The land is vast, stretching as far as the eye can see. Even though darkness is setting in, clusters of manyattas are still visible from a distance.
These modest homesteads built from mad and wattle belong to the Karimojong, a Nilotic pastoral people of northeastern Uganda.
A herdsboy, dressed in a worn out pair of shorts and faded black T-shirt guides his cattle back home. His outfit sets him apart from his peers who are wearing the typical cotton sheet wrapped over one shoulder.
In his hand is a spear he uses to defend himself against raiders. It is illustrative of a government disarmament programme that began in the early 2000s in response to an upsurge in livestock raids, even though illegal arms continue to circulate in the community.
Before then, herdsmen and boys in Karamoja carried AK 47 riffles in broad daylight.
“These days we do not have guns to protect ourselves and our livestock, so we carry spears,” said John Alepere a villager.
The Karimojong are passionate about their cattle. They believe God has given all cattle in the world to them and, therefore, they have a God-given right to the animals. This explains the persistent conflict over cattle among themselves and with neighbouring groups, especially from Kenya who also share the same beliefs.
These neighbours, the Turkana and Pokot of Kenya, Toposa and Didinga of South Sudan, Oromo of Ethiopia and Jie and Matheniko of Uganda form part of the Karamoja cluster of 14 communities that includes the Karimojong. The region they occupy straddles the borders between northeastern Uganda, southwestern Ethiopia, northwestern Kenya and southeastern Sudan — all semi-arid savanna land.
But despite the close cultural and blood ties, these communities continue to launch violent attacks against each other.
The raids are well planned and sanctioned by community elders. It is a heritage the communities have faithfully passed on from generation to generation.
However, although the outcomes are fatal, the communities do not view the raids as crime, which has landed some of the Karimojong on the wrong side of the law.
To beef up security, the Karimojong also build fences around their manyattas using branches from thorny trees.
The warriors, or karacunas as the Karimojong call them, attack other clans across borders to acquire more cattle for two main reasons: Marriage and prestige.
“Traditionally, marriage is the main driving force behind the cattle raids. The bride price for an uneducated pastoralist girl, for example, is a minimum 100 cows. So if you own say 40 cows, it means you must acquire the rest through whatever means, including stealing or begging,” said John Baptist Lokii, MP for Matheniko county in Moroto district.
Equally, one’s social and political status is determined by the number of livestock they own. Normally, it is the wealthy who are consulted and who make decisions on behalf of the community.
“If you have many animals, you are a small king,” said Dr Lokii.
Chegam Lurukale, 34, is among the unlucky ones whose efforts to become a “small king” landed him in army detention.
“I raid to get rich; stealing is the only means of survival. But although I have been stealing, I am still very poor,” he said.
Chegam stole the cows from the Matheniko community. If freed, he hopes to start a new life — working in the gold mines or burning charcoal.
“I acquired the gun from a member of the Jie clan in exchange for five cows because I knew it would help me get many more cattle,” said Chegam.
When a community executes the raids outside its national borders, the winning side prides itself in having the power to control the other.
That, however, is often short- lived due to retaliatory attacks that turn the raids into a vicious cycle.
Sometimes communities that have close blood ties such as the Pokot of Kenya and the Pokot of Uganda form an alliance to raid say the Turkana in Kenya. Once the mission is complete, the alliance usually disintegrates.
The raids though, have taken on a new twist these days. First, because the Karimojong are now attaching commercial value to the cattle, the rustlers select only healthy cattle to sell and also, they no longer kill the herdsmen.
Back in the day, the raids were conducted by what the army would describe as “a moving battalion of over 100 armed men” that made intervention tricky.
The raiders would drive away all the cattle in the kraal and kill anyone who came in their way. Today, they tie up the shepherds to buy time for fleeing. The animals are then sold immediately after.
“In those days, a typical Karimojong would raid and kill one bull to appease the elders and witchdoctors for blessings during the raid. No stolen cow was sold but was instead added to the raider’s stock. Community elders would meet, plan and sanction the raids,” said Dr Lokii.
The raids remain a headache for the government given that there are still illegal guns circulating in the community.
South Sudan and Ethiopia are the main sources of the guns. Traders in collusion with the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) fighters supply the guns through northern Uganda. In a few cases, Uganda security personnel sell their guns to the Karamojong.
The illegal trade in firearms explains the rising cases of insecurity in the Karamoja region, mainly through road ambushes and killings. This in turn has made it impossible for any meaningful development to take place in the region exacerbating the poverty levels.
But while a government disarmament exercise is still ongoing with a view to pacify the region and attract investments in agriculture, tourism and the mining sectors, the thriving weapons blackmarket remains a stumbling block.
Initially, the disarmament programme was voluntary, then it became forcible and today, the community has taken the lead in providing information on illegal guns within their localities. The government has also charged the army with the responsibility of recovering stolen cattle.
To ease the process, the government introduced electronic means of identifying stolen cattle in which a chip bearing the details of the animal’s owner is inserted into its stomach. When a stolen animal is recovered, it is screened to reveal its owner.
In its way, the disarmament exercise has been fairly successful. Relative peace has returned to Karamoja. And with fewer raids to worry about, the Karimojong are gradually beginning to wake up to the importance of education and trying their hands at other economic activities like farming.
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Government soldiers spend their nights around manyattas that are close to the borders to protect the Karimojong from outside aggression.
However, much more needs to be done because the programme did not take nto account the need to seal off avenues for supplying guns.
The armed raids, though they occur less frequently, are the key pointers to the existence of illegal guns in the hands of civilians.
“The Matheniko still have guns; when the disarmament exercise kicked off, they formed alliances with the Turkana and hid their cattle between the borders of Kotido and Moroto districts near the Kenya border. The Turkana help them to graze their cattle as well as keep the guns,” said Dennis Opio, an intelligence officer at Lokotuk village army detachment in Moroto.
A September 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey and the Danish Demining Group: Security Provision and Small Arms in Karamoja supports the idea there is an emerging blackmarket for small arms.
According to the report, the guns are hired or borrowed from pastoralists outside the Uganda border because it is illegal for civilians without a licence to be in possession of firearms.
The guns are then returned after the job is completed. This is made even easier by unmanned porous borders.
Disarming the Karamoja
Uganda and Kenya saw the need for a regional disarmament exercise that incorporates the entire Karamoja cluster. South Sudan and Ethiopia then joined Kenya which is pushing for the exercise under the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad).
However, despite the presence of liaison officers inside Uganda, Kenya is yet to start the disarmament exercise.
But South Sudan, which is believed to have the highest number of illegal guns because it recently emerged from war, wants to introduce an annual cow tax pegged at $3 per animal to limit the frequency of the raids.
“For you to acquire more cows, you pay more; this would stop cattle rustling,” said Philip Ajak Boldit, South Sudan’s director of micro economic unit at the Ministry of Finance and Economic planning. “This is one way of fighting raids and at the same time increasing revenue from taxes; the money obtained can be used for social development.”
South Sudan is hoping that other countries could borrow a leaf from them for mutual benefit.
“We believe that if Kenyans introduced a similar tax the Turkanas would stop acquiring more cows,” said Mr Ajak.
But that is the easy part. The challenging bit is exactly how the government hopes to collect taxes from armed and marginalised communities obsessed with the idea that they own livestock by a divine right.