Karamoja’s new triple tragedy unfolds

UPDF soldiers drive a herd of Karimojong cattle that they recovered from Pokot rustlers in 2019.  PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

Veteran journalist and former Daily Monitor managing editor Joachim Buwembo examines the state of lawlessness that is threatening the existence of Karamoja.

For whatever reason, events unfolding in Karamoja are not making big headlines in Uganda’s media. Yet the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Uganda’s semi-arid north-eastern region of 1.2 million people has probably never been as alarming in the past as it is now.

 Imagine this: Environmentalists are happily sad, as they note the regeneration of vegetation since there is virtually no more tree cutting for burning charcoal in Karamoja. For nobody dares go out in the woods anymore as the armed so-called warriors are waiting to shoot anybody who enters the forest. And how come the warriors are armed yet the government last year launched a second disarmament, the first total disarmament of Karamoja having taken place over a decade ago?

 Well, the security forces are of recent getting concerned over the increasing number of home-made guns among those they recover when they make contact with the warriors. The guns that the Karamojong make do not look like any gun calibre you know and are certainly not sleek. But unfortunately, they work, and kill. As long as the firing mechanism of the contraption can detonate any standard (SMG) rifle ammunition, its look doesn’t matter.

 In such a setting, the first tragedy in the new Karamoja crisis is that there are no more cattle rustlers; but only criminals stealing cattle for purely commercial reasons. The traditional cattle rustling was for expanding one’s herd as status and prestige were measured by the size of the kraal. Not so anymore.
The gangs that attack kraals have no intention whatsoever of keeping the loot. After all since the first disarmament, tagging animals for identification became widespread, using modern electronic systems. So the raided animals are put on trucks and driven off to cattle markets in districts outside Karamoja.

It simply means that the new cattle raids are depleting the livestock stock of Karamoja, yet the life of the Karamojong is centred on the cow.
 The second tragedy arising is that with less and less cattle, the diet of the people has worsened drastically as milk (and fresh blood!) supply tends to zero. But it gets even worse. What was initially hoped and encouraged of Karamojong taking up settled, arable farming after disarmament is no longer that promising.

 For the oxen that were used to plough have all been stolen. It is sad to say that the men of Karamoja do not have as that much strength of pulling, lifting and pushing needed for cultivating using the hand hoe. They have endurance, courage and fierceness, but not many would know how to handle a hoe. So without oxen no arable farming can prosper.
And as if the looting of cattle for the market, including the ploughing oxen was not bad enough, climate change has ‘chosen’ the past one year or so to deny Karamoja rain. The prolonged drought has made it impossible for most homesteads to even have a single vegetable plant growing near the house. Besides, the wild fruit and seeds that people could collect from the forest cannot be accessed, because of the armed warriors waiting to shoot whoever tries to enter the woods.

 But even if you don’t go into the wilderness to look for fruits, the wilderness can come to you and take away even the little that you have. That is the third or fourth tragedy – wildlife human conflict. The animals are increasingly escaping from the game reserves to destroy whatever few gardens have been planted using rudimentary irrigation. The Jumbos in particular have harassed the people’s gardens, especially in Kaabong District, home of the Kidepo National Park.

 At Kaabong Resort hotel, the sight of white families enjoying candle-lit dinner in the evening completes the picture of the coveted African safari. Well protected by the unobtrusive presence of armed Uganda People’s Defence Forces personnel in the compound to ensure the marauding warriors do not dare do anything to harm the tourists, the experience of sleeping in spitting distance of dangerous lions and equally dangerous native warriors is worth writing home about, forever.

Luganda speaking warriors
 So who are these “warriors” that have made life in the previously pacified Karamoja now a new hell on earth? Imagine this experience barely a couple of weeks back: On a recent reporting trip around the districts of Karamoja to assess the status of nutrition, we came across a large gathering of cattle with several herdsmen at a watering point. The guy who seemed  senior-most among the herdsmen receives a phone call and starts arguing in fluent Luganda – the local language of Kampala capital city! When he is done with his conversation which had a lot of figures in shillings and some threats, my cameraman dares him by asking how come he speaks such good Luganda.

