As everyone was celebrating a new year, 2021, little did Margaret Lemukol, a 64 year old woman know that it was the last day she had with her son.
On the fateful day, Lemukol recalls that her son was the one who bought all the food for celebrating the new year.
“We went to Church for prayers and after that, Paul went to the trading centre with his friends. At about 2pm that afternoon, he came back home for lunch and that was the last time I talked to my son,” recalls Lemukol.
At about 11pm that same day, gunshots were fired at Kangole Chin village, in Nangoleriet sub county of Napak district and life was lost. Locals arrived at the scene and found Lomongin Benjamin’s lifeless body lying on the ground with two bullet wounds, one at his face, and the other at the chest. This marked the first death recorded for the year 2021 as a result of gun violence in the region.
According to Lemukol, she has been living in grief ever since the occurrence of the incident and she has failed to follow up the matter in the courts of law.
Lojore Ismael, the Local Council One Chairperson of Kangole Chin village said during the interview that since the incident happened, his village members are in utmost fear of either being raided or being killed.
According to him, the raiders now loot everything they find in the compound including chicken, goats, sheep, cattle and if confronted, they resort to killing.
“I personally had a poultry farm here and one night, these people came and knocked at my door asking me to come out but when I refused, they took away all the hens and left me with only 70 eggs.”
Relatedly, on 22nd March, 2021, in Sidok Sub-county of Kaboong District,, it was announced over local radio that a UN vehicle with two occupants fell into a road ambush mounted by approximately 10 warriors carrying guns and clad in army uniform.
The UN vehicle was moving behind a truck carrying cows heading to Kotido Market. The warriors fired three bullets and demanded money from the occupants of the vehicle, while the other warriors offloaded the animals and vanished into the bush.
Since the beginning of this year, there has been an increase in raiding amongst Karamojong communities and the neighbouring regions of Acholi and Teso. In Napak district alone, more than 50 lives have been lost since the insecurity started, leading to a peaceful protest in the community rallying with the slogan ‘Napak is bleeding’. So far, unconfirmed reports indicate that about 200 people have so far died due to the ongoing cattle raids in Karamoja.
Lopian Paul Scholes, one of the youths who led the protest said they did that as a way of seeking for measures to address the situation.
“The course of the demonstration was to awaken the silence of different institutions that were supposed to help mitigate the increasing insecurity in the region,” he said.
However much their protest was not received peacefully by the Police that day, Loupa believes that they passed a message to relevant authorities.
“After the demonstration, we created different WhatsApp groups where we continued to spread the message and I am now happy that almost all Government actors have come up to address the challenges,” he added.
Napak is one of the only greenbelt districts of Karamoja. Others are Nakapiripirit and the newly created Nabilatuk district.
When the dry season is at its peak, pastoralists from other districts of Kotido, Kaabong, Moroto and Amudat move their animals to graze in these green belt districts of the region.
Rufus Apuwai, a member of Kangole Chin village said pastoralists from other districts usually come to their villages and they welcome them but sadly, some people have evil plans of stealing after.
“The fact is that we are the only district with green pasture and water during a dry season. When our brothers come, we welcome them peacefully but we do not know what goes wrong,” laments Apuwai.
Dedeng Peter Lojeele, LCI, Kokiding village, Kachere Sub County in Kotido district said that in his community, herdsmen have to move up to Abim, about 80 kilometers away and stay there until the rain season returns.
“Sometimes if we find that there are so many people grazing there, we have to go as far as Napak district, about 100 kilometres from here,” said Dedeng.
Dedeng also reveals that most of the trees have been cut down for charcoal burning, building and wood fuel. The bare land is now survived by a few trees which are said to be protected by the gods.
“For us here, the trees left are those that people fear to cut down because of the norms. There are trees that require rituals to be performed by the elders in case it is to be cut down,” said Dedeng.
On a tour with Dedeng to some of the trees, he showed Aica a section of trees at Kachere that were left untouched in the middle of the recently constructed water pond in the area.
“When we were digging this pond, one woman cut the roots of one of those trees by mistake and she got stuck in the tree trunk for two nights. We had to perform a ritual to appease the gods and that was how we saved her,” said Dedeng.
Karamoja; a conglomeration of nine districts, is about 27,511 sq km in size with a population of about 1.2 million people, holds about 30% of Uganda’s livestock wealth including 20% of the nation’s cattle, 16% of its goats, nearly half of all sheep, over 90% of donkeys and all camels, according to the most recent available statistics from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics published in 2009.
For decades, this region neighboring South Sudan and northwestern Kenya has depended on relief food due to harsh weather, which does not favor agriculture. These harsh conditions are compounded by armed cattle rustling and illegal charcoal burning.
A high demand for wood fuel driven by a growing population has pushed unemployed youth into cutting trees for firewood.
According to reports from the National Forestry Authority, the region with the total forest cover of 367, 450 hectares lost over half of the forests due to massive tree cutting, bush fires, settlements and grazing.
