Why Karamoja stays stuck in a poverty rut

A Karimojong woman pans gold at Katikekile Village in Moroto District. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) in 2019 reported that Karamoja suffers the highest poverty rate of 60.2 percent, way above Uganda’s national average of 21.4 percent. PHOTOS | TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • In the second instalment of our Poverty Made in Uganda series, Derrick Wandera directs attention to a litany of ills in the country’s poorest sub-region, Karamoja.

The midmorning scorching sun blazes upon the bare, vast expanse of land covered by stunted, almost-leafless trees in Anakwamovu Village, Lokudumo C parish, Kopeyi Sub-county in Napak District of Karamoja Sub-region.

A young woman, half-clothed in a tattered dress, walks about with her seven children, most of them naked, trotting behind her.

She climbs a short tree to pick leaves which later make the family’s ‘meal’. The family cannot afford salt to improve the taste of the bitter leaves.

Such is the desperate life that more than 78 percent of the people in Karamoja struggle with. The irony is that this mother is supposed to have benefitted from no less than three poverty-alleviation government programmes here.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) in 2019 reported that Karamoja suffers the highest poverty rate of 60.2 percent, way above Uganda’s national average of 21.4 percent. It is followed by Bukedi 43.7 percent, Busoga 37.5 percent, with Ankole in the west considerably better off at 6.8 percent.

Other reports on food security have placed Karamoja’s situation at 75 percent over the past 10 years. And it is in this sub-region where a Shs35 billion economic empowerment programme is under a criminal investigation. Highlighted in the inquiry is the so-called iron sheets and dead goats scandal involving the vice president, prime minister, speaker of Parliament, several ministers and members of Parliament.

Northern Uganda has since 2002 received stimulus interventions totalling close Shs4.45 trillion, especially after the internal displacements of entire populations during the 20-year armed conflict between the government and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.

More than 100,000 lives were lost to the war and its associated consequences, including disease and hunger. Nearly 1.8 million displaced people lived in 251 ‘protected camps’ across 11 districts in northern Uganda.

In the aftermath, there were interventions like the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (Nusaf), including $100 million (Shs370 billion) for Nusaf I from 2003 to 2006 in 40 districts.

An additional $135 million (Shs500 billion) financed Nusaf II (2009-2012) in 56 districts and $130 million (Shs481 billion) for Nusaf III (2015-2020) in 67 districts.

Another multimillion dollar programme, the Northern Uganda Reconstruction Programme (Nurp) preceded Nusaf. To-date, it is not clear what Nurp achieved in Karamoja.

Karamoja in the historically marginalised northeast was included in these programmes (all funded through donor grants/loans) partly because of its long-standing struggles with internecine strife characterised by armed cattle rustling and general lawlessness.

The sub-region comprises nine districts: Kaabong, Kotido, Abim, Moroto, Napak, Amudat, Nakapiripirit, Nabilatuk and Karenga.

Poverty alleviation

Monitor investigation reveals that untold corruption, ghost projects, local resistance to change in socio-economic activity and lack of political support have undermined almost all interventions.

Karimojong crash rocks at a quarry. Local leaders and people say most government projects in the area are bedevilled by a ghost or non-existent presence on the ground.

Sarah Naduk is a member of Lokudumosi ‘C’ Emyooga group but because her group did not receive their share of the money under this poverty alleviation initiative, they have remained very poor.

Documents seen by the Monitor show that Napak has 22 registered groups for Emyooga.

But Mr John Lokivu Angole, the Local Council chairman in Anakwamovu, says: “We have heard stories that our money was stolen by the top leadership. I went there myself and they told me they would send us money in a week but now it is six months and no one has come to us.”

Emyooga falls under the Presidential Initiative on Wealth and Job Creation and was launched in 2019 as part of the broad government strategy to transform 68 percent of rural households from subsistence to money economy. Its monies should be channelled through savings and cooperatives groups.

Emyooga mirrors a range of other past programmes, among them Entandikwa, Poverty Alleviation Programme, Poverty Action Plan, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund,  Operation Wealth Creation, and the National Agriculture Advisory Service, among others.

Despite billions of shillings they have swallowed, these grand schemes have registered less than satisfactory outcomes countrywide, but more especially so in off-grid places like Karamoja.

Our findings show that the 22 groups in Napak were registered to receive Shs30 million each but only six of them got the money.

Each of the 22 groups had a membership of 180 people but even those who got the Shs30 million found the money insufficient with each member taking home about Shs166,000.

“We have been to the district headquarters several times but we don’t get clear explanations why some groups like mine have not received the money. We are told that maybe some people have diverted the money,” says Peter Apuun, the chairman of Lokudumo ‘b’ Village in Moroto District.

Denis Okori, the Resident District Commissioner of Napak, blames local leaders for failing to monitor government projects.

“It is poor leadership to oversee the issues that they have been tasked with,” Okori says.

Nusaf lies in limbo

Many local leaders and people here say that most government projects in the area are bedevilled by a ghost or non-existent presence on the ground.