“Because my business is in Kampala,” he answers like it is the most natural thing.
The Kampala photographer enquires what kind of business a Karimojong warrior near the Kenya border does in Kampala.
“Selling cattle of course!” he answers.
The cameraman asks his name. The cattle ‘trader’-cum-nomad-cum warrior gives a popular Islamic name in short form – Medi. Chances are that it is fake. He declines to give his Karimojong name. But he is kind enough to describe his “business’ a bit more. 

At such a time when there are hardly any animals left, his stock for selling to the more developed southern part of the country comes from raids. When the raids are good, he delivers on the orders he gets more quickly and the turnaround for more deliveries becomes shorter. But he hasn’t been on a raid for a week now.

 And no, the animals at the watering dam belong to several families. “Here we are all brothers, brought together by the water,” he explains in Luganda. “There is no question of fighting at this place which is so near the highway anyway.”
Then the cameraman asks blatantly about the whereabouts of the guns used in the raids, and Medi suddenly becomes hostile and advises us to go away. We take his advice.

Two days after returning to Kampala, without any evidence to take Medi’s story seriously, something I see on police/media WhatsApp group reminds me of him and the watering point. It is a photo of a ‘warrior’ who had been shot and injured in a raid lying on a hospital bed, dressed in a Liverpool T-shirt, under guard somewhere in Karamoja. But this one is not a full-time nomad violently robbing cattle in Karamoja on a daily; he is a police officer stationed in Entebbe! He reportedly took a few days off duty to attend to family issues back home in Karamoja, and went cattle raiding!

Evidence of the breakdown of law and order in Karamoja is no longer needed. It is everywhere. Traders who have for a couple of years been supplying food to the region have officially gone on strike coming to a month now. They said they will resume trade when security has been restored in Karamoja, after several of their colleagues getting killed in the ambushes.
Yes, the attacks by the warriors are not only for cattle anymore. They attack (m) any vehicles they find on the road far from the towns. In the eight days we spent in Karamoja, we survived the deadly ambushes three times; two were close and the third was too close!

But regional police spokesman for Karamoja Mike Longole has been repeatedly assuring the public that the security forces are on top of the situation. Good man, doing his job.
 However, security is as much a feeling as it is about the size of your arsenal and the training of your personnel. For now, not many people in Karamoja and outside it feel secure about the region. 

And then, the districts neighbouring Karamoja both to the south and to the west are arming themselves for a possible spillover of the problem. The Teso, who are south of Karamoja, and the Acholi in the west of Karamoja have started recruiting “Arrow Boys” – these are hundreds of young men armed with bows and arrows who get trained, armed and get ready to wait to stop the enemy from Karamoja. Authorities have not discouraged the formation of the arrow units - yet.

Categories of warriors
 And how about the men of Karamoja themselves? Since the ‘breakdown’ of disarmament, there are two categories of men in Karamoja (excluding government and aid workers): There are the armed and the unarmed. During the last/current disarmament, those who surrendered their guns to the government security became unarmed. Unfortunately, they were marked by those who refused to hand over the guns – the armed. They became targets. Some have become victims, already dead.

 As the hunger in Karamoja became unbearable in the past couple of months, more people have started leaving the region, trekking to Bunyoro in western Uganda, where they hear they can get jobs cutting sugarcane on plantations. To get to Bunyoro they have to cross Acholi, a vast region.
The great trek to Bunyoro has been joined by the men who handed over their guns to the government. From Loyoro Sub-county alone, 200 such young men have already left to Bunyoro, for staying means certain death at the hands of those who refused to disarm, and stay in the forests but have no intention of forgiving those who surrendered the weapons.

The chairperson of Kaabong District, Mr Jino Meri, has been quoted in media describing a win-win situation that may ensure the survival of the Karimojong race. In every homestead where people are leaving for Bunyoro, the district leadership ensures that at least two not-so-old people remain behind, to look after the children, those infants who cannot survive the long trek to Bunyoro.
There will still be Karimojong people when the crisis ends in some distant future.