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Lecturer discusses state of post-war Uganda

JACK ROONEY | Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies visiting scholar Shannon Golden presented her research on land conflict in post-war northern Uganda on Thursday at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. The lecture was titled “The War Within the Community: Land Disputes in Post-war Northern Uganda.”

Golden earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota earlier this fall after completing her thesis on community reconstruction in Northern Uganda. During the course of her research, she said she found land disputes to be one of the most significant aspects of reconstruction.

She quoted a Ugandan interviewee who said, “When I compare the life before the war and this life then I say that this life is the most painful life I’ve ever experienced. While the war of the rebels, the rebels terrorizing the people, has ended, another war has started up. That is the war within the community members, the war of rivals over land.”

Golden said the Ugandan civil war displaced millions of people, and when they returned to their original land, land disputes arose.

“The war in northern Uganda resulted in massive forced displacement,” Golden said. “In the region where I conducted research, 95 percent of the population was displaced, most for over 10 years. Many people described land disputes as extremely rampant and a lot of people said they were daily occurrences.”

Though her specialty is sociology, Golden said social scientists could have more of an impact on international peace issues through work like hers.

“In general, I feel a bit like social scientists are a little silent on this issue despite the fact that I think we can make some significant contributions in understanding things like group identity, world group identity, collective memory, inequality, solidarity, these sorts of things,” Golden said. “So I’m trying to contribute a social science perspective to make sense of this issue.”

Using this lens of social science, Golden concluded that conflict can be constructive if there are proper means of resolving it.
“Conflict isn’t necessarily bad,” Golden said. “From sociology we know that conflict among people can actually benefit solidarity and stability if it provides a space to solidify social norms, rules and relationships in a non-violent way, if there are institutions to resolve these disputes.”

Golden said land in Uganda is important economically and socially.

“In a subsistent agriculture-based society, land is very central in a material way and a physical way,” Golden said. “It’s a crucial resource for livelihoods, for people to support their families, for their physical survival. It’s the basis of the local economy. Their daily activities and social interactions revolve around land and agriculture.”

She said land, however, is symbolically essential in these communities because it is a way to represent belonging.

 “It’s a way to delineate the boundaries of the community,” Golden said. “It’s ancestral land. You only have land in these communities if you’re from here,” Golden said.

She said the post-war context in Northern Uganda intensified the importance of land.

“Land is just this very essential thing that sets up a potential for very contentious social interaction,” Golden said. “And all of this becomes even more important in the post-war context.

“The post-war context is unique because it’s a period of very dramatic social change, and the transitional period has really caused the emergence of these prolific land disputes because of this social change.”

Northern Uganda has state-run and community-based structures for land dispute resolution, but neither is effective, she said.
“Despite having these multiple layers of dispute resolution possibilities, there is not an institution or a strategy that residents fully trust to deal with land disputes,” Golden said. “That is why it makes violence look like a necessary or legitimate means for resolving these conflicts.”

Contact Jack Rooney at jrooney1@nd.edu