They say that a person can put up a signpost indicating that there is a project in a given place, take pictures of the signpost and send it to the donors or government as proof of activity.

Lopeei Sub-county, Nakwamoru Parish, Lokunget Village, Napak is supposed to host the Lodapal Cereal Banking Youth Group whose funds, according to the village leaders, were released in 2018. To-date what you find is a signpost sitting in solitude on bare land.

A village leader, who asked not to be named, says they have never seen any official from the government check on the project which was under Nusaf II under the prime minister’s office.

“We only see people coming with cameras and we have never known what exactly it is they are doing. The locals are not encouraged to speak about anything lest you get attacked or be framed as a cattle rustler,” the leader says.

This reporter interviewed many residents who generally told the same story about unfulfilled hopes. But their reported resistance to change could also be partly to blame for the failures.

“That is the huge trick we use here because most of the projects are not appreciated by the locals. They think that someone putting up a project is actually plotting to steal their land. So, they put up heavy resistance and in the end the project managers enjoy wide legroom to steal the funds that are meant for it,” one official said.

On June 6, 2022, the anti-corruption unit in State House wrote to the Moroto RDC, Mr George William Wopuwa bringing to his attention the mismanagement of Shs1.5 billion.

The letter signed by the head of the unit, Brig Henry Ishoke asked the RDC to investigate.

“Refer to the letter, Ref PO/1.20 dated 6/6/2022 addressed to the RDC Moroto copied to you from [the] Head-Anti-corruption Unit, State House among others. The letter requested me to cause investigations on two issues mentioned in the letter,” Wopuwa subsequently wrote to the district police chief and other officials.

The investigation was “To establish how a decision was taken to locate a school in an area not settled, who was the project manager; what were the BOQs (Bill of Quantities) for each of the contracts awarded and what was the rationale/justification of having five contractors.”

The RDC noted that the four classrooms “do not have furniture, what was the plan? The project does not have solar [power] or the [electricity from the] national grid, what was the plan for lighting the school.

He also indicated that there was no site plan.

“There is shoddy work. The latrines have cracks, the dining hall floor is cracked. What is the anticipated course of action, there are no staff houses and there are no nearby settlements. When conceiving the project, how were teachers expected to reside,” the letter said.

Mr Wopuwa, however, says the police have never responded.

“There is no coordination at all; the work is not moving because those who are supposed to do their work have refused to do it. I have been blackmailed and ganged [upon] by people because of following up ghost projects and corruption,” Wopuwa said.

Mr Peter Mugabi Wambuzi, the Moroto District police commander, declined to speak to this publication not ready to comment on the matter. I feel very uncomfortable to comment on this issue,” Mugabi said in a telephone interview.

Wopuwa’s experience appears to be typical in Karamoja.

Next week, Poverty Made in Uganda explores how the coronavirus pandemic and its mismanagement has compounded poverty in Uganda.

Govt culpable

Marlon Agaba, the team leader of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), says that the government and local leaders in Karamoja are equally to blame.

“I know that there are more signposts than beneficiaries,” Agaba says adding, “Elite capture is that the people who have studied have not fought enough for their own people because they have connived…”

The Nabilatuk District chairperson, Mr Paul Lokol, observes that a Shs3 billion agricultural project is lying idle with the proprietors, Agro-max mills failing to put up structures and grow maize.

This publication discovered that Agro-max sits on more than 100 acres of land but there is no work done.

“We have tried to reach out to the person but he has been dodging us and yet government money is being put to a waste. We demand that he comes out and explains why he is lying to the government that there is anything happening yet there is nothing,” Lokol said.

“Karamoja is a national tragedy. We have had a lot of affirmative action in Karamoja but when you look at the indicators of poverty and hunger, the two are in total contradiction because the people haven’t been empowered. The mindsets of the people haven’t helped in any way.”

Agromax confirmed that they indeed received the money from the government, maintaining that all of it was spent.

“Shs1.3 billion was released for the site and these funds have been fully accounted for to Nusaf III. The funds supported the road opening to site, bush clearance, ploughing and harrowing, inputs for the first production, water source and management (borehole drilling, solar and reticulation of water/storage), labour for beneficiaries on site, mindset development activities. In order to protect the government investments on site and ensure continuity, we are present onsite as requested by OPM.” Agromax said in a statement.

“Site/land allocation and site selection was done on 17th July 2019. Consent for land for the project was delayed due to various reasons, mostly political interference from leaders. The site finally opened in April of 2020 amid insecurity (land consent forms signed by community allocating land were provided, futile requests for security from IGP and UPDF also shared). Karamoja sub-region requires careful mindset and preparation for the actual SBDI (Settlement Based Development Initiative) implementation – the adaptation takes time.”

Agromax also contends that the land belongs to the people and they have issued land consent forms but politicians have interfered.

“We registered a community-based organisation which operates the site and mans the operations on SBDI. Politicians have previously tried to take this land but we have failed them and hence the interference. Woman MP Sylvia Awas’ case of land encroachment on the project land was reported to authorities and the matter was put to rest. However, political interference is still an issue” Agromax said.