Who will end violence in Karamoja? Uganda’s chronic emergency, Vrij Nederland 9 January 2010

The gate in the embankment made of branches is half a meter high. Nacam (63) slides through like a snake. Her visitor crawls inside in less elegant fashion. Three consecutive rings of fences with narrow passages must protect the manyatta against robbers. It does not help much. Last night enemy warriors plundered this settlement.

Six men with kalasjnikovs stole pans, clothes, plates, water jerrycans and the bags of maize and sorghum that had just been distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP). Except for a wrap and some necklaces of blue, yellow and red beads, Nacam has nothing left. An angry drunken neighbour dressed in a red skirt holds up one plastic plate: ‘This they forgot.’ They lost their 80 cows before. Those were robbed from the kraal, which was supposed to be protected by the army. One year ago they handed over the weapons which they used to defend themselves with to the same army.

The raid on Nacam’s settlement presents in one scene all the ingredients of the Karamoja drama: drought, hunger, alcoholism, guns, half a century of food aid, protected kraals, cattle raids and robberies. The solution – forced disarmament – resulted in stranded nomads and a question to which nobody has an answer: who can help Karamoja?

Karamoja is surrounded by Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. It is inhabited by an ethnical group, the Karimojong, divided in tribes that fight each other to the death. Most of them are nomads with cattle. They owe their reputation to a tradition of violence, like other pastoralists like the Afar, Masaï or Turkana. For ages, the Karimojong have guided their livestock over the rock strewn planes, moving on the rhythm of the seasons. Here the air is filled with the salty smell of tanned animal skin, of cattle on dry earth. The people are tough and merciless as their land.

Far away from Kampala, Karamoja has always been a blind spot on Uganda’s map. De Brits stayed away. They circumvented Karamoja when they built the railway line from Northern Uganda to the Kenyan Coast. Idi Amin forced the pastoralists to wear more than just chains of beads. They had to put on clothes. And that is where his engagement ended.

Since Museveni came to power in 1986 he was kept busy by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a few hundred kilometres away. But Karamoja’s escalating violence became a tarnish for the president who presents himself as the man who brought peace and stability to Uganda. In 2000 he sent the army to Karamoja. The disarmament started then.

Murdering is honourable
Violence and Karamoja go together like rain and clouds. On the rhythm of the weddings they steal each other’s cattle. The tribal elders sent out their young warriors for dowries of at least a hundred cows. The cattle thieves were armed with a spear and a bow and arrow. In a cattle raid they often seized hundreds of cows. Although murdering is honourable and a Karimojong becomes a man only after he kills another man (for every killing he carves a mark in his upper arm, like the badges of a soldier), for ages the bloodshed in raids was limited.

That changed thirty years ago with the arrival of the AK-47. Lieutenant Dominic appears to be a good storyteller when it comes to the rifle. He works as a liaison officer between the army and NGOs in the northernmost city of Kaabong. Before driving into the rural areas, aid workers call Dominic to verify if the road is safe. The young lieutenant does not want to disclose how many troops the army, the UPDF, has in the area. But he is eager to talk about “how the gun came to Karamoja and how the Karimojong embraced it”.

Surrounded by equipment (laptop, printer, fake-leather desk chair), which tells that donors are happy to pay for civil-military cooperation – abbreviated into the now buzzword ‘cimic’, Dominic narrates that the Karimojong fought with spears until Idi Amin’s army fled in 1979, leaving behind barracks full of weapons. “Karimojong women carried the kalasjnikovs on their heads away like piles of fire wood.”
Then followed twenty years of endemic violence. The police left. The monopoly of violence disintegrated into ten-thousands of kalasjnikovs. Tribal elders lost their authority over the young. Karamoja became lawless, warriors unruly. The tradition that disciplined violence was lost. What remained were rapacity , chaos and AK-47s inciting a war of all against all.

Karamoja had to hand over the arms. In 2000 Museveni started with voluntary disarmament. The most obedient gave up their kalasjnikovs – becoming defenceless victims for the warriors with fewer qualms. In 2001 Museveni needed his army in the Congo and against the LRA. Only in 2004 started the forced disarmament.

For various reasons that operation became controversial. The UPDF violated human rights. Then, the Karimojong had to give up roaming. UPDF soldiers would guard all the cattle in protected kraals. Thousands of cows are now gathered behind a fence. In the daytime they go out searching for grass, in the evening they are locked up. Due to over-grazing there isn’t even a stalk of grass left within walking distance. Also, with so many animals bunched together, diseases spread easily.

Even more serious is the fact that the army’s protection of the kraals is not very effective. Nacam’s family are not the only ones who lost their herd on the army’s watch. At several locations in the Kaabong district people testify of cattle theft from protected kraals. Full disarmament appears to be unattainable.

The mayor of Kaabong criticises the UPDF protection. Kaabong’s kraal contains eight thousand cows and only twenty soldiers to guard them. Moreover, the cattle form a magnet for “the enemy” and thus a hazard to the town. Indeed, shots can be heard every evening. In one afternoon a cow and a calf were stolen, a father and son shot.

Baby porridge with alcohol
The problem of the Karimojong is not just that they like to shoot. They drink. From maize, sorghum or whatever grains, the women brew kwètè. They drink that in the morning, afternoon, evening. ‘Kwètè is our main food’, states a tribal elder. In Kaabong-town you will find somebody with a whole drum of it every couple of hundred meters. Women and men pay some money and empty a jug in a swig. From the age of six months children eat the dregs as porridge.

