Cohesion and Conflict in a Refugee City: Digital platforms, migration, and opportunity in Arua, Northern Uganda
- Ese, Anders|Lien, Ida
This paper investigates the emergence of social media and digital communication as platforms for urban poor and refugee voices, and their capacities to produce, understand and inhabit space in Arua, a major city in Northern Uganda. As involuntary migration to cities increases and socio-economic disparities grow world-wide, this research – part of a larger project across three continents – contributes to the discourse on social media and governance in complex and changing urban environments. Social media can impact (dis)information asymmetries that transcends physical space, with potential to both mitigate or increase inequalities between residents. Our contention is that in places with fluid populations and a plethora of local and international actors, social media provides an opportunity for exchange of shared values (“social cohesion”) as well as opposition of ideas or interests (“conflict”) that should inform and be integrated in urban governance and planning.
Centrally located in West Nile, Arua is an urban island of relative security within West Nile Province for people escaping conflict. Caught in a tri-state flux between Uganda, DRC, and South Sudan, the province has been a source of extraction and exploitation by colonial and post-colonial regimes (Leopold, 2005), and suffering from underinvestment and few opportunities, has served as a hotbed for rebellions in the latter part of the 20thCentury (Atkinson 2009). As the situation stabilised during the 2000s, Arua’s position as a migratory hub was strengthened (Dawa, 2020). Today, Arua fashions itself as vibrant and inclusive (https://aruacity.go.ug). The city is home to 120 000 people, including many internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees from DRC (Leopold, 2005), and approximately 12% refugees (Nyegenye et al, 2021). This makes Arua a city where disparate socio-political backgrounds, allegiances, and goals are brought together by necessity. But years of entrenched violence have left a mark on a population where ex-fighters and victims today live as neighbours. Reconciliation may have been obtained at a national level, but local justice is seen as wanting (Bogner & Neubert, 2013).
NGOs in the region are increasingly engaging with refugees and the poor in Arua city. With the range of social media feeds and digital communication important to these populations (interviews, 2022), what does it mean for NGOs working to promote stability and cohesion to not have control of such information, whom it reaches, and how it is received? Given the historically volatile backdrop of the region and the current social makeup of Arua, what kind of balance can be struck between goals of cohesion and allowing for a multitude of voices and agendas? This paper investigates how social actors might better engage with residents via social media. It presents findings from our ongoing data collection on how residents in Arua exchange and navigate information on social media platforms to improve their circumstances, and how this links to historical and current power and governance structures in the city.