Violence and the State in Karamoja: Causes of Conflict, Initiative for Peace
Since the colonial period, different Ugandan governments have adopted anti-pastoralist policies, leading pastoralists to lose land vital for the survival of the herds on which they depend. Attempts to forcefully settle pastoralists have resulted in an unanticipated social crisis, setting the stage for an emerging conflict over the allocation and use of resources. All post-independence governments have pursued policies similar to those of their predecessors. It was only after the National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986 that attempts were made to address the root causes of the crises in Karamoja.
Mobile Pastoralism, Dispossession, and Resource Conflicts in Karamoja
During the colonial period, the Karimojong lost a considerable portion of their land through pacification, redrawing boundaries between Kenya and Sudan that left much of their grazing regions outside Uganda, and their expulsion from newly formed game parks, reserves, and protected forests. The Karimojong were forced to sell their livestock and it was also confiscated to pay taxes imposed by the British. During the Amin regimes (1972-1979) further land was lost to establish the Moroto Army barracks in the foothills and valley of Mt. Moroto. To prevent contact between the people of Karamoja and the neighboring communities, buffer zones were created out of their dry season grazing areas. The increased concentration of cattle over smaller areas further depleted resources, and as early as 1940, soil erosion was identified as one of the problems facing resource use in Karamoja.
Because of these different state policies, the entire land area of Karamoja became either a Forest Reserve, Game Reserve, Controlled Hunting Area, National Park, buffer zone, or a military region. The total alienation of the local Karimojong communities from the resources they once used, revered, and regulated using customary controls set the stage for the Karimojong to seek short-term individual survival strategies. As governments sought political measures to deal with ecological problems, the resulting social crises increasingly drove the Karimojong out of Karamoja. Through mobile pastoralism, cattle herders compensated for lost pastures by gaining access to seasonally available pastoral resources outside Karamoja. When pastoral resources are physically located in an area belonging to a specific Karimojong group, user rights are circumscribed by one's membership in that specific Karimojong group.
Whenever the dry season starts in Karamoja, tensions develop between and within the various Karimojong pastoral groups. As members of one ethnic group try to exercise their rights to exclude nonmembers (Karimojong or non-Karimojong), unannounced entry into a territory belonging to another group may end up in war. Mobile grazing is usually accompanied by heavily armed warrior groups, initially, with homemade guns. Over the years, the majority of these warriors have acquired modern automatic and semi-automatic rifles as spoils from the civil wars that have engulfed the region for several decades. In Karamoja, these guns have been used by herders to defend their animals from raiders from both within and outside Karamoja, as they search for dry season grazing resources. Occasionally they have been turned against the unarmed populations wherever they go to graze in the dry season. Highway robberies, cattle rustling in neighboring districts, raping women, and sometimes senselessly killing innocent people are often committed by armed cattle herders. The Karimojong have been blamed for creating food shortages. They steal food and other property and raid cattle from communities.
Karimojong cattle herders have practiced the mobile pastoral system for a long time without moving great distances or using violence. The turning point came when the Kenyan Turkana acquired modern weaponry from marauding Shifta bandits in northern Kenya. The Turkana soon began raiding cattle from the Karimojong (especially the Matheniko), who became nearly defenseless against the new Turkana threats. In the process, the Matheniko also acquired modern arms and began raiding other Karimojong groups. There was a dramatic shift of events when the fall of Idi Amin in 1979 provided the Karimojong with an entire armory from Moroto barracks. With their new fire power, the Karimojong began raiding neighboring areas of Olilim (Lango) and Usuk (Teso), terrorizing them through the 1980s. The Obote II government responded by placing units of special militias on the borders between Karamoja with Lango and Teso. Cattle rustling was contained briefly until rifts developed between the Acholi (led by the late Okello Lutwa and Bazillio Olara) and the Langi (led by President Obote himself) which led to the July 1985 overthrow of the Obote II government.
To bolster their front against the National Resistance Army (NRA), which had been waging a guerrilla war against Obote's government, Okello recruited hordes of Karimojong into the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). When the NRA defeated them in 1986, the Karimojong fled with all their arms back to Karamoja and fueled a new wave of rustling in the region. Massive internal raids erupted in Karamoja between 1986 and 1989 and cattle rustling reached heights never before seen in the history of the region.
