Karamoja: A tale of insecurity, paradox of plenty - VIDEO

Turkana pastoralists water their animals in Kobebe, Moroto District, before they were flushed out by UPDF in 2020. PHOTOS / STEVEN ARIONG

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Karamoja is perhaps the richest part of the country in terms of mineral wealth, yet its people remain locked in abject poverty while the area remains a hotspot of cattle rustling and land grabbing, writes Emmanuel Mutaizibwa.

The dirt, ochre colour road winds through the hills of Karamoja, a sub-region at the north-eastern tip of the country rich in mineral wealth.
A drought has enveloped the sub-region. As rivers and streams trickle, leaves and plants wither away, cracks widen in the barren land as the golden fingers of the sun blaze across this wind-swept area.
However, there is a greater danger lurking in the dark shadows of these savannah grasslands.
In Rupa Sub-county, a flashpoint area in Moroto District, heavily armed soldiers at a detach in the area return from a patrol in the punishing heat.
By March, the UPDF estimated that about 309 cattle rustlers had been killed in Karamoja.

A conflict that has spurned for decades, the Karimojong lost chunks of land through pacification, redrawing boundaries between Kenya and Sudan that left much of their grazing regions outside Uganda, and their expulsion from newly formed game parks, reserves and protected forests. 
They were forced to sell their livestock and it was also confiscated to pay taxes imposed by British imperialists. During the Amin regime, more land was parcelled to establish the Moroto army barracks at the foothills of Mt Moroto.
Unlicensed arms continue to slip through the neighbouring porous entry points from as far as the Horn of Africa, Kenya and South Sudan. 
Bokora County MP, John-Bosco Ngoya told Daily Monitor: “We are not closing the porous borders where those guns are coming from, there is a lot of trade in guns now; people are arming because they can protect themselves.”

He says Uganda alongside its three neighbours, including South Sudan and Kenya, inked a deal to halt the movement of arms but the Turkana continue to cross into Uganda’s grazing fields with guns.
Mr Kenneth Massa, who works with Resource Rights Africa, a watchdog organisation based in Karamoja, says: “The biggest factor escalating the insecurity is the lack of coordination and communication. Whenever the raids happen, the community tells you that ‘first of all, we appreciate the government has promoted the disarmament and many people have returned the guns. However, we are not secure because our neighbours in Kenya still have the guns and whenever they come we are vulnerable and the soldiers who are there to protect us in most cases have not protected us.’”

Once in the hands of locals, these guns have fuelled banditry, clan rivalry among the communities in Karamoja, death and despair.
Without proper services in the area, herdsmen continue to search for pastures and water outside Karamoja, tormenting the neighbouring sub-regions of Teso, Lango, Acholi, Sebei and Bugisu. 
“The spate has increased because security has not been guaranteed for the protection of the innocent people. We brought this to the attention of the President together with the army command...,” argues Mr Ngoya who says they have held several meetings with the UPDF top brass.
“We actually pointed to them, if you are thin on the ground, if you are not able to guarantee protection, then there is a problem, the security can only be guaranteed by UPDF. We did move in a peace caravan talking to people for one month, engaging them together with UPDF. They were telling UPDF where to deploy, but because they were thin on the ground, the situation went worse,” he reveals. 

Security officers under the Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) train in readiness for an operation against cattle rustlers in Moroto in late 2021.  ASTU works with the UPDF to take on cattle rustlers in Karamoja.

Army efforts
But the UPDF 3rd Division Commander, Brig Joseph Balikuddembe, during an interview at Moroto barracks said: “I think it’s blown out of proportion. It is very true that some criminal elements have been stealing cows, have been to some extent killings, looting but we are managing the security situation.”
“There was some escalation in the month of February and March, and the increase in insecurity was brought about by the drought. We have managed to recover a number of weapons from the criminal elements totalling 193; from February to March, we recovered 59 rifles. We arrested quite a number of suspects and prosecuted them and they are serving sentences in a number of government prisons but we still have criminal elements pending prosecution,” he said.

But Mr Ngoya says the army ought to take responsibility. 
“Surely these are criminal elements who are armed and they can only be dealt [with] by an agency of government that has arms. When they were bomb blasts in Kampala, the army was called in to put the situation to rest, when they were attacks in Masaka, it was the army which was able to put the situation to rest, you are blaming the victim,” he says. 
This afternoon, the UPDF 403 Brigade Commander, Col Peter Akankunda Nabasa, has received a tip about a gun that has been recovered in one of the areas where they recently recovered nine other guns.
We closely trail the UPDF vehicle as it snakes through the dirt roads.
As we get closer, the commanding officer is aware of the perils that lie ahead. He asks for more reinforcement as more heavily-armed soldiers are deployed. Upon arrival, the soldiers alight the pickup truck and take strategic positions to counter any threat at this hamlet.

