Last alarms on insecurity in Karamoja are off

Simon Longoli 

What you need to know:

  • The conflict in Karamoja is hardly understood by those who are supposed to be in position to deal with it.

In centre-spreads and fully paid supplements in national and international media between 2013 and 2018, the government of Uganda heralded the return of peace and security as the last remaining incentive to the modernisation and the full exploitation of the potential that was locked in the heart of Karamoja.

In particular, the adverts targeted investors to tap into the nascent extractive sector – seen to be Uganda’s most important opportunity for a mineral-driven development boom.

Those hopes of peace, security and development have been fast unraveling for the last three years, at least for those of us who experience conflict in Karamoja on a daily basis. The news today that Staff of the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines have been killed was as startling as it was unsurprising. For the last three years, insecurity has been on the rise in Karamoja, and the security, political and bureaucratic elite have paid Karamoja a lip service.

Karamoja Development Forum estimates some 3000 people may have died in this conflict in three years, a few deaths shy of the official Covid-19 deaths in Uganda in half the same period. Those are conservative figures, because in the words of the UPDF Chief in the region, ‘we have lost a generation to this conflict’. In the same period, hundreds of thousands of livestock have been lost – leaving thousands of households on the brink of starvation.

The conflict in Karamoja is hardly understood by those who are supposed to be in position to deal with it. The reaction by security forces, central government officials and in some cases local politicians has ranged from outright denial the problem exists, to minimizing the potential of flare ups, to misdiagnosis and recently to mis-intervention.

When in 2019 we lost a prominent LCIII chairperson to the conflict, we thought a bell had been rung and Kampala would hearken to the cries of the people in the region. Ever since, we have lost NGO workers, women, children, peace committee chairpersons, more local council leaders, and even elite government personnel in security to the conflict.

The loss of the geologists and their guards to thugs in Lokisilei village, Rupa Sub County in Moroto district this week is very sad news to us all – just as every single one of the deaths since this conflict. It marks both a twist and an escalation. As the news spread, and the unforgiving social media spread images of charred bodies lying in a morgue, a friend working with a central government agency told me they had been ordered to report to the center in Kampala out of safety precaution. They will be packing bags soon, but will every government agency that has since established itself do the same, or will it mark a dangerous knee-jerk reaction?

The fact of the matter is that the government has underplayed the significance of the security problem in Karamoja and has not allocated adequate resources to both strategy and operations. In the last week, Karamoja hosted its ‘Regional Council’, a meeting of all district councilors and key government agencies. Coming on the heels of a significant financial commitment of Shs 39 billion, it aimed to mobilize local leaders to deal with the security situation here.

Even as this financial commitment is now said to exist, those of us on the outside feel the insufficiency in real government commitment to deal with its own weaknesses, especially amongst security personnel.

From the events of this week – a mutilated body of a child in apparent ritual, the loss of government personnel, there’s very little left that will cause the eyes and hearts of this country and its government to stop the bleeding that’s been going on here. If a twitter reaction by the UPDF Commander of Land Forces is anything to go by, a full military reaction is now expected. The only issue is that Kampala-based operatives hardly understand this conflict and must now work with local leaders. The last best time to deal with the security problem in Karamoja is now.

Mr Simon Longoli is the Executive Director of Karamoja Development Forum, a research and advocacy organization in Karamoja.