NAIROBI, 7 December (IRIN) - Karamojong
pastoralists in northeastern Uganda have voluntarily handed in some 7,000
illegal weapons since the beginning of a government-sponsored disarmament
programme on 2 December, according to the Ugandan authorities.
"The appeal is working so well that it looks as though a hardline approach will not be needed," presidential spokeswoman Mary Okurut told IRIN on Friday. "The latest estimate is that about 7,000 have been handed in," she said.
The pastoralists were originally given one month to surrender their weapons under the disarmament programme, which it is hoped will remove some 40,000 weapons from circulation in Karamoja. However, the amnesty period has subsequently been extended to six months, following consultations between Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and local tribal leaders, Okurut said.
The people of Matheniko county, Moroto District, through the traditional elders, had pledged "total support" to the programme, the government said in a statement.
The Member of Parliament for Matheniko county, Moroto District, Sam Pirir Abura, was among 500 Matheniko Karamojong who voluntarily surrendered over 3,000 weapons to Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) Third Division Commander Colonel Sula Semakula during a ceremony in Moroto town on Sunday 2 December.
"We, however, do not have any record that a gun was ever given to Pirr," Semakula said.
In return for disarmament, Museveni has pledged to develop the marginalised northeastern subregion of Karamoja.
Museveni told some 100 youths at a meeting in Moroto District on 3 December that, once all illegal weapons were collected, the government would begin to build schools, organise immunisation programmes, construct valley dams and treat cattle diseases in the region, according to the government statement.
All those that surrendered their guns before the end of the amnesty period would be rewarded with ploughs and chains to assist cultivation, and would be given oxen in the next financial year. Museveni also promised them corrugated iron sheets with which to build permanent houses.
"I was very happy when I saw the guns that had been voluntarily surrendered, so I thought that these people should not go back empty-handed," Museveni told Karamojong 'warriors' from Bokora county, according to a report on Thursday in the government-owned New Vision newspaper.
"This is very encouraging and, if this continues, peace is a very real possibility in Karamoja soon," Museveni added.
The Karamojong have been widely criticised for carrying out armed raids against neighbouring districts in eastern Uganda, most notably in Katakwi District where some 80,000 people have been forced into - and to remain in - displacement camps as a result of the raids.
Members of parliament from the neighbouring Teso subregion, which includes Katakwi, threatened to sue the government in October, saying more than 10,000 people had been killed and at least 20,000 head of cattle stolen from the area since Museveni came to power in 1986.
At the end of the six-month disarmament programme, anyone found in possession of an illegal firearm would be arrested, according to Okurut.
"If anyone is found to have illegal guns, the police will have to step in and get them," she said.
Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), which is planning to open an office in Moroto town to monitor progress in the disarmament initiative, has warned the government against using force to disarm the Karamojong.
"The Commission's stand is that violence should be avoided as much as possible. Life and property should be respected," said Aliro Omara, UHRC commissioner in charge of monitoring and treaties.
"Where force is used, it should only be absolutely necessary but proportional to the circumstances," the independent Monitor newspaper on Wednesday quoted him as saying.
The Ugandan government initially gave weapons to small groups of "home guards" within the Karamoja sub-region to enable the population defend itself against raids by the Turkana and Pokot pastoralist groups from northwestern Kenya.
Museveni has attempted to reassure the Karamojong that the government will protect them from armed raids by Kenyan pastoralists by deploying Ugandan army detachments and paramilitary Local Defence Units (LDUs) along the border with Kenya.
Some 60 LDUs have been undergoing training by the UPDF and were scheduled begin deployment in each of the 44 sub-counties of Karamoja subregion on Wednesday, 5 December, according to the government statement on disarmament progress.
Although the armed LDUs will be staffed by Karamojong pastoralists, they will be strengthened through training and placed under the supervision of UPDF commanders, Okurut told IRIN.
Recent research by the local nongovernmental organisation Action for Development of Local Communities (ADOL) has suggested, however, that rogue soldiers from the Ugandan army have been responsible for the sale of much of the arms and ammunition that has contributed to instability in the subregion.
UPDF spokesman Lt-Col Phineas Katirimina said last week that the army would punish any soldiers found trading arms "because the sale of a gun [by a soldier] is an offence under the law."
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