Dealing with Conflicts in Karamoja: Non-Military Options
The NRA came to power in 1986 and to re-establish the authority of the state in Karamoja region, control cattle rustling, and consolidate the security in the region, it was left with one option -- a military one. Several battalions of the NRA were placed in Karamoja. Unfortunately, the army itself became the source of insecurity in the region; the highhandedness with which the army dealt with security issues alienated the communities even more, similar to the previous government. Using force to disarm the Karimojong warriors meant declaring war against them, which failed. A proposal to arm neighboring communities (Teso, Bugishu, Sebei, Lango and Acholi) so they could defend themselves against Karimojong warriors was rejected since this was likely to fan violence in the region. The NRA had one last option to disarm the Karimojong, but they realized that this was a short term solution since it did not deal with the real issues. Taking away guns from the Karimojong warriors would not take away the skills they had acquired for making homemade guns. Gun and munitions trafficking thrives in the region, especially as a result of the war in southern Sudan, the insecurity in northern Kenya, and the state of civil strife in northern Uganda. Without the state's capacity to protect the Karimojong from internal and external aggression, disarming Karimojong would be counterproductive.
Peace Initiatives in the Region
In June 1993, the government set up a Karamoja Pacification Committee headed by a Divisional Army Commander and comprised mainly of security personnel in the region. The committee was responsible for finding a solution to the military problem in the Karamoja region. Through their initiatives, warriors were allowed to keep their guns for self-defense against aggression, whether external or internal, as and when the need arose. By allowing them to keep their guns, they were required to serve the state to ensure peace and security in the grazing and permanent settlement areas. This was the birth of the Vigilante Program, a community-based system of controlling raids, that involved Karimojong cattle camp leaders and local councils from Karamoja and the neighboring districts. Concerted efforts were undertaken to seek out credible and progressive Karimojong leaders and avoid coercive regimentation. These leaders were used to sensitize the local communities, create good working relationships between the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the local people, and to create a friendly atmosphere between the people of Teso, Lango, Acholi, Bugishu and Kapchorwa.
The Vigilante Program recruited Karimojong warriors into the State's service. It paid a monthly salary -- ranging from US $10-20 per month -- to any Karimojong who agreed to register his gun with the state. After being registered, the warriors remained with their guns and were given uniforms and some basic military training. This scheme, which effectively started in 1995, had a registered force of 8,000 vigilantes before the end of 1996. Their duties included tracking down stolen animals and the errant warriors responsible for such acts, ending highway robbery by the warriors, encouraging other cattle raiders to register their weapons with the local administration and become vigilantes. It was anticipated that volunteers for the vigilante force would be recruited from every homestead in Karamoja. This vigilante force would provide the basis for actual reconciliation between warring ethnic groups, since different ethnic groups would sometimes work with the vigilantes to counter raids. Between 1993 and 1996 when the Vigilante Program was operational, raiding activities were reduced considerably. Law enforcement improved. Armed criminals, once arrested were prosecuted and their guns confiscated. Raided animals, looted properties, and even money, once recovered by the vigilantes were returned to their rightful owners. After the May 1996 presidential elections, a new minister was appointed for Karamoja. The Vigilante Program was replaced with a paramilitary force called the Anti-Stock Theft Unit under the Internal Affairs Ministry.
Because of the Karamoja Pacification Committee, the army's presence was scaled down considerably. The small army left behind, however, was equipped with armored personnel carders (APCs) to demonstrate military superiority over warriors-turned-criminals. Meetings between Karimojong and Kenya pastoral groups were arranged, both in Uganda and Kenya. These meetings were mediated by high level government officials and politicians from the two countries. On June 18, 1996, the first ever such meeting was held at Kakuma county headquarters in Kenya's Turkana District. The Dodoth were handed their animals which had been stolen by Turkana, but had been recovered after the first Moroto meeting. In return, the Turkana, demanded the return of their animals, including 70 herds of cattle, 35 donkeys, and two children, which had been rustled by the Dodoth. On August 25, 1996, Karimojong leaders traveled through Lodwar to Lokiriama in Turkanaland where a number of animals were handed over to them. The Karimojong also handed over animals which had been raided by the Tepeth warriors from Mt. Moroto.
The second Moroto meeting was held from November 13-16, 1996, to try and bring peace to the southern common border pastoralists in Kenya and Uganda. It was attended by Pokot from Uganda and Kenya, Sabiny, and Turkana. Uganda was represented by six ministers of state and Kenya, by the North Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner and his two District Commissioners from Turkana and West Pokot, one assistant minister, and several heads of department and members of parliament. Such a high level meeting was intended to develop the basis for regular meetings and to coordinate regional planning in these areas. It recommended the establishment of a Regional Peace Secretariat to address peace and security in these areas.