Figures from Ugandan government highlight that the country loses about 122,000 hectares annually, and the forest coverage rate of the country was reduced from 24 percent to 9 percent between 1990 and 2015.
Addressing Climate Change
There has indeed been massive loss of tree cover in the region for the past 10 years. Information available on Global Forest Watch indicates that in 2010, Moroto had 9.48kha of tree cover, extending over 1.1% of its land area. In 2020, it lost 48.1ha of tree cover, equivalent to 24.2kt of CO₂ of emissions.
Kotido district on the other hand had 36.6kha of tree cover, extending over 2.8% of its land area. In 2020, it lost 7.37ha of tree cover, equivalent to 2.43kt of CO₂ of emissions.
In an interview with Mr. Lotyang John, the Natural Resource Officer in Moroto, he said that rangelands have drastically deteriorated with some areas especially in Rupa Sub County becoming bare due to bad practices like over cultivation of one crop over the years.
He also observes that wood fuel, which is the major source of energy in households, has affected the environment.
Lotyang revealed that more than 30,000 people derive livelihood from charcoal burning and other activities destructive to the environment in Moroto.
He also noted that alternative sources of energy are very expensive and unreliable, forcing people to destroy the environment.
To reverse this trend, which has had dire consequences like prolonged dry spells leading to crop failure, different youth groups, the government and development partners have embarked on afforestation.
Several youth from the districts of Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Kootido, Kaabong and Amudat have teamed up and formed an initiative that will help address climate change.
In an interview with Lopeyok Francis Mosky, the team leader of Karamoja Youth Effort to Save Environment (KAYESE 256), he said there is a need to address the climate issues in the region affected by desertification.
According to Lopeyok, the current ongoing issues might have been sparked by climate change and people are not aware about it.
“If you look at the issues of Karamoja keenly, you will realise that all that is happening is revolving around climate change. Why would someone move his animals from Moroto and go to graze in Napak? It is because there is no grass and water; so tell me what causes that?” said Lopeyok.
Lopeyok says KAYESE with support from different humanitarian partners and Community Based Organizations have so far planted more than 50,000 trees since this year began.
Government also through the Third Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF3), has put across a range of projects with an objective of economically empowering the community and encouraging the culture of team work and group savings.
Most groups across all the eight districts in the region are given funding from a minimum of $5,000 up to a tune of $11,000 according to the activity they perform. Beneficiaries range from 30 members per group up to 150 members.
In 2019, The National Forestry Authority (NFA) revealed plans to plant more than 400,000 seedlings of different species in Karamoja.
There are also a number of humanitarian organizations in the region, including the United Nations who have a base in Moroto district. These organizations do a range of activities from community sensitization, community economic empowerment, supporting education, fighting hunger, poverty eradication, reproductive health services, improving the quality of education, water and sanitation, climate change to building peace, justice and strong institutions and partnerships with the cultural institutions and local administrations.
In May 2021, the Ugandan government started a new disarmament campaign in its Karamoja region to address rising insecurity and cattle theft. But the experience of the previous disarmament campaign highlights the need for community engagement and scrutiny over methods. Saum Naungiro discusses the recent history of Karamoja’s violence and the challenges for a sustainable solution.
In north-eastern Uganda, Karamoja is home to about one million people from eight main population groups, a majority of which share a language and pastoralist culture. It is the poorest and least developed region of Uganda on almost all measures; rainfall is irregular, and a significant proportion of the population is typically food-insecure at any time.
Between 2006 and 2011 the government engaged in a disarmament exercise to attempt to end a culture of cattle raiding that had become increasingly destructive since automatic weapons became available in the late 1970s, both within and beyond Karamoja’s borders. Due to constant aggravated deaths and raiding in the Karamoja region, the Government of Uganda is opting to carry out yet another disarmament exercise.
So far, reports from the army spokesperson indicate that more than 100 guns have been recovered from the ongoing exercise and more troops have been deployed to guard the region.
Human welfare, living conditions and quality of life of the people in Karamoja have declined considerably due to various factors, first of which are environmental issues all related to the diverse effects of Climate change, then insecurity, marginalization, illiteracy, poor health, and poor infrastructure.
If weather patterns continue their current trends, the people of Karamoja will potentially experience more (and more intense) heat waves, more challenges to find water, unhealthy livestock and smaller harvests. And as food security worsens, evidence shows that ripple effects can escalate quickly. Possible effects, including rising prices, falling incomes and more cases of disease and malnutrition can be expected – all of which increase the chance for social unrest.
Poverty is increasing and according to some of the Karamojong I have spoken to, the main factors responsible for poverty include persistent poor harvest as a result of dry spells and droughts, animal death, lack of water, poor farming practices, ill health and disability, cattle rustling and insecurity, high bride price for marriage, lack of skills and unemployment, limited sources of income, poor governance, and landlessness.
This report was done with support from CFI Dunia.