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Is Pastoralism Under Threat in Nigeria’s Borderlands?

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Abdullahi Umar Eggi grew up in a nomadic family in Taraba State, Nigeria, and has undertaken extensive research to understand how and why pastoralism is changing in the region. He’s currently carrying out research on cross-border pastoralism, environmental change, peace and conflict along the borders of Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger as part of Conciliation Resources’ XCEPT research. Here, he tells us about his upbringing, and what he’s learning from his latest research.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you began working in research?

I grew up in a Fulani nomadic family in Karim Lamido, part of Taraba State in northeastern Nigeria. I also spent time in Cameroon during my childhood, as my mother is Cameroonian. Growing up, I would migrate around north-eastern Nigeria and into Cameroon with my family in search of greener pasture for our livestock. This is called ‘transhumance’. It is a central part of our community life and identity; yet it also allowed me to gain a good understanding of the region’s topography as well as its many communities, including communities that weren’t from the Fulani tribe. The region is a patchwork of different tribes – there are around 200 in Taraba and Adamawa States alone.

I attended a nomadic school during my early years. Some of the nomadic schools were permanent structures while others were teaching under the shade of trees. The teachers were normally from the villages near our dry season and rainy season camps. For some weeks, during seasonal transhumance with our animals, there would be no school, but when we reached our destination, the children would proceed with their education in the nomadic school in the new location. These schools were well-resourced when I was young, but sadly pastoralist children nowadays struggle to get a decent primary education.

I met Adam Higazi, the lead researcher on the Promoting peaceful pastoralism project, during my time at University in Jos. We’ve been working togetherfor over 10 years now, exploring different facets of pastoralism across the whole region.

Your XCEPT work explores how pastoralism and conflict interacts along Nigeria’s borders with Niger and Cameroon. What do you think is the perception versus the reality of the relationship between pastoralist communities and conflict?

There is a general misperception in Nigeria of the relationship between pastoralism and issues such as criminality. We realised from our fieldwork that a lot of Nigerian media has a superficial understanding of what is happening on the ground; it’s widely reported that pastoralists from outside Nigeria – from Niger, Chad and Cameroon – are arriving in Nigeria and causing trouble. Our research to date hasn’t shown that to be the case. In Jigawa and Kano, some of the border communities we visited were not Fulani but actually Hausa and Kanuri – tribes seen to be less inclined to be friendly to pastoralists – but they reported to us that the cross-border herders were peaceful. In our study area in the central axis of northern Nigeria (Jigawa, Bauchi, Gombe), we found peaceful cooperation between pastoralists moving south from Niger during the dry season and their host communities.

At the same time, we can’t deny that there are pastoralists who are involved in violence and criminality in northern Nigeria. In Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto States, towards Nigeria’s northwest, there are serious problems related to banditry. In these areas, many of those undertaking violence are Fulanis recruited into criminal gangs. But some of their biggest victims are Fulani pastoralists themselves; in these areas, pastoralists are routinely attacked and their livestock stolen. This creates the bandits of the future; when young pastoralist men lose their cattle they lose their livelihoods, and it makes them vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs.

This partly explains why banditry has rapidly escalated in Nigeria’s northwest, but it is not the whole story. Negligent governance has meant grazing reserves and cattle routes have not been maintained, and ‘land grabbing’ of common land has increasingly been allowed to happen. Despite the peaceful situation in our XCEPT study areas to date, we recorded these kinds of governance failings starting to play out, and worry that it will lead to increased cattle rustling and banditry in previously peaceful areas. Just this morning, my brothers informed me that some of our family’s cattle was stolen in Taraba State, and the gang kidnapped six of the herders. So it’s already starting to happen.

Despite the fact that it’s a very small minority of Fulani involved in criminality, non-Fulani Nigerians have lost trust in the Fulani. But there’s a real lack of understanding of what is going on in northern rural areas, and there are no effective government policies or interventions which separate out the criminal elements amongst the Fulani from the majority that are peaceful. So if things keep going the way they are, mistrust of pastoralists will grow even further.

Your most recent XCEPT research took place along the Nigeria-Cameroon border in Adamawa State, Nigeria. What are some of the things that have most struck you from that fieldwork?

What we observed from the research in Adamawa – as well as the XCEPT research we did in early 2022 in Bauchi, Gombe and Jigawa states – is the pressures of the massive population increases that are occurring in the north of the country. Farmers need more land to meet demand, whilst pastoralist communities continue growing and need land for grazing; so there’s a clash of interest between these two communities. On top of this, land grabbing further reduces land availability.

Environmental protection has also suffered. Traditionally, there was a culture of respect towards nature. Now large-scale farming clears forests and woodland to make way for cultivation, which has degraded the grasses and trees needed for grazing, and increased desertification. All of this means a large number of pastoralists are leaving Nigeria to go to Cameroon because the conditions in Nigeria are no longer conducive for their livelihood. Future fieldwork in Cameroon will help us understand the consequences of this.

There’s been a great deal of focus in northeast Nigeria on the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency. What impact has this had on pastoralism in the region, and on the migration you mentioned?

Our previous research in Yobe and Borno states in Nigeria looked at these issues. We found that the Shekau faction of Boko Haram has been extremely predatory towards pastoralist communities in their areas of operation: attacking camps, rustling cattle, kidnapping and killing people. Even last year, my uncle was a direct victim of Shekau – his cattle were stolen and the herder he had hired to rear the animals was killed. Boko Haram attacks resulted in large-scale displacements of pastoralists southwards into Adamawa and Taraba, but also across to Cameroon and as far as Central African Republic. But recently the Shekau faction has been greatly weakened as a result of internal splits and military pressure, so we’re seeing pastoralists return – to a certain extent – to areas that would have been no-go a few years back.

ISWAP, which operates near Lake Chad, is largely tolerant of pastoralist communities, so long as they pay their zakat (tax) to the group. Our XCEPT research will take us to Maiduguri in Borno State to gain an updated understanding of the ongoing insurgency and its impact on pastoralist movement.

Finally, can research like that you’re doing for XCEPT help to bring about positive change in your region?

I think this kind of research can be really helpful. What we realise is that most of the information that people base their opinions and actions on in northern Nigeria isn’t based on what is happening at the grassroots. This has hardened attitudes towards pastoralists and Fulani people, and made it harder for those trying to take action to be effective.

We’ve seen examples of peacebuilding initiatives which show promise, but often the people leading them don’t grasp the local realities of pastoralism. In the next three or four years, pastoralism may become impossible.

Politically, pastoralists suffer from a lack of genuine representation. In effect, there are two levels of Fulani: the ‘town’ Fulanis, who have political influence, and those who are rural, largely nomadic, pastoralists. At the state and federal levels, Fulanis are actually quite well represented, but crucially these people aren’t pastoralists, and there’s a wide gap between them and rural pastoral communities. A lack of education for pastoralists reinforces this, with very few managing to get into positions of influence.

So this research is building a base of knowledge which can assist those who really want to create better responses to the challenges in these regions. We’re gaining access to local-level perspectives which need to be shared with people at the state, federal and international level, but also locally, to help to build confidence and dialogue within communities so that their livelihoods can be protected and they can co-exist more peacefully.

Top photo: Pastoralists at home on Jereende Pampo, a small island on the River Benue, Yola North LGA, Adamawa State, Nigeria. Recently arrived migrant farmers are trying to take over the island for cultivation, reducing the space for grazing there. Conciliation Resources/XCEPT researcher Abdullahi Umar Eggi is furthest to the right.

“We Cook Just Once a Week”: Conflict and Its Costs Along Africa’s Trade Routes

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In 2022, populations across the world have reeled from a global cost of living crisis. Children in low and middle income countries are going to bed hungry, while for some families, drops in income will wipe out the equivalent of household healthcare budgets. By some estimates, 71 million people could fall into poverty.

African populations have borne some of the greatest hardships of crises taking place both near and far. While attention has rightly been on war between Russia and Ukraine, local and regional conflict has long undermined economic development across almost a third of the African continent. Local and regional conflict compounds (and is sometimes caused by) other supply constraints rooted in climate change and poor infrastructure, particularly in the agricultural sector.

