The country of Uganda plans to send about 1,500 troops to Somalia as part of an African Union peace-keeping force. The goal is to stabilize the weak government of Somalia, with the hope that the warlords will voluntarily disarm. Hopefully, Ugandan troops will be more successful in Somalia than they have in their own country.
For months now, Ugandan army troops have been garrisoned in the northeast part of the country under orders to disarm the local populace—pastoral, cattle-herding tribes known as the Karamojong. The army is attempting, and failing, to quash an uprising which was caused by a prior attempt to disarm the same tribes.
But in its effort to "disarm," the Ugandan army, supported by tanks and helicopter gunships, is burning down villages, sexually torturing men, raping women, and plundering what few possessions the tribespeople own. Tens of thousands of victims have been turned into refugees. Human rights scholar Ben Knighton has used the term “ethnocide” to describe the army's campaign.
This is not the first time the central government in Kampala, Uganda, has persecuted the Karamojong. During the Idi Amin regime, the Karamojong were selected as special targets for genocide. Against Amin's armies, their traditional bows and arrows were futile. So it's understandable why they'd be reluctant to voluntarily lay down their weapons.
This time, the pretext for the "disarmament" of the Karamojong is United Nations gun control. The Ugandan military is trying to round up every last firearm in Karamoja, supposedly for the Karamojong's own good.
The procedure is euphemistically called “forcible disarmament.” It works something like this: The misnamed Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) will torture and rape Karamajong, after which some Karamojong might then disclose the location of some hidden guns. Or the army will burn down a village, after which it might find some guns in the ash left behind.
If the pastoral tribespeople's bloody history with Amin weren't enough, they don't much have reason to trust the current government of Uganda, either. The current government has repeatedly broken its promises of goods, services, and personal protection for tribespeople who voluntarily disarmed.
According to David Pulkol, the former Director of External Security Organisation (part of the Ugandan government’s intelligence agency), the disarmament process is a tactic to facilitate robbing the Karamojong of their resources. The Daily Monitor newspaper, for example, reports that the Ugandan government has announced plans to confiscate “about 1,903 sq km out of the total area of 2,304 sq km of the Pian Upe game reserve” for private investment purposes.
This government predation has naturally sparked resistance. More and more Karamojong are wearing traditional ethnic garb—not only as a symbol of solidarity, but also because the loose clothing makes it so easy to conceal weapons. The tribes are also uniting and improving their tactical skills. The weapons that had been taken by the government have been replaced by better ones from the ubiquitous black market. The helicopters that have been bombing the populace and burning their villages are now at risk from high-powered rifles. The Karamojong women aren't remaining passive while their families suffer, starve, and die, either. Some Karamojong widows have taken their husband’s firearms and are actively defending themselves, their families, and their cattle.
Last summer, the Ugandan army's atrocities led the United Nations Development Programme to cut off its disarmament aid to Uganda. But the outrage didn't last long. This year, the aid was restored. Although the United Nations does not fund the Ugandan army, the UN does provide a public relations sanction for the disarmament. In November, Louise Arbour, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated: “The actions of the UPDF do not comply with international human rights law and domestic law.” But, she also stipulated, “the decision of the Government to undertake renewed efforts to eradicate illegal weapons in Karamoja is essential….” Never mind that the disarmament campaign also eradicates people.
If the Karamojong didn’t have to worry about the central government targeting them for genocide, or stealing their land, one could possibly make an argument that they would be better off without guns. The various tribes have a long tradition of inter-tribal cattle rustling, and the cattle-raiding would undoubtedly be less dangerous if perpetrated with stone-age weapons instead of AK-47s. But as a practical matter, there have been numerous instances of civilians who have voluntarily disarmed, and were then—despite government promises of protection—robbed by the competing tribes who remained armed. And the loss of even a small number of cattle can place a subsistence level family at risk of starvation. Of course, cattle-rustling never led to the deliberate destruction of entire villages, turning thousands of people into refugees. Nor has it ever paved the way for government theft of the land the tribespeople need to survive.
The number of illegally possessed firearms prior to the disarmament campaign had been estimated at between 50,000 and 150,000. On November 10, New Vision reported that “since this year began, they have recovered 4,500 guns.” So the Ugandan government is wiping out the very people the government ostensibly claims to protect, and that "protection" amounts to just 3-9 percent of unauthorized weapons. And all the while, the Ugandan government is using its own guns to destroy Karamoja, burn villages, slaughter the defenseless, and perpetrate ethnocide.
Seems like the kind of "protection" the Karamojong could live without.
David Kopel is research director for the Independence Institute. Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen are senior fellows at the Independence Institute.