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“We Know Better How to Tackle Cattle Rustling” - Abim Residents

by Ojok Okello

Grassroots Migration Agenda

Alongside our partners GAIN-Uganda and ADYOFU, KAS on Thursday 21st October 2022 implemented its grassroots migration agenda meeting with the Ethur, the residents of the Abim district located in the Karamoja sub-region to discuss how to tackle cattle rustling, a vice that has riddled progress in the sub-region for decades.

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We met with 36 male, and 14 female-identifying participants at the Morulem Sub County Headquarters to listen to their thoughts on the rampant cattle rustling and child trafficking in their region, what we identified to be the two leading causes of migration from Abim. We did our part in raising awareness i.e informing citizens of their rights, especially towards compensation,  highlighting political platforms and pathways within the Ugandan political systems for residents to seek justice as well as lifting the consciousness of participants about the history of the region to inform their imagination and attitudes towards migration but most importantly: we listened to what the residents felt were the solutions to the migration crisis that they feel most immediately. An overarching theme of the conversation was the need for Abim to be at the heart of the matter. As we had expected, residents wanted to be included in solving for these issues such as at the frontlines with UPDF disarming the Karamajong, or legally armed in their kraals to protect their homes. What follows is a narration of the discussion guided by questions posed to the participants, but first, a reiteration of some historical context cattle rustling in Karamoja. 


What is the history behind earlier peaceful co-existence among the people of Karamoja? 


Abim is only one of the seven administrative districts within the Karamoja subregion. While life in Abim in recent decades is marred by fatally violent and persistent attacks by the “Karamojong” in cultural cattle raids, precolonial history reveals that a peaceful co-existence is possible. Shared geography, nature, and common economic ties necessitated a peaceful survival for the different tribes. GAIN- Uganda opened the floor with the history lesson:


Karamoja region is a home, arguably, potentially a nation of more than 1.2 million people who speak different languages but collectively refer to themselves as Karamajong. The distinct communities of ‘tribes’ include the Karamajong who are made up of the Matheniko, Bokora and Plan who live in the current districts of Napak, Nakapiripirit and Nabiatuk. The Pokot who live in Amudat District, Ethur in Abim district; the Menning, Nyangea and Napore in Karenge districtl the Dodoth (Dodos) and the Ik (Teuso) in Jabong district and the Jie in Kotido. Other groups include the Kodom in Nakapiriti district and the Tepes (Sur) in Moroto district. All of the inhabitants of Karamoja refer to themselves as Karamajong especially when communicating with outsiders including government and foreign agencies. 


The current inhabitants of Karamoja have lived together in the Karamoja plains for more than five centuries, longer than Uganda has existed.  The earliest settlers in the region are thought to have been the proto-Nyangea-Sor (Tepes) and the proto Teuso-Ngikuliak who might have been living in Karamoja by 1000BC. The Karamojong, Jie and Dodoth entered the Karamoja region around 1500 AD, while the ancestors of the Ethur (Jo’ Abwor) and Jo Akwa and several clans among the Jie and Karimajong societies trickled into the region in several waves between 1470 AD and 1800 AD. 


Despite speaking different tongues, the people of Karamoja share very strong historical ties that have enabled them to co-exist and live interdependently for more than five centuries. The Jie, Dodoth, and Karamajong entered the region as one distinct group (Koten-mags) before splitting into the current smaller tribes around 1720 AD, while traditions from Labwor claim that they moved into their present homeland side-by-side with the Jie and Karimajong, the pre-colonial people of Labwor and Jie considered each other to be brothers and sisters, and the ties and interdependence between them were so strong that early European travelers considered them to be one group. On the other side, the Bokora and the Jo’ Akwa have lived together as brothers for many generations and in some years like between 1820 AD and 1835AD. All the people of Nyakwai relocated to Awaikoroth in Bokora because of famine and conflict with the Jie. 


The peaceful co-existence among the different communities in Karamoja was critical for the survival of different societies. For instance, the Jie needed water and pasture during the dry season from Labwor, while Jo’ Abwor needed access to the iron ores of Toror hills for the thriving iron industry which was critical to the pre-colonial economy of the Labor. The Jie were also “protectors” or “allies” of the Labwo in the conflict between Jo’ Abwor and Jo’ Acholi in the late 19th century. After some Acholi traders were killed by Jo’Abwor around 1901 AD there were several raids by the Acholi in all the Labwor settlements (Otheme) and the raids were threatening the very survival of the nascent Labwor society. The feud eventually sucked in the Jie and led to the decisive defeat of the Acholi by the Jie during the battle of Caicon in the arly 20th century. It was after Caicon that the people of Labwor rested from Acholi raids. After the battle of Caicon, Labwor warriors under their own war leader Logo trained their traditional friends the Jie for the wars against their common enemies the Karamajong, Lango, Omiro and the Iteso. 


