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Can Col. Muhoozi pacify Karamoja?

By Jocelyn Edwards

UPDF pushes in more force but local leaders want Community Security System

On April 24, a force of UPDF soldiers surrounded a kraal in Jie County in Karamoja and began firing on the animals and people inside.  In a cordon and search operation the army says was intended to recover cattle stolen from the Dodoth clan, soldiers allegedly lobbed hand grenades into the kraal.

The result was at least 10 dead at the site, according to Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCR) in Kampala. The dead warriors included five children, some as young as five and seven, and two elderly men.

Later, local officials say they found other victims in the bush.  There were other bodies that had already been eaten by vultures; the skeletons were all that were left, says area MP Peter Lokii, who recently presented a report on the incident to President Yoweri Museveni.  According to Lokiis numbers, up to 43 people were killed by the UPDF. Only two guns were recovered in the exercise.

Last Saturday, June 5th, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navandethem Pillay, in Kampala for then International Criminal Court review conference spoke about the incident and criticised the governments Karamoja strategy as flawed and to some extent counter-productive. [Particularly] damaging has been the approach to disarmament which has involved soldiers in rounding up and sometimes mistreating large groups of people indiscriminately, leading to a climate of fear rather than cooperation, she said.

President Museveni has appointed Lt. Col. Abdul Rugumayo to investigate the incident, which is just another in a long line of reports of army human rights violations in Karamoja. Reported violations include the bombing of up to 50 Kotido residents by a helicopter gunship in January.  In addition to forced labour and unlawful detainment, a myriad instances of torture have also been reported by residents.  In some of the more horrific events, soldiers have allegedly whipped residents, held plastic bags over their heads, and yanked on men’s genitals.Â

The incident and others like it are symptomatic of a high-handed strategy by UPDF that has actually undermined security in the region and rendered the disarmament exercise impotent.Â

The army touts the collection of 27,000 guns in Karamoja and claims it is well on its way to security.  But reports coming out of the region belie the claims of Karamoja’s pacification.   February saw an attack by warriors on an International Rescue Committee truck in Nakoyit that killed three; in May a hospital medic was killed along the Kotido-Abim road.  And cattle raids continue.  “You go to Kaabong and there is cattle rustling; you go to Kotido and there is cattle rustling, you go to Moroto . . . and Nakapiripirit  [and it’s the same thing],” says MP Lokii.

Brutal tactics

Human rights violations like the incident in April have contributed to the army’s failure to rid the region of guns after almost

adecade of disarmament.  In an exercise like this, the goodwill of the people is a critical component of success.  Commanders need the support of civilians in the communities to supply intelligence about when raids are planned to take place and who still has guns.  Right now as Pokot MP Francis Kiyonga puts it, “a person who could act as a witness [against raiders] is detained and tortured.  The [UPDF] doesn’t differentiate between the innocent . . . and the criminals.”Â

The government itself admitted that the army’s tactics have been counterproductive when it comes to stopping violence in the region as far back as 2007.  The Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Plan (KIDDP), issued by the Office of the Prime Minister, allowed that “strategies that rely on the use of maximum violence to achieve a legitimate end sometimes evoke violent responses from sections of the communities affected by such violent actions, which has led to heavy human casualties.”

Yet, three years later, these incidents continue unchecked.  This is not the first time that the army has investigated itself for human rights violations in Karamoja.  But the incestuous nature of such investigations means that while individual soldiers may sometimes be punished, nothing has been done to root out the systemic corruption in the army that has led to such abuses.

Failed strategy

Human rights violations by the army have been combined with a lackadaisical attitude towards protecting the Karimojong.  In exchange for giving up their guns,  the Karimojong were supposed to get UPDF protection from raids by neighbouring clans.  Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye claims that “we guard the Karimojong villages as if they were our own communities.”Â

But local officials report that soldiers ask for bribes to go after raiders, claim they do not have orders to go and otherwise delay until recovery is impossible.  In one particularly devastating raid, almost 6,500 cattle were taken from the Jie in June 2009.  Not a single one was recovered, according to MP Lokii.  “[The army] takes too long to respond; in fact, they hardly respond,” he says.  Predictably, this has led to rearmament by the Karimojong for their protection.

The army’s violence toward the people and failure to protect them has dragged out the disarmament exercise for almost a decade without an end in sight.Â

Visiting Karamoja in mid-May, President Museveni expressed frustration with the prolonged disarmament, which was launched in its initial phase in 2001.  He blamed lack of troops, coordination and a lack of commitment on the part of the army.  “If my commanders cannot end the disarmament exercise, then I will take over,” he declared.  Though army sources have denied it, the recent deployment of UPDF Special Forces led by Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to the region seems to indicate an admission by government that the strategy in Karamoja needs to be redrawn.

But more firepower deployed in the same fashion will likely only to result in the same failures.  David Pulkol, a Karimojong, is the former head of the External Security Organisation.  “Why would [Muhoozi] succeed when others have not?” he asks.  “If the current modus operandi stays the same don’t expect anything to change.  All it will do is cause more suffering, drive guns farther underground and cause more bitterness in the hearts of the Karimojong.”

Community Solution

The government’s disarmament strategy needs to undergo a fundamental change beginning with the army’s orientation to the people it says it is trying to protect.  Up until now, the UPDF has tried to bully residents into peace.  Instead, the army must empower residents to take charge of their own security.Â

Pulkol and Karamoja MPs call for the institution of a community-based security system that would see former warriors recruited into a force charged with the protection of the kraals.   These karachunas  (warriors) would be allowed to retain their guns and register them to protect communities as the UPDF has not.  “The community based security system will be a rapid response system,” says MP Lokii.  Locals who know local terrain, geography and the methods of warriors would be able to quickly track down and recover cattle.Â

Such an approach was in fact even endorsed by the 2007 KIDDP.  The plan suggested that two pilot projects be set up where local men would be vetted by elders for recruitment into community forces.  The pilot projects would have been monitored for a year and lessons drawn for the strategy’s expansion across the region.Â

However, the projects were not mandated by law and with the decision as to whether or not they were implemented up to the UPDF, community-based security systems were rejected.  Lt. Col. Kulayigye, explains the armies objections to the project.  The community-based security that they were looking for was for us (UPDF) to give them guns, he says.  As far as the UPDF is concerned we cant arm the communities even more. That would be increasing the proliferation of arms.

A community-based security system is not without precedent as a way to introduce peace and security.  Similar community-based forces were set up in Northern Uganda to help repel the rebel Lords Resistance Army of Joseph Kony.  The Arrow Boys of Teso and the Amuka of Lira were credited with making a major contribution to ending Konys insurgency.  Even in Karamoja, there was experimentation with setting up Local Defense Units in 2001 and 2002.  The strategy was incorrectly executed though, since recruits became auxiliary forces of the UPDF.  Warriors were not allowed to remain in their own communities, thus losing the advantage of local knowledge.

And the strategy would actually aim to pacify warriors who would otherwise be recruited into raiding activity.  The community-based security system (would be) setting a thief to catch a thief, since it would recruit in its ranks moderate karachunas who will be subjected to rehabilitation through disciplined training, says the KIDDP.

As the disarmament program enters its 10th year, it is time to revisit alternative suggestions for security enforcement in Karamoja.  This time, instead of leaving its implementation up to the UPDF, which has already demonstrated a proclivity to bungle operations in Karamoja, government should legislate for a community-based approach to security.

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