Such is the perception of Karamoja to Ugandans from the south of the country that when President Yoweri Museveni shuffled his internal affairs minister to the Karamoja portfolio after the 2006 polls, Maj Tom Butiime — backed by his constituents — turned down the appointment.
Like the voters of Mwenge North who had voted this veteran of the five-year bush war that brought Museveni to power, Butiime saw the appointment as a slap in the face.
It is this background that makes President Museveni’s appointment last week of First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also MP for Ruhama County, to the same post intriguing.
While her track record as a conscientious charity worker raises the prospect of the Karamoja region’s social problems getting attention that goes beyond political tokenism, pundits are looking at the appointment as a deliberate soft entry point by Museveni to prepare his wife for bigger roles.
With first son Kainerugaba Muhoozi making a steady progress in the armed forces, where he has risen from a second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in eight years and is now commanding an all new Special Forces unit, this school of thought argues that the only flank left uncovered in Museveni’s succession plan was the political wing, where his domineering presence has by either commission or omission suppressed the emergence of real competitors to the throne.
Sources within the ruling party tell The EastAfrican that the Museveni succession battle had thrown the National Resistance Movement into a state of near mayhem pitting two discernible camps against each other, one loyal to the First Lady and the other pitching for NRM Secretary General and Security Minister Amama Mbabazi.
Movement sources further suggest that from the time she decided to join competitive politics to Museveni’s supposed dismay, and potential post-Museveni leaders within the party got increasingly sucked into successive scandals, Mrs Museveni has become the biggest contender to the throne and Museveni may finally be accepting that reality.
Last week’s reshuffle was a tricky affair for Museveni, who was expected to make radical changes at the top involving his Vice-President Professor Gilbert Bukenya and at least two of the Prime Minister slots.
In the event, maintaining a no change stance on these positions is being seen as part of a plan to keep the options open for Janet’s political evolution.
Mrs Museveni’s appointment to oversee the Karamoja docket will serve to further raise her leadership credentials as any success in the region would profoundly change her national profile.
Jubilating over her appointment, opinion leaders in Karamoja believe that the First Lady presents a real opportunity to bring change to the area.
Previous appointees to that office largely failed because they had no interest in the region but as a committed Christian, Janet should achieve a lot in terms of bringing development in the same way the church has done in the past, Ms Iriama Rose, the woman representative for Nakapiripirit, told The EastAfrican.
Located in the unforgiving flood plains at the extreme north-east of Uganda, Karamoja is perhaps Uganda’s most marginalised region and successive post-independence regimes have toyed with various experiments to bring development to the region.
But with pacifying her nomadic inhabitants taking precedence, the state has been sucked into a long drawn low intensity conflict that has defeated any efforts at bringing meaningful development to the area.
While the Amin regime used brute force to subdue the Karimajong, this was not matched by social programmes to give the locals alternative livelihoods. The second Obote regime that came to power in 1980 set up the Karamoja Development Agency.
In its early years, Museveni’s government saw water and pasture as Karamoja’s primary problem and although there were efforts to build water reservoirs, these plans got bogged down in divergence of opinion between donor agencies and the government while graft ate away at whatever resources were availed by the state.
Previous appointees to the office have had little impact, often blaming underfunding. The state also appeared to have designated Karamoja as an area that should be the responsibility of donors.
But the region has recently come into Museveni’s orbit again as he eyes it for a number of pet projects.
Its mineral potential aside, Karamoja, with its sparse population, is one of those parts of Uganda that still have large tracts of arid but fertile land. In recent years the government has spoken of allocating parcels of this territory to Iranian and Libyan investors to launch large scale commercial farming that would involve bulk transfer of water from nearby water bodies for irrigation.
For the first time also, the government is committed to extending a bituminised road to Moroto, the region’s capital.
These programmes have the potential to transform Karamoja, but they could also turn out be Mrs Museveni’s Waterloo.
Previous efforts at exploitation of the region’s gold deposits resulted in conflict with locals after the South African proxy for local interests fenced off miles of land, cutting off traditional migratory corridors for pastoralists and their herds.
If Museveni’s designs for the region include getting his wife to charm the Karimojong off their land, then she has a long treacherous road ahead of her.