The pre-colonial people of Karamajong were brought together by geography and nature, a common history and ancestral ties that meant that they always lived as brothers, and economic necessities made them partners in survival. The political and economic ties that brought the people of Karamoja together in pre-colonial days can still be adapted to the current context. The current traditional and political leaders of Karamoja can draw from the wisdom of their ancestors and build a symbiotic relationship that all the communities in Karamoja need for their continued survival and development.


Today is a long time from pre-colonial history.  With further development than the Karamojong it appeared on the day the grassroots forum was held that the Ethur wanted to be distinguished as so, with some participants expressing a clear separation based on biases such as the “Karamajong are just cursed….”; “no matter what you do for those people, you can bring them into your home, feed them… but when the time comes, they will steal your cattle…..”. 


Looked at historically, the Karamajong are carrying on a cultural practice that has only turned foul because of colonial interjections. (J. B Barber, 1992). A cultural practice that the Abim used to engage in.  A practice now misunderstood by the people of Abim, who with the erasure of pre-colonial history and poverty that contributes to the hyper-focus on immediate tangible, material survival see no connection to the now isolated and marginalized people. As Saum Nangiro explains, cattle rustling only recently became destructive in the 1970s with the introduction of automatic weapons, and for a while after, open gun carry and trade was a normal aspect of life in the region.   Simon from ADYOFU reflects on the past. “ I remember during workshops like this, having a gun was not out of the ordinary, you would convene with Karamajongs holding guns in between their seats and their legs  as we deliberated peacefully…but something changed.” 


Ojok Okello interjects with his own childhood memories during the notorious LRA war. Karamoja was peaceful compared to back home, and yet they were trading guns in the market place… hard to believe we came here for security…” Nonetheless, the government policy to address this has since been the disarmament of the Karamajong, and as Nangiro illustrates;  while there was resistance initially during the 2001-2011 disarmament, disarmament became voluntary and was welcomed by CSOs and the local communities. All stakeholders recognized the devastating consequence of the weapons. The responsibility was believed to not belong to security alone hence the integrated disarmament and development program. Unfortunately, the policy did not meaningfully concern itself with why the Karamajong might have seen the use for guns in the first place and with that gap, the people acquired guns and the disarmament process turned tragically violent. As the monitor reported, last year alone, 256 cattle rustlers were killed in these disarmament processes.


When asked to share why cattle rustling seemed an inevitable practice for the Karamajong, participants explained how the negligence of the government to coordinate a disarmament policy with South Sudan and Kenya had left the Karamajongs vulnerable to cattle raids from Turkana and the Toposa tribes across the porous colonial border. In order to defend themselves from these raids, the Karamojong had found it necessary to re-acquire weapons. As the participants explained further, cattle are necessary to the livelihood of Karamajong, both  for cultural and economic purposes for example  even more cattle is required for marriage and initiation ceremonies ( Dyson-Hudson Neville, 1963)  encouraging  rustling as a means of herd enhancement  The Karamajong are also poorly educated and given that education has not been exhaustively  subsided,  some are forced to facilitate their education through raids, as one participant explained: “ the people raiding us are children, you see now its school time, so the raids are less, but once the children go on holiday, they will return to rustling to acquire fees.” This is another way the government has neglected to support its policy. Without an alternative and feasible lifestyle, cattle rustling continues to endure longer than any moral/educative rootless policy. Karamoja is poor and prone to drought necessitating the need for cattle for survival, but more than subsistence living,  as another participant elaborated, the cultural belief that “ all cattle belong to the Karamajong” shields the conscientiousness of the tribe from modern-day morals, the participant didn’t understand it that way and dismissed this belief as mere jealousy and foolery. However, we should avoid romanticizing all of the practices as the Karamajong are not entirely immune to the ills of modern society. The Karamajong aside from the cultural practice of cattle keeping engages in capitalist and lucrative businesses in cahoots with local leaders, politicians, and high-security personnel. One participant actually dismissed their refusal to engage in other activities for economic gain as mere laziness. Another participant shared “you know a Karamojong can sell a child for as little as 30,000shillings, and not a cow.” 


The causes of migration in Abim according to the workshop participants


We were in unanimous agreement that the biggest contributor to migration in Karamoja was cattle rustling. So much so that members had lost count of not only the number of cattle but also the number of people that were lost due to the raids. One participant elaborated on the shared trauma of the community: “We don’t always register the loss of a loved one…my mind only came around to the finality as their grave was lowered into the ground, which I guess is why we bury with ceremony… but before that, you live with the hope/delusion that they are still coming back… the raids do not give our people a chance to bury… we never register how much we have lost…” 


