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Rising violence tests UPDF strategy in Karamoja

By Jocelyn Edwards

Margaret Ngoya, 15, awoke in early hours of Mar. 7 to the sound of gunshots.  The soldiers who had invaded her village in northern Karamoja yelled her family and their neighbours to come outside. When they brought us outside, I was beaten.  They used the handle of a hoe and up until now, my buttocks are still hurting, she says.  The UPDF soldiers tore open bags of grain in her familys house and poured out the contents.

They took money, knives, pangas and hoes, and broke jerry cans and calabash.  Since our property was looted and stolen, we are just living off of greens [gathered in the bush], says Ngoya’s mother Omo.

The UPDF operatives left no doubt about why they were there.  They started caning us and said, Give us the guns! says Lomuso Kutan, in his fifties.  He says soldiers yanked on his genitals as they beat him and then left him lying on the ground.  Yet the people of the village say they dont have what the soldiers wanted.  When the government said it wanted people to give up their guns, I voluntarily gave mine up, says Kutan.

Fifteen men were tortured in Lomoritae in Kaabong district along with countless women and children; one man was shot.  Elsewhere in the district, eight men were tortured in Kobuin village on Mar.26; two men were beaten in Kateleng on Mar. 12.  And that’s in just one month the district of Kaabong, one of five in Karamoja.  Residents of the three villages also reported unlawful arrest and detainment and forced labour.Â

Such inncidents have become all too common in Karamoja since the forced disarmament campaign began four years ago.  So common in fact, that they rarely make the news anymore and international human rights agencies have moved on to fresher, bloodier crises.   But the chronic nature of such abuses along with a security situation that is reportedly getting worse demand attention.  Visiting the region last weekend, May 15 and 16, President Museveni put down continued violence in the region down to a lack of troops and coordination.  But is more fire power really the answer?  Questions must be asked about whether or not the government’s policy toward the region is the correct one.Â


For Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the UPDF, allegations of human rights violations in Karamoja are “questionable.”  “We have the best record of human rights [of any army] on the continent, if not the world,” he claims.  Yet these allegations have been well documented by internationally respected organisations; in September 2007 Human Rights Watch released a report detailing killings, torture, arbitrary detention, looting, and property destruction by the army. Â

Despite such reports, many seem to have a blind spot when it comes to human rights violations in Karamoja.  Societal prejudice has contributed to this.  Tell people in Kampala that you’re going to the region and the first thing they ask is why you want to go and see “those naked people.”  To the top levels of government, stereotypes persist of the Karmajong as backward and barbaric.  In 2008, the then minister for Karamoja told journalists that the people there ate rats as a delicacy and attributed deaths from famine to poor hygienic practices.  Bring up army brutality and many put it down to the UPDF getting tough with unruly warriors.Â

Leaders too have a tendency to blame the Karamojong for  all their own problems.  This February, Minister for Karamoja Janet Museveni convened a meeting of elders from all five districts of the region to discuss continued insecurity.  “The question is how can you, as elders, allow your children and grandchildren to kill each other while you are watching? . . .  Elders should play their role and talk to the young generation,” scolded the president’s wife, while touting the commitment of the UPDF and the police to “security.”Â

But lumping all the Karamojong together as complicit in the violence risks alienating those who are committed to peace.  “A person who could act as a witness [against raiders] is detained and tortured.  The government doesn’t differentiate between innocent Pokot and the criminals.  If they don’t employ a strategy of involving those people who want peace, people will think of rearming themselves,” says Pokot MP Francis Kiyonga.  There is some  sign that may already be happening.Â

Increased insecurity

The UPDF trumpets the collection of 27,000 guns in Karamoja over the past eight years through forceful or voluntary disarmament.  “The internal raids have continued but the raids across to other districts and borders have never occurred again.  The roads are now secure. These are fundamental improvements,” says Lt. Col. Kulayigye.

Events in the region this spring contradict these claims.  Last weekend, President Museveni encountered reports of cross boarder raids by the Pokot of Kenya.  On Feb. 10, a band of warriors attacked an International Rescue Committee convoy in Nakoyit killing three.  Ambushes were also reported along the Kotido-Abim Road the same month.  “The 20% [of people that have guns] are causing more havoc than ever before,” says MP Kiyonga.Â

In late April, President Museveni’s son, Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s  Special Forces were deployed to Karamoja ostensibly to root out the last 1,000 guns the army claims are all that are left there.  But if dangers in the region have been reduced to the presence of a relatively insignificant number of firearms why send in an elite force?  The move suggests the army knows that the situation remains volatile.  Thus a military strategy that has brought so much suffering continues unchecked, though it may actually be having a counterproductive impact on inter-clan violence. Â

Vicious cycle

And the army itself, in failing to fulfill its commitments to the Karamojong, is partly to blame for the on going quagmire.  In exchange for giving up their guns, the Karamojong were promised protection for their cattle.  Animals were rounded up and brought into kraals for the UPDF to watch over.  However, as an April raid on Kalapata demonstrated, the presence of soldiers offers no guarantee of safety.  The raid resulted in the theft of over 2,600 cows and left a reported 41 Karimojong warriors and two UPDF soldiers dead.Â

Less than half the cows stolen in the Kalapata raid were recovered.  With such a  low rate of recovery, large numbers of cattle clustered in the same place prove an overwhelming temptation for warriors who have suffered through prolonged drought.  Apeyo Lukan is an area councillor for Kalapata sub-county.  “The people are hungry; we have not had a good harvest now for almost four years.  [Raiding] is the only way of surviving for these people.

The failure of the army to protect cattle in one raid in turn leads to more rearmament and further raiding.  David Pulkol is the former head of the External Security Organisation and himself from Karamoja. He says soldiers lack commitment  and often ask for bribes.  The problem is that when the people run to the army the next day [after a raid] they say they dont have fuel.  Soldiers are asking people to sell their goats and their remaining animals for money for fuel.  Of course the effect of this is not just annoyance with government but rearmament taking place at the subterranean level.  That leads to a situation where communities are unevenly armed.  These days they know that the government has taken most of the guns from people so those who are rearming themselves now take advantage of that and terrorise people, says Lukan.

According to Pulkol, the armys strategy is an abject failure.  The rural Karamojong feel so cheated by this strategy. They were lured to give up their guns and now they are not getting protection.  The failure [of the army to protect them] is miserable, its total and its now impacting on the whole strategy and making it crumble.  And it has ultimately led to a situation where violence is on the rise in Karamoja.  These incidents are increasing and now they are becoming bigger raids, not just thefts as the army was saying.  These days there is a reported incident every night, says Pulkol.  Its time to re-examine policy in Karamoja and what can be done to improve it.

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