How the men with guns learned to run a trucking company

Many years ago now, I heard a story that fundamentally changed how I thought about that much-discussed topic – “post-conflict peacebuilding”. Now I think about it as ‘practical peacebuilding’.

I was with a group of peacebuilders from countries in Africa and Asia – countries where there had been, and often still is, conflict between groups of men that cause havoc for surrounding communities and people. (There are similar conflicts in many urban settings in the rest of the world, of course, but we don’t think about it the same way.)

George told the story quietly, without drama – although it was one of the most dramatic stories told in that group of people who had seen so much.

A group of men were essentially holding the main road between two communities hostage, holding up truck drivers and making it extremely difficult to send much needed supplies north. This was, as so often happens in such situations, a rational response from their point of view. There were no jobs; they had guns; they needed money; and this was a strategy they could use to meet their needs.

One of the responses, in such situations, is often to send in armed troops, turn it into a battle. Sometimes the result is scorched earth; and often there is ‘collateral damage’, in that horrific term – innocent people who are killed in the subsequent fighting.

What they did, this time, was to reach out to the men with the guns, to try to understand things from their point of view and then change how they understood the narrative. Takes a great deal of courage. They asked, what if we could show you a way to earn a living without holding the road and nearby communities hostage?

They were skeptical, of course, because that was not how they thought the world worked. In south Sudan, there had been years of armed young men looting communities, and commanders of forces had often encouraged looting because they didn’t have money to pay fighters. 

To realize how much that had disrupted the society, you must know that in south Sudan, for decades, there had been a tradition of holding cattle that strayed into your territory, and caring for them, until you could find out who owned them. Then you would return the cattle, and their offspring. So there wasn’t a tradition of stealing and looting – quite the opposite.

Cattle of the Dinka people in South Sudan. By Ranjit Bhaskar, Wikimedia Commons

I am not quite sure how the people with money were persuaded to cover the cost of providing trucks. It was probably some anodyne wording about ‘economic development’ in communities, because so often, far away funders just don’t get the challenges of peacebuilding at a local level in countries far different from their own.

At any rate, the trucks seemed to be the game changer. The armed men who had been terrorizing the road learned that they could use the trucks to ferry supplies and building materials, and people would pay them for doing so. So peaceful rebuilding could begin (and of course, all the associated things that go with it, when people feel safe to cultivate crops again and so food shortages and hunger are alleviated within the community itself.)

And, as this new approach sank in, the men realized they didn’t need their guns any more. They turned them in to a local chief.

A cattle camp in Lakes State. Many young boys spend months at a time at such camps, looking after the cattle that are central to the livelihoods of thousands of families. Oxfam’s local partners provide veterinary care and clean water for these communities, while also offering training and advice to help diversify their livelihoods. Raids over cattle and other scarce resources such as water and pasture have forced thousands of people from their homes, and Oxfam supports local peace-building and reconciliation efforts. Photo: Alun McDonald / Oxfam
Cattle camp in Lakes state, 2005. By Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Commons

People in other places have used similar strategies to achieve peace. In Somaliland, for example, after people had managed to agree to peace among themselves, they still had to cope with the young men who had only seen violence as they grew up during the years of brutal fighting.

The older fighters had laid down their arms to help build the new government but as they left their roadblocks, young men took over.

The business community, realizing that there could be no effective peace as long as young men with guns were able to terrorize communities, contributed funding so the new government could create camps at which these young men learned how to be good human beings.

Child soldiers in eastern DRC. Photo by L. Rose/Wikimedia Commons

For the first few years, Somaliland had a much larger army, police force and wildlife corps than it needed because it needed to keep the young men busy with productive and constructive work. And then as peace grew, the economy created jobs that those young men could fill. (The oilfield workers, for example, created a university; a man who realized that there was no place in Hargeisa to hold meetings created its first hotel.)

In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, I saw men who had been fighting for years talk about how they were touched by communities seeing them as human and thanking them for their work in repairing roads and operating shambas, or farms. Often they had started out as members of militias who were defending their communities against outside forces, but as they moved into the bush and had to support themselves, they turned into people who were attacking their own communities.

So when local NGOs created programs that organized them into groups to do roadwork, to work on farms, and learn carpentry skills, and worked with the local communities to accept those men back, it created peace that offered what you might call ‘collateral growth’. In situations where governments had little money for community development or infrastructure, these men provided a welcome source of support to local communities.

There are such stories everywhere. Even stories about police and communities dealing with dangerous and armed young men in gangs in the US and the UK find that such strategies work there, too. 

We can perpetuate wars that have been created by others, or we can flip the narrative and find ways to turn strategies of war into strategies of peace. It just depends on how we choose to respond.