‘Steal one animal, and you or your relatives pay back three’
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Following 15 years of peace, the Karamoja region in the semi-arid northeastern horn of Uganda is slowly slipping back into its violent and notorious past. Cattle theft and violence are increasing and a resolution agreed 10 years ago to keep the peace appears to be doing more harm than good as a group of journalists discovered on a recent visit there.
Kotido is one of the most affected districts in Karamoja. Mid-way the 150km journey from Moroto on July 03, we meet Brig. Gen. Joseph Balikuddembe, the Third Division Commander.
He is returning from Kotido where, he tells us, UPDF soldiers had just repulsed a force of 500 warriors who had raided about 700 cattle from neighbouring Kaabong.
When we arrive at Nakapelimoru Barracks in Kotido, we are taken to the UPDF barracks. On its edge is a large protected kraal where hundreds of herders keep thousands of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys.
We meet Aguma Kapel who tells us he has not lost any of his animals because he keeps his herd in this protected kraal near the barracks. He says most of the stolen animals end up in Turkana in Kenya because the army does not follow-up the raiders once they cross the border.
“The alliance of the Matheniko and Turkana is a big hindrance to the peace process,” he says, “If the thieves were stealing and keeping these cows within Uganda, it would be easy to recover the cattle.” Aguma has worked as a researcher with Restless Development and Karamoja Action Research Team in 2013.
We speak to some of the victims of the cattle raids; like15-year old Ngorok Ika who narrates the ordeal of his family.
On July 1, he says, he watched helplessly as a combined force of armed Matheniko and Turkana raiders stole 30 goats, 10 donkeys and 27 cows from the family kraal in Kadocha in Nakapelimoru sub-county in Kotido.
But there is also Namoi Nabokora who has come to the army barracks to bring food for her husband who was recently detained for alleged cattle raiding.
“My husband is a suspect because when cattle were stolen in Dodoth (Kaabong District), the victims of the theft somehow came to our kraal and found some of their lost cattle in our kraal,” she tells me through an interpreter.
“There is a lot of death, a lot of theft and a lot is happening here,” she says as she stares listlessly, “There is no life for women here; we survive on cultivation but the few oxen that we were given by the government have been stolen.”
Nabokora is interrupted by her colleague, Amedo Awok who lost her two oxen and she has come to the Barracks hoping to identify and recover them. She pulls out two yellow ear tags as her only proof of ownership of the oxen. Another woman, Rukiya Adweny, from Panyangara in Kotido District has also recently lost one ox.
Awok says some of the women in the community work so hard; they brew local beer, save money and manage to buy cows.
“But our cows are sometimes used in the compensation process,” she says.
She is referring to a community initiative that was agreed upon by the Karimojong following the end of the disarmament exercise in an attempt to discourage cattle rustling. It is called the ‘Nabilatuk/ Moruitit resolution.’
The resolution is based on the communitarian spirit of the Karimojong, that the village, the clan and the wider community is responsible for the upbringing of a person. The resolution in effect says if a culprit is found guilty of stealing five cows, the “times-two-plus-one” formula must be applied; meaning the thief must pay the victim 11 cows.
In the event that the thief does not have enough cattle to pay back according to the formula, the culprit’s family, wider relations or even the community are made to pay on his behalf.
But the initiative has been exploited recently by unscrupulous people and many people; including women, have been trapped in a sophisticated web of criminal liability.
The three women have joined hundreds of others who were called to the Barracks alongside their local leaders; including area MPs of Kotido and Napak to identify and take back their animals which were recently impounded by the army.
Col. Erias Okolong, the Brigade Commander of Nakapelimoru Barracks called the leaders of Napak and Kotido District to help community members identify their animals from an impounded herd of about 300 cattle. The leaders of Kaabong were not let into the meeting for fear of violence.
Peter Abrahams Loki, the MP for Kotido Municipality opposes the Nabilatuk/Moruitit resolution. He says it has “run its course because it is now being abused.”
“It goes beyond punishing the thief,” he says, “If the thief steals five cows, he pays back 11 cows but there are instances when the thief does not have cows to compensate; so they pick on a brother’s and if they are not there, they pick on your uncle’s or your mother’s bride price.
“Vicarious liability is unacceptable in the law because one cannot pay for someone else’s mistakes and because people are exploiting it, it needs to be stopped because the animals being used in the compensation process are not cows for the thieves.”
Loki gives an example of a community in Kaabong District.
He says the Kaabong people have been crying to government for help to recover their cows. However, in the process of recovering them, the Kaabong people have ended up picking the wrong cows causing animosity among the communities. The people of Kaabong seem to be identifying heifers which traditionally are not branded raising questions.
“If a kraal is protected, I expect the UPDF to have the records of the kraals; how many cows are in this kraal? How many herdsmen have herds in this kraal?
“This should help to verify who has what or who has lost what when raids happen,” he says, quickly adding that, “The conflict has an element of corruption where there is an exaggeration of numbers.”
“Somebody loses 50 animals but reports to the UPDF 500 animals,” he says, “This is slowly dragging the UPDF into the conflict because they seem to believe more the complainant.”
He also worries that the attention of the army is more on cows than on weapons.
“When you look at the volume of cattle being stolen, it points to many guns in the region. We have had incidents where LDUs from Moroto and Kaabong have been killed.
“If we don’t call for disarmament, the Iteso will suffer, the Lango, Acholi and Bagishu will suffer and you also will not be safe because they (warriors) will come to the roads.”
Col. Okolong says he does not like the UPDF being drawn into the Karamoja cattle rustling conflict.
The spokesperson of the UPDF’s Third Division in Moroto, Maj. Peter Mugisa, had days earlier told us that although the UPDF remains impartial in the conflict, some communities are never happy whenever the army impounds their animals.
“We make sure that whenever we are handing over these animals, we do so in the presence of their leaders, right from the LCI to the Resident District Commissioners,” he said, “But whenever one group is compensated, the other group will accuse the UPDF of favouritism.”