Karamoja killings test approach to social licensing of mining activities

Author: Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • It carries a zilch of comfort to inconveniently sneak cattle rustling into the conversation.

Growing up, a stereotypical adage was parroted: “We shall not wait for Karamoja to develop”. Before one properly grasped the contours of Uganda’s map and the geopolitical history of our peoples, an inevitable bias simmered in the subconscious. Poetic justice or a realised foreboding, Karimojong started pouring into Kampala streets in the form of juveniles with babies perched across their chests, suckling emaciated breasts.

Despite the negative publicity and hazy central government interventions to correct systemic injustices in basic literacy, health, dignity and overall development in the region, it is a well known fact that Karamoja is a seductive pot of mineral and natural wealth.

In the recent past, there has been heightened political interest, land excitement and a bevy of activity by non governmental organisations in Karamoja; the nexus of conversation being its wealth of over 50 minerals including those technically referred to as “critical minerals” which have been touted as key drivers to the next phase of the energy transition as investment in fossil options faces a mixed bag of fortunes.

The status quo presents more learnings than wins at this point. Whereas the conversation on project affected persons (PAPs) in Bunyoro and along the proposed oil pipeline deserves its own telling, we do well to acknowledge that the social licence for Karamoja needs even more rigour.

Social License to Operate (SLO) has been defined as the intangible and unwritten, tacit, social contract with society, or a social group, which enables an extraction or processing operation to enter a community, start, and continue operations. Whereas geologists and prospecting actors will likely have prior regulatory approval, the nature of extractives management is such that the community most impacted needs to acquiesce to the activities.

Typically, there needs to be: a deep understanding of the socioeconomic environment, a strong commitment to the community, an active presence of government, and effective communication between the actors involved in mining activities. It is hoped that the combination of such elements would result in improved trust levels between the prospectors and the community. Simply put, the cost-benefit analysis for Karamoja’s extractives cannot be concluded in suit and tie, in Kampala board rooms and offshore havens. There need to be boots on the ground, patiently shadowing herdsmen and translating complex macro economics into antiquated cultural and personal biases.

When nomads are shooting geologists and their security detail, this portends an impasse of opaque proportions and the inevitable conclusion that Karamoja people perceive extractive activities on their land as obtrusive to their way of life.

Similarly, a militaristic response to failed social contracts is an unlikely solution. Within civilised societies, it is the duty of police to keep law and order within a justiciable framework palatable to civilian comfort. It is absurd that we have normalised the option of unleashing armed forces on civilian communities within our own borders; even worse, when there are tribal undertones against a historically marginalised community like the Karimojong.

It carries a zilch of comfort to inconveniently sneak cattle rustling into the conversation. An outdated cultural practice no doubt, often escalated beyond colonial borders among African kin and kith, there is a possibility to tackle cattle rustling and its ilk through sensitisation, alternative economic interventions, strengthening local law enforcement and addressing border porosity issues. If armed forces deem it necessary to pursue errant communities beyond our borders, a different kind of problem is likely to emerge.

In keeping with the faith that Uganda’s economic fortunes can be rescued by sustainably tapping our natural resources, it behooves the leadership to revise its approach to social licensing so as to nip community unrest in the bud. Militarisation of failed dialogue is an extreme we do well to avoid.

Mr  Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi is a lawyer and author.