Later in the deliberations, Ojok Okello would make sure to inform the participants of the importance of recording losses.  Drawing on his grandmother’s lived experience he shares how one can benefit from the government’s efforts. In 2022, the government implemented the livestock compensation payments,   fulfilling a long-time pledge to repay the people from Lango, Teso and Acholi for the cattle that were stolen from them by the Karamajong over three decades ago. Ojok’s Lango grandmother was able to attain reparations, unlike her neighbors who had also lost cattle.  Ojok informed the participants that the government had released Shs 50 bln in the last quarter of the financial year 2020/2021 as part-payment for the 92,000 livestock claimants in Lango, Teso, and Acholi sub-regions. Ojok narrated how her neighbors had no faith in the process and had neglected to follow in her pursuit that she began many years ago. He also acknowledged that the process was laborious and she was fortunate to have him and his siblings to guide her through the entire process. Though unequal to the loss, Ojok still celebrates that compensation as a triumph and pled to residents of Abim and their council representatives to keep the data that necessitates this justice. 

How has cattle rustling caused migrations within, into, and outside of Karamoja according to the workshop participants?

The cattle rustling has been transformative for Abim and we thought it worthwhile to explore the dynamic, unprecedented migration patterns we are witnessing today. Participants shared that being also poor, a sustainable lifestyle is linked to cattle, and with the insecurity, people not only move to towns and trading centers for safety but to also look for a new way of living sometimes even simply resorting to begging on Kampala streets. The Karamoja region is known for being scarcely populated with the people’s migrations reflecting their nomadic way of life, with safety from cattle rustling to be found in numbers, the Abim have shifted their migratory pattern from dispersed and isolated settlements to the linear settlements usually attributed to cultivators. Those that have remained nomadic have had to accelerate their already frequent movements in order to hide animals from rustlers. 

What do the Ethur people of Abim suggest the community can do to protect themselves from cattle rustling?

The workshop participants suggested multiple ways of curbing cattle rustling but the common thread from their suggestions is that local people must be involved not only in the decision-making processes that produce policy actions but also in their actual participation in the protection of their livestock, an important asset for building their community resilience. One elder suggested that people be allowed to buy and possess guns, a practice that was allowed temporarily prior. He went on to cite a period when the government allowed some community members to have one or two guns, a period that was followed by peace brought by the decrease in attacks from the Karamajong. 


Others called for more cooperative practices, with the men collectively sleeping outside to protect the animals, and to collectively pursue stolen animals not just with Abim community members but also to expand their networks with other neighboring and equally terrorized tribes. Members spoke of the need for collective kraals with greater security on the minimal level with things such as padlocks and chains but also on the highest level with some suggesting that government soldiers be deployed to what would be larger collectively owned kraals.  


The participants also shared that the cattle market was a quick way for the rustlers to dispense off the stolen animals and collect from their crime without a trace and suggested that by curbing the markets, the government could make rustling riskier and less rewarding. Abim wanted to be included in the frontline efforts expressing that the UPDF soldiers from elsewhere were no match for the Karamajong who have the upper hand as they are operating in a terrain that is more familiar to them. Members expressed that they wished their own soldiers could join the paramilitaries. Women shared that while they had attempted to bring the Karamajong in, including giving their women domestic employment in their homes, many of these women had betrayed their trust and had been time and time again revealed to have been spies for the Karamajong. Their solution was to stop this practice. However, given that some participants insisted on a need for continued peaceful dialogues with the Karamajong, the hope for a peaceful co-existence is not entirely lost. 


Aside from peaceful dialogues, the people of Abim believe that government and other CSOs could do more to sensitize/ educate the Karamajong on the harms of cattle rustling.  Participants also cried out against the failure of their political leaders. First for collaborating in some of the heists but also for not following through with security coordination and other protection mechanisms for the Abim people. Participants requested that the cattle rustling issue not be made a political issue. “Cattle rustling is an issue that affects all people regardless of their political party affiliation”. This stemmed from the observation by participants that there seemed to be more efforts to retrieve cattle when it was stolen from the political elite than when it was ordinary Abim citizens were affected. 


What do the Ethur people suggest the government can do to curb cattle rustling?

Monetary compensation for property loss was welcomed, as well as more pragmatic support for the disarmament policy such as free and meaningful education, and sensitization. Participants called for peaceful dialogues and others insisted on an escalation of the disarmament process adamant that an iron hand would be required to get the guns from the Karamajong. A reechoing of the desire of Abim residents to be recruited into the reserve force was also clearly made. A call for more accountability from their leaders, and for the Abim to be allowed to legally defend their kraals with a few community-owned guns. 



Dyson-Hudson, Neville. “The Karimojong Age System.” Ethnology 2 (1963): 353-401

J. B. Barber, 1992. The Karamoja People of Uganda: A Pastoral People Under Colonial Rule. Journal of African History III, 1 (1992) pp. 111-120.

Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Program: Creating Conditions for Human Security and Recovery in Karamoja, 2007, 2008-2009 and 2010.

Uganda National Household Survey 2019/2020: 


Written by Ojok Okello and Natasha Hadijjah Sebunya

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