After recently spending a week in ‘our Congo’, I am convinced things are getting better despite the current relapse. Sorry, by ‘our Congo’ I am talking about Uganda’s northeastern region of Karamoja, which in some significant ways, is like a miniaturised version of the Congo.
Like Congo’s position in the world of the most resource-rich country with the poorest people, Karamoja too is easily Uganda’s richest region in terms of natural resources, but also home to the least developed communities.
I have been to Karamoja on journalistic missions several times over the years, so my perspective of the region may be better informed than that of a one-off tourist.
But to begin with, the bad old days of marauding warriors are coming back, though we are certain this will certainly be reversed by the government forces in due course.
Karimojong ethnic warriors used to terrorise different communities both within and outside their region, mounting cattle rustling raids and killing wantonly in the process. A decade ago, government forces disarmed Karamoja once and for all, or so we thought.
Now the raids have resumed, though not as intense as in the old days. A group of a hundred rustlers may have just a few guns and many footmen using arrows and sticks, but to a population that has known peace for a decade, they are really traumatising.
How the Karimojong have managed to re-arm is not a big secret. They have cattle, both reared and stolen, that command good prices from the neighbouring Kenya and South Sudan.
Over the recent Christmas season for example, cattle traders from Uganda’s other sub-regions returned empty-handed from Karamoja as they could not match the lucrative offers by the loaded Kenyan and Sudanese buyers. Such proceeds are used to buy guns from different suppliers from Sudan, Somalia, name it!
Many public schools in Karamoja are better equipped than those in Kampala. In fact, parents in other parts of Uganda who have ‘discovered’ this secret send their children to study in Karamoja – virtually free of charge.
The last decade particularly saw heavy investment in Karamoja public education institutions. The heavy investment dose by UN/NGO as well as the state in the last decade no doubt had a lot to do with the First Lady, Mama Janet Museveni, being minister for Karamoja then.
Her role helped increase the visibility and profile of the region. She also pushed a lot of affirmative action both for the Karimojong girl-child as well as social and economic infrastructure, especially water supply, protection and preservation, for the marginalised region. She caused the restoration and upgrade of neglected valley dams, one of these has a capacity to hold millions of cubic metres of water.
Mrs Museveni is also credited with initiating the electronic tagging of cattle, which was peacefully making stock theft and cattle rustling a futile exercise as the true animal owner’s particulars could be shown using an infrared mobile digital reader.
Amidst the resurgent cattle raids, elders attending an inter-district security meeting for Napak and Nabilatuk districts last week at Lorengedwat made an interesting appeal to President Museveni — to return his wife to Karamoja as she is the one who had shown most concern for solving the region’s problems. (She is now holding the Education portfolio).
Although there are big differences between the several Karimojong sub-ethnic communities themselves, one thing is common to all of them — the blatantly raw deal that women and girls are handed by the men, at least in the eyes of outsiders.
The men remain the biggest obstacle to development; stopping children from going to school, pushing girls into early marriages to old men in exchange for cattle, drinking alcohol most of the time and eating Unicef-supplied children’s nutrition supplements for their own libido enhancement. And of course staging livestock raids using deadly automatic weapons.
One missionary hospital is overwhelmed as its resources and beds are mostly by patients with gunshot wounds.
I see one solution that can restore peace to Karamoja and trigger rapid development in the resource-rich land. Just dispense of the niceties and isolate the men for a decade and leave Karamoja for the women, boys and girls.
There wouldn’t be even the slightest drop in productivity, as all useful activities from house construction to agriculture and child rearing are done by women. Even labour in the mines is provided mostly by women but the men collect the payment for their wives’ labour and drink it.
This region of vast mineral deposits, fertile soils and beautiful game reserves can do without the boozing and deadly livestock raids for a while, forever in fact.