Complex transnational crime
Raiding cattle is an ancient traditional practice in the region. In the past, it was used to acquire cattle for prestige and marrying many women. But the practice has turned into a commercial venture, involving businessmen from outside Karamoja.
The negative impact of the presence of small and light weapons, and its contribution to the breakdown of the region’s social fabric, was recognised as uncontainable by the efforts of security agencies alone.
The situation was exacerbated by the often fruitless and slow recovery of increasing stolen livestock, which continued such that youth networks built formidably across the region, whose alliances became elusive and clandestine to the extent that elements of the security agencies were considered in cahoots with the business, creating a complex mesh of conflict entrepreneurs.
Research by the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) on cattle raiding in East Africa shows how a growing demand for cattle across eastern Africa has exacerbated this problem.
An academic paper, “Vanishing herds: Cattle rustling in East Africa and the Horn,” was published in December 2019 based on research done from 2017 and 2018. It recorded brutal attacks in which thousands of livestock and dozens of people were killed in various parts of eastern Africa.
The researchers said most incidents suggest that the practice has become a complex transnational organised crime because of the use of small arms and light weapons and the involvement of actors whose interests are purely economic.
Multiple factors such as the role of politicians, the involvement of businessmen supplying meat to towns and cities as well as unemployment, especially among the youth, are some of the elements that have modified the traditional face of cattle rustling.
The researchers said the practice is now embedded in the wider cattle trade business enabled by government corruption, with state officials often turning a blind eye or collaborating with criminals.
The animals are moved in similar ways across international borders in small numbers to avoid suspicion, or they are disguised to conceal their natural coat. In other instances, documents are falsified to show that cattle have followed a genuine transaction process necessary for export.
Leonard Okello, the CEO of the Uhuru Institute for Social Development, a Kampala-based think tank told The Independent on Sept. 17 that right from the beginning of the creation of the Ugandan state, the Karimojong have suffered massive cattle raids not only from across Sudan and Kenya but also from Lango, Teso and Acholi.
Faced with that reality, right from the colonial period through the Idi Amin, Obote and now Museveni governments, the warriors have always found ways of arming themselves to protect their prized asset: the cattle.
But Okello who says he worked in Karamoja between 1989 and 1993 says beyond deploying military might, the government needs to understand the spiritual and social norms of the Karimojong community.
He describes how each community in the sub-region has a command structure that is distinct from the local government arrangement that is often headed by warrior leaders.
“They are like cattle priests,” he says, “They are the people who arrange rituals before raids. They will disembowel a bull, examine the entrails of the animal and advise on whether the raid should go ahead or not.”
According to a 2012 paper by Saferworld, an international NGO that has been fostering peace building initiatives in Karamoja, many communities in Karamoja continue to feel insecure.
“Many think the UPDF’s presence is inadequate and unable to protect communities from attacks,” noted the paper titled, “Tracking key conflicts and security dynamics in Karamoja—an update.”
“Lack of trust in the ability of the army to protect may lead people to re-arm,” the paper said.
Going forward, Saferworld recommended that security actors in Karamoja should undertake regular critical security reviews that involve communities and address their perceptions and priorities.
“These reviews could be used to assess the existence and spread of firearms within communities and highlight potential sources of insecurity.”
Saferworld said the UPDF and Police should build relationships with communities, obtain a good understanding of the problems, and be more effective in reassuring communities about their safety and security.
“Special efforts should be made to engage with youth, as well as those who currently encourage raiding and arms possession, including women (through traditional attitudes regarding masculinity) and local councillors, who have information on who has firearms and who can facilitate consultation with communities.”