It is revealed that a young Turkana herdsman recently brought this gun to Kobebe Dam in Rupa Sub-county. This area is not far away from Lotisan Sub-county where Turkana warriors killed three geologists from the Energy ministry alongside two UPDF escorts.
The army has asked the Kenyan government to repatriate the suspects accused of killing the geologists who were picking soil samples to stand trial. 
But the Kenyan government is yet to comply with the request. 
The UPDF 3rd Division spokesperson, Maj Isaac Oware, tells Daily Monitor: “We were ably informed that these two weapons have been recovered, the PK and SMG [guns] and they are across with our counterparts in Orum, Kenya, with the Kenyan government police and the other suspects we are still pursuing them.” 

The UPDF has since then occupied the grazing fields at Kobebe and ordered Turkana pastoralists out of the area.
At Moroto barracks, a meeting between Brig Balikuddembe and his commanders has just been concluded.  The commander says the army is committed to bringing to an end this new cycle of violence.
“We recover [cattle] when we receive timely intervention; when we can’t recover the cows, it means the owners entrusted the children to graze the cows. The rustlers steal the cows and that complicates recovery, then we start tracing, which is time wasting because it has not been immediately reported,” he argues.

However, Brig Balikuddembe admits that the contours of the conflict are complex and revealed that plans are underway to increase the number of troops in the sub-region.
“The Turkana have been in an alliance with the Matheniko for close to 50 years, its also escalating the problem because they are a source of weapons to the Matheniko and other neighbouring communities such as the Jie of Kotido,” he reveals. 
However, he says there is a perception that the Jie clan is predominantly notorious. 
“They have raided all the communities but they collaborate with other clans. The Jie have crossed and raided Abim, Teso, Acholi, and even raid Turkana in Kenya,” he explains.
Brig Balikuddembe says the other clans should emulate the Pokot and Pian clans who rely on amicable methods to resolve disputes and are living harmoniously. 

He told Daily Monitor that a week earlier, “We mounted cordon and search operations and we have so far arrested eight Turkana with six guns and we arrested 12 Mathenikos and we have been interrogating them and they have two guns.”
“We have moved in Kotido and Nabilatuk and we have arrested the criminal gang heads that have been destabilising the sub-region. There are notable criminal heads that are still out there and we are still hunting for them,” he explains.
Daily Monitor also put to Brig Balikuddembe concerns that some of his soldiers have been accused of cattle thefts and complicity in human rights abuses. 

“We don’t deny that in our own we have some errant soldiers that normally connive with the communities out there and steal the cows that are impounded but we have been arresting them. Once we get information that a cow has not been found at the detachment, then the detach commander is put at task, and we have been arresting them, we have been arresting not only the soldiers but even those they connive with, to make sure that we stop the criminality in our force,” he says.

Speaking about human rights violations during the process of restoring peace in the restive pockets of Karamoja, Brig Balikuddembe says: “Even if a UPDF [soldier] is in a middle of the forest anywhere in this country and commits an offence, he went there either by foot or was transported to do the job, that criminal will be picked by a helicopter to come and answer the charges as quickly as possible, we don’t condone anything.”

For instance in Kaabong District that borders Kotido and the Turkana region in Kenya, of the 34 kraals, only four have been spared of raids.
Some of the kraals are adjacent to the army barracks, meant to offer protection.  “There is commercialisation of this particular conflict and this commercial element is aided by security agencies. That’s why we are calling for an audit for the operation command, and lots of things will be unravelled, the trade in bullets, the big bulls are disappearing,” revealed the Bokora County MP. 
He is also concerned that cattle are slipping through UPDF roadblocks in the night.
The cells at Moroto barracks are holding some of the most notorious cattle rustlers.

Peter Lokiru Achuchu, who had earlier on escaped from the Moroto 3rd Division quarter guard in 2009, has been arrested several times.
“We have previously profiled some criminal elements who have continuously disturbed the peace of Karamoja. The first thing we did was to look at the patterns of their movement and we found out that those who had surrendered the guns voluntarily had returned to raids,” Brig Balikuddembe says.
“For example, Achuchu, who was in prison for 10 years, surrendered two guns; we have re-arrested him and recovered four guns from his group. He is one of the criminals who escalated this situation and he says that it’s the devil who tempted him, we have arrested those different gangs in different districts,” he adds.

Another group of cattle rustlers being held here are Turkana and Matheniko youngsters. Some of them were recently found in possession of guns and they await trial before the army court martial.
Many of the previously active mining areas have been abandoned. In Lopedo, Lodiko Sub-county, outside Kaabong Town, many small scale and artisanal miners have fled the area in fear of marauding Turkana warriors.


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