Groups averaging 20 people, some less, others more, filled the different tents erected in the courtyard of the Don Vittorio Youth Centre in Moroto, a facility run by a non-governmental organisation that is trying to provide a platform to young people in the area to share ideas.
The people that occupied the tents, however, were not only youth but a cocktail of different age brackets. In each Interest Group (IG), a team leader armed with a marker took down suggestions of the members seated on metallic benches. The leaders would alternate based on the knowledge of the issue at hand. The attendees were local council leaders, Resident District Commissioners (RDC) from Teso and Karamoja sub-regions, elders from both communities and other opinion leaders.
At one point, a White woman, one of the officials handling the logistics of the meeting, moved around sounding a bell. It was the method deployed to alert the participants it was time for a break.
This time she was alerting the participants that it was time for lunch. Few heeded to her call. The discussions like in the days that followed the three-day meeting were intense. Everyone sought an opportunity to be heard; almost everyone had a point to put across.
In the main hall, the teams with other officials would converge and validate or invalidate the ideas developed by individual groups. More suggestions would be made in the plenary and the teams would again meet separately to discuss the process. The participants at the “Multi-Stakeholder Meeting on Land Conflicts in north eastern Uganda” were drawn from an unlikely combination—the Iteso and Karimojong.
Unlikely because less than a decade before, none of the participants, including elders, could imagine holding such a meeting. It was a milestone.
“This meeting,” one participant told this reporter, “would not take place a few years ago; at least not without some form of violence”. Yet the participants deliberated for most of the time with mutual respect. An issue of contention would quickly be postponed for resolution at a later date or consensus would be developed very first.
For decades, violent conflict mainly a result of cattle rustling raged between Teso and Karamoja in north-eastern Uganda. In 1979, the Karimojong acquired large quantities of guns left abandoned in military barracks during the war that brought down President Idi Amin’s regime.
This shifted the balance of power in favour of the well-armed Karimojong who terrorised their neighbours for the subsequent decades until 2001 when government, in a deliberate effort, started disarming them. The largely successful exercise left its horrors behind.
Dialogue is key
Yet, with the guns out of the hands of the Karimojong, another less pronounced conflict of land and border disputes gained momentum. It is for this that the meetings prior and this one aim to find peaceful and amicable solutions. The conflicts can be local, meaning within Teso or Karamoja but can also be cross border.
“In my district of Moroto, 80 per cent of the civil servants are from Teso,” Moroto District chairman Andrew Napaja said as he opened the meeting, “God was not stupid to give us a language we both understand. You follow a lie that was made by the British, which was not there before with our ancestors. Let us forget the issue of the border,” he said. The tough-talking Napaja was speaking about the land conflicts in Teso and Karamoja.
Mr Michael Odeke, the Director Teso Initiative for Peace says the IGs are bridging the knowledge gap in the communities through educating communities about the law, helping in mediation and even negotiation on behalf of the indigenous communities.
“Six or so years ago, it was difficult for Karimojong to go to Teso but now we co-exist peacefully. We are even intermarrying. The animosity between the Karimojong and the Iteso is reducing. It is no longer pronounced as in the past. Once the leaders are supporting, all this would be possible,” he said.
From Karamoja, he says the Iteso buy cows and provide other services needed in the area while the Karimojong cross over to Teso for grazing land, water and to buy food.
The cross border conflicts require concerted effort from both communities. This time, the meeting was partly to devise collective interventions to address those issues in the coming year.
Research was carried out and it pointed to the fact that land issues cannot be dealt with unilaterally and that is partly why the IGs were formed. The IGs coalesce around pertinent issues on land such border conflicts, women land rights, mining and minerals, protected areas, grazing land.
In Karamoja for example, some individuals and groups are slowly adopting agriculture and this puts them in direct conflict with cattle keepers who need land for grazing. There are also conflicts arising out of a need for people to reclaim land set aside for schools, health centres, hospitals and churches.
In 2014, GIZ Uganda started the new programme “Support for Participatory transformation of Land Conflicts in North Eastern Uganda” with a focus on land and land-related conflicts in Teso and Karamoja sub regions. It was through deliberations in these meetings that the idea of Interest Groups (IGs) was hatched. Seven were formed in Teso and six in Karamoja. Subsequent meetings set the agenda and reviewed the progress of the same.
