Uganda: Army to begin forcible disarmament of Karamojong

from The New Humanitarian
Published on 25 Feb 2002
NAIROBI, 25 February (IRIN) - The Ugandan army at the weekend launched a forcible disarmament operation in the insecurity-prone Karamoja subregion of northeastern Uganda, following the expiry of a month's grace period which the government extended to the Karamojong community to voluntary surrender their arms.
Maj Shaban Bantariza, the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) spokesman, told IRIN from Kampala on Monday that the army had decided to move in and forcibly disarm the Karamojong because they had largely ignored the call to surrender their guns under the voluntary disarmament programme launched by President Yoweri Museveni.

In December, Museveni travelled to the Morulinga area of Karamoja's Moroto District, where he spearheaded the voluntary disarmament exercise. He gave a deadline of 15 February, after which, he said, those found in possession of illegal firearms would be arrested.

By the expiry of the deadline, only 7,676 guns - less than a quarter of the an expected 40,000 - had been handed in by the community, according to Bantariza.

"We had given the Karamojong up to 15 February to hand in their guns. As far as 'voluntarily' is concerned, we think they are not doing well," he said. "It is not working. Some of them want to keep their arms so they can rustle their neighbours' cattle."

Bantariza added, however, that no forcible recovery of firearms had yet been carried out in the subregion because the army was still preparing the modalities of the operation.

The Karamojong, a pastoralist group in Uganda's northwestern districts of Kotido and Moroto, have been accused of raiding neighbouring districts, notably Katakwi, causing displacement of people and untold human suffering.

The insecurity caused by the Karamojong has caused the displacement of at least 10,000 households (over 80,000 people) to "protected camps" in Katakwi District alone... with many IDPs [internally displaced persons] unable to meet their daily food and nutritional requirements", the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in October 2001.

The forcible disarmament operation will involve the use of "police methods" whereby army personnel will target specific areas in the subregion, search for hidden firearms and arrest those found in possession of them, according to Shaban.

However, the operation would not involve the police themselves, he said. "The police cannot disarm the Karamojong. They are highly militarised and unwilling to bring their guns voluntarily."

Meanwhile, UPDF Third Division Commander, Sula Semakula, said the government was already issuing certificates of compliance to the Karamojong who had voluntarily handed in their weapons, according to The New Vision government-owned newspaper.

"I have assessed the situation on the ground, and found it necessary to launch the forceful recovery of the remaining guns," he said.

The Ugandan media reported on Thursday 19 February that heavily armed Karamojong warriors had invaded Katakwi District, just days prior to the expiry of the grace period given them to hand in their guns, for fear of an impending forcible disarmament.

The reports followed a statement attributed to Peter Lokeris, Minister of State for Karamoja, issuing a warning to the effect that Karamojong warriors who kept their guns after the expiry 15 February deadline would face forcible disarmament and be charged with the illegal possession of arms, with a punishment of not less than seven years in jail, the independent Monitor newspaper reported on 15 February.

Lokeris said this second phase of the exercise had been prompted by the poor performance of the Karamojong in the voluntary exercise.

"We have persuaded you [Karamojong] to return guns for the last two months, and now we have washed our hands. It is time for the army to act - you know the consequences," the Monitor quoted him a saying.

The forcible disarmament operation is, however, expected to go hand in hand with a measure of continued voluntary disarmament, with those who voluntarily hand over their firearms after the 15 February deadline still being given an amnesty, according to Shaban.

Museveni is expected to make a second visit to the insecurity-prone region during the first week of March, to "personally" plead with the Karamojong warriors to surrender their arms, according to presidential spokeswoman Mary Okurut.

The presidential adviser on media and public relations, John Nagenda, told IRIN on 19 February that Museveni's return to Karamoja in March would send the message to the Karamojong that "he cares for them as part and parcel of Uganda".

"I think he [Museveni] is ready to give them another chance to do the right thing. The guns have to go," he said.

The Ugandan government was also pressing ahead with its plans to deploy security personnel in the security zones (along the borders with neighbouring districts and neighbouring countries) to guarantee the protection of the Karamojong from invasions by other tribes, according to Nagenda.

"You can't ask people to surrender their guns if they won't be protected," he said.

The New Vision reported on Monday that a total of 3,796 vigilantes had already been earmarked for recruitment in Karamoja to guard against the traditional cross-border and inter-clan raids.

The nature of traditional cross-border cattle raiding between the Karamojong and other pastoral groups from Kenyan, Ugandan and Sudanese tribes has changed enormously in recent years due to the widespread availability of small arms in eastern Africa, according to humanitarian sources.

The Ugandan government initially supplied weapons to small groups of "home guards" within the Karamoja subregion on the grounds that the Karamojong were under threat from cross-border raids by the Turkana and Pokot pastoral groups from Kenya.

Other arms were acquired from rogue elements in the Ugandan army, from the northwestern Kenyan district of Turkana and from southern Sudan, where the 19-year civil war has given rise to widespread access to, use of and trade in small arms, according to military sources.


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