Implications of Moyo – Kajo-Keji Conflict

"The current effort by the Interdenominational Committee to reconcile the two communities is a move in the right direction. As earlier on stated, the two people are not only neighbours, but they have largely woven many kinship relationships through intermarriages over the years"

By Alfred Geri

On either side of the border between Moyo District and Kajo-Keji County live two ethnic communities: the Kuku and the Ma’di. Both communities have coexisted together for many years and have developed kinship relationships through intermarriages. Many members from these two communities speak or hear each other’s language. This is especially true of the Kuku. Having lived among the Ma’di for years, most of their members speak the Ma’di language almost as fluently as the native speakers.

The largely peaceful coexistence between these communities was unfortunately ruptured in early September. The Ma’di, infuriated over arrest of their leaders over border disputes, went on a hunting mission. From house to house, they searched for Kuku residents. Objective: beat or burn them, set their houses ablaze and loot their shops and other businesses. Hundreds of innocent Kuku were sent scampering for their dear lives. Within a twinkle of an eye, the border town of Jale was streaming with hundreds of horror-stricken people belonging to all ages and walks of life. Pupils and students slipped away from their schools through bushy paths for fear of being clubbed down by fellow schoolmates and blood-thirsty villagers marauding along the roads.

Appeals for calm fell on deaf ears. News of casualty figures began to filter through, infuriating the Kuku communities the more. Reprisal attacks reportedly sent many Ma’di residents pouring into Adjumani, a district curved out of Moyo in the 90’s. Luckily for them, there were already many humanitarian aid agencies there looking after South Sudanese refugees following the apparent failed coup attempt in mid December last year. For the Kuku, they had to rely on the intervention of their kinsmen across the globe and faith-based institutions for immediate help.  

As the dust settles down, one wonders what the relationship between the two ethnic communities of Ma’di and Kuku will be like. Will the latter move back to settle and resume their businesses in Moyo District? How about students? Will their parents accept to allow them to return and continue with their education in schools there? Will the students themselves even accept to go back even if their parents allowed them to? Will the Ma’di openly welcome back the Kuku whom they had moreover regarded as unwelcome guests? Will members of these two neighbourly communities ever coexist peacefully again without further resurgence of border-related conflict between Kajo-Keji County and Moyo District? All these are relevant questions aimed at assessing the implications of the recent conflict between the two border communities.

The current effort by the Interdenominational Committee to reconcile the two communities is a move in the right direction. As earlier on stated, the two people are not only neighbours, but they have largely woven many kinship relationships through intermarriages over the years. It might not be farfetched to argue that many members of the two communities belong to the same speech community: many Kuku, by virtue of their immersion into the Ma’di people, speak the Ma’di language as fluently as the natives. In fact, children born of Kuku parents in Moyo District find it almost hard to express themselves meaningfully well in their own Kuku language!

Despite the current efforts aimed at resolving the root causes of this conflict, suspicion and mistrust between members of these communities are likely to continue for some time. Genuine relationship that has otherwise existed for many years between neighbours and friends will likely be watered down by prejudices, stereotypes, suspicion and mistrust. Pieces of information considered sensitive might be passed to other members of the same community for attention and possible action. For instance, many Kuku patients might feel apprehensive being treated by medical personnel belonging to the Ma’di ethnic group. This is especially true if such personnel don’t communicate responsibly well with their clients.

One immediate, if not obvious, implication of this conflict is the reduction in the volume of business in Moyo town. For many years, businesses have largely been dominated by the Kuku people. With almost all of them having been forced back to Kajo-Keji County, it will take some time for Ma’di with entrepreneurial skills to come up. Even if they do, demand for their goods and services is likely to shrink given the visibly diminished population available. It is common knowledge that businesses thrive where there is a big population. Other nationals, be they Ugandans or foreigners, might find the low population and attitude of the locals a big disincentive to business and investment. They might opt to relocate their businesses to other parts of Uganda and South Sudan. By the way, some might even consider moving their businesses to Kajo-Keji!

Before the Kuku were forced out of Moyo, there were several economic mergers around the businesses they were operating. Such mergers included building of houses for rent, development of private primary and secondary schools, lodges, restaurants, pubs, video halls and soccer halls, to name but a few. With thousands of Kuku residents brutally forced out of the district, Moyo town is likely to witness its first ever historic economic recession. Many Ma’di landlords will find themselves awakened to the rude shock of falling demand for their commercial buildings, residential houses and lodges. The hustle and bustle that usually characterised Moyo town might not continue. Many schools in and around that town might become empty buildings as Kuku students opt for academic institutions further afield. Consequently, many teachers and support staff are likely to be given the boot early next year. After all, where will the school proprietors get the much needed money to pay salaries of their staff? Bars and restaurants, usually frequented by streams of Kuku youth, will most likely become like purgatories: existence of a painfully eerie silence due to lack of many customers.

In summary, Moyo town risks becoming a ghost town in the near future if bad blood continues to flow between these communities. Kuku will undoubtedly pay the price, too. It may not be easy for them to access educational and health services in Moyo. Even if the conflict is over, many Kuku will still continue to experience some phobia. “Will I really be safe to pass through Moyo?” “Will the Ma’di not attack us again if we resume our businesses in Moyo?” “How will the Ma’di teachers and health personnel treat our students and patients in their schools and clinics?” These are likely questions many Kuku will continue asking themselves.


Meanwhile, back home, many will have been persuaded to drop the idea of ever thinking about going back to reside, do business, study or seek medical services in Moyo. “Si’da na gwe nageleŋ” (loosely translated as “Life is the same wherever one lives”) is likely going to be the soothing advice for all those still “thirsty” to continue living, working, studying or acquiring services of all sorts in Moyo. If those forced out are “contented” to settle among their fellow Kuku people, they will have to pay relatively heavily for goods and services brought into the county through long detour routes, some of which tend to be impassable during the rainy season.

Anyhow, whichever is the case, there is always an opportunity cost for a decision made and implemented. The decision to wage war against the innocent Kuku people, sugar-coated as “peaceful demonstration,” will inevitably have far-reaching implications on the Madi society. The Kuku, too, will have a rough ride for some time. The masterminds of the Kuku expulsion scheme have apparently killed their own political lives, much to the glee of their political opponents. 


*The two communities struddle both sides of the South Sudan-Uganda border.

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