Meet the ‘Radical Mad Men’ of northern Uganda

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • This Acholi “Radical Mad Man” is an environmentalist, so he also made a green case. Balalo’s cattle weed the field as they graze, and leave dung behind. 

Last week in Gulu, and briefly in Lira, I ran into about 12 very surprising things. One of the most surprising of them was the contrarian view on the vexed issue of Balalo (itinerant cattle herders mostly from western Uganda).

The Balalo are an emotive social and political issue. To put it crudely, local nationalists in the parts of Buganda, northern, and West Nile regions where they roam see them as land grabbing Trojan horses for a dominant western Uganda elite.

President Yoweri Museveni’s government views them as politically dangerous because they invite hatred upon him and his regime, and they risk provoking a land war that could imperil his hold on power.

In northern Uganda, the spectre of land grabs by Kampala-based power men and their foreign co-conspirators looms over the region. In recent years, the government has ordered the army to drive out the Balalo.

In two separate conservations, some actors in the north offered a dissenting view. They think the hostility to the Balalo in the north and south is ignorant of the history of pre-colonial cattle grazing corridors in what is present-day Uganda; are driven by fear and old ethnic prejudices; and that the government’s responses are fuelled by electoral politics opportunism.

A story is told of a new-money large landowner in the Acholi region. He also happens to be mostly an absent landlord, and has long-term plans for his land, but is not using it yet. While he was away squatters invaded his land.

He spent several millions of shillings buying them out and relocating them. One of the small, but a very unconventional group of “Radical Mad Men” in Acholi advised him to lease his vast and fertile land to Balalo for grazing. He advised him to structure a deal where each Mulalo gives him a cow every so often for grazing on the land. 

He reasoned that Balalo were not going to settle on the land precisely because they are Balalo. They are also a short-term solution to the squatter problem, he argued, because their “occupation” of land as informally licenced Balalo keeps away the “encroachers”, usually farmers, and therefore are given to settling down and burying their dead on the lands they have occupied, establishing a cultural connection that makes it costly to relocate them.

This Acholi “Radical Mad Man” is an environmentalist, so he also made a green case. Balalo’s cattle weed the field as they graze, and leave dung behind. Both of those actions help keep the land healthy, and in some cases have dramatically improved fertility.

The new-money guy listened, reached an agreement with Balalo networks, and they descended on his land with their cattle. It’s nearly four years now, and the chap is the owner of several hundred cows, paid to him by the Balalo for using his land. If it hadn’t been for the disruption of Covid-19, he would likely be the owner of a thousand herds of cattle. He no longer has a squatter problem. When it rains his land turns into a remarkably lush green endless stretch. He’s very happy. The Balalo are happy.

 The northern Uganda “Radical Mad Man” claimed that if an instrument could be created for the Balalo to graze similarly all over the country, it could turn Uganda into the far-out leading beef producer in Eastern Africa. And medium-size and large land owners wo uld generate a lot of money from assets that lie mostly unused, with them instead of spending money on fencing or guards to ward off possible land thieves.

Methinks a law could be made to enable individuals, businesses, and cooperatives to deposit their land in a “Balalo Land Opportunity Portal”. The law would offer enhanced protection against grabbers to land placed in the portal. Preferably, such land could also be secured by a blockchain. It should establish a mechanism through which people whose crops have been eaten or fields trampled by Balalo’s cattle, could get compensation.

Then the government and politicians would step back, and watch wonderful things happen.
 This idea is likely years ahead of its time, and the governance crisis and political polarisation in the country today make it almost impossible. But for the bold and brave, there is at least an example in a corner of northern Uganda that shows the possibilities.

And, so, back to the “Radical Mad Men”. They were born during or were children during the 15-year brutal war in the north. From the pain and deprivation, they have a world view of compassion and enlightenment as the only thing that can prevent their children from suffering what was their fate.

It’s one of the best repudiations of war I have seen. There are only a handful of “Radical Mad Men” – for now. To me, they felt like an army. 

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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