Karamoja and beyond: The lessons not learnt

Residents of Karamoja. About 60 percent of the population in the sub-region lives in poverty. PHOTO / FILE

What you need to know:

  • None of the reasons given for the current famine is new. They have been happening on and off since before independence; low crop yields following the locust invasion of 2020, prolonged drought, floods and insecurity reportedly caused by cattle rustlers, writes Mary Serumaga 

“Four in every 10 Karimojong have no food, only two in 10 have stocks enough to last a month, while three percent will be able to feed themselves for the next 90 days, according to the government,” the Monitor, July 15.

While shocking, news of famine and consequent death in Karamoja should not come as a surprise. Every year, the food security situation is monitored by the United Nations Development Programme, which also makes projections for the following year.

The sub-region has been on World Food Programme (WFP) emergency food aid since 2017. The Ministry of Relief and Disaster Preparedness states that more than half a million people are “at risk of food insecurity.”

The Integrated Phase Food Security Classification (IPC) is more informative projecting 160,000 in crisis (phase 3) food insecurity and 28,000 in emergency (phase 4).

The 2017 famine had been forecast by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, yet that year, the government failed to pay any money into the disaster preparedness fund.

That year, the WFP extended its emergency assistance to become semi-permanent and broaden its mission to cover ‘extreme poverty, chronic food insecurity and poor access to basic social services’ – one might say the WFP became the government of Karamoja.

Going further back, in 2014, Karamoja’s 1.37 million people were assessed as being at various stages of food insecurity. Eighteen percent of the population was in the crisis stage (phase 3) of the IPC.

A further 58 percent were at phase 2, defined as being stressed. Households had exhausted their food stocks by March of that year.

What is surprising is that we have learned nothing about governing Karamoja or Uganda in general. At the technical level, we are as unprepared for disaster today as we were for the famines of 2014, 2017, 2020, and 2021.

In the same period, multiple landslides became occasions for firefighting totally predictable disasters in Bududa, Mbale, and Bundibugyo.

The floods washed away bridges and caused both all-weather and seasonal roads to close, and Karamoja and other regions were cut off altogether.

None of the reasons given for the current famine is new. They have been happening on and off since before Independence; low crop yields following the locust invasion of 2020, prolonged drought, floods and insecurity reportedly caused by cattle rustlers.

The added complication of Covid-19 was not catered for with a contingency plan despite a locust forecasting system in the region.

In fact, Uganda was in debt to the Desert Locust Control Organisation of East Africa and was denied use of their combat aircraft before we cleared the Shs11b subscription.

The locusts were eventually dealt with – or at least the solution was paid for – with $48 million borrowed under the World Bank.

Apart from eradicating the locusts, the funds were meant to restore the livelihoods of farmers and pastoralists affected by providing cash transfers.

The logic behind using cash-transfers to individuals rather than handing out dry rations, was that cash minimises the cost, clumsiness and corruption related to bulk procurement and distribution of foodstuff. Post-Covid, lists of the vulnerable should have been available.

Cash transfers could have boosted the economies of neighbouring districts that supply food to the famine affected areas, that is  Elgon, Acholi and Teso which follow Karamoja in the poverty table.

Covid-related cash transfers were made, although it is unclear to whom. As it is, in Karamoja, the government has reverted to ‘food aid’. Sacks of maize flour and beans are being bought (in surprisingly small quantities) and transported by road from the capital to the region more than 400Km away.

Once there, and together with a donation from a political party, they are stored for at least two days in order to sort out the administrative details.

In the meantime, people die of hunger. So far, individual local government leaders are announcing figures for their dead ranging from 58 to nearly 400. The death tallies published during the pandemic were more comprehensive.

Moving on from emergency interventions, the durable solution for survival in Karamoja depends on solving the perennial water shortage.

Leaders of one district requested an over-ground rainwater storage tank rather than valley dams which are unsuited for the sandy terrain but they were overridden.

Rainwater harvest tanks could be the answer for part of the year, for example during the floods of October 2019 and September 2020 when Namalu bridge was washed away and Karamoja was cut off from the rest of the country. Hundreds were displaced by floods in May last year.  Napak, one of the worst affected districts,  has 24,000 people not served with safe water supplies at the best of times. Only seven percent of the population has access to rainwater harvest tanks.

This pattern is repeated all over the sub-region which depends mostly on borehole and springs. Contrast that with Isingiro District where 68 percent of the population is served by rainwater harvest tanks – it can be done. (In Isingiro, there are more people not served than served with safe water).

During the 2017 famine, this writer reported: “In 2002/2003, Shs3.86 billion was used to build valley dams in the Karamoja area with disastrous results; in many cases, the engineering incompetence of three foreign contracting firms resulted in dams not fit for purpose; some were actually washed away when the rains eventually came. Many of those left standing were vandalised owing to absent security measures.” (cadtm.org).

Poverty too is endemic in Karamoja. It is the poorest sub-region of Uganda by a wide margin.  Sixty percent of the population is poor, followed by Elgon at 43 percent.

The main economic activity is artisanal gold mining (Ubos). Marble is also abundant. The locals are being forced out of mining by commercial miners licensed by the central government.

Central government is entitled by law to 80 percent of mineral royalties, local government 17 percent and the community the remaining three percent.

Royalties owed to the Karimojong are routinely not paid as commercial mining concerns play the old mining trick of claiming to be prospecting and not actually commercially mining.

This brings us to the biggest lesson not learned from 35 years of chaos – civic engagement. The presidency and Parliament are not standalone devices. They are supplied by the electorate, which ideally exercises checks and balances over them to ensure good governance. It is the absence of civic engagement that allows rampant corruption and non-performance in service delivery.

The challenges are known, state brutality and the rest, but as with the environmental challenges of Karamoja, those that have had the benefit of education and other privileges are responsible for devising solutions.

In the meantime, when cash is available, it is lost to wastage and nugatory expenditure. Our leaders have spent it on expanding Parliament, expanding their earnings from the public purse.

When after that the Parliamentary Commission resolved to increase the already too high pay of members, there were no walk-outs from the House, boycotts or other forms of protest.

The grants were accepted and the reason given was that the money was going to be used to “help our people”. The voting public was not helped to understand the opportunity cost of gifting each of 535 members a car, at a total cost of Shs1 billion.

A further Shs2.5 billion was spent on ‘ceremonial vehicles’ for the Speaker and her deputy. For the record, a secondary school costs Shs2 billion to build.


Food rationing



During the pandemic, the President demonstrated that each person should be able to survive on 200 grammes of posho a day.

If so, to provide one meal for each of the 166,000 at phase 4 emergency level requires 33.2 tonnes of maize flour. Government sent 1,590 tonnes of maize flour and 795 tonnes of beans. – enough for 7.6 million meals of 200 grammes each, one a day for 15 days.

Clearly insufficient. The National Unity Platform sent 2.5 tonnes. These are 12,500 meals. That is enough to provide a single meal for less than half of the 28,000 people at the emergency stage of food insecurity in Karamoja.

It is not the job of politicians to feed the hungry and they need to quit trying while squandering national resources.

Few, if any, party supporters held their representatives to account for this failing.

That is why next year’s floods, drought and landslides will find government unprepared yet again and will likely result in another famine.

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