This matters because struggles to eat, go to work, and save for the future threaten political stability and could create further violent conflict, which would accelerate economic decline. In Europe, fuel price hikes have already stoked social unrest. While some governments are spending big to protect citizens through tax reductions, wage increases, and price subsidies, others will have few tools at their disposal. Instead, their populations will be forced to adapt, changing patterns of work, consumption, and trade.

Research for XCEPT by Emani sought to understand this at a local level. In March and April 2022, in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we spoke to over 3,000 people across 11 locations in Ethiopia, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan (Figure 1) – all of which import wheat from Russia or Ukraine.

The research zoomed in on the local effects of this conflict and the unique ways in which these effects interact with local dynamics. It compared the current situation with local challenges over the last decade, wider patterns of economic marginalisation, and the agency of residents – how are they coping with these challenges? What are the local effects of government policies? And what are the wider implications for stability in the region?

Here are five of our key takeaways.

Figure 1. XCEPT / Emani research sites

1. Food and fuel prices have climbed fast

We asked survey respondents to tell us how much they were paying for staple foods ‘now’ (April 2022). Then we asked them to compare current prices with their experiences of spikes in price since 2010. Consumers were suffering particularly where imported products were popular. For example, Algerian milk was being sold in Agadez for nearly five times more in 2022 than 2010. A 25kg bag of rice cost 62% more in Agadez compared with 2011, and a ‘rubber’ (4kg bag) of rice in Oredo (Nigeria) cost 69% more. Some of the increases, however, were recent and sudden. In Sebha and Zawiya (Libya), flour was up 22% and 33% respectively in April compared to the beginning of 2022.

In some places, we asked about motor fuel too. Fuel prices in locations in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Niger were at their 12-year peak at the time of data collection (Figure 2).

2. Conflict, COVID-19, and currency values drove price fluctuations

Conflict is one of the main drivers of fuel prices in Libya. Libyans usually enjoy relatively cheap, subsidised fuel at around $0.03 per litre. As a result, when subsidised fuel becomes scarce, the rates set by the market are much higher than elsewhere. For example, for the three years after the outbreak of the Libyan civil war in 2014, the average fuel prices in Zawiya and Kufra skyrocketed to $0.79, 26 times the typical price.      

Figure 2. Average (median) reported $ price of motor fuel per litre in 2022 versus price at peak.

In the areas we studied, the real, on-the-ground issue that shaped trade – and, by extension, prices – was the ability to move goods. Insecurity in Libya made driving goods down from the northern ports to Sebha (and onwards to Agadez) more expensive, with drivers asking higher fees and militia groups demanding unofficial taxes.

The availability of space for goods in southward-moving vehicles may also have been affected by policies designed to disrupt organised crime. A clamp-down on the smuggling of migrants from Agadez (Niger) through Sebha (Libya) reduced the number of vehicles travelling north with passengers and, correspondingly, the number of vehicles returning south with space to carry goods. Interviewees told us that this made it more expensive to move goods from Libya to Niger.

The unpredictable security environment had similar effects in Ethiopia and Sudan. The outbreak of the conflict in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, in late 2020 led to closures along the border. Towns on either side of the border, such as Gallabat in Sudan and Metema in Ethiopia, were cut off from one another. These towns had previously benefitted from joint trading agreements allowing for free cross-border movement during market days. The impact has been an increase in cross-border smuggling and in the cost of basic goods. For example, residents of Mai Kadra, on the Ethiopian side of the border, noted the price of vegetables and cereals rising as a result of supply shortages caused by blockades at Sudanese border crossings.

Onions per kilo [have gone] from 5 birr to 40 birr, tomatoes per kilo [have gone] from 4 birr to 40 birr… The main reason for this is the war and the resulting blockade of trade through the border crossings at Lugdi, Hamdayit and Medebay [district] … and the general national level shortage of supplies.

Interviewee in Mai Kadra

[Since] the blockage of the border some of the [businesses] are not performing well and some of the labourers are [laid-off] … There is very [little] merchandise imported from the border.

Survey respondent, Metema

In addition to conflict, a second key factor driving price fluctuations was the cost of foreign currency and reliance on – or desire for – imported goods, including basic food items such as pasta, flour and rice. For example, the COVID-induced closure of the Niger-Algeria border strongly impacted the price of pasta – widely consumed in Agadez and almost exclusively imported from Algeria.

With the exception of the pegged and stable West African Franc, people told us that wild variations in the value of the Naira, Libyan Dinar, Sudanese Pound, and Ethiopian Birr severely hampered their ability to pay for foreign goods. Other reasons were poor infrastructure, mismanagement of public resources and funds (Kufra), interruption in fuel subsidies (Sudan), and a ban on imported goods (Nigeria).

The closure of the Algerian border had a significant impact, especially on the price of wheat flour.

Representative of local government business centre, Agadez

3. Self-reliance offers some protection against price spikes

Monthly incomes vary considerably across the locations we studied (Figure 3). Yet the pain consumers are feeling does not necessarily correspond to their purchasing power. In rural Edo State (Nigeria), where the average income is only $46 per month, respondents were much less likely to notice spikes in food prices than in other areas we studied. Almost all Nigerians purchase at least some of their food, but those who rely on subsistence farming seem to be somewhat protected from market volatility.

Economic hardship may be driving deeper change in social and economic relations at the micro level. We found that residents of Oredo in Benin City (Edo State, Nigeria) were increasingly spending weekends in their ancestral villages to grow the vegetables they could no longer afford to buy on the market. This is despite the average income in peri-urban Oredo being nearly six times that of rural Igueben, a couple of hours drive away.

The only way I cope is visiting my home town to cultivate some of our own food and survive through that means.

Male, 25, in Oredo, Nigeria

Conversely, dependence on more expensive imported foods left some vulnerable to increases in price. For many, consumption of imported rice is a show of status – such that even local rice is sometimes packaged as having come from abroad in order to attract a premium. Nigeria’s ban on the import of most rice from abroad plus the more recent devastation of rice paddies in floods will drive prices up. Many households will feel noticeably poorer and have to change what they consume. At worst, they may struggle to put food on the table.

Figure 3. Average monthly incomes of survey respondents

4. People are coping, some better than others

The situation appears most desperate in Kufra (Libya), where many respondents had stopped cooking hot meals to save on cooking gas – and some had reduced the number of meals they eat to save money on food, while taking on debt to make ends meet. Respondents in Sebha (Libya) were eating less meat and baking more at home. Across our Libya research sites, respondents reported switching to low-cost food brands. Facebook groups were important in helping residents to find good deals.

In Gedaref (Sudan), farmers were switching from sorghum, millet and wheat to more profitable cotton and maize production. This will decrease domestic food production and potentially exacerbate food insecurity in the region. People in Ethiopia, Niger and Nigeria described substituting cooking gas for wood, even though many were aware of the damage this could do to the environment – from deforestation in Edo State (Nigeria) and in Tigray (Ethiopia) to desertification in Agadez (Niger).

We are dependent on the electricity supply when there is no gas [and when it’s not available] we can sometimes cook just once per week.

Interviewee in Sebha, Libya

Sometimes we have to use wood to prepare food, and I walk long distances because of the lack of time to get gas for the car.

Interviewee in Kufra, Libya

5. Crime thrives in the absence of the state

In most locations, the state regulated and often subsidised the sale of both staple foods and fuel. In Kufra (Libya), with the lowest average income of the three areas studied in Libya, most respondents were receiving subsidies for food (82%) and medicine (76%). Government support was otherwise quite limited in scale and reach. Participants in Edo (Nigeria) mostly said support was negligible. The same was true for Gedaref and North Darfur (Sudan). Respondents in Mai Kadra (Ethiopia) said that government support had collapsed following the outbreak of conflict in 2020.

When the state cannot provide, people turn to other means and methods, which can further undermine the government’s ability to maintain the rule of law. Research participants in Metema (Ethiopia) told us about the importance of smuggling to bolster incomes. In Libya, subsidised goods were being appropriated by criminal groups and sold at high prices. In Sudan, the gap in officially sanctioned financial services is filled by unofficial money lenders and remitters. 

Most local people have livelihoods strongly linked with contraband and smuggling … the smuggling is the source of non-food items such as soap, cloths, and related [goods].

Focus group participant, Metema, Ethiopia

Cooking gas is officially 5 dinars and is sold in the black market for 35-90 Dinar ($7.42 – $19.09).

