Militarised approach won’t bring peace to Karamoja

Racheal Wanyana 

What you need to know:

The Karimojong need to see the programmes and institutions of government that operate in their midst as belonging to them and working for their benefit

The relative peace that the Karamoja region has enjoyed for close to two decades is slithering away by the day. Blame has been laid on ignorance, ‘backwardness’, guns, and the ‘Karimajong warriors’ who are said to be responsible for the endemic cattle rustling.

Government has adopted a militarised response to the escalating insecurity, deploying more soldiers and issuing ‘shoot to kill’ orders in instances involving cattle rustlers. In March, a communique by the UPDF spokesman Brigadier Felix Kulayigye revealed that the army had killed 309 ‘warriors’ in an operation against cattle rustling. Those killed were termed as “warriors” without providing any elaboration. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the commander of UPDF’s land forces tweeted that the army had possibly killed more people than the stated number.

A similar attitude was displayed by the UPDF in the wake of the fatal attacks on two UPDF soldiers and geologists a few days later. Brigadier Joseph Balikuddembe, the UPDF 3rd Division Commander blamed ‘hatred and ignorance’ for the attacks, while Gen. Muhoozi, again, tweeted a strongly worded message to the ‘Karimajong criminals’, threatening to show them ‘who the real man is’. In the days that followed, our social media feeds and indeed ourselves were overwhelmed by chilling pictures and videos of dismembered bodies, bodies with glaring gunshot wounds, charred bodies, and razed households. In one haunting video, soldiers held up the skull of one of the victims, reigning insults on it in front of a hut with a charred body. The condescending language and militarised approach in the bid to quell conflicts in Karamoja carries forward a dangerous colonial legacy of isolation and hostility that has defined the relations between the Karimojong and the different governments of Uganda. In 1911, Karamoja was declared a closed zone under military restriction by the colonial administration. Thereafter, the administration plundered and repressed the local residents at will. Post-independence, the state has tended to treat Karamoja as a war zone where the principles of democratic governance do not apply. Instead, ad hoc crisis management mechanisms have been relied upon in governing the region. Rules of admissibility of evidence and the revered legal principle of the presumption of innocence have often been set aside, placing sole discretion in the hands of soldiers.

This approach failed in the past, and it is most certainly not going to work now. Instead, it will aggravate the hostility and resentment which has characterised the Karimojong experience of government. A more sustainable approach to the conflicts in Karamoja should invest in building trust, and getting the Karimojong to identify with the government. The Karimojong need to see the programmes and institutions of government that operate in their midst as belonging to them and working for their benefit. Those who have been to the region will agree that there is overwhelming support within the Karimojong community and leadership for initiatives aimed at ending cattle rustling and other violent conflicts. This should be embraced as a leverage point by the government.

Government’s response should take into consideration the multifaceted nature of the conflict drivers so that the solutions designed address the root causes at all levels. While cattle raids and the violence associated with them constitute the single most traumatic type of insecurity, there are other equally traumatic types and manifestations of conflict that are not so publicised. Only by understanding these different typologies and manifestations of conflict can a comprehensive and sustainable intervention, with real chances of success, be designed.

Ms  Racheal  Wanyana  is a lawyer and Pan-Africanist.