As she posed for a picture with cattle rustlers long used to treating guns as toys, East African Community Deputy Secretary General for Political Federation Beatrice Kiraso made a provocative statement.
“The richest people in the world are not cattle keepers but industrialised nations,” she told an audience of mainly cattle keeping communities during the 8th edition of the Moroto Peace Race recently.
You don’t tell that to a community that lives and dies for cattle. But the significance of the statement gains currency when put in perspective.
In East Africa, nomadic pastoralist communities have for decades been synonymous with proliferation of small arms and related crimes. This has fomented conflict, death and underdevelopment mainly among the Karimojong, Turkana, Pokot and Toposa communities in Uganda, Kenya and Southern Sudan.
These are by far the region’s most impoverished communities.
And with regional governments posting mixed results in their disarmament efforts, the initiative to end this problem is shifting to aid agencies, civil society, humanitarian groups and regional economic blocs.
On May 28, 2010, over 600 athletes — reformed warriors and peace enthusiasts — gathered in Moroto town for the 8th edition of the Moroto Peace Race. The spotlight was on former warriors who must become change agents for peace, having dumped the gun.
“We want to see warriors running and competing for something else other than livestock,” said Kenya’s Information Minister Samuel Poghisio. “We want to see lasting peace in this region.”
The Moroto Peace Race has been held annually since 2003 under the auspices of the Tecla Lorupe Peace Foundation, the East African Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
“This is a day for all peace makers... we want to have peace beyond East Africa wherever there are such problems of illegal guns. There are many ways of achieving peace, and sport is one of them. Since I am an athlete, this is what I bring to my community: A race to promote peace,” said Kenyan born former world marathon champion Tecla Lorupe.
The world record holder for the 20, 25 and 30-kilometre races, Lorupe believes it is not enough to leave this problem to governments, which tend to favour abrasive methods to deal with cattle rustling and illegal guns in Kenya, Uganda and Southern Sudan.
Perched on the intersection point of three countries are the Karimojong of north-eastern Uganda, the Turkana and Pokot of north-western Kenya and the Toposa of south-east Southern Sudan.
They frequently raid neighbouring communities — even beyond national borders — to steal cattle.
These communities have links to arms supply chains in Ethiopia and conflict ravaged Somalia.
The commonest gun is the AK47, followed by the G3 series. Currently, there are about 150,000 illegal guns in the hands of warriors, studies show.
Voluntary and forced disarmament have yielded mixed results.
The government of Uganda has since 2001 conducted a disarmament exercise that has yielded over 40,000 of an estimated 50,000 guns in the hands of Karimojong warriors. Cross border raids have reduced, as has insecurity in the region.
However, observers say that disarming the Karimojong while the Turkana and Pokot in Kenya and the Toposa in Sudan remain armed will not translate into stability.
Since the disarmament efforts of the three governments are at variance, this issue should be addressed at the regional level, said Turkana Central MP Ekwe Ethuro.
“Anything that affects two of the partner states becomes a matter of the [EA] Community,” he added.
Moroto is the biggest town in Karamoja region, home to 1.3 million people. Official data indicates that 80 per cent of the people live on less than a dollar. Most of them resort to cattle rustling to survive.