Interviewee in Sebha, Libya

Peace through economic wellbeing

Even if the geopolitical and public health issues that have throttled food and fuel supply chains are resolved soon, people will continue to struggle. Among other repercussions, the scarcity of affordable goods on formal markets will drive the growth in informal trade, which will undermine state revenues and so the capacity of governments to provide services, in turn leading to a lack of public faith in the government. Declining tax revenues, popular discontent, and illicit financial flows are a potent mix in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Libya, where state authority is often already in question.

It’s not the first time that the countries we were researching – and others in Africa – have faced being locked into a vicious cycle of conflict and constrained economic growth. Economic growth rates are as much as 2.5 percentage points lower in countries affected by conflict, and the longer the conflict lasts the more those countries fall behind. And just as conflict constrains growth, prosperity can boost peace.

Yet as others have pointed out before, responses to conflict on the continent tend to focus on security, with the licit economy often collateral to measures aiming to disrupt illegal trade and armed groups. Instead, prioritising the licit flow of goods in critical cross-border towns and provinces can improve wellbeing, a sense of local stability, and weaken incentives towards potentially destabilising activities, from appropriation and smuggling of subsidised goods, to the more nefarious trade in drugs and arms.

Neuroscientists, Geneticists and Cultural Theorists Bring New Tools and Perspectives to Conflict Studies

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More than thirty years after some scholars wondered if the end of the Cold War might herald the end of war as we know it, humanity is fighting at least 27 armed conflicts, more than at any time since the Second World War.

Two billion people, one out of every four humans on Earth, live in a conflict zone. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 drove the number of people displaced by fighting to over 100 million: the most since the United Nations began keeping records.

With violence worldwide worsening for a decade, the UK aid-funded Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme has gathered a team of King’s College London (KCL) researchers from a diverse array of disciplines not often associated with war studies. The idea is to employ new tools, techniques and perspectives to answer some of the most complex questions surrounding the roots of human conflict, including: Why does one person turn to violence in response to a traumatic event and another to peace?

The study of armed conflict is as old as war itself, but the team at KCL are hoping to bring a new point of view to the field. While much of the scholarship has tended to view problems from a single perspective – with an economist investigating the financial interests of two warring nations, for example, or a political scientist exploring how cultural divisions and disenfranchisement lead to violence – the KCL team includes experts in such varied fields as epigenetics (the study of how behaviour and environment influence genetic expression), gender, memory, neuroscience, and trauma.

Researchers are employing techniques ranging from brain scans to storytelling to try and tell a fuller story of the causes of violent and peaceful behaviour, and perhaps even to begin triangulating a person’s life experience and very biology with their beliefs and actions.

What Brain Science Teaches Us About Radicalisation

Neuroscientist Nafees Hamid wanted to know how, precisely, did the chatty young man in skinny jeans and trainers come to be so taken with violent extremism? And just as importantly, might it be possible to change his mind?

Hamid rolled the 20-year-old into an MRI machine in Barcelona recently, as part of the first study to use brain scans in attempting to answer such questions. The good-natured would-be jihadist, who spoke repeatedly of his desire to travel to Syria and die for his cause, answered questions and played a video game as Hamid and his colleagues studied his brain activity. Searching for the neurobiological underpinnings of his radicalisation, the researchers were focused especially on regions of the brain that perform cost-benefit analyses and process social pressures.

Hamid and his colleagues have now examined the brains of over 70 men living in Spain, all “devoted actors”, in the parlance of some social scientists, due to the strength of their convictions, in this case to Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. He is interested in the development of so-called “sacred values,” convictions so cherished people are willing to fight and die for them, and whether those values might be altered again, rendered “non-sacred”.

Results from the first two studies indicate that the distress of being excluded from a social group, long known amongst sociologists and criminologists as a powerful motivator, can solidify formerly “non-sacred values” into potentially more volatile “sacred” ones.

As with other groups, however, even the radicalised “devoted actors” tended to reduce their commitment to violence if they believed it left them out of step with their peers, perhaps suggesting community as a tool for moderating extreme beliefs.

How Narratives and Memories Can Drive, Resolve, and Avoid Conflict

While much of Hamid’s recent work has focused on people sympathetic to violent groups, many of his colleagues are working with victims of violence – sometimes of violence committed by those very same groups – including refugees in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. All places that have been at war for years.

Narrowly-focused research efforts risk overlooking what happens just beyond the parameters of a study. A project might investigate the desire for revenge amongst people wounded in conflict, for example, but neglect those whose trauma is psychological.

To try and fill some of the gaps between disciplines, therefore, XCEPT researchers are turning to the age-old tradition of storytelling, asking refugees, combatants, survivors, and prisoners to share their experiences in their own words.

In order to understand the ideological and psychological journey many terrorists take, researcher Rajan Basra has turned to an institution that’s been at the heart of countless political movements: prison.

From Marxism in Latin America during the 20th Century, to Loyalism and Republicanism in Ireland during The Troubles, to Islamic jihad in Iraq in the 2000s, ideologies of every sort have been shaped and spread by prisoners. Some then go on to plan, or carry out, insurgencies, revolutions, and terror attacks.

But if prisons have long served as centrepieces of propaganda, and recruiting stations for ideologues, they’ve also been a place where many extremists have had a change of heart. Basra is gathering stories from former inmates – people either accused or convicted of extremist and terror charges in Lebanon – to learn more about how they chose their paths. He hopes his work will offer everyone from peacekeepers to policymakers a more complete picture of how people come to choose violence or peace, as well as practical strategies for breaking cycles of violence.

Tracing Conflict’s and Peacebuilding’s Impact on People Over Time

The evolution of war over the past century, from primarily conflicts between nation states, to civil wars, insurgencies, terror attacks, and other non-state violence, is the primary reason that, even today, casualty rates are a fraction of what they were during the wars of the early 20th century. Those same developments, however, have meant that contemporary wars often involve more parties with more competing claims, and tend to last longer.

Between them, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria are home to hundreds of thousands of combatants, and millions more people traumatised by fighting and displacement. This is why XCEPT’s KCL researchers have chosen the three countries for one of their most ambitious projects: the Impact of Trauma Survey.

The Impact of Trauma Survey is designed to examine relationships between violence, trauma, mental health, and social cohesion: a little-studied nexus that researchers hope will reveal clues about how the effects of war often lead to further violence. Researchers will employ surveys across the conflict zones, and then speak again with participants after they have received counselling and other mental health interventions. The aim of the project is to study how therapy, as well as changes on the ground — renewed fighting, for example, or an extended period of peace — can influence such things as a desire for revenge or reconciliation. The team at KCL hope to use this research as a base from which to propose psychosocial interventions which could help to reduce violence and promote peace.

New insights from a new approach

The KCL team has begun publishing its new research on the XCEPT website, and, along with the programme’s other partners, laying out its vision for an interdisciplinary future in conflict studies that includes new kinds of scholarship from a broader variety of fields.

In an effort to probe several under-explored topics in conflict research, XCEPT plans in the coming years to meld the KCL team’s work with a variety of analyses, as well as with new research that other programme partners are conducting now – topics that include the dynamics of cross-border conflicts and how they impact people living in borderlands.

If the ultimate goal of conflict studies is to end armed conflict, the past decade has made it clear once more that there is work to be done. The researchers at XCEPT and KCL are hoping new approaches might lead to a greater understanding of how people come to choose violence or peace.

The most recent work of the King’s College London team of XCEPT researchers can be found here:

Amid Commerce and Conflict, Some Border Towns Endure

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Over decades of conflict and instability, the border town of Torkham, one of the main crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan, has found a way to endure and to profit. Even as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in August of last year, seizing major roads and border crossings on their way to Kabul, Torkham was closed to traffic for just hours. Despite the chaos in Afghanistan, state agencies and chambers of commerce in both countries worked together to ensure that cross-border trade through this vital gateway would continue.

Conflicts in border areas are prevalent across South and Southeast Asia, and they are some of the most challenging environments to navigate, owing to both their remoteness from the centers of national political power and the clash of local, national, and regional interests. Borders are where the competing interests of neighboring states collide, but they remain highly dependent on the cooperative flow of trade and the movement of people, creating inevitable tensions.

