Uganda: Focus on growing tension in Karamoja

News and Press Release
Originally published
NAIROBI, 22 March (IRIN) - A colonial signpost that used to read "You are now entering Karamoja closed district, no visitor may enter without an outlying district permit", may again become relevant if a law to disarm Karamojong warriors in northeast Uganda is implemented.
Tension has been mounting in the district, compounded by parliament's approval of the law last week. The law requires the government to disarm the Karamojong and remove them from neighbouring districts within six to 12 months. It also calls for deploying the army at strategic points along Karamoja's border with neighbouring districts. Observers warn that the stage is set for a confrontation between the army and the heavily-armed warriors.

The issue of the Karamojong warriors has been a thorn in the side of all Ugandan governments since independence. The current government of President Yoweri Museveni allowed the Karamojong to retain their arms in order to protect themselves from external raids by the Turkana and Pokot in neighbouring Kenya.

John Nagenda, Uganda's senior presidential adviser for the media and public relations, rejects accusations that the government is using the disarmament issue as a political tool to influence a forthcoming referendum on multipartyism.

"This is the only government that has allowed the Karamojong to use their guns for purposes of protecting themselves from hostile tribes across the border," he told IRIN. "Previous governments used to hunt them down like antelopes." He said the law had become necessary due to the increasingly volatile situation in the area.

The number of guns in the hands of the Karamojong is estimated at between 100,000 and 150,000, according to a report in the regional 'EastAfrican' weekly. Most of the weapons were acquired in 1979, when Karamojong warriors descended on the nearby Moroto barracks and stole thousand of guns after the army of former leader Idi Amin fled from the advancing Tanzanian army and Ugandan exiles. "The Karamojong have maintained their armouries by buying guns cheaply from the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army], and other sources in Somalia and northwestern Kenya," Wairagala Wakabi, a journalist with 'The EastAfrican' who specialises in the movement of small arms in the region told IRIN. "They have the option of barter trade where they exchange animals for guns."

The Karamoja problem arose because the area has been neglected for many years by post-colonial governments, unlike neighbouring districts which have been developed in terms of infrastructure, hospitals and schools. Karamoja, which borders 12 districts, remains largely undeveloped. Currently, there are a few missionary-run schools, but the last census in 1991 put the literacy rate for females at six percent, and for males at 11 percent. The policy of the colonial government was to maintain Karamoja's natural heritage for tourism purposes which never took off due to a breakdown of law and order after Uganda gained independence. The situation worsened when the Karamojong acquired weapons and used them as protection against the national government and outside pastoralist groups such as the Turkana and Pokot from Kenya. Cattle rustling between the various communities has caused further tension.

"What we want is for the Karamojong to recognise that their neighbours want peace," said Mike Mukura, an MP from neighbouring Soroti district who moved the motion for disarmament. "We want the government, as a matter of urgency, to remove armed Karamojong from neighbouring districts where they are busy terrorising the population by looting and raping. Then, longterm measures like dialogue can follow."

Following parliament's approval of the law, President Yoweri Museveni directed the army to ensure that disturbances in neighbouring districts are stopped and ordered the Karamojong to surrender their guns immediately. The army's presence in the district will be increased and the military will have the right to confront Karamojong rustlers, according to a Ugandan radio report. Museveni also said the army will be strengthened along the borders with Kenya and Sudan to stop the Turkana, Topozas and Dinka from carrying out raids into Karamoja. In an interview with IRIN, Ugandan army spokesman Shaban Bantariza warned that the army's reaction would be swift if the Karamojong did not cooperate. "We strongly discourage them from using their weapons against us, because this will be testing our patience to the limit," he said.

Regional analysts however say the problem in Karamoja is not military, but political, and concerns the livelihood of the Karamoja people. "The government's strategy seems to be aimed at limiting the movement of the Karamojong form their areas, but this cannot work because they have to look for water and pasture for their animals," Joseph Were, a journalist with the independent 'Monitor' newspaper, told IRIN. "The only way is to allow the Karamojong to migrate to neighbouring districts on well-defined terms which include desisting from banditry activities, rather than threatening to use force."

The Karamojong themselves say the government has issued such ultimatums in the past, and they have simply adopted a "wait and see" attitude. "Participatory disarmament" which uses paid vigilantes from the district to help disarm the warriors could work if "corrupt army officers" did not embezzle the money, as had happened in the past, one local Karamojong analyst said.

"What is worrying the Karamojong this time is the hostility of politicians from neighbouring districts and government officials," Joseph Akol, a Ugandan academic from the Karamoja region, told IRIN. He believes a military solution cannot work. "It was tried when this government had just come to power, thousands of innocent people were killed and the army lost many soldiers," he said. "If force is again used against a population of 500,000, you can expect bloodshed."

An official with the Disaster Preparedness Unit in the Ugandan prime minister's office pointed out that thousands of people have already been displaced by the Karamojong raids into neighbouring districts. "If a major confrontation between the army and the warriors breaks out, a massive exodus is likely from Karamoja, both internally and across the borders," he warned.


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