several researchers disagree with the position that the proliferation of automatic rifles has brought an 'end-of-pastoralism' scenario. (3) In contrast to Gray et al. (2003), Knighton (2003: 435-36) points out that the relationship between the Karimojong and neighbouring communities has had a long history of conflict escalation and relative peace for many years. …