In Karamoja, traditional grazing areas and other communal lands are increasingly targeted for acquisition and investment. Conflicts around borders, both internally (sub counties, districts) and externally (neigbouring regions like Teso and Kenyan counties) are on the rise.
Karimojong communities have also, on a number of occasions clashed with state agencies such as National Forestry Authority (NFA) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) over access to and utilisation of protected areas.
There are also conflicting interests with regard to the issuing of mining licenses and increased mining operations as well as investments in agriculture and infrastructure.
Confusion brought about by both traditional and formal land management systems and their limited capacities is prevalent. Other conflicts also arise out of the complexity of Karamoja’s communal land tenure and the difficulties in finding tenure security which balances the formal and traditional systems.
In Teso, the rising interest in the use, control and ownership of land and other natural resources is mounting pressure on the formal and customary land management systems in Teso sub region and Pallisa District. This exposes women, widows, orphans and the economically poor people to abuse.
The formal and traditional capacities to address land and natural resource tenure are not sufficient. Increased commercial value of land and weak enforcement mechanisms of land justice in Uganda are deemed responsible for the continued land violence in Teso sub-region and Pallisa District.
The role of the IGs in Teso is to analyse and contribute to the non-violent transformation of conflicts around natural resources, women land rights, customary land rights, institutional lands settlement and resettlement, dual land management system and district border land conflicts in Teso sub-region and Paliisa district.
In Teso, for example, the Teso Conflicts Around Borders Interest Group (TECAB) is confronted with a number of problems. Some of the issues they have to deal with affect both communities and this implies they have to work with authorities and IGs across the border in Karamoja.
Some of the issues include struggle for water and pasture, service delivery inspired conflicts in cases where a community has both the Iteso and Karimojong but a particular service is given to either community.
Martin Opolot a field officer with Teso-Karamoja Women Initiative for Peace (Tekwip) and TECAB coordinator says this problem has been witnessed even with government programmes such as Operation Wealth Creation (OWC).
Other problems stem from administrative area boundaries that are not clearly defined which in turn leads to conflicts. The creation of new administrative centers such as districts, town councils and sub counties is another challenge for this particular IG to address.
In Amuria District, the group has made overtures in an ongoing disagreement between Apeduru and Akokoromit Sub County over who controls a trading centre between the two that is under dispute. A similar situation prevails in Katakwi District where three sub counties, Palam, Usuk and Ongongoja, are conflicting over a sub country. There is also a border conflict between Napak and Katakwi districts, another between Amuria, Napak and Abim with the trio claiming an area as their own.
“Problem is at the top”
So how do they go about solving such problems and more? Mr Opolot says dialogue is key in such instances before they get out of hand and before the warring parties resort to violence. The role of the IG is to mainly set up a joint platform of opinion leaders, the sub counties leadership among others. These then discuss with a view of developing consensus on the issue dividing them.
“We think the trading centre, for example, can be shared by all the sub counties without resorting to any form of violence,”
But when challenged on the issue of especially resources in a particular area that could be the driving force of the conflict among residents, he says the problem is mainly at the top.
“People are not conflicting. It is the leaderships doing so for political interests,” he says.
This is one of the reasons, GIZ, the German government’s agency for international development through the Civil Peace Service is supporting joint meetings.
“The joint meetings are important,” says Daniel Jaeger, the GIZ Programme Coordinator Civil Peace Service which supports and facilitates the IGs “because they bring them together to speak on and debate issues that affect either communities.” For now, Mr Jaeger says their focus is on issues that are not so divisive so that individuals on either side develop trust to be able to tackle more contentious and contradicting issues.
Political leaders and other civil servants with decision-making power are incorporated in the meetings for policy influencing. Each IG is then expected to lobby the leadership in their respective district for support and affirmation of the programmes.
“We realise there is not one actor who can solve this, it is a social as well as a political problem. It needs joint effort. There are different interests but the common ground is there is need to stop these conflicts, land conflicts in a non-violent way,” Mr Jaeger says.
Three years ago, when the IGs were starting, he says the understanding and appreciation of issues by the members was minimal.
“When I look back at the quality of the conversation or read the first report, there is hardly knowledge of the laws and other issues but this is a long-term process and in my understanding, we are still at a rather early stage.” In case of the minerals, Mr Odeke says, if the community has a share, the responsible IG organises members of the same to demand for their royalties, share information on best practices from other countries.
“The interest groups have awakened the conscience of the people. The Karimojong, for example, are beginning to ask questions about their land,” he says.