Médécins sans Frontières (MsF) runs the children’s ward in Kaabong’s hospital. Carla Estrada, the Spanish paediatrician, has been treating Lokol for the past six months. The toddler fell in the cooking fire when his mother was drunk. There are always children in the ward with serious burns. When I drive out of town with the doctor, kwètè shows it darkest side. We drive for three hours, past Uganda’s most beautiful game reserve, Kidepo, and there Karamoja shows some colour. No cacti but green trees. Deep-green crops and fields full of sunflowers.

Nowhere in Karamoja is the percentage of children with serious malnutrition as high as it is here. How is that possible with all these fields and crops? Estrada: ‘What they grow is for brewing beer.’ Surplus is sold. Moreover, malnutrition is not just a shortage of food. It is also caused by lack of variety in the diet. The children hardly eat any vegetables, no meat, only carbon-hydrates. Every week MsF brings little bags with enriched peanut butter for the weakest children.

In the long queue of women with a child on their back stand also small children with babies. They stand and wait for hours. A boy of six has a hole in his toe where the nail used to be. The hole is full of flies, eating from it. Yet he carries his little sister. A bit later he sits behind the little building where MsF placed its mobile clinic. The baby is one year old, weighs 6 kilo and is dangerously under-nourished. Her brother receives a container with little bags of therapeutic peanut butter. Desperately devoted he tries to put the food in his baby-sister’s mouth.

Food for votes
‘We need more aid,’ says the major of Kaabong. ‘Aid organisations must give people who were robbed new stuff: clothes, blankets, cooking pots for example.’ Gabriel Paak is in the process of negotiating extension of the food aid in his town with the World Food Programme (WFP). For the third year in a row barely any rain has fallen. The October harvests stand parched and shrivelled on the fields.

The request for more food is a difficult case on the plate of Stanislake Samkange, the director of the Ugandan office of WFP. He is convinced that Karamoja must learn to cope without food aid. Samkange is one of the people who developed the new WFP ideology: from a Food Aid Agency we must become a Food Assistance Agency’. The former distributes food. The latter assists people in providing their own. The former is short term aid. The latter helps in the long term. And Uganda, Samkange says, must become a pilot for this transition.

As long as WFP exists, since 1963, it has distributed food in Karamoja – apart from a few brief interruptions. Of the slightly over 1.2 million people in Karamoja, 1.1 million are handed out 70% of their daily calorie rations. Samkange: ‘Our largest programme ever.’

In those forty-six years the pastoral life grew harder. Rain decreased. Violence increased. But food distribution has become part of the problem. That endless emergency aid creates a barrier to supporting themselves.

When I ask a man in the street in Kaabong how he spends his days, the answer is: “When food is being distributed, I collect it. When there is no food, I must look for work.” WFP-head Samkange pictures the dilemma: ‘We feel a collective responsibility not to let people starve. At the same time we undermine their natural ability to take care of themselves.

In spite of the fresh WFP- ideology, Stanislake Samkange recently increased the daily rationing from fifty-three to seventy percent. An aid worker (who does not want to be named) claims that that is not because the need is suddenly higher. On the contrary, surveys revealed that the under-nourishment had decreased. Janet Museveni, first lady and minister for Karamoja had demanded the increase from WFP. Museveni needs the votes next year.

Plain banditry
Violence must end, the tribal elders of Nyangia, the non-nomadic tribe in green Lobangalit, agree. Disarmament is a partial success – and hence a failure. All manyatta’s have been swept clean, but the gangs in the mountains kept their weapons or bought new ones. In 2006 the Dodoth raided their cows. They never retrieved them because the Niangia do not use violence. Isac Komol, who claims to be eighty-six: ‘That is the nature of our tribe. When we raid, we get killed’. They never had to wander with their cattle. We have always had cattle and sufficient green fields.’

Traditional violence has turned into plain banditry, the three men say. But the source of violence is and remains the dowry, the dot. Would it be it possible for wise men of various tribes to discuss banning the dowry? The elders gaze at the visitor, in shock. Unthinkable. And then: talk with the Dodoth and the Jie?!
Indeed, the children must be fed better, the old men agree. But how? It is too dangerous to cultivate the more distant fields. Make less kwètè and bake more chapattis? Grow more vegetables? The elders look at each other. Obviously this white lady understands little of the Karimojong.

Yet, Uganda counts on the West for the development of Karamoja. Frido Herinckx, the Dutchman in charge of the Spanish section of MsF in Uganda: ‘The government says that they provide security. The donors are responsible for development’.

The French aid organisation Action Contre la Faim (ACF) is trying to put that into practice. It creates demonstration fields. Having been herdsmen for ages, the majority of the Karimojong do not know how to grow crops. Mothers who are motivated to better feed their under-nourished children are allowed to join the program. They are taught how to grow vegetables and learn the importance of a varied diet. At the end of the training they receive seeds. The selection of mothers is important, Richard Nunn of ACP says. Previously the UN distributed seeds. They ate most of them. Just as mothers ate the little bags with therapeutic food for their under-nourished children.

In Kampala at the WFP-office Stanislake Samkanges biggest concern is that the army leaves. That would lead to a renewed explosion of violence. In a mud hut in Kaabong the local army commander claims that disarmament is a big success: ‘We hardly collect any more weapons’.

Karamoja’s misery is not very likely to end in the foreseeable future. What is an emergency aid organisation doing here for twenty-three years? That question bugs Frido Herinckx of MsF: ‘If our aid stops, children will die. If we stay, we maintain the problem of poor nourishment and medical care.’ He calls Karamoja a chronic emergency. MsF is good at emergency aid. We do not know how to solve a structural problem.

Others perhaps. Now that ambushes and hold-ups on NGOs have stopped, thanks to the disarmament, Herinckx sees the arrival of other aid organisations. ‘Everybody thinks: we have to do something about Karamoja. But nobody knows what.’

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