KOTIDO, UGANDA — Those who knew David Ochen describe him as a charismatic leader, a parish chief who preached peace and dedicated his life to getting rid of illegal guns in Uganda’s Karamoja region.
“Ochen was a hardworking and friendly leader,” says Kizito Iriama, another local leader who knew him for seven years.
Then on the evening of Oct. 14, 2021, someone shot and killed the 48-year-old chief. Susan Umo, Ochen’s 18-year-old daughter, says she remembers the day her father was killed “like it happened yesterday.” It was at dusk. All 14 members of the family were home. Her father had just returned from visiting his father. He was washing his hands to eat when five men stormed into their homestead. Without warning, one of them shot and killed him. The men fled without stealing anything or harming any of his family.
More than two decades after the Ugandan government convinced many people in Karamoja to hand in their firearms, there is renewed violence driven by a resurgence of weapons being smuggled into the region. Gangs of cattle rustlers have been attacking and killing local leaders whom they suspect of working with the government to take away their guns, raising fears that violence could get out of hand.
Iriama says the fact that the men who killed Ochen did not steal anything is proof that they targeted him because of his vehement opposition to illegal guns. “All of us leaders are potential targets because we warn people against illegal guns and encourage those who have weapons to voluntarily surrender them to the national army,” he says.
The proliferation of guns in the Karamoja region dates to the colonial days. Years after 1894, when Uganda became a British protectorate, Karamoja remained free because its semi-arid nature made it unattractive for production of such cash crops as coffee and cotton for export, according to background provided in the government’s 2007 disarmament report. Karamoja still remained important because of trade in ivory. But when declining elephant populations made ivory rare, traders began selling firearms instead, leading to a proliferation of weapons in the region.
The report describes a disarmament in 2001-2002 that collected more than 10,000 of an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 firearms in the hands of the Karamojong, as the people of Karamoja are known.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
It’s difficult to get an accurate number of guns due to a constant flow of arms in and around Karamoja, which borders Kenya, as shown by a report published in 2018 by the United Nations Development Programme that looked at corruption and security issues in the region. According to the report, “the civilian disarmament process was assessed by both communities and state security officials as having been highly effective in collecting up to 95% of arms from communities in the Karamoja region. However, there is a high level of frustration on the Uganda side as it seems the Kenyan government has been much less effective in implementing the disarmament agreement and thus creating a sense of unfairly putting the Karamojong communities at risk.”
More than 600 people have been killed since 2019, when the violence resumed, says Teba Emma, a policy analyst at Karamoja Development Forum, an organization that advocates for the rights of pastoralists. He says that despite being informed a prominent local leader was gunned down in December 2019 in Rupa subcounty, the government showed no interest.
“In every part of Uganda, politicians looked at Karamoja as people killing each other,” Teba says. “It was our internal problem to solve ourselves. So the criminals took advantage of this slow response and the situation escalated.”
But Isaac Oware, spokesperson for the 3rd Division of the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces, says the government responded immediately and began a disarmament program to restore peace in Karamoja. He says the army has confiscated 438 guns and 3,315 bullets and recovered 4,669 livestock animals since 2021. More than 11,200 suspects have been arrested, 650 of whom have been prosecuted and sentenced, he says.
“Our intelligence is closely following up these rearming networks,” Oware says. “We have recovered 88% of the arms, including arrows and bows, 5% of which we got through interrogations of the suspects we arrested.”
Since the current disarmament campaign began in July 2021, Oware says Karamoja has achieved relative calm and seen construction of infrastructure, which has led to Karamojong engaging in livestock trade, mining, farming and other activities that generate income.
“Therefore, fighting or raiding can’t be an excuse for survival,” Oware says. “The joint security forces will always execute their mandate to create a secure and enabling environment for citizens to invest and prosper in order to transform.”
Koriang David, a local council leader for Moroto, one of the nine districts that make up the Karamoja region, agrees that the disarmament has brought relative peace to the region. But he says the current resurgence in the proliferation of firearms is happening because the government didn’t keep the promises it made to the Karamojong when it convinced them years ago to hand in their guns.
“The disarmament program was not only supposed to create awareness of the conflict caused by guns in the region, but it was also to provide protection to those who gave up their guns for the sake of peace,” Koriang says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Years ago, during the earlier disarmament, Koriang personally surrendered eight guns to the army. But he says some held on to their guns, because few believed cattle rustling would ever stop completely in Karamoja. When rustling resumed, those whose cattle were being stolen started acquiring guns from Kenya and South Sudan, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Koriang, who has brokered the voluntary handover of more than 50 guns to the army, says trying to get people to surrender their firearms is a risky job because local leaders are often seen as snitches.
“We lost a GISO [group information security officer], who was killed by the armed [civilians],” he says.
Margaret Rugadya is the Africa regional coordinator for the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, a funding body specializing in land and forest rights for indigenous people and local communities. Rugadya, who has written about Karamoja, says the situation in the region is more complicated than just cattle rustling. A land policy that’s unfavorable to the people of Karamoja, along with worsening climate conditions, has created competition for resources, resulting in people wanting to own guns, she says. Rugadya, who has a doctorate in economics and governance, says that the unregulated inflow of guns from neighboring countries can only be curbed if the security of the Karamojong and their property is guaranteed.
“If Karamojong individuals still feel a need to defend their life and property, including the property of the community as a whole, they will always acquire guns because they feel there is a lapse on the side of the government in guaranteeing and granting them those basic rights,” she says.
The ongoing extraction of minerals in the region without consultations with the Karamojong will only make matters worse, she adds. Rugadya says the Ugandan Constitution accords people compensation when there is a loss of land rights to mining activity. If people do not get their fair share of mining revenues as the law requires, conflicts will continue, she says.
In March 2022, armed civilians killed two soldiers along with three government geologists who were on a mapping mission in Moroto district, says Joseph Balikuddembe, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division.
“There was a lack of advance communication to alert the local community that the geologists would be visiting and what exactly they were there for,” Balikuddembe says.
Umo says Ochen, her father, was loving and caring. Since his death, her mother, who was a housewife until Ochen died, struggles with taking care of the basic needs of the family and paying school fees for her three younger siblings. “If there were no guns in Karamoja, my father would still be here,” she says.
Nakisanze Segawa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.
James Muya interpreted some interviews from Karamojong.