How these tensions can descend into violent conflict, and the durability of border towns like Torkham, are the focus of, Border Towns, Markets, and Conflict, a new report from the XCEPT programme. The report examines the unique dynamics at work in six border towns within some of the most intractable conflicts in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. While these regional conflicts are notorious for their levels of violence and the suffering of the local populations, these border towns highlight the complexity of modern conflicts and the role that continuing cross-border trade can play in providing a modicum of stability.

The market town of Torkham stands astride the border on the main trade route from Islamabad to Kabul. (Data source: base map, OpenStreetMap; relief, Natural Earth. ©Mapgrafix 2022)

Borders are about control and security, but also about flows and movement, creating a paradox for governance of conflict-affected regions. Over the past five years, Pakistan has sought to stabilize its border with Afghanistan through a series of overlapping security and governance initiatives. Responding to high levels of militancy and the cross-border flow of weapons and contraband, it has pursued an aggressive counterterrorism strategy while also garrisoning border gates, expanding customs and immigration facilities, and fencing almost all of the 2,600km Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

At the same time, Islamabad has strengthened its rule over its border regions, folding the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and replacing customary practices with state-run governance and judicial systems. Altogether these efforts have shown some success in improving regional governance and security, but the instability that followed the Taliban’s takeover in August has contributed to an increase in violence in the past 12 months.

These dynamics are covered in detail by Azeema Cheema, director of research and strategy at Verso Consulting in Pakistan, in the opening chapter of the new report. While writing about the changing security and trade environment at Torkham, she also highlights the uneven and often negative effects on local communities of Pakistan’s efforts to secure and formalize trade along its border.

Despite simmering conflict, vital truck traffic continues at the Torkham gate (photo: Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson, U.S. Armed Forces / public domain).

In Pakistan and many other cases, national policies threaten local communities in volatile border areas. Expanded border infrastructure, the closing of border bazaars, and limitations on the free movement of laborers across the border damage local livelihoods, leading to clashes with the government and protests over compensation. Afghan communities that rely on cross-border mobility for job opportunities, healthcare, education, and family visits on the Pakistani side of the border have been hit particularly hard.

These effects add up to a set of enduring grievances with Islamabad, and feature in the narratives of militant groups who continue to resist the expansion of state control. The paradox, then, is that while Pakistan’s security efforts have sought to stabilize its border, in many areas they have produced the opposite outcome, and are leading in the longer term to an increased risk of instability and violence.

Similar trends are observable along the Myanmar-Thailand border in the town of Shwe Kokko, featured in the final chapter of the report, where a new commercial development consisting of a hotel and casino complex is being built in the jungle by the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), a local militia group that is a key ally of the Myanmar army. In an area that has experienced decades of conflict, a long-running, informal pact has allowed the army to extend its control over locally contested territory while offering the BGF nearly free rein on illicit economic activity, including gambling and smuggling.

While this arrangement benefits armed elites, author Naw Betty Han highlights the marginalization and violence experienced by local populations—a situation that has deteriorated since the military takeover in February 2021 with growing allegations of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. At the same time, the BGF has been at the frontlines of the new cycle of conflict, fighting alongside the Myanmar army against prodemocracy armed groups based in the border area.

Situations like those in Torkham and Shwe Kokko, where trade, conflict, and state intervention interact, can also be found in the report’s other four chapters, which cover Makha in Yemen; Sarmada, Syria; and Maiwut and the Northern Bahr el-Ghazal region in South Sudan. Together they point to the complexity of conflict-affected border regions and the perverse effects on local populations caught in the middle.

One highlight of the report is that it champions the voices of local populations: seven of the eight authors are nationals of the countries they write about, and all six case studies involve on-the-ground research and insights. Working with local researchers is a core component of the project, and the report emphasizes the importance of this approach for building a more complete understanding of the causes and consequences of conflict. Engaging local residents, who live in and intimately understand these conflict zones, is an essential strategy for achieving equitable development in conflict-affected border areas.

This podcast and article was originally published on The Asia Foundation’s website.

Storytelling, Memory and Momentum: Iraq’s Tishreen Movement

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While many observers claim that Iraq’s Tishreen protest movement has been coerced into silence, I believe it maintains mobilisation momentum beyond street demonstrations. This is because the movement roots itself in storytelling; as a result, its relived memories of mass protests continue to motivate a collective consciousness.

Storytelling as a Tool

Storytelling helps to transform lived experience into meaning through the recounting of narrative via verbal and/or physical enactment and its reception by an engaged listener or audience. Therefore, storytelling is inherently a sociocultural process where people engage with the narrated story. Specific to time and place, this process also produces discourses in which people come to understand themselves. This subjectivity is central to storytelling; voice is always present. Storytellers engage in reflexive narration while provoking reflexivity in their engaged audience. Through this process, we construct our identities, find purpose and reimagine the past. Storytelling is a means to relay personal and collective experiences and collective aspirations, and to work towards them. For it to be utilitarian, instructive and a catalyst for change, storytelling must be intimately connected with and directly accessible to audiences and tap into their emotions. During protest movements, which are cauldrons of emotion at the boil, storytelling is a powerful tool to rouse solidarity and challenge the status quo.

Against the backdrop of asymmetric power relations, storytelling both generates positive relationships within communities and intensifies social cleavages, perpetuating divisive rhetoric and systemic violence. By distinguishing between destructive and constructive storytelling, we can delineate narratives that provoke and warrant acts of resistance. According to Jessica Senehi, constructive storytelling “is inclusive and fosters collaborative power and mutual recognition; creates opportunities for openness, dialogue, and insight; a means to bring issues to consciousness; and a means of resistance”. In contrast, destructive storytelling is “associated with coercive power (‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’), exclusionary practices, a lack of mutual recognition, dishonesty, and a lack of awareness. It’s a form of storytelling which sustains mistrust and denial.” Destructive storytelling arises when people break between the ideal and real in the erasure and/or whitewashing of stories. Distinguishing between destructive and constructive storytelling recognises coercive power versus shared power, dehumanization versus mutual recognition, dishonesty and unawareness versus honesty and a critical consciousness, and resistance and agency versus passivity and hopelessness. Iraq’s Tishreen movement has been a site of such dynamics, where citizens with agency use storytelling as a tool of resistance.

Tishreen: The Story

In October 2019, Iraq’s Tishreen movement (October in Arabic is ‘Tishreen’) emerged as a spring of collective consciousness. In the most expansive protests in Iraq’s recent history, Iraqis demonstrated for their rights and self-agency, which have been denied for decades. Thousands of protesters filled public squares and blocked roads in several cities. They gathered in places such as Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and Nasiriyah’s Habbouby Square where monuments tell stories of the country’s rebellious past against colonialism. Joined by academics, professional unions and guilds, the protesters shared stories of collective fury towards a corrupt, undemocratic and that institutionalises ethno-sectarian discrimination under the guise of representation. Through chants, poetry, music and art, the protesters shared their stories of alienation from a system that also alienates them from each other through sectarian policies and violence. Recognising that unfair elections recycle the same political players, they proposed demands that included the resignation of government, a redrafting of electoral law, the repeal of elitist, exclusive policies, the dissolution of parliament and early elections. Bringing together people from varied ages and socioeconomic groups, protests gave Iraqis a newfound sense of unity and solidarity. Post-secondary students provided the backbone for the movement. Women were prominently involved. The most widespread slogans in Iraq and the diaspora were نازل_آخذ_حقّي (“I’m taking back my rights”) andنريد_وطن  (“We want a homeland”).

Feeling threatened, political parties and paramilitaries attempted to divide protesters by embedding armed undercover agents in protests who would kill security forces and/or protesters to incite violence. Besides live ammunition and rubber bullets, state forces fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters, killing many. Gruesome videos of dead protesters with tear gas grenades embedded in their skulls circulated on the Internet. Within months, riot police and paramilitary snipers killed over seven hundred protesters and injured over twenty-thousand, permanently handicapping dozens. Numbers have continued to rise since and, as of March 2021, some 1,035 protesters were reported killed and 26,300 injured. In the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Kurdish security forces killed at least six protesters and arrested 400 in December 2020. The government and paramilitaries weaponised enforced disappearances to weaken protesters, activists and journalists. An estimated 7,663 people have gone missing in the past three years. Besides physical violence, symbolic violence and hate speech have been common. State and non-state actors waged a psychological war involving sound-flash bombs to terrorise protesters and a social media war with character assassinations to silence them. Engaging in destructive storytelling, Iran-backed paramilitaries created Telegram channels and hashtag factories to attack activists and protesters, labelling them as “jokers” and falsely accusing them of being foreign agents. Vicious and persistent hate speech campaigns targeted Iraqi activists both online and offline, aiming to delegitimise them and the movement and to incite assassinations. Meanwhile, the government enforced Internet blackouts to silence protesters who grew more resourceful and persistent. Radios placed in public squares warned those participating in sit-ins of armed threats. Activists in the Kurdish Region unaffected by the blackout worked to fill the information gap and reported human rights violations. Despite and because of the consistent attempts to silence them, Iraqis want to be heard and seen.

