A group of young children peer through a bullet hole in the wall of a derelict building in Patongo internally displaced people's (IDP) camp in Pader District, northern Uganda. The camp is home to over 40,000 people displaced by the near two decade long rebellion against the Ugandan government by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Credit: Stuart Price/IRIN
The history of arms in Uganda's northeastern region of Karamoja is as long as Uganda's colonial history, with researchers estimating that the gun was introduced to the region by Arab and Ethiopian traders at the turn of the last century.

"According to the information we have gathered, guns were introduced to Karamoja 16 years after Uganda was declared a British protectorate in 1894, as the pastoralists endeavoured to spur their ivory trade and fight off hostile neighbours," said Peter Otim, a researcher with Uganda’s Centre for Basic Research. Arab and Ethiopian traders encouraged the Karamojong to kill elephants for ivory, which they exchanged for beads. "The traders introduced guns to facilitate the ivory trade, but the Karamojong also used the opportunity to use the weapons for self-defence and improve their cattle raids."

Procuring guns through the ivory trade strengthened the group’s efforts to remain outside colonial control. "They developed self-defence mechanisms and loathed anything resembling government in the region," Otim said.

A British colonial army officer was dumbfounded to find naked people with guns roaming the plains of Uganda's northeastern region of Karamoja. The officer was on a journey to southern Sudan, and as his group passed through Karamoja it came under gunfire and just managed to evade the ambush, Otim recounted.

"This opened the eyes of the colonial government about the covert danger further north [in Karamoja]," he said. "When the officer reached Sudan, he wrote a letter to the governor in Kampala, saying, 'We are in trouble. We have lost the north - I have come across heavily armed people and we have to move and subdue them.'

A fighting vehicle of the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) passes through a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Kitgum District, northern Uganda. The many camps across the region are home to over 1.5 million people displaced by the near two decade long rebellion against the Ugandan government by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Credit: Stuart Price/IRIN
The colonial administrators deployed to Karamoja enforced relocations, in an attempt to break community alliances. They also tried to impose their rule of law, including the introduction of taxes. All this further alienated the Karamojong, who rejected any colonial government policies, especially those conveyed via youths, who were used as messengers. "This was contrary to the Karamojong tradition of respecting elders, and many of the youths were captured and executed, accused of being agents of the 'enemy'," Otim said.

In colonial times, the number of guns in Karamoja – and the desire to acquire them - was relatively low. This changed post-independence, when the government of Milton Obote used force to quell lawlessness in the region. This did not eradicate armed violence, Otim said, but made it a casual and a daily occurrence.

Deadly clashes commonplace

The government was not the Karamojong’s only adversary. Interclan rivalry and clashes with other communities have always been a vital part of Karamojong culture. Warriors frequently engaged in cattle rustling against rival communities and neighbouring ethnic groups in a bid to increase the size of their livestock herds. Local livelihoods largely revolve around cattle, with the animals' meat, milk and hides serving as the backbone of the economy. Bride price for a Karamajong girl can be as high as 100 cows.

Before acquiring guns, warriors used bows and arrows and other rudimentary weapons. However, as guns became available in the region the Karamajong began to amass large stocks of weapons and ammunition. Battles became more lethal as the cattle-keepers modernised their armoury. Today, Karamoja is the scene of violent gun battles that often leave hundreds of warriors dead. Some 163 deaths in interclan clashes were recorded in a four-month period in 2005.

As the neighbouring Toposa and Didinga in Sudan and Turkana in Kenya increasingly gained strength in the post-colonial period, the Karamojong became the most vulnerable target in the region. The lack of government protection led them to acquire more weapons as the only means to defend themselves against their neighbours.

"The Karamojong started manufacturing their own guns, calling them amatida, and this was a great innovation for them. They made small alliances for gun powder with small groups of the rival tribes across the border," Otim said, adding that the Karamojong offered grazing rights to induce other groups to ally with them.

The Karamojong also dismantled boreholes that the government had installed in the region to use the pipes as raw material to manufacture arms.

The Karamojong arsenal grew in 1979, when a combined force of Ugandan exiles and the Tanzanian army overthrew then-President Idi Amin. A young herder discovered that soldiers had abandoned the barracks of the First Gonda Regiment in Karamoja's Moroto district, leaving automatic rifles and other arms and ammunitions unattended. "This changed the defence capacity of the Karamojong drastically - that they could attack their rivals with ease - but this also triggered off interclan clashes," Otim said.

Deadly attacks escalated and cattle raids that were reserved for rival neighbours in Kenya and Sudan started targeting sub-tribes in Karamoja, such as the Mathenikos. "Currently, no less than 150 people are killed every four months," Otim said.

At one time, the government of current President Yoweri Museveni allowed the cattle keepers to have guns to defend themselves against cattle raids. This made gun trading so widespread that bullets were sold like beans in market stalls. However, by the late 1990s, cattle raids became so violent - with more than 600 deaths recorded in a single battle - the government decided to disarm the pastoralists. The exercise began successfully, with more than 3,000 guns surrendered to Museveni himself on the first day of voluntary disarmament in December 2001. However, to this day, about 10,000 of an estimated 50,000 guns in circulation have been recovered.

Former abductees at the Kichwa Rehabilitation Centre. The proliferation of small arms has caused wide spread instability in the region.
Credit: Sven Torfinn/IRIN
"The government had promised protection to the Karamojong, and the disarmament was done through persuasion and not by force. But the government failed on its part, which left the Karamojong defenceless. Their rivals had a field day taking away most of their cows, which has further aggravated their poverty status," Otim said.

Robert Locap, a Karamojong in Moroto, said this was the only time the community had ever trusted the government. "But they were let down that many lost all their wealth, and now they are very poor," he said. "It is going to take a lot of effort to reconvince them to disarm."

There is a notion in Karamoja that to keep livestock, one must be heavily armed, Otim said. "I look at the restoration of security in Karamoja as not only a military strategy, but an approach that introduces alternatives that can divert people's reliance on livestock for survival," he said.

New disarmament efforts

A comprehensive disarmament programme has been developed by the government and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), according to Richard Nabudere, head of the Government’s National Focal Point on small arms. The new strategy would address both the proliferation of arms and the dynamics that have created their demand.

"The comprehensive disarmament programme aims not only at arms collection. If you remove the guns and leave the factors that created demand, the guns will find their way back in," Nabudere said. Issues like poverty would have to be addressed, because the desire to acquire wealth triggered the demand for guns. Karamoja is Uganda's most underdeveloped region, and the programme would also address viable sources of livelihood in the harsh environment that is Karamoja and ensure that people have access to pasture and markets.

"It is a complex set of circumstances. We also need to look at governance, as this is inadequate. We also need to look at external threats, because unless we address those threats, the demand for guns will remain," he said. The programme would also offer incentives for disarmament, like ox-ploughs and food.

"We need to discuss these incentives with the people. We need to empower the traditional systems by making their position meaningful. Development has to be tied to disarmament, and we are trying to create harmony among the rival clans," he said.

For the programme to be successful, neighbouring countries would have to carry out similar, coordinated disarmament programmes. "This will reduce impunity, and we think it can be more effective," Nabudere said. "We can only address the porosity of the border through interstate cooperation, because unless the borders are secured, the arms will continue to flow into the area."

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