Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Karamojong pastoralists of north-eastern Uganda, numbering around 371,713 people (1.1 per cent), comprise one of the most significant marginalized minorities in Uganda, isolated geographically, economically and politically. Commonly stereotyped by their compatriots as violent and backward, other Ugandans refer to them as warriors. Related groups, whose differentiation from Karamojong as separate ethnic or tribal groups is a result of often arbitrary external ethnographic categorization, include Tepeth, Labwor, Dodoth, Napore, Teuso and Pokot. The ecological crisis in north-eastern Uganda dates primarily from water development and disease control programmes begun in 1938, which quickly led to overstocking, overgrazing and environmental degradation, exacerbating periodic drought-induced famines. Cultivation in the central belt also suffers from drought, which often causes complete crop failure. In recent years, chronic drought has been linked to climate change.
Since colonial times governments have treated Karamojong primarily as a security problem, based on the people’s tradition of cattle rustling. Whereas Karamojong men traditionally conducted cattle raids on neighbouring tribes using spears and sticks, since the widespread introduction of automatic weapons in the early 1980s the region has been a virtual no-go area, save primarily for military expeditions to punish cattle-raiding and the intermittent efforts of relief agencies to supply food during the frequent periods of drought and famine.
The government of Uganda efforts to demilitarize the Karamojong, who were reluctant to lay down their weapons in part because they remain prone to cross-border cattle raids from Pokot and Turkana peoples in neighbouring Kenya and Sudan. An attempt at voluntary disarmament in December 2001 included a government pledge to protect the border and allowance of armed Karamojong border defence militias. The effort resulted in collection of 3,000 of an estimated 40,000 weapons. But it was accompanied by widespread allegations of abuses – including torture, extrajudicial killings and destruction of property – by the Ugandan armed forces. Continued Karamojong cattle raids in subsequent years have led to many civilian deaths and spurred a heavy-handed Ugandan military response.
In an attempt to curb further outbreaks of violence, the Ugandan government subsequently embarked upon a forced disarmament programme in Karamoja. But the way in which the policy was carried out has attracted fierce criticism: grave human rights violations carried out by the national army, the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, including extra-judicial killings of civilians, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and the widespread destruction of homesteads. By the end of 2007, following increased efforts to seek the cooperation of Karamajong communities and better training of the military in human rights standards, the situation had improved.
The 2011 elections, while widely criticized by political opponents of the Museveni regime, did see 14 members of parliament (MPs) elected from Karamoja. Under a loose coalition – the Karamoja Parliamentary Group (KPG) – the MPs have drawn attention to poor government policy and emergency response to problems in their region. For example, in August 2011, the KPG criticized the government for the delay in relocating victims of landslides in Kaabong district that had killed and injured many people. In September 2011, the same group urged the government to intervene and repair roads that had been cut by torrential rains.
The hardship endured by the Karamajong has intensified in recent years. Like other cattle-herders in the East African region, they have been at the sharp end of climate change. More frequent cycles of drought have led to greater competition for scarce resources; cattle-raiding has accelerated and this has been accompanied by an upsurge of violence. The ready availability of small arms in the region has led to deadly conflict, which has caused hundreds of deaths over the past few years. Heavy flooding is another problem that has devastated the region repeatedly, leaving the region – already the poorest and most underdeveloped in the country – struggling with widespread hunger and the risk of outbreaks of epidemics.
Karamajong have also been affected by anti-pastoralist government policies. The First Lady, Janet Museveni, while serving as the Minister of Karamoja (2011-2016), advocated against nomadism in favour of settled livestock-keeping, which reflects a government policy of sedentarization coming from the highest level. Activists have continued to report that anti-pastoralist ordinances and policies at local level are being passed to condemn pastoralism and prevent free movement of cattle. The pressures are further intensified in some areas by planned natural resource extraction.
The poverty and lack of opportunities in the region has pushed some Karamajong to migrate to urban areas such as Kampala, where they typically face exploitation, discrimination and periodic round-ups by security forces. Many end up begging for their survival, particularly Karamajong women and children, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation. There is also evidence in recent years that issues such as alcohol abuse have become more common among urban Karamajong migrants.
Updated July 2018
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