The paramilitaries created a culture of fear. Coupled with the impact of  the coronavirus pandemic, the protest movement was forced to a halt, with many observers claiming the Tishreen movement was crushed. However, the movement remains alive in the collective consciousness of Iraqis and through other forms of .

Memory & Continued Mobilisation

Realising the lengths to which the government and paramilitaries will go to promote fear and silence protesters’ narratives, activists see the power of their storytelling. As Iraqis in the country and in the diaspora continue to discuss online their memories from the protests’ early days, these stories help to maintain the movement’s momentum. Social media outlets emerging from the movement have kept the protest alive through commemorations of important dates, events and persons. In particular, fallen protesters are celebrated on the anniversaries of their murders and massacres at Nasiriyah’s Zeitoun BridgeBaghdad’s Sinak Square and Najaf’s Sadrain Square are commemorated. With the revisiting of these stories, calls for accountability continue and several campaigns have emerged. With hashtags and slogans asking #من_قتلني؟ (“Who killed me?”), Iraqis demand transparent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for assassinations. #End_Impunity is a hashtag that has developed into an organisation that launches targeted campaigns against corrupt officials and members of security forces responsible for violence against civilians. Online awareness campaigns challenge unjust draft laws, such as the Combatting Cybercrimes BillThe Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Demonstrations Bill and dangerous proposed amendments to the Personal Status Law. انقذوا_الأيزيديات_المختطفات# (“Save Kidnapped Yazidi Women”) connects the cause to the wider Tishreen movement and blames state institutions for failing to respond to Islamic State’s attempted genocide and the sexual slavery of Yazidi women. Activists recognise the direct connection between memory, storytelling and activism to keep the movement alive in public consciousness. This is notable in the explosion of the Iraq arts sceneMurals at Tahrir Square and elsewhere remind the public not only of mass political protests but also of the potential for further grassroots mobilisation and self-expression.


Storytelling in Iraq’s Tishreen movement reminds us that memory, both an outcome and part of storytelling, is an indirect expansion of power. It helps to reclaim identities, histories and resistance movements. Owning the narrative around the protests has maintained the Tishreen movement’s momentum through other forms of other grassroots mobilisation. State institutions and paramilitaries’ attempts to erase collective memory will fail, as resilient and determined youth now believe in the power of public pressure and taunt them with defiance: إنت منو؟ (“who are you?”).

This article was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation’s website.

Saudi Arabia’s Split-Image Approach to Salafism

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The modernization policies in Saudi Arabia supervised by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have brought about a number of transformations in the structure of state institutions and Saudi society. One of the foremost domains in which change has been visible is religion. It is common to hear that the kingdom’s political-religious system was built on an alliance between the ruling Al Saud family and Wahhabi Salafism. However, Prince Mohammed appears to be moving away from this approach, as he seeks to mobilize the youth by reducing the religious and social constraints imposed as a result of that alliance.

These transformations raise an important question about Saudi ties with Salafism, a branch of Sunni groups that defines Islam as anything the prophet Muhammad said or did and that was upheld by his first three generations of his followers, which Saudi Arabia helped to spread over recent decades. Support for Salafism was one of the instruments of soft power that the kingdom used to expand its influence in Muslim societies. One place where this happened is Yemen. In 1982, Muqbil al-Wadi’i, a Salafi scholar who had been residing in Saudi Arabia, established Dar al-Hadith in the northern governorate of Saada. This is seen as the starting point for the Salafi movement in the country. By backing Wadi’i, the Saudis sought a counterweight to the Zaydi Shia community in Saada, leading members of which supported Iran’s revolution of 1979.

Saudi Arabia benefited from the Salafi expansion in Yemen. The Salafis’ discourse portrayed Saudi Arabia as the primary protector of Islam, and Salafi teachings were largely based on the ideas of Saudi Salafi scholars such as Abdel-Aziz bin Baz, Mohammed bin al-Uthaymeen, Mohammed bin Ibrahim Al al-Sheikh, and other figures. Subsequently, the religious divide in Yemen was driven by transnational ideas, with the Saudis influencing the Salafis and Iran influencing the Zaydis, a situation that later fueled the ongoing Yemeni civil war.  

Given their ideological differences with the Iran-backed Houthis, Salafi groups have become a significant force supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

While Salafism appears to be reducing in importance within the Saudi state, the kingdom has reinforced its alliance with Salafis in Yemen, even expanding cooperation in some areas as conflict rages on. Given their ideological differences with the Iran-backed Houthis, Salafi groups have become a significant force supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition. Several military brigades dominated by Salafis were able to alter the balance of power on vital military fronts. For example, the Salafi Giants Brigades, which are supported by both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spearheaded the operations to control Yemen’s western coastal areas in 2017 and 2018. They again made major gains in the more recent battle for Shabwa.

The changing relationship between the Saudi state and Salafis in Saudi Arabia has been accompanied by transformations in the Salafi environment in Yemen. Traditionally, Yemeni Salafis are divided into three categories: Salafi-jihadis; political Salafis, who have Salafi roots but follow the path of political Islamist movements by involving themselves in politics, such as Al Rashad Union Party and the Peace and Development Party; and traditional Salafis, which encompasses most Yemeni Salafis. While the traditional Salafi schools have historically abstained from engaging in politics, prioritizing obedience to the ruler (wali al-amr), this principle was shaken by the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2014. The Salafis woke up to the fact that the Zaydi Houthis, whom they opposed, had become the dominant military force in Yemen.

This change in the political context prompted many followers of traditional Salafism to reconsider their quietist principles, as they found themselves at the center of a war effort, leading armed groups. Alongside Mohammed bin Salman’s transformations in Saudi Arabia, this reconsideration led to a new relationship between the two Salafi communities—one centered on Saudi support for Salafis who were engaged in a political conflict, not simply spreading their religious doctrine.

Saudi Arabi has three fundamental motives for strengthening its ties with Yemeni Salafi groups. First, there is deep enmity between Salafis and the Houthis, whom Saudi Arabia is also fighting. The clash between the Salafis and Houthis is not only one over doctrine, but also has a military dimension. In 2014, the Houthis took over the Saada-based Dammaj Center, the first Salafi school in Yemen, and forced the Salafi community to leave the area. The sense of grievance among Salafis was revived when the Houthis expanded into other areas in which Salafis were present. When the Saudi-led coalition began its military operations in March 2015, the Salafis proved to be reliable partners in the coalition’s ground operations.

A second motive is that the Salafis have no specific political agenda. Their primary aim is to combat the Houthis, based on a religious rationale, particularly after the takeover of the Dammaj Center and the expulsion of Salafis from Saada. This gave the Salafis pride of place among other Yemeni groups that were fighting alongside the coalition, including the Islah Party and southern separatists, who have political agendas that conflict with those of the Saudi-led coalition.  

A third motive is to maintain Saudi religious influence in Yemen, which Salafi groups have helped to sustain in the past four decades, and to prevent Salafis from engaging in any compromises with the Houthis. To the Saudis, the agreements that some Salafi leaders signed with the Houthis in areas of northern Yemen in 2014 were alarming. These called for peaceful coexistence, an end to hostile rhetoric, and direct communications between the sides to deal with any issues. The kingdom is providing the Salafis with military and financial support, and at the same time is continuing to fund their religious centers. Although the Yemen conflict has impaired educational institutions in Yemen, Salafi schools continue to operate and are even expanding in several parts in the country, including Aden, Dhaleh, and Mahra.  

For the Salafis, having regional backers, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is important. Receiving financial support is only part of the reason. The Salafis also seek some sort of legitimacy in their fight against the Houthis, especially after concerns emerged about ties between the traditional Salafis and Al-Qaeda groups. Fighting under the Saudi-led coalition has helped to water down such apprehensions, not least because Salafis have joined the Yemeni government. Indeed, the eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, the executive body of the internationally recognized government, includes the Salafi leader Abu Zara’a al-Mahrami, who is also the leader of the Giants Brigades.

