UGANDA: Optimism in Karamoja despite lingering security concerns

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A semi-arid region where livestock and violence have long been central concerns for the million people that live there, Karamoja in northeastern Uganda has started to stabilise, aid workers say.

Food shortages, insecurity and poor infrastructure remain major problems, but the Ugandan government and development agencies have started to pay increasing attention to the region.

"Hunger and insecurity are the main challenges; a high percentage of the population live below the poverty line," said Moses Chuna Kapolon, the administrative officer of Moroto District. "The government should treat Karamoja as a special case."

Moroto is one of five districts that make up Karamoja, a vast 27,000 sqkm region inhabited by some of Uganda's last traditional pastoralists. The other districts are Kotido, Abim, Kaabong and Nakapiripirit

"The region is trapped in a cycle of food insecurity," Kopolon said. "We have had poor harvests since 1995 and the cropping pattern has changed due to unpredictable rainfall."

According to Kapolon, livelihood strategies are also changing. While most Karimojong largely depended on cattle in the past, rampant insecurity has meant economic losses in the livestock sector.

"Today a lot of Karimojong children are growing up in difficult circumstances," he explained. "Only warlords have cattle and most families are left without any livestock. Meals have become unaffordable for many; previously people survived on one meal a day, now one has a meal in about two days."

Ravaged by insecurity and cattle-rustling, the region has lagged behind in terms of development and social services for decades, and with the proliferation of illegal firearms in the last two decades, the rustling has become increasingly violent.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Karamoja scores lowest on Uganda's key development and humanitarian indicators, even when compared to the northern region which has been wracked by conflict between government troops and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

"Karamoja registers the highest maternal mortality rate (750/100,000 live births), the highest infant mortality rate (178/1,000 live births), the lowest latrine coverage (6 percent) and the highest illiteracy rate (89 percent)," said a recent OCHA report.

This situation is largely the result of long-term neglect by successive governments and the widespread availability of illegal arms. The region has poor access to judicial institutions and experiences widespread human rights abuses and impunity.

Security problems

Illegal guns flooded Karamoja in 1979 when Idi Amin's regime collapsed and soldiers abandoned a major weapons armoury, leaving local warriors to help themselves.

Small arms trade across Southern Sudan, northern Uganda and northwestern Kenya has also fuelled cattle-rustling in the region, turning an already violent tradition into a much more deadly activity.

Since 2006, however, the Ugandan army has deployed in large numbers to forcefully disarm the Karimojong. According to the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), over 1,500 weapons have been recovered from cordon and search operations since January.

"The government has tried to address the security issue; hence the ongoing disarmament efforts to get rid of illegal guns held by the population," said the chairman of Moroto District, Peter Ken Lochap.

Human rights organisations say the disarmament has helped, but it is marred by gross abuses.

"While fears of insecurity in the region have abated to a large extent with fewer road ambushes - credited to an increase in the frequency of UPDF road patrols - continuing violent actions of armed cattle raiders remain a cause of concern,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in a situation report for April to August 2007.

Still, said OHCHR, disarmament activities - including cordon, search and disarm raids, and forceful or voluntary disarmament - have reduced the number of guns in the hands of the Karimojong.

At the same time, reported and alleged cases of human rights violations committed during disarmament operations, "including extra judicial killings, theft and loss of property", had markedly reduced since April. But a "significant" number of individuals, including UPDF soldiers, were killed or injured by illegally armed Karimojong elements.

UPDF abuses?

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued on 11 September said UPDF soldiers had tortured and killed civilians during their operations. The government’s efforts to address and prevent these abuses were promising but insufficient, it said.

"The Ugandan government has every right to get guns out of the hands of ordinary citizens," Elizabeth Evenson, a researcher for the HRW report said. "But its soldiers must still obey the law."

The HRW report entitled Get the Gun!: Human Rights Violations by Uganda's National Army in Law Enforcement Operations in Karamoja Region, was based on eyewitness accounts of law enforcement operations carried out by the UPDF between September 2006 and January 2007.

The Ugandan government has rejected the allegations in the report. On 18 September Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga told reporters in Kampala: "The report is abusive and provocative."

To achieve long term stability, say relief officials, the disarmament exercise now needs to go hand-in-hand with development programmes.

Aid workers upbeat

According to UN and other aid workers, Karamoja region has gradually started moving from instability to peace and development, especially when compared to the situation in 2006.

"Karamoja's crisis continues to revolve around protection of the civilian population and lack of development, as attested to by alarming indicators like the high rate of global acute malnutrition," Kristen Knutson, the public information and donor liaison officer for OCHA-Uganda, told IRIN.

"For peace, recovery and development to be achieved, humanitarian and development actors need to increase activities in the region."

The main challenge, say aid workers, is to boost education, develop basic infrastructure and improve livelihoods. It is also necessary to urgently address high illiteracy rates, rampant poverty, inadequate water and lack of electricity.

"Karamoja is continuously in a crisis: trauma, violence, single-headed families, displacement and disarmament; all add up to a crisis with few responses," said Jeremy England, the UN Children Fund’s eastern Uganda regional manager. Every time there has been a crisis, agencies have come in to help and then left."

That is changing, though. "Even though the major donors are yet to fully engage, the UN is [now] definitely in," England added. "In the past year or so, several UN agencies have set up permanent bases in the region, in addition to the World Food Programme, which has been in the area for many years."

Calling for substantial development investment and donor support to ensure focused emergency preparedness and response, he said Karamoja could otherwise lurch from crisis to crisis - and the violence would spill over into neighbouring areas.

"When you have a poor response to an emergency, people are not looking at any transition to development," England said. "A good emergency response would look at all aspects to move over the emergency threshold. So far, the scale of response remains unsatisfactory."

Time to sing?

To locals living the region, talk of stability is music to the ears. Kevin Akiki, 22, a volunteer at Moroto's Don Vittorio Youth Centre talked of great plans should the Karamoja situation improve.

"I would like to further my education by going to university and nurturing my singing," Akiki told IRIN. "The director [of the centre] told me one of the songs I composed could be made the centre's anthem; we can achieve a lot in terms of youth development if many young people go for education rather than become warriors."

In Moroto town, the largest urban centre in the region, the mood of optimism has been captured in song by the Rocky K-jong band led by `Legless’ and `Ugly’ - stage names for two 20-year old popular local musicians whose real names are Jacob Otilo and Emmanuel Kinei.

"We started making music about peace, education and HIV/AIDS awareness when we saw the deaths that occur during cattle-rustling," `Ugly’ told IRIN. "Violence has led to deaths of many of our friends and relatives; so we try to teach the youth that it is not only through the gun that one can earn a living."

Source: IRIN