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Uganda’s fight against cattle raiders is dividing Karamoja communities

‘These days a son can even kill his father over money.’

IN the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda, a four-year outbreak of violent livestock raiding is finally subsiding – the result of a ruthless, informer-driven disarmament campaign by the army.

But even as stability returns, divisions arising from class tensions, intergenerational friction, and animosities between raiders and government collaborators within communities may complicate future peace and reconciliation efforts.

In 2022 and 2023, I spent over a year conducting oral history research in Kotido District, an area of northern Karamoja inhabited by the Jie, an ethnic group of 240,000 people. 

My research demonstrated that to properly address these deep intercommunal antagonisms, peace activists must look beyond orthodox models of conflict resolution and address the complex landscape of fears, hatreds, alliances, and betrayals that the violence of the 2020s has generated.

Livestock raiding has a long history in Karamoja. Traditionally driven by interethnic competition over land and livestock, raiding was an important component of an agro-pastoral economy that relied on resourcefulness and adaptability to survive the region’s harsh and arid climate. 

A previous military disarmament campaign in the 2000s involved draconian cordon-and-search operations aimed at entire villages – collective punishment that elicited sympathy for the rustlers and built on a pattern of animosity between local pastoral communities and the Ugandan state, stretching back to British colonial rule.

Map of Uganda showing Karamoja

In the last few years, the army has switched to an intelligence-based campaign, targeting individual suspects, whose whereabouts and activities are monitored by informers. The information they have provided has caused the imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial execution of alleged raiders at the hands of the army. As a result, when alleged informers have been discovered by rustlers, they in turn have been killed.

The intra-communal divisions the army’s tactics, in part, have generated are reflected in an ominous song that circulated among Jie youth in 2022. “We are searching for the informers,” they sang, “Move aside, government, so we can search for the informers!”

The political economy of raiding   

Traditionally, cattle raiding between rival ethnic groups in Karamoja was seen as in the collective interests of entire communities. Raided livestock were shared, and mutual suspicion between communities and the government ensured that people in Kotido adhered to what researcher Ponsiano Bimeny and his team call the principle of kiwa ekile or “hide the man” – protecting the identity of the raiders from security personnel and other agents of the state. 

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However, Karamoja’s political economy has undergone massive changes over the course of the past several decades, and the face of conflict in the region has changed with it. 

The penetration of the cash economy and the commercialisation of raiding has accelerated dramatically since the conclusion of the army’s last disarmament campaign in 2011.

The military’s operation was successful in the short term. But the system of “protected kraals” (cattle enclosures) guarded by the army that it introduced – along with climate change and dramatically declining livestock herds – has made the traditional agro-pastoral economy increasingly untenable. 

During the relative peace of the 2010s, economic inequality was shaped by an individual’s relative ability to participate in the market economy. Well-connected older men, with access to money, land, and livestock, were able to cement their success. Younger men, on the other hand, without cash or cattle, sometimes resorted to petty crime to make good. 

When raiding reappeared in 2019 and 2020, spurred in part by the impact of COVID, it had become the purview of market-oriented criminal groups, who sold stolen livestock and pocketed the proceeds rather than sharing the stolen animals with their communities. As it had in past decades, raiding hit agricultural production and other livelihood activities, contributing to a food crisis – with reports of hunger-related deaths.

The more individualistic nature of conflict in Kotido – and in Karamoja in general – has meant armed raiders have targeted members of their own Jie community, and even cooperated with raiders from rival ethnic groups such as the Dodoth, Bokora, or Matheniko. 

Using cell phones, Jie accomplices coordinated with cattle raiders, informing them of the locations of Jie livestock and advising them when to strike. Once the deed was done and the raiders had sold the stolen livestock, they sent a cut of the profits to their co-conspirator in Kotido via mobile money transfers. 

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According to some Jie people, soldiers tasked with guarding Jie livestock in the so-called “protected kraals” established at army barracks also participated in such schemes. 

For present-day raiders, “a cow in the pocket” – or cash from the sale of raided animals – is preferable to a cow in the kraal. It allows the repayment of loans, coverage of medical bills, and provides comrades with a steady supply of roasted meat and beer. 

As a result, communities have turned against their sons involved in raiding, derisively calling such men nginyamirei (“devourers”) and ngimokorai (“gangsters”). Their behaviour is often described through the idiom of sons raiding the cattle of their fathers – an anathema that underscores the grave threat to long-standing social mores they represent. “These days,” an elder told me, “a son can even kill his father over money.” 

The rise of informers

Informers are a new dynamic in the changing nature of cattle raiding. Cultivated by military intelligence, their widespread use has created a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion. They are often ex-raiders who have been persuaded to collaborate with the army – either through a financial inducement, or the threat of torture and imprisonment. 

The risks are substantial. “If the people in the village know you as a broke man without cows and they see you holding money, they will ask, ‘Where did you get money from?’,” a former raider stated. “After that [if they suspect he is a collaborator], he ends up being killed.” 

Some people uninvolved in raiding complain that some informers provided false information to the army to extort people or, as an NGO official explained, “to purge their rivals in the community”.

Members of local peace committees, which play a prominent role in both peace initiatives and liaising with the government, have been targets of accusations by raiders and informers alike. Peace committees are formalised groups, typically consisting of elders, and originally formed in collaboration with international NGOs in around 2001. They also assist with the confiscation and redistribution of stolen cattle – which opens them up to allegations of corruption. 

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Young raiders see peace committee members – some of whom were once successful raiders – as hypocrites and potential informers. A raider who surrendered his gun in 2023, alleged that some members of local peace committees are deeply implicated in the business side of raiding, with connections to livestock traders in neighbouring regions such as Teso. “They are in charge of peace, but… they will never refuse to take what I bring back from [raids],” he said.

Peace committee members claim that some raiders-turned-informers have sought to settle old scores by making false claims against them. As one committee member stated: “In order to punish a peace committee member, [informers] will tell the government that his son has a gun.” 

Reconsidering peacebuilding

Over the past year, following the assassination of prominent Jie raiders and a blanket amnesty for raiders willing to surrender their weapons, the guns have largely fallen silent in Kotido District and across Karamoja. 

Peacebuilding actors have made important contributions, including placing young men who recently surrendered their weapons at the forefront of peacemaking efforts. 

Yet NGO-led peacebuilding initiatives have adhered to long-standing models of peace meetings between ethnic communities. This approach treats livestock raiding in Karamoja as the product of intractable inter-ethnic animosities rather than changing economic incentives and ignores the divisions that intra-communal violence and the use of informers has engendered. 

At this critical juncture, it is vital that peacebuilding actors do not overlook the significant changes to Karamoja’s political economy that have occurred in the past two decades. 

While rivalries between communities persist, divisions within communities may be more difficult to tackle, with the lines between raider, peacemaker, dealer of stolen cattle, and informer often so blurred as to render them invisible. 

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

By SAMUEL MEYERSON

A PhD candidate in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent two years conducting oral history and archival research in the Karamoja region

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