Considering the political and military context in Yemen, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Salafis there will remain strong, despite the religious changes inside the kingdom. While Saudi Arabia pursues its battle in Yemen, Salafis will remain their preferred partners and a key part of the kingdom’s network of influence in the country. The role of the Saudi-backed Salafi groups in Yemen has been shifting over the past years. While it was a soft power spread through religious teaching till last decade, Salafism today is becoming a part of Saudi hard power, transforming its students into fighters on the battlefield. This is not only the case in Yemen, but also in other areas such as Libya, where the Saudi-backed Madkhali Salafi groups witnessed similar transformation. The case of the Salafi groups underscores the complex evolution of cross-border exchange of religious ideas, with external powers able to grow influence amongst local communities.

In the Wake of the Military Coup, Sudan’s Rebel Groups Leverage Support for Political Power

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In October 2020, Sudan’s transitional government – a coalition of military and civilian politicians – signed the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) with several of the country’s armed rebel groups (collectively known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front). The peace agreement gave some leaders of these groups powerful positions in the transitional government or state administrations, thus providing them with a tangible stake in Sudan’s evolving political order following the fall of long-time president Omar al-Bashir. When the military launched a coup against the leadership of the civilian government in October 2021, some of the rebel leaders sided with the country’s generals, rather than its civilian leadership, many of whom had been their allies in opposing the previous regime. Why did a collection of long-time opponents to Sudan’s military-led dictatorship do this?

The Juba Peace Agreement gave some leaders of Sudan’s rebel groups powerful positions in the transitional government or state administrations, thus providing them with a tangible stake in Sudan’s evolving political order.

Borderland Rebels

Most of Sudan’s armed movements originated in the country’s peripheries, where wealth has been systematically drained through decades of exploitative and violent rule by an elite from the country’s metropolitan centre, enforced by a system of rural militias, armed and backed by the government. The main rebel groups originated in Darfur, Sudan’s expansive western region bordering Chad and Libya; and the borderlands between Sudan and South Sudan, specifically South Kordofan and Blue Nile states (known as the ‘Two Areas’).

In the latter years of the Bashir regime, the wars in Sudan’s peripheries had effectively ground to a standstill. Previously, the rebel groups in Darfur and the Two Areas had received significant support from neighbouring countries (mainly Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia), but this had dried up. While the remaining rebels were not a large threat to the government, they also couldn’t be completely defeated and these long-running conflicts stuttered on with little prospect of resolution while Bashir remained in power.

When Bashir was deposed by his generals in 2019 after months of mass civilian protests, the new government developed plans to end the conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries with one, overarching peace agreement that was split into several regional tracks. Drawing on earlier ‘pay-roll peace’ deals, notably the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s north-south civil war in 2005; and the Darfur Peace Agreement, which attempted the same in 2006, the Juba Peace Agreement was born.

Destabilising the Peripheries

While the designers of the peace agreement had ambitions to craft a national, all-inclusive arrangement that would solve all of Sudan’s festering conflicts in one go, the reality was somewhat different. The peace agreement has shifted the balance of power in various local contexts and, as a result, has at times fuelled more conflict. For example, in Darfur, after the fall of Bashir, the (mostly Arab) groups that had generally benefitted from his rule feared that they would lose out. Particularly in North Darfur, the peace agreement has contributed to an increase in violence as Arab, mostly cattle herding communities have sought to strengthen their positions to avoid losing out in any political reorganisation.

In the Two Areas, the Bashir regime’s collapse created a power vacuum. Before the former president’s fall, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, which had been fighting the government since 2011, had acrimoniously split into two factions (one in South Kordofan and the other in Blue Nile). While the South Kordofan group rejected the peace agreement, the (weaker) Blue Nile faction chose to sign, and its leadership sided with the military during the coup in October 2021. The peace deal further entrenched splits in the group and isolated the South Kordofan faction, which has shown no serious inclination of signing.

In Eastern Sudan, military leaders have played divide-and-rule with the different communities in the region. In the run-up to the coup, they looked to exploit communal differences by securing the allegiance of the dominant Beja community through promises to renegotiate parts of the peace agreement. As a strategically important region that hosts Sudan’s largest sea port, its political elites have significant leverage over the Khartoum government and have not been afraid to use it – for example, during the blockade imposed on Port Sudan in 2021, which further damaged Sudan’s struggling economy.

Rebel Realpolitik

The peace agreement has emboldened opportunistic rebel leaders from the peripheries who had been on the political back-foot for years to trade their support for positions of power in national and regional administrations. This has helped buttress the country’s military leaders, who have side-lined the civilian members of the transitional government and appear determined to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Sudan’s pro-democracy coalition, whose mass rallies and street protests were central to the removal of Bashir and his regime from power, expected that the returning rebel leaders would help tip the balance of power towards the civilian component of the transitional government, helping to off-set the creeping authority of Sudan’s military appointees. However, during the months that led up to the peace agreement, the Sudanese military successfully imposed itself on the process, signalling to the rebel leaders that it was in a better position to grant access to political power than the civilian members of the transitional government.

With the civilian administration unable to govern effectively, the economy in free-fall, and the military showing no desire to relinquish power, much of the rebel leadership took the practical political position of siding with the group most likely to help it assert its own interests. The political deal-making of rebel leaders in the wake of the coup reveals their calculations and objectives to safeguard their own positions within Sudan’s future governance arrangements. While some leaders share the pro-democracy agenda of the civilian government and the revolutionary movement that fuelled its rise, others are led by local political interests and may feel little connection to the urban-based revolutionaries. For many, the military appeared to be a more powerful partner in asserting, or protecting these interests, even if this is little more than a marriage of convenience.

Frontier Farming: Along the War-Torn Ethiopia-Sudan Border, Agriculture, Politics, and Conflict are Increasingly Entwined  

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The war in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region has reshaped agriculture across the borderlands of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea, and redrawn the relationship between farming, politics, and conflict. Sesame is a case in point. This is a crop that thrives in two regions affected by the Tigray conflict – Western Tigray and Al Fashaga in eastern Sudan. These areas have been contested for decades, and the continuing conflict in Tigray is simply the latest chapter in a long history of territorial transfer.

Figure 1: Sesame growing along the Sudan-Ethiopia border

Until November 2020, Tigray was a major player in global sesame production. This fertile region grew almost a third of Ethiopian sesame exports (a share worth around $350 million annually) – no mean feat, given Ethiopia is the world’s third-largest oilseed producer after India and Sudan, with sesame accounting for 30% of its oilseed production. Sesame is the second foreign currency earning crop after coffee in Ethiopia: most sesame grown here is intended for export.

Just across the border, in the contested region of Al Fashaga in eastern Sudan, Ethiopian farmers have grown sesame and other crops for decades. Until the onset of the Tigray conflict, farmers would send sesame back into Ethiopia for sale, swelling the agricultural products passing through Ethiopian markets. Their farms in eastern Sudan were protected by Ethiopian militia, effectively limiting the space for Sudanese farmers and, at times, intimidating local communities through frequent incidents of kidnapping and robbery. 

The outbreak of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020 changed everything. The expulsion of Tigrayans from Western Tigray by Amhara forces, and Sudan’s expulsion of Ethiopian farmers from Al Fashaga have reshaped sesame production and trade across the agricultural value chain – the range of processes involved in moving a crop from farm to consumer. Power and profits now lie in the hands of new players, and cash from this lucrative crop is likely being used to back factions in the conflict.

Farming on the frontline

Following the assault on the Tigray region by the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and soldiers from the neighbouring Amhara region, thousands of Tigrayan sesame farmers were killed, displaced, or fled; others joined the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). Farms were looted or destroyed at the height of the harvest season, further exacerbating food insecurity for Tigrayans.

Western Tigray – an area under the administration of the Tigray regional government until the start of the war in 2020 – was de facto annexed by the Amhara regional government. Control over sesame production and trade passed from Tigrayan smallholders and cooperatives to Amhara owners. Some Amhara investors have been granted two-year leases for prime agricultural land by the new administration. Amhara smallholder farmers, large investors and cooperatives in this enlarged Amhara region now account for 70% of Ethiopian sesame production.

