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Why the Karimojong factor is a delicate issue in northern and eastern politics

By Vision Reporter

Added 16th September 2003 03:00 AM

In a meeting early this month in Soroti, Teso and Karamoja leaders agreed to bury their differences and unite to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Teso. But in a strange turn of events, the district chairman of Katakwi, Stephen Ilemukorit, rejected the deployment of Karimojong vigilantes

In a meeting early this month in Soroti, Teso and Karamoja leaders agreed to bury their differences and unite to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Teso. But in a strange turn of events, the district chairman of Katakwi, Stephen Ilemukorit, rejected the deployment of Karimojong vigilantes

In a meeting early this month in Soroti, Teso and Karamoja leaders agreed to bury their differences and unite to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Teso. But in a strange turn of events, the district chairman of Katakwi, Stephen Ilemukorit, rejected the deployment of Karimojong vigilantes last Monday in Onyonyoia sub-county, Katakwi district.

Ilemukorit’s reaction negates the motive of the resolutions of 71 Teso and Karimojong leaders who early this month resolved in a meeting at Soroti Hotel to join forces to fight Kony.

Sources said there was an outcry from the Katakwi population which equates the presence of the Karimojong to cattle rustling and looting of food. However, the army said those to be deployed in Teso were mostly the Karimojong militia who were serving under UPDF command in the Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU).

“The people in Katakwi are willing to join the Arrow Group. Before the Karimojong were brought here, I urged the Government to recruit the entire manpower I have here,” Ilemukorit said.

He advised the government to remove the Karimojong from Katakwi and deploy them along the Teso-Lango border.

“We have a problem here. Our cows are our concern. We do not care even if the Government deploys here the ex-WNBF, ex-PRA or ex-UNRF rebels. But do not deploy the Karimojong here,” he said.

The Karimojong factor is a delicate issue in politics of north and eastern Uganda. Disarming the Karimojong is equally a very controversial issue.

The tribal divisions in Karamoja

In the 1995 constitution, there are 10 tribes in the Karamoja region. These are the Karimojong, the Dodoth of Sudan-Kenya border, the Ik, who are hunters and gatherers living in Timu forest on hills along the Uganda-Kenya border, the Jie in Kotido District, the Pokot who are Kalenjin-speaking people living in Upe county, the Mening are a Sudanic group on Sudan border, the Napore within Dodoth county, the So who are at times called the Teteth and live on Moroto Mountains and the Nyangia.

The tenth tribe is the Ethur in Labwor county, in Kotido district. They are of Luo origin and speak the Lebu-Thur language. The Acholi refer to them as labwor meaning lions.

To explain the circle of violence in Karamoja, there is need to classify each of the 10 tribes and how they contribute to the chaos.

The tribes in Karamoja are divided into cattle-keepers, the Luo group who are agriculturists, the Kalenjin- speaking group and the Sudanic group.

The Karimojong who are the cattle-keepers are the largest and dominant. They speak the Nga-Karimojong and comprise three distinct clans of Pian, Bokora and Matheniko who continuously fight among each other.

Why is the region referred to as Karamoja despite the existence of many tribes? In 1909, when the British colonialists moved into the extreme northeastern parts of the present day Uganda, they met the Nga-Karimojong-speaking people and thus referred to the entire region as Karamoja. The dialect of the Jie and Dodoth is closer to Nga-Karimojong.

The Karimojong, Jie, Dodoth and Pokot are cattle-keepers. Being pastoralists, they survive on cattle keeping and move from place to place in search of pasture depending on the seasons.

It is worth noting that despite moving from place to place, the Karimojong have homes. Unlike their Kenyan cousins, the Turkana, their homesteads are a cluster of homes close to relatives.

Whereas the Turkana move around with entire families, the Karimojong elderly men, women and children stay at home. Only the able-bodied men in the age bracket of 15-35 years move around with cattle. During this time, the youth also get chance to acquire their own cows. They raid neighbouring communities and fight to protect their cows. A typical Karimojong home comprises a kraal for cows in the inner compound, which is often fenced off. Around this is a ring of houses.

In Karamoja, the Ethur and the Karenga tribe are agriculturists, The Karenga are said to be about 60-70% agriculturists, while the Ethur are said to be 90-95% agriculturists.

Some other Karimojong communities are adapting to agriculture. These are in Iriri, along the borders of Katakwi and Moroto. The people in a place called Namalu in Chekwi county are now practicing crop farming.

The Karimojong problem
The region has wet and dry seasons. The cattle keepers occupy the drier parts of Karamoja. During the wet season, there is pasture and water. This is when all the animals are brought home to the homestead. The cattle graze nearby. During this time, rustling is reduced and relations with neighbours is good. The wet period starts from April/May and ends in August/September.

The Karimojong become a problem to themselves and their neighbours during the dry seasons when there is a serious shortage of water for animals and people. This is when their nomadic life begins. The youth in the age bracket of 15-35 years start the long walk in search of pastures.

