Academic journal article Africa

Violence and the Crisis of Conciliation: Suri, Dizi and the State in South-West Ethiopia

Academic journal article Africa

Violence and the Crisis of Conciliation: Suri, Dizi and the State in South-West Ethiopia

Article excerpt


This article examines the social and political background of escalating violence between ethnic groups in south-western Ethiopia who until recently had customary and ritually sanctioned ways of resolving conflict. It highlights the impact of the emerging state hegemony in a local setting on ethnic groups not yet involved in the global political economy. The account also indicates the changing arenas of `ethnic' self-definition and economic opportunity for local groups in post-1991 Ethiopia. As the report of a big reconciliation meeting held between the government and the groups involved (and discussed here) makes clear, in the efforts of state agents to mediate emerging conflicts in conditions of increasing resource scarcity and identity struggle, the use of customary mediation mechanisms and their cultural symbolism was rhetorically recognised. But at the same time efficient mediation was structurally impeded by the very nature of the exercise of authority by the agents of the state and by their incapacity to implement practical measures to establish `local peace. This failure to reconstitute a new political arena of conflict resolution was matched by the inability of the (representatives of the) ethnic groups concerned to redefine their relationship in a constructive and culturally acceptable manner.

In recent years, anthropological studies of violence have increasingly addressed the cultural and symbolic variables that come into play in inter-group conflict and patterns of interpersonal aggression, thus adding to a well established tradition of studies shaped by conflict analysis, cultural ecology, and political economy. Some studies showing such a new cultural perspective on violence are Harrison (1993), Linger (1993), Hutchinson (1996), Heald (1999) and Donham (1999). While anthropology has thus contributed much to the understanding of contemporary violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon, the comparative study and explanation of the subject need to be developed further on the basis of more detailed empirical examples (Krohn-Hansen, 1994: 367).

The setting of this article is south--western Ethiopia (bordering Sudan and Kenya), and also in the study of this complex region much debate was generated around issues of culture and violence, recently fuelled by the great political upheaval in the area. Some major contributions to this debate are Tornay (1994, 1998) on the Nyangatom, Kurimoto (1994, 1997) on the Anyuak and the southern Sudan, and Turton (1993, 1994, 1997) on the Mursi. Their work has shown the importance of ethnography in dealing with the larger questions of ethnicity, power, conflict and cultural confrontation in this part of the world.

Referring to this wider discussion, and aiming to develop a more comparative view of the Ethiopian south-west, I here discuss a case from two small-scale societies in Ethiopia. This will allow us to address a local problem that has ramifications throughout North and East Africa: the escalation of violent acts in volatile socio-political conditions and the concomitant rapid decrease in the force of ritual mediation mechanisms. This problem perhaps indicates not only some fundamental changes in the wider socio-political order but also the changing status of transmitted cultural traditions and patterns of group relations. This is an issue to which I return toward the end of the article and which calls for a discussion of what ritual does, and in what conditions its appeal, or loss of it, is produced. Ritual I define here as a symbolic structuring of interaction in a staged and `scripted' manner, aimed at establishing a kind of authoritative meaningful order among, or mediation between, people. Ritual thus has cognitive, social and political aspects.

South-western Ethiopia (and adjacent south-eastern Sudan) is peopled by several ethno-cultural groups (ranging in population variously from 25,000 to 65,000) and is a politically marginal area. …

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