Controlling Gun Trafficking in the Region
Among other reasons, the Vigilante Program in Karamoja was designed to register illegal guns in Karamoja. This registration met with some obstacles. Some Karimojong were outright opposed to gun registration. Those who accepted, either surrendered old guns or those that no longer worked. Most Karimojong never surrendered all their guns. And even if all the guns in Karamoja were registered, more guns were purchased on a regular basis. By 1994, the number of guns in Karamoja was conservatively estimated at 150,000. While the source of these guns might have been renegade government soldiers deployed in these areas in times of insurgency, it has increasingly become clear that government has no control over the thriving trade in guns in the region. Among the Teutho (Ik), there were no vigilantes to use the guns that were registered. Yet much of the gun trafficking from Kenya and Sudan pastoral tribes is masterminded by the Ik. Without their cooperation, the northern gun trade would be difficult to control. Also, the government has no control over the inflow of arms and ammunition from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) who mostly sell their old guns in exchange for goats. Another source of illegal guns are the Toposa and Diding'a communities in southern Sudan, who infiltrate Karamoja through various routes in the Nyangea mountains, specifically Pirre, Kathile, and Kaabong where there is a lively black market. Sometimes these weapons come from as far as Somalia through northern Kenya. There has been such a continuous supply of guns that, by December 1995, the gun market had been saturated in Karamoja. By January 1996, the large supply, especially from southern Sudan, had caused a 50% drop in the price of AK47 assault rifles on the local black market in Karamoja.
Fragility of Local Cooperation and the Breakdown of Traditional Authority
The peace initiatives undertaken between 1989 and 1996, with and between warring Karimojong ethnic groups and other pastoral groups from Kenya and Sudan, were very fragile. Their success depended on the ability of each party to willingly uphold any such agreements. The authorities in the respective countries do not yet have the capacity to either ensure that agreements are upheld by pastoralists in their countries, or to pressure other countries to ensure that pastoral groups under their territorial jurisdiction uphold such agreements. In other words, there is a lack of administrative capability and complete good will among countries involved in armed pastoral groups. Attempts have been made to harmonize relations between Uganda and Kenya, as detailed in the previous sections. But such arrangements will come to nothing as long as the conflicts between the Uganda ethnic Pokot and other Karimojong ethnic groups have not been resolved. Were it not for the superior fire power of the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF) over the Karimojong warriors, even the limited peace that there is in Karamoja could not have maintained. The situation has not been helped with the replacement of the vigilantes with the Anti-Stock Theft Unit, which is similar to one which operated in the area between 1980 and 1984.
Perhaps more than seeking to control gun trafficking or use, it is more important to confront insidious challenges to regional development that arise out of violence in the region. Gun possession momentarily shifts political and economic authority from clan elders to those who command the warriors' respect (not necessarily be elders). The elders' power and authority has been so eroded that the resulting moral decay has greatly contributed to the violence experienced in Karamoja.
There is no doubt that most governments in the region have been more inclined to promote policies favoring the nonpastoral sectors of their predominantly agrarian economies, at the expense of the pastoral communities. This extreme situation occurred when the government deliberately undertook policies aimed at eliminating pastoral peoples' livelihood. The resilience shown by pastoral economies in the face of pastoral marginalization has led to a despicable level of underdevelopment and is accompanied by the adoption of warrior-like cultures. The semblance of infrastructure available in these areas is dilapidated because of the prevalent insecurity. Numerous organizations, including foreign nongovernmental organizations, have pumped in resources to develop these areas with very little impact.
A number of peace initiatives have been undertaken which involve pastoral groups from the entire region. In spite of peace initiatives between the different Karimojong groups on one hand and between the Karimojong and other pastoral groups on the other, there have been occasional clashes mostly during the dry season. Although a combination of continuous negotiations and increasing show of government power go a long way in bringing peace and security to the region, the primary issue of resource competition still needs to be addressed by developing water supplies in the district. Many of the problems now faced in Karamoja stem from the appropriation of land by successive governments in Uganda. Now, the people of Karamoja, who have pursued diverse and sometimes destructive strategies for survival, look to the government to establish security and development in the area.
Dyson-Hudson, N., 1966. Karimojong Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Galaty, J.G., Aronson, D., and Salzman, P., eds. 1981, The Future of Pastoral Peoples. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1981.
Gulliver, P., 1955. The Family Herds. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lamphear, John, 1976. The Traditional History of the Jie of Uganda. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mamdani, M., P.M.B Kasoma and A.B. Katende. 1992. Karamoja: Ecology and History. Kampala: Centre for Basic Research, Working Paper No. 20.
Muhereza, E.F., and Ocan, C. 1994. CBR Workshop Report No. 4. Kampala: Center for Basic Research.
Muhereza, E. F. 1995. "Pastoralism in Karamoja: Indigenous Knowledge, Coping Strategies, and the Management of Natural Resources." Regional Workshop on Pastoral Indigenous Production Systems and Sustainable Development. Nairobi.
Novelli, Bruno, 1988. Aspects of Karimojong Ethnosociology Kampala: Comboni Missionaries, Verona, Museum Combonianum No. 44.
Ocan, Charles. 1992. Pastoral Crisis in Northern Uganda: The Changing Significance of Cattle Raids. Kampala: CBR Working Paper No. 21.
Republic of Uganda. 1968. Report of the Karamoja Security Committee of 1961. Entebbe: Government Printers.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.