Llyr Attala

Cultural Role of Youth and their Militarization

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In the modern context of lawlessness, insecurity, and self-reliance, the role of male youth as protectors continues to grow in importance (Simonse 2005). The inability of the state to provide security is in direct opposition to the increasing reliance communities have on their own youth for protection. Understanding the traditional role that youth play in pastoralist societies is thus of vast importance in understanding the escalating violence.

Pastoralist societies in North East Africa are most often organized either by age (usually generational), lineage, or a combination of the two. Lineage, or segmentary, societies are structured primarily around patrilineal lines, or more simply family groups. Segments, clans, sections and family are the primary means of identity and social function. The Nuer, Dinka (South Sudan), and Somali societies are examples of this, and loyalty lies primarily with kin rather than with the ethnic group as a whole (Spencer 1998). Alternatively, age system societies identify across the ethnic group, but primary loyalty rests with each generation, or age-set. In societies like the Toposa, Pokot, and Murle peers are where loyalty is strongest, rather than kin from another generation (ibid:171). However, in some societies both lineage and generational structures exist. The Nuer, for example, are primarily defined as a segmentary society, but in certain Nuer communities age-sets still play a part in social organization.

In both lineage and age-based systems the youth play a major role in the defense and protection of the society. Most agro-pastoralist societies in the region require seasonal migrations for livestock to areas with adequate water and grazing pastures away from the permanent settlements. While the elders are the primary owners of the livestock, the youth are responsible for herding them. As a result, young men travel to temporary dry season settlements, or cattle camps, on an annual basis to watch and protect the family herds (Simonse 2005). Being away from the principle community, affords a freedom to youth while there. Youth told Simonse that their favorite time of the year is in the cattle camps, where they have little supervision and more independence (2005). In the cattle camps the young men interact with youth from different communities but also different ethnic groups. Many of the best water points and grazing lands are shared, and often local youth leaders give permission for others to access the area (Simonse 2005). Not surprisingly the relationships with other groups can also be tense and frequent raiding occurs at the cattle camps despite existing agreements. As Simonse explains the “the dry-season pastures are not only associated with the youthful joys of freedom from authority but also with the dangers of war” (Simonse 2005:244).

The responsibility to protect the family herds as well as defend the community from attacks means the youth need to be well armed. Historically, the youth carried spears and shields, but now the Kalashnikov automatic rifle is the weapon of choice in the cattle camps. The limited government presence in the rural regions, and the consequent security and justice vacuum, means that cattle raids and violence between rival communities, age-sets, or ethnic groups rarely leads to any arrests or action by the security forces (Simonse 2005). Further, the fierce reputation of many of the cattle camp youth means that the security forces often fear to engage with them or carry out arrests.

Tension between youth and elders is a phenomenon that has been identified by scholars as a root cause of conflict in many parts of the world. Indeed, “due to rapid processes of change related to colonialism, modernization, social upheaval and disturbed demographic trends such as runaway population growth, this phenomenon has assumed crisis proportions, fundamentally different from those in the past” (Abbink 2005:11). This rapid demographic change has been described as the “youth bulge,” and according to quantitative studies an increase in this demographic runs parallel to an increase in political violence (Urdal 2012). However, “while a correlation between a high relative youth population and higher risk of violence supports a causal claim, it does not prove causality and reveals little about the processes at work and why certain young people engage in violence” (Hilker and Fraser 2009:3). There are two schools of thought as to the general motivations for youth to join in violence- greed and grievance. The greed perspective claims youth participate because of socio-economic opportunities- looting and raiding provide socio-economic benefits and increased status in society (Urdal 2012:8). Alternatively involvement is because of grievances held by the perpetrators- i.e. towards the state for being marginalized or towards other groups due to historic tensions exacerbated by politicians. Youth in South Sudan have incentive from both perspectives. Abbink succinctly explains that “virtually everywhere on the continent, youth, while forming a numerical majority, are in a situation of dependency, economically marginalized, and feel excluded from formal power and prestige, even when the time has come for them to become part of established society” (2005:11).

Both the rising dependence on youth for protection as well as the increasing presence of arms among the youth, has had direct effects on the historically tense relationship between elders and youth. Numerous academic studies (Abbink 2005, Kurimoto and Simonse 1998, Mkutu 2008) show the ownership of semi-automatic weapons has undermined the ability of the elders to control or influence the youth and to keep the traditional balance with other communities. In the past, the ownership and distribution of cattle was controlled by the elders, and therefore the youth were dependent upon them in order to access marriage. However, the large scale raids carried out by youth with semi-automatic weapons has increased the herds, and therefore the independence of the young men. Elders complain that they have less direct influence over the young men, and that small cattle raids by the youth “are not sanctioned or controlled by the community or older generations” (Rolandsen and Breidlid 2013:8). Without the ability to limit or control the type of violence the youth engage in, violence has increased in brutality. Importantly though, the same study also found that the elders and youth in South Sudan are more dependent upon each other than is commonly recognized. Elders do not only depend on youth for protection, but also for justice, in the form of reciprocal attacks or raids (Rolandsen & Breidlid 2013). Breidlid and Rolandsen state that not only are youth’s value and identity directly connected to their ability to guarantee local security and justice, but also that “their communities at large consider participation in such violence as legitimate and moral” (ibid 2013:6). In other words, youth involvement in large scale revenge attacks are usually supported by the local community as a form of local justice, while small scale cattle raids are not approved and are perceived as criminal acts (ibid).

As explained in the historical engagement section, the ‘ritual war’ between pastoralist communities was largely limited and controlled by the elders to ensure a level of peace and balance. However with modern weapons large amounts of cattle can be stolen in a short period of time by someone with little physical skill. Aside from the high risks during an actual raid, the long term chances of being caught are low. The low risk balanced against the high benefits of raiding mean that there are almost daily raids in some areas. The expectation that young men are responsible for justice and revenge creates a cycle of violence that is not limited by the social sanctions or rules warfare that existed in the past (Rolandsen & Breidlid 2013). This results in not only an increasing amount of violence and targeting of high numbers of civilians during attacks, but a limited ability by the community elders to stop the conflicts from escalating.


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