The insecurity in Uganda’s north eastern Karamoja region remains fluid with the expiry of the voluntary disarmament programme last month, leaving an estimated 500 guns still in the hands of local warriors who continue to steal cattle and kill in the resurgent cattle rustling.
Cattle theft has grown from a few isolated cases of one or two animals to the current large scale deadly raids in which hundreds of livestock are stolen.
In just two years since the large scale cattle rustling started, 540 civilians, warriors and soldiers have been killed in raids, records of local authorities and security forces show.
This situation is a baptism of fire for the Commander Land Forces Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba who was appointed to the role in June, and came face to face with angry local leaders.
“The process of voluntary disarmament has equally slowed down because the known criminals still believe that the government has done less in guaranteeing protection of their lives and property,” the leaders of Karamoja local authorities said in a joint statement.
This was at the October 24 meeting held at the Third Infantry Division headquarters in Moroto, where local council chairpersons and mayors of the nine districts of Karamoja told Lt-Gen Muhoozi that army and the police, including its Anti-Stock Theft Unit, are lax.
“In as much as the security agencies are trying to address the situation, there remain some gaps which emanate from lack of timely and efficient response to attacks, tracking and recovery of stolen animals,” the leaders said.
Lt-Gen Muhoozi flew to Karamoja on October 21, just two days after the deadliest attack since the resurgent cattle rusting started two years ago, in which 10 cattle rustlers were killed and two soldiers wounded during a raid at Kalapata Sub County in Kaabong District.
This attack raises uneasy questions for the army, as the surviving raiders, who donned military fatigues of the Local Defence Unit (LDU), an auxiliary force that has been co-opted into the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), made off with more than 700 cattle and crossed into Kenya.
“We sent a helicopter gunship, we saw the cows, but there is nothing we could do at that point,” said Capt James Edrin Mawanda, the army Third Division spokesperson.
“The cattle and raiders had crossed into another country,” he said.
But it was the sight of the raiders in full LDU uniform, commandeering the looted livestock, that put a new twist to the security problem in the sub region which borders other nomad warrior communities – Turkana and Pokot of north western Kenya and Toposa of South Sudan.
“Of course we suffered a problem of the desertion of LDUs. A big number of them deserted, and disappeared with our guns but 15 of those have been recovered,” says Capt Mawanda, adding that five remain out there, being used in the cattle theft and killings.
But just after the land forces commander concluded his Karamoja trip, on October 25 the warriors raided Panyangara and Awolobu sub counties in Kotido District, killed two civilians and took hundreds of cattle, the army and local authorities confirmed.
Like several raids before this, local authorities accuse the security forces of slow response, which gives the raiders all the time they need to hide or process livestock movement permits to enable them sell off their loot to suppliers of abattoirs in cities like Soroti, Mbale, Jinja and Kampala.
“Once your cows go, forget because we are not seeing any protection from the government,” says David Koryang, the Moroto District Local Council Chairman. “Why grab [our] guns if you can’t respond in time to recover our animals?”
In September, President Yoweri Museveni met security chiefs over the resurgent cattle rustling in Karamoja. Among the directives he issued was the deployment of a quick reaction force with light armoured forces per district, the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and air force.
Since then, four helicopter gunships have been stationed at the headquarters of the Third Infantry Division in Moroto, and are dispatched to locate and recover stolen cattle.
“Air support is doing a lot of good in recovery of animals. Sometimes, when an SOS goes out, we check coordinates and deploy a UAV,” says Capt Mawanda.
But critics say response, whether aerial or by soldiers on the ground is neither prompt nor effective.
“These places were raided last night [Oct 25] but up to now security doesn’t know where the cows are,” said Emmanuel Tebanyang, a policy analyst at Karamoja Development Forum (KDF), a local NGO whose work is focused on pastoralism, land rights and conflict and cattle.
On October 26, The EastAfrican attended an overnight peace dialogue facilitated by KDF and attended by over 1,000 members of the Matheniko and Bokora neighbouring communities of Moroto and Napak Districts.
The two communities resolved to assume the security responsibility over their livestock, operate joint kraals and grazing of cattle.
Former cattle rustlers at the meeting explained why the communities have lost faith in the army.
“The warriors know that if we raid, the security will take long to respond. Those of us who have handed over our guns are now vulnerable. My kraal has been raided four times in the past three months.” said a former cattle rustler.
Reformed cattle rustler Ariko Lomuria, 37, who was appointed head of the Turkana, Matheniko, Bokora and Jie Peace Committee by Presidents Yoweri Museveni and Uhuru Kenyatta when the two heads of state met in Moroto in 2019, also says helicopter search is not effective.
“I’ve been on search missions on that chopper several times. “You are up in the air, you see animals but you can’t tell if they are stolen or not. So we fly around and come back with nothing,” he told The EastAfrican.
Because of the continued failure to recover most of the stolen cattle, there are frustrations amongst the affected communities, who apportion blame on their local leaders, but most importantly, mistrust of the security forces.
But while voluntary disarmament has seen a few warriors hand over their guns, the government is struggling to find solutions for the backlash from the communities already piqued by lack of recovery of stolen livestock.