This is when rustling picks up with fatal and destructive consequences on communities in and outside the Karamoja region.

A contributing factor to the Karimojong’s offensive character is the developments in Sudan and Kenya. This external factor has made the Government’s disarmament programme to nearly flop.

In the adjacent lands in Sudan and Kenya, the cattle-keeping tribes live in lands drier than Karamoja.

In the 1970s the Turkana and Pokot of Kenya took advantage of the civil war in Sudan and Ethiopia to buy guns. The Sudanese nomadic tribes of Didinga and Toposa also acquired arms. The Karimojong first acquired a lot of arms in 1979 when Idi Amin soldier’s fled Moroto barracks abandoning a huge armoury. Later, it became a fashion of life that every Karimojong had to acquire a gun. At times individuals have two or three guns as ones status is in any community.

The raid on Moroto barracks brought equilibrium in the regional balance of power but changed the internal balance of power. Internally, the Karimojong used their arms to raid weaker communities within and outside Karamoja. The Karimojong consider the Luo-speaking Ethur tribe in Labwor county as foreigners and raid them for food. Being illiterate, greedy and armed, they consider themselves as owners of any cow anywhere. They have raided the Teso, Lango and Acholi regions for cattle and food.

This is where the government’s disarmament plans suffered a major blow. It means that each time guns are removed from the Karimojong by the UPDF during disarmament, a vacuum is created. The UPDF can disarm the Karimojong, but it cannot stop or cross the borders to defeat and disarm the invading Sudanese and Kenyan cattle-keepers.

Solution to the Karimojong threat
The government created the Karimojong vigilante group under the title of Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU) which aimed at preventing persistent Karimojong raids on the neighbouring districts. But ASTU, which comprised of mostly youth from Karamoja, had its own share of problems. Sources said UPDF officers in charge of ASTU irregularly paid the militia. This led to wide-scale dissertions from ASTU and little effort was made to recruit more. The existence of ghost soldiers in the army also hit ASTU where the registered paid ASTU militia far exceeded the true force on the ground.

The creation of vigilantes is not a new idea. It was tried in 1993, 1995 and 1996. In the past it failed because during wet seasons, the Karimojong youth cooperate but disappear during the dry seasons. In some cases, they flee with the guns. Because of the inter-ethnic conflict within Karamoja, the same youth want guns to rustle and acquire their own wealth.

“The truth is that there is so much terror inside Karamoja and it is the wish of everybody that disarmament must succeed. But the will to surrender the guns is lacking because of the sense of insecurity in the absence of the gun,” a Karimojong secondary school student said.

During the disarmament programme some homesteads surrendered guns, but kept some hidden. There were also cases of UPDF soldiers implicated in ‘disappearing’ with cattle recovered from rustlers.

Karimojong in Kony war
The latest Kony raids were in Kotido District in the parishes of Awach in September 2002 and Abim in May this year. These incursions into Karamoja ended in defeats for Kony. The common talk is that Karimojong see Kony rebels as an abundant source of arms and actually go for battle to get guns. They also see the Kony rebels as rivals, because Teso is a common ground for getting food. The most vulnerable part of Karamoja is Labwor county inhabited by the agriculturist Ethur people. The Ethur are keen about joining the Arrow Group. However, because they are within the Karamoja region, the Acholi, Teso and Lango consider them as rustlers. Yet the Karimojong see them as foreigners whose food must be grabbed. The Karimojong bring the cattle to Labwor County during dry seasons and use Labwor as a springboard to raid the Langi, Acholi and Teso.

State minister for economic monitoring, John Omwony Ojok is an Ethur from Labwor. He said, “We are Luo speakers but we are not accepted by the Langi, Acholi and Teso people. The Karimojong view us foreigners. But we do not complain when we are being referred to as Karimojong. Frankly many Ethur people do not understand the Karimojong.”

A politician from Karamoja says: “Sincerely speaking, the Karimojong are willing to join the anti-Kony war. My understanding is that they will go and kill those Kony rebels but with the sole aim of taking away the guns for themselves. Unlike the Arrow Group, they will not surrender the captured guns to the UPDF. This will, no doubt, increase the circle of arms and terror.”

Teso has taken the initiative of fighting Kony rebels, but there is another reason for the massive desire to join the Arrow Group. Many Iteso say that they want guns to guard against Karimojong cattle rustlers. The question is what will happen to the Teso guns after Kony is defeated?

Recently, state minister for health Captain Mike Mukula drove the point home when he was quoted as suggesting that after the defeat of Kony rebels, the government should allow the Iteso to keep the guns.

“The solution is to have a simultaneous disarmament programme in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. This programme may take 20-30 years. But it must be consistent with education and aggressive sensitisation.

Alternatively, the disarmament programme can be halted and the gun should instead be tamed. The best short term solution is to tame the Karimojong arms by building them into a force the Arrow group in Teso and the Rhino Defence Group in Lango. This will create a local arms equilibrium ,” a Teso politician said.

Why the Karimojong factor is a delicate issue in northern and eastern politics

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