In Al Fashaga, meanwhile, Sudan capitalised on the bloody conflict across its border to retake control of this highly fertile agricultural triangle on its eastern border. With Ethiopia distracted by the conflict in Tigray, Sudan moved its troops into Al Fashaga and expelled thousands of mainly Amhara farmers between November and December 2020.

The Sudanese Armed Forces themselves managed the harvest of crops planted in 2020 by Ethiopians in Al Fashaga, including sesame. These were then sold on the market in Gedaref in eastern Sudan. Profits flowed to Sudan’s military and, by extension, to the military leadership participating in Sudan’s power-sharing arrangement after the overthrow of President Omar al Bashir in 2019. Since 2020, Sudanese landholders have been encouraged to return to some areas of Al Fashaga under military protection.   

Follow the money

On the Ethiopian side of the border, Amhara capture of fertile land in contested Western Tigray is likely linked to funding for factions in the Tigray conflict, with profits propping up Ethiopia’s war machine and recalibrating the relationship between farming, politics, and conflict. The significance of sesame profits in funding conflict is hard to assess precisely – more research is vital here – but close links between agriculture and political and military interests demonstrate that these profits matter.

A handful of Amhara businesspeople who actively and openly support the Ethiopian government in its war with Tigray have been among new beneficiaries of the sesame market in Humera, an important sesame hub in the region. They are affiliated with the ruling Prosperity Party – some have even earned honorific military titles in recognition of their support in the war. Amhara politicians in senior government positions are also widely believed to be engaged in the sesame industry, linking party politics to agricultural profits gained through conflict.

This merging of political interests and agricultural profits reflects a well-established pattern in Ethiopia. During their decades in power, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)[1] dominated virtually all sectors of the Ethiopian economy through the companies under its massive conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) – by far the largest conglomerate in the country. Hiwot Agricultural Development, the buyer which dominated the pre-war sesame market around Humera, was part of EFFORT. 

Since the conflict began, EFFORT’s control of the market has been steadily dismantled, with the Amhara-owned Nigat Agro-processing taking its place as the new market hegemon. Like EFFORT, it is politically connected, but to the Amhara branch of the Prosperity Party.

The rise of illegal sesame trading

Another seismic shift in the sesame sector is a switch from licit to illicit trading. Prior to the conflict, most Tigrayan sesame was exported legally, which meant the federal government benefitted via customs and duties on exports.

Today, illegal sesame trading is surging, with sesame from Tigray winding its way to the markets of neighbouring Eritrea without passing through customs authorities. Illegal activity has corrupted the sesame value chain. Sesame profits from illegal trading grease the hands of those who provide security, finance, or permissions along the chain from production to market.

Those involved in illegal sesame production include members of the security services, top administrators, and businesspeople – mainly Amhara, as well as their political sympathisers. Security actors (including Amhara regional forces and the Fano youth movement and militia), political leaders, and smugglers all gain, and are unlikely to re-invest productively in the sesame sector.

The smuggling of cash crops in the region often goes hand in hand with arms smuggling, using the same routes and even the same trucks, with arms hidden underneath crops. There are multiple reports that arms have proliferated over the course of the Tigray conflict, largely smuggled through the forests between the Ethiopia-Sudan border. According to some reports, you can find two or three guns per household – sometimes formally registered in the name of children.

A volatile future

The future of sesame farming in Tigray and Al Fashaga looks increasingly uncertain. In Amhara-controlled Western Tigray, Amhara dominance over sesame production is linked to the rise of Amhara nationalism and could still become a flashpoint for conflict with the federal government. Members of the National Movement of Amhara, an Amhara political party with a nationalist agenda, have vested interests in the sesame sector and a political agenda to weaken federal institutions and replace them with Amhara-controlled institutions – such as the commodity exchange – bringing the region into direct conflict with the federal government.

Sesame outputs have fallen, and Tigrayan farming communities that have lost their land and livelihoods face a future of aid dependence and hunger: more than five million people are in need of assistance in Tigray. Western Tigray and Amhara security forces have continued to deny Tigrayans access to food aid and blocked access to international aid convoys through Amhara. The Amhara look set to continue to consolidate their hold on contested Western Tigray, having laid an administrative structure for the allocation of land to ethnic Amhara through leases which are likely to be coming up for renewal soon.

In Al Fashaga, it is unlikely that the Amhara will accept the loss of this fertile territory, which has been an important source of sesame for Ethiopian farmers operating across the border and employment for otherwise landless Amhara. Once time and resources allow, Amhara attention will likely turn to reclaiming land they consider rightly theirs. 

Sesame is not the only crop likely being used to sustain the war effort; other cash crops such as sorghum and cereals are likely playing a part. Writ large, the flow of income from agriculture into the war economy is draining much-needed resources from Ethiopia’s regional and federal governments. The government needs to raise foreign exchange – including through cash crops – to counter the downward spiral of the blighted Ethiopian economy. Further research into the illicit flows of money between cash crops and conflict would shed light on the intersection of agriculture and insecurity in conflict-affected borderlands, providing vital information for efforts to build peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Contact the XCEPT team at for further information on the topics covered in this article.

[1] The TPLF came to power in 1991, as the leader of the political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It lost to President Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party in 2018.

The Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis and Responses in Cox’s Bazar: Five Years On

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In August 2022 it will be five years since the start of one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, yet the political and security dynamics surrounding Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh remain unstable. Persecution and targeted attacks against this minority community by Myanmar’s military led to the forced displacement of over 730,000 refugees across the border into Bangladesh in 2017. Five years on, their lives continue to be marked by struggle. 

Bangladesh’s own history of war may have influenced its government’s openness to refugees, but growing uncertainty in a post-Covid world, anti-Rohingya sentiments amongst the population, security concerns, and pressure on resources are cited as reasons for a recent rise in restrictions on residents of the 34 refugee camps along the border. These restrictions relate to refugees’ uninterrupted access to education, employment, movement, and civic participation in their host country. Underdevelopment, poverty, crime, and trafficking in people and drugs affect both the Rohingya and the host communities adjacent to the camps. 

Despite vocal demands by Rohingya to be able to return to their home villages, organised repatriation attempts have been hindered by lack of political will in Myanmar. Today, global humanitarian aid is on the decline as the international community contends with the need to address competing crises. Refugees and local communities are angered by the limited efforts of global powers to compel Myanmar to accelerate Rohingya repatriation. Increased frustration amongst Bangladeshi authorities has translated into harsher policies and limited opportunities for the refugees. Amid pressure to uphold refugee rights, and the need to maintain safety and adequate infrastructure within the camps despite a persistent funding shortage, actors involved in the response face increasing challenges around sustainable solutions for Rohingya populations.

The Asia Foundation’s partner in Bangladesh, Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University, (CPJ) has worked to address emerging concerns amongst Rohingya and host communities, and analyse social differences and political dynamics through various research initiatives that aim to understand and elevate voices on the ground. This article summarises viewpoints of Rohingya refugees on their current predicament and outlook, compiled by CPJ researchers since 2018.

Camp governance and decision-making mechanisms have been criticised by human rights groups for being unclear, restrictive and ad-hoc. With an ever-shifting regulatory dynamic, limited direct access to policymakers, and a national refugee policy vacuum that allows lower-level officials to apply rules at their own discretion, the governance environment in Cox’s Bazar remains opaque, complex and exclusive of community voices. Humanitarian agencies focus on maintaining permission to work in the camps and are hesitant to intervene and probe officials about policies. It is unclear to communities how decisions about refugee policy are made within government and by whom, resulting in a power gap and lack of accountability toward stakeholders.

Who is making decisions and why are they unknown to our community?

a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh

Livelihood possibilities in the camps are extremely limited. Rohingya are restricted from moving from one camp to another and have no right to formal employment or access to markets. Even the need to travel for medical attention requires the permission of camp authorities. Hundreds of makeshift shops have been destroyed by authorities in recent months, limiting refugees’ access to basic necessities not provided as aid, including many cooking ingredients as well as clothing.

Perceptions of the Rohingya amongst host communities are generally negative even though, according to CPJ’s research, only a small percentage of host community residents have personally interacted with a refugee. Local people fear the assimilation of refugees and the increased pressure on already-stretched resources. Negative impacts on wage rates and over-saturation of the labour market have been contentious issues.

