Understanding the Karamojong conflicts within Karamoja

Understanding the Karamojong conflicts within Karamoja
The Karamojong have been involved in various conflicts centered on the practice of cattle raids.

On the Karamojong, their social structure and why the gun is still a vital component of their community life.

Karamoja, Uganda | By Michael Wandati | Residents within the region of Karamoja are referred as the ‘Karamojong.’ However, these are divided into different groups or sub-tribes.

Below are the seven regions that make up Karamoja, with the groups that inhabit them;

  • Kabong – The Dodoth and the Ik
  • Kotido – The Jie
  • Abim – The Ethur and the Nyakwae
  • Napak – The Bokora and the Tepeth
  • Moroto – The Matheniko
  • Nakapiripirit – The Pian and the Tepeth
  • Amudat – The Pokot

Where public belief is accurate is that Karamoja is one of the poorest regions in Uganda. It is mostly a semi-arid plain land with harsh climate. Most Karamojong practice agro-pastoralism where animals are kept while minimal agriculture is practiced.

While the other groups keep cattle and practice agriculture, the Ik are a small hunter-gatherer tribe of around 10,000 to 15,000 people, found between their more powerful neighbours, the Turkana of Kenya and the Dodoth of Uganda.

The relationship between these clans has historically been characterized by conflict, leading to general population displacement, famine and underdevelopment of the region.

The conflicts between these different groups are characterized by the cow, the gun and drought. The cow is the most prized and valuable possession of the Karamojong. This is probably because, being small sturdy animals, they love the hot dry weather, are heat and disease resistant, they are able to survive the harshest of the dry Karamojong climate.

The Karamojong are socially organized in the age group system. The lowest in the group are women and children in terms of importance and power. The second lowest is the elders who are much revered for their age and wisdom and perform the functions of priests and judges.

The most important and powerful group is that of the warriors, whose responsibility it is to protect and increase the herd.

During a marriage ceremony, a warrior needs to display his prowess by the number of cows paid for bride price. This can be as high as a hundred animals. Given the long dry season and time it takes the cow to mature, the easier option to increase the herd is to raid the neighbouring clan for their cows.

The importance of the gun to the Karamojong

To raid in Karamoja means to come of age. The Karamojong youth believe that when they raid animals from a rival tribe, they are only taking away what belongs to them. They agree that while the increase in the number of gun-related deaths and aggravated armed raids, it is inevitable and a sign of manhood.

Over the years, the majority of Karamojong warriors have acquired modern automatic and semi-automatic rifles as spoils of the civil wars that have engulfed the region for several decades.

These guns have been used by herders to defend their animals from raiders from both within and outside Karamoja, and the gun has also been used to raid.

It is ironic that while the warrior regards the gun as the guarantor of his families’ security, he also uses it to raid and acquire bigger herds by denying his neighbours their own security. the gun is both a solution and a problem at the same time.

Read Also: Gen Elwelu pitches camp in Karamoja as UPDF intensifies disarmament

The disarmament process has also been hampered by alleged brutality of the army forces in disarming the Karamojong. The army has been accused of killing warriors and abusing civilians, sometimes by ‘raiding’ communities at night and forcing residents to sit in the cold at night.

Warriors have resorted to running into the bushes to hide from the government forces. What makes it worse is that as soon as one group of warriors is disarmed, their neighbours, who still possess weapons, use the opportunity to raid them. As such, the raided warriors make an effort to re-arm themselves as quickly as possible.

The disarmament of the Karamojong

The only institution of the state that the Karamojong have constantly been in contact with has been the military institution and this has been during the disarmament exercises which have not endeared them to the government. This attitude also means that the Karamojong will have no respect for government civil authority.

If these feelings of frustrations continue among the Karamojong, they will become more closed at efforts aimed at reducing the number of guns in their community. Community members will re-arm through their means across various borders so as to manage their security and protect their animals.

When asked what would happen after successful disarmament, elders said,

“… if the government does not help us to create wealth and fight poverty, raiding will never stop.”

Internal efforts to end conflict not efficient

The Karamojong try to hold what they describe as “peace meetings.” These usually take place after raids have occurred instead of before and regularly. They are short-lived because the resolutions are easily violated by some community members, most notably before ‘the ink from elder’s signature had dried on paper.”

The danger is that if frequent violations of these meeting resolutions continue, they will re-enforce the violent clashes and culture attacks which will lead to more lost property and lives culminating in the escalation of insecurity and poverty.

There is need for further facilitation and frequent meetings so that all communities involved in a peace agreement are aware of what is happening on a regular basis.

There is fear among the Karamojong that the number of livestock is reducing in the region due to animal theft, weak strategies of protection leading to mass raiding and spread of diseases amongst animals.

Reduced numbers of animals will lead to more competition and intense raiding. Due to the reduction in livestock numbers and negative patterns of rainfall, local communities are trying other means of production like farming in wet zones and in the southern part of the region which receive higher levels of rainfall.

However, this is causing land disputes between the host communities and the new migrants. If not checked, it is likely to spark off another land conflict and cause violent clashes leading to deaths and loss of property.

Poor development in Karamoja

Both human and physical infrastructure is poorly developed. There is a poor road network, poorly facilitated schools, moreover not well attended.

The adult illiteracy rate is the highest in Uganda. Eight out of ten adults in the region are functionally illiterate. Until recently, state civic institutions have been scattered, leaving the Karamojong to largely depend on their own social structures for administrative and social services.

Hospitals are very few, as far as 40 km away from any given location and are not well facilitated.

Cattle business traders have been grossly affected by the conflict and insecurity in the region. Warriors who are the principal suppliers have relocated to the bush for fear of being arrested by the army. this has affected household income and taxes for the local government and it causes more tension in the community and increased tension with local government for failure to provide services to the community.

The lack of adequate infrastructure will and has a direct negative bearing on quantity and quality of schools. Minimal social amenities also will and have had an advanced effect on the lives of local communities who continually suffer preventive diseases.

Poor school enrollment and local activities of the communities have continued to hamper development as people suffer from extreme poverty. Karamojong youth are idle because those who would be able to pursue further studies in University are too hampered by finances to do so.

What the government can do

The Government of Uganda should train officers who should be sent to Karamoja on issues to do with Karamoja so that they are aware of the context in which they are going to operate.

It should also promote consultations between community elders, state security agencies in order to better define their respective roles in managing tensions and to strengthen the role of traditional peace building structures.

The civil military department of the army needs to be facilitated better so that information is able to reach out to the people and sensitize the community on the benefits of disarmament and explain the role of the army.