By James Karuhanga
Senior Researcher, GLCSS 

Insecurity in the Karamoja sub-region of northeastern Uganda has increased in the last month. Armed robberies and killings have broadened beyond cattle rustling, and recently, Karimojong warriors have attacked and killed government soldiers.

In Kaabong district on 29 October, armed Karimojong warriors killed 16 Ugandan soldiers including a battalion commander. On 30 October, the same warriors raided Kotido town and looted property after displacing people in the town. Despite the on-going disarmament programme, the Karimojong are reluctant to hand over their weapons for fear of raids from rival tribes especially from across the border in neighboring Kenya and Sudan.

‘’In 2002, the President launched a peaceful disarmament process,’’ Major Felix Kulayigye, the Defense and Army spokesperson told the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies (GLCSS). He explained that later in 2004 disarmament committees were elected right from the Kraal level to the sub-county, sub-district and regional levels as well; however, this produced little success.

‘’In two years, only 670 guns were voluntarily handed in. So, we launched a cordon and search method,’’ he explained.

On 1 November, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) officials survived an attack when their plane was shot at while flying over Kidepo Valley National Park. GLCSS notes there are several other armed groups who could have been responsible for this attack, and this makes the situation more complex. The Dodoth- a subgroup of the larger Karimojong people—might be responsible for the attack. Also suspected are the Toposa, an armed Sudanese ethnic group which occupies a small part of the border line on Kidepo National Park.

The Government army (UPDF) has held meetings with the Toposa in a bid to encourage them to peacefully leave the area because their presence has increased insecurity. If the meetings do not succeed forceful expulsion will be the only option left for the army.

The civil strife of the 70s through to the 80s is cited as a major opportunity that the Karamojong used to seize guns.  Economic and social infrastructure in the sub-region has been destroyed and there is a large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

According to the army spokesman, the on-going cordon and search operations were launched after the voluntary and peaceful disarmament showed little progress. Kulayigye told GLCSS that UPDF only fires when they are fired upon and that the army has so far retrieved over 4,500 guns.

He said that during the 2002 – 2004 disarmament phase the precondition was that the warriors could retain their guns if they did not carry them to neighboring districts and Kenya. The warriors were forbidden to walk along the road if they were armed which they did not abide by.

The disarmament programme introduced by the government has experienced difficulty since the warriors have refused to voluntarily hand over their guns. Any attempts by the army to disarm them are faced with stiff resistance and the government also faces intense criticism from human rights advocates.

Renewed focus by the government to pacify the sub-region in the wake of the recent violence will be difficult, especially due to the lack of law and order. The thin presence of law enforcement agencies leaves the area prone to crime. In addition, some United Nations agencies have been hesitant to support the disarmament because of human rights violations concerns.

‘’Our support for the Karamoja integrated disarmament and development programme (KIDDP) will depend on the joint implementation of voluntary disarmament and development programmes,’’ said Martin Mogwanja, the UNICEF-Uganda country representative. This puts the government in a difficult situation since attempts by the government to rely on voluntary disarmament have yielded little or no success.


The Karamojong live in the north eastern part of Uganda bordering Kenya and Sudan. Like the ethnic groups on the other sides of the borders, they consider livestock very precious in their culture. Unfortunately, the region is semi-arid, with a varying rain pattern. Rains mostly fall between June and September leaving the area exposed to drought that has created a challenge to alternative means of livelihood for the communities.

Insecurity in the region coupled with the persistent drought and cattle raids have created an emergency situation in the region.

The harsh weather and climatic limitations make livestock maintenance difficult both to the Karamojong and the neighboring tribes. They have to walk long distances, disregarding national boundaries, with their animals in search of pasture for grazing and water. This search for water and pasture has resulted in tribal fights and a culture of cattle rustling coupled with the Karimojong’s natural belief that all livestock around them belongs to them, which heightens the inter-tribal clashes.

This is enforced by the fact that cattle are used as a “bride price” and the raids are a symbol of strength and manhood in the tradition of the community.  In addition, there are continual reports of Karimojong children sold at weekly cattle markets in Kotido, Moroto and Nakapiripirit districts. A survey by Save the Children International Uganda (SCIU) recently indicated that brokers at the weekly cattle markets have also established new markets across the border in Kenya, especially in the town of Eldoret. The other Ugandan towns cited include: Busia, Tororo, Mbale, Iganga, Jinja, Kampala and Mbarara.                         

The alarming report reveals that child abuse is on the increase in the sub-region as desperate Karimojong parents sell their children, especially girls, to raise money to maintain the remaining members of their families.

GLCSS observes that the Karamoja weapons problem has a wider or broader context that must be carefully understood for a proper diagnosis. Much of Karimojong socio-cultural-economic life centers on cows as their source of wealth and livelihood. Apart from the long tradition of cattle rustling, the sub-region’s semi-arid climatic conditions have also engendered a nomadic life, which causes tension over livestock and territory across the three borders.

The nomadic culture is not confined to Uganda’s borders alone. It spreads into Kenya which has similar cultures: the Turkana and Pokot and even other communities in southeastern Sudan. In all these places, modern firearms, especially the AK-47 rifle, have replaced the traditional spears, bows and arrows.

The government of Uganda is already cooperating with Kenya in the disarmament process as the Kenyan armed forces also tackle their side of the border. But disarmament also needs to be accompanied by sensitization, of which local community leaders must be at the forefront of the process. Nomadic life and the semi-arid conditions can be countered by placing valley dams in strategic positions to satisfy the different communities.

William Church is director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank with offices in Central and East Africa. You may contact James Karuhanga at GLCSS trains African journalists, offers an on-site internship to foreign African studies students, and manages an exchange program with journalists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe.

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