Education gaps among Rohingya children and adolescents remain unresolved. Approximately 400,000 school-aged refugees are not enrolled in formal schooling, and although a pilot formal education programme was recently launched when schools reopened post-Covid, it serves only a small percentage of learners and many will likely never return to their studies. Moreover, private learning centres organised by the Rohingya have been restricted by authorities, eliminating educational access for thousands more children.

Global attention has been fleeting. The spotlight that brought attention to the Rohingya crisis after the 2017 exodus has shifted elsewhere, and Rohingya feel that they are isolated from the international community. Bangladesh continues to be praised by the international community for hosting persecuted Rohingya and undoubtedly saving thousands of lives, but refugees are frustrated with the lack of public discussion around their current situation. Many claim that living conditions within the camps have deteriorated leading to desperate attempts by refugees to escape, akin to their pre-exodus state of vulnerability in Myanmar. High-profile international delegations have resumed visiting the camps, but few visits have resulted in tangible action toward the necessary changes.

Sustainable, long-term solutions for displaced Rohingya will require a comprehensive refugee policy in Bangladesh, built on accountability to affected populations and effective coordination amongst national and international actors. Such a policy will need to address concurrent needs for good governance, refugee rights and participation, humanitarian service provision, and security-related factors, grounded in robust data reflecting the evolving needs and perspectives of refugee and host populations. Political economic analysis can be used to assess the current policy environment, highlighting gaps that need to be addressed, an understanding of how decisions are made and enforced, and identifying areas for innovative approaches to refugee governance. For example, Rohingya participation in labour markets could be approached in a way that benefits refugees and impoverished Bangladeshis alike. Such a coordinated, inclusive approach may yet yield opportunities for improvement.

Conflict Trauma and Violence: How Can We Promote Peace?

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The past two decades have seen a slew of programmatic efforts aimed at countering an individual’s susceptibility to violent extremism. These initiatives have delivered uneven results. This blog post examines the role of mental health and conflict-related trauma in driving individuals towards embracing violent extremism. By showing the high propensity of pre-existing trauma and associated mental health problems among violent actors in extremist movements, it argues that successful interventions cannot afford to overlook this component of the “radicalisation” puzzle.

Studies that have examined prison[1] and community-based populations[2] have shown that individuals who use violence are significantly more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma than their non-violent counterparts.[3] Whilst this is true for different types of violence – for example, against an intimate partner, children, strangers – it is also true for those who pursue violence for ideological or political goals. The documented link between trauma and the propensity to engage in violence is particularly sobering when considering the prevalence of trauma among conflict-affected populations: it is thought that up to 65% of civilians affected by civil war or conflict suffer some form of recurrent trauma.[4] This can include violence and/or rape, but also forced displacement, homelessness, starvation and slavery.

Programming to support violence and conflict prevention must incorporate a better understanding of the types of trauma experienced by conflict actors and the communities in which they operate. Two things are particularly important here: (i) types of trauma(s); and (ii) how trauma can be transmitted from one generation to the next. Violence driven by a desire for revenge is often borne of complex traumas that involve incidents such as family members being killed or kidnapped and/or suffering prolonged periods of imprisonment or torture.[5] Traumatic stress can also manifest in individuals who have been exposed to some form of abuse outside of conflict dynamics – for example, being abused by a parent. In this scenario, parents who are traumatised by conflict can, in turn, transmit their experiences by traumatising their children who are then more susceptible to violence themselves when entering adolescence or adulthood.[6] Trauma-related mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety, are important because if they are untreated, not only do they associate with violence, but they can also leave an individual vulnerable to joining up with a violent extremist group.[7]

Appreciating these interlocking dynamics is important when considering how to break cyclical periods of violence and peace in recurrent conflicts. Put another way, how might a better appreciation of the interaction between trauma and mental health inform our understanding of how and why an individual might choose either a violent or peaceful action? Our working hypothesis on the KCL team for The Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) project – and it’s one that we’ll be empirically testing as the research progresses – is that trauma is an often overlooked but extremely important part of an individual’s ‘radicalisation’ journey. In brief, XCEPT is a multi-year, interdisciplinary project with funding from UK Aid, that examines factors that shape violent and peaceful behaviour across different conflict-affected regions, such as Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan, to inform policy and programming efforts to prevent violent extremism.

The good news for policymakers is that trauma-related mental health interventions related to traumatic events need not be created de novo. There are already several effective interventions that are scalable, which means they can be offered to large numbers relatively cheaply. Bodies such as the World Health Organisation have databases of scalable interventions which are ready to go.[8] These are culturally adaptable and can be deployed through easily trained partners on the ground.

Consider one particularly encouraging intervention for children and teenagers, known as Teaching Recovery Techniques. This helps individuals learn socio-emotional skills to cope with difficulties following traumatic experiences of war,[9] whilst also teaching them how to manage intrusive thoughts and feelings (bad memories, nightmares and flashbacks), arousal (difficulties relaxing, concentrating and sleeping) and avoidance (fears, difficulties in facing up to reminders of a disaster).

Although this is just one example of many, it shows the types of interventions already available which are easily scalable and which can be delivered over a relatively short period (in this case, just five weeks). It is also important to consider that this intervention can be modulated to address non-conflict related traumas (for example, childhood maltreatment).

Trauma is cumulative. The more individuals experience it, the more likely they are to have greater mental health problems. That, in turn, increases the risk of them turning to violence. Some estimates suggest that up to 50% of people who join violent extremist groups demonstrate some form of childhood maltreatment: neglect, or physical or sexual abuse.[10] This reveals the importance of adopting a holistic intervention approach around trauma and mental health to effectively manage an individual’s risk of choosing violent outcomes in any given situation,[11] and to include such approaches in interventions to promote peace and prevent resurgent conflict violence.

[1] Wolff N, Caravaca Sánchez F. Associations Among Psychological Distress, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Social Support, and Resilience in Incarcerate Men. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 2019;46(11):1630-1649.

[2] Taylor LK, McKeown S. Does violence beget violence? The role of family ethnic socialization and intergroup bias among youth in a setting of protracted intergroup conflict. International Journal of Behavioral Development. 2019;43(5):403-408.

[3] Widom CS. The cycle of violence. Science. 1989;16(244):160-166.

[4] Allwood MA, Bell-Dolan D, Husain SA. Children’s trauma and adjustment reactions to violent and nonviolent war experiences. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2002;41(4):450-457.

[5] Klasen F, Gehrke J, Metzner F, Blotevogel M, Okello J. Complex Trauma Symptoms in Former Ugandan Child Soldiers. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. 2013;22(7):698-713; de Jong JTVM, Komproe IH, Van Ommeren M, et al. Lifetime Events and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in 4 Postconflict Settings. JAMA. 2001;286(5):555-562.

[6] Galovski T, Lyons JA. Psychological sequelae of combat violence: A review of the impact of PTSD on the veteran’s family and possible interventions. Aggression and violent behavior. 2004;9(5):477-501; Dekel R, Goldblatt H. Is there intergenerational transmission of trauma? The case of combat veterans’ children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 2008;78(3):281-289.

[7] Simi P, Bubolz B, McNeel H, Sporer K, Windisch S. Trauma as a precursor to violent extremism: How non-ideological factors can influence joining an extremist group. START Newsletter. 2015.

[8] Organization WH. Scalable psychological interventions for people in communities affected by adversity: a new area of mental health and psychosocial work at WHO. 2017.

[9] Ali NS, Al-Joudi TW, Snell T. Teaching recovery techniques to adolescents exposed to multiple trauma following war and ongoing violence in Baghdad. The Editorial Assistants–Jordan. 2019;30(1):25-33; Sarkadi A, Warner G, Salari R, et al. Evaluation of the Teaching Recovery Techniques community-based intervention for unaccompanied refugee youth experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms (Swedish UnaccomPanied yOuth Refugee Trial; SUPpORT): study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials. 2020;21(1):63; Barron IG, Abdallah G, Smith P. Randomized Control Trial of a CBT Trauma Recovery Program in Palestinian Schools. Journal of Loss and Trauma. 2013;18(4):306-321.

[10] Lewis J, Marsden S. Trauma adversity and violent extremism. Contemporary Research. 2021.

[11] Lewis J, Marsden S. Countering Violent Extremism Interventions: Contemporary Research. 2021.