Karamoja region is, to some, Ugandaâ€™s Wild West. It is often referred to as bandit land, where cattle rustling, bloody feuds, combat between neighbouring ethnic groups and heavily armed warriors is the order of the day.
With a population of about one million people and between 30,000 and 150,000 guns, insecurity has been dominant since the colonial period.
Paul Lomanio, the LC5 chairman of Kotido, says the problems of Karamoja started with the colonial regime around 1921.
â€œKaramoja was cut off from the rest of the country. The British looked at it as a source of insecurity and they were overwhelmed by the level of underdevelopment,â€ he adds. â€œBecause the people had no access to clothes, they looked at them as backward. Anyone who wanted to go there had to get a permit.â€ In World War I, British maps of Karamoja read: â€œNomadic Tribes â€” Treacherous.â€
He says the British only built a dam at Nakapelimori to store water.
â€œThey forced people to construct the dam and also open up the main road stretching from Moroto to Kaabong â€“ the road has never been upgraded to tarmac. In education, the British did nothing and that is why our people remain marginalised in all spheres of life,â€ he says.
Lomanio explains that the British worked with local elders but failed to establish the police or army structures.
â€œIt is this structure that Obote I inherited but never maintained, leaving room for insecurity to reign,â€ he said.
Father John Bosco, a Karimojong who managed to gain education through the Catholic Church, says it was the Catholic missionaries from Italy who constructed three primary schools and two health centres in the 1950s. One of the health centres has since been upgraded to a hospital â€“ Matanyi.
He adds that it was during Obote I that schools like Kotido and Moroto High were built to boost education in the region.
â€œTo provide water to the people, Oboteâ€™s government constructed 20 small dams and started opening up bore holes to serve the people. But when Idi Amin took over, the situation became worse,â€ he says.
â€œBecause Amin had seen many Karimojong naked, his policy was to make sure that they dress up. But he did this forcefully and those who opposed it were massacred.â€
Amin, however, constructed the Moroto Barracks to beef up security in the region.â€ But the soldiers in the barracks used to sell arms to the people, encouraging them to raid cattle from other areas. This is when cattle rustling became common.â€
He adds that the worst blow came when the regime was overthrown and the escaping soldiers abandoned the arsenal, giving chance to the people to treat themselves to the arms.
â€œThe people had seen the power of the gun so they started attacking areas like Teso and Sebei for cattle,â€ he said.
Bosco explains that the regimes that came after Amin were more preoccupied with fighting to keep themselves in power than serving the people.
â€œObote II was the worst. In this period, he had nothing to offer Karamoja â€“ not even putting up security services like the police and the army. The Karimojong were protecting themselves but also attacking their neighbours for cattle and food.â€
Chaos and disorder continued throughout that period and even with Okello Lutwa taking over from Obote, the situation did not improve.
But with the coming of the government of Yoweri Museveni, a glimmer of hope lit the region.
â€œIn the 10-point programme, rehabilitation and pacification of Karamoja was the seventh.
Aston Kajara, the state minister for Karamoja affairs, says the Government is working hard to develop Karamoja.
The minister asserts that the problems of Karamoja started with the colonial administration.
â€œDevelopment is synonymous with security. Without security there will never be development,â€ he adds. He says the Government through the Uganda Peopleâ€™s Defence Forces (UPDF), in 2001 started the disarmament programme, aimed at creating peace and development in the region.
â€œWe have recovered about 25,000 guns and Karamoja is now accessible to the rest of the country,â€ he says.
The exercise has opened room for development. â€œLike any other part of Uganda, Karamoja is accessing UPE and USE for the first time and more children are in school,â€ he adds.
Lomanio says in 1999 the Government provided sh3.5b for valley dams so that people could access water for animals, although the number was small and the size not adequate.
Sh600m has been invested in the water sector and each of the five districts of the region has been provided with about six boreholes, Kajara says.
He adds that they will benefit from the water projects being undertaken by the government of Japan.
â€œOur development partners have also been active in constructing bore holes, health centres and de-silting some of the dams. We have opened up some roads and upgraded others under the local government.â€
About 12 million euros have been earmarked for the road sector, the minister says.
Under the Northern Uganda Reconstruction Programme, a number of roads have been worked on and annually the local government in Karamoja benefits from the sh15b being given for road maintenance by the Government.
To ensure security, Kajara says 15,000 UPDF troops have been sent to the area. There is a unit of soldiers every 15km along the road and other remote areas.
â€œAs a result, cattle rustling and road ambushes are rare. We have also beefed up security by sending the Police,â€ the minister says. About 800 police officers have been posted to the area.
Kajara says they have revived magistrateâ€™s courts in the region and five magistrates were posted there.
To boost development of the region, the Government recently launched the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme (KIDDP), worth sh445b.
Kajara says the move is set to revamp agriculture, health and education of the children and other income-generating activities.
The Government recently passed a budget of sh24b to construct colleges and schools in the region.
Lomanio says most of the projects are good but they never get implemented and Karamoja remains underdeveloped.
Karamojaâ€™s unending problems