It's been a bloody first half of the dry season in Uganda's Karamoja region. October to February is the time when grass turns brittle, mud dries and cracks, and competition for scarce resources increases. More than 40 people have died in recent weeks in fighting between Karimojong warriors and the Ugandan Army in the arid northeast of the country.
The semi-nomadic Karimojong are pastoralists who protect their cows, violently if necessary. The warriors are well armed and this has put them on a collision course with Uganda's government. But the recent clashes are a symptom of more universal problems.
As elsewhere in Africa, the population in eastern Uganda continues to grow as the environment deteriorates, putting more and more pressure on a land that grows ever drier. At a United Nations conference on climate change held in neighboring Kenya last month, environmentalists warned that Africa would bear the brunt of global warming.
With more people forced to share fewer resources, experts warn that conflict will increase. "Climate change will hit pastoral communities very hard," says Grace Akumu, executive director of environmental pressure group Climate Network Africa. "The conflict is already getting out of hand and we are going to see an increase in this insecurity."
Ms. Akumu argues that, while pastoralists who live in arid regions will suffer, it is the Western countries who are to blame, especially the United States, which refuses to sign on to global protocols to reduce greenhouse gases. "Pastoralists are the losers – they are not responsible, but they feel the impact of climate change the most. The blame lies squarely at the doorstep of America."
Figures from the World Resources Institute in 2000 calculated that Africa's 812 million people produce only 0.8 metric tons of greenhouse emissions per person compared with 3.9 metric tons per person globally. Yet it is the African environment that sees the worst effects, and marginal communities, such as the pastoralists, who will suffer most.
Pastoralism does not fit well with modern nations of the kind Uganda aspires to be, and pastoralists have been marginalized by successive regimes from the days of British colonialism onward. The Karimojong live in an arid zone where settled agriculture does not work. They ignore borders as they move seasonally between pastures with their cows and use their guns to protect their herds and to launch cattle-rustling raids against neighboring groups.
They have little respect for state authority, and the government has little interaction with the Karimojong except during attempts to disarm the warriors. The Karamoja region has Uganda's lowest life expectancy, its highest infant and maternal mortality rates, no paved roads, and no industry – the Karimojong do not share in Uganda's economic progress. The country has a 4 percent growth rate.
Violent cattle raids are a traditional method of restocking herds among pastoral groups. However, the death count has spiraled since sticks and spears were replaced by AK-47s as the weapon of choice beginning in the late 1970s.
A well-established small-arms trade has sprung out of the regional insecurity, with guns flowing in from neighboring Sudan and Somalia. All this means Karamoja is well stocked with weapons and prices are falling: in the 1970s, a gun cost 60-150 cows, by 2004 it had fallen as low as two cows (roughly $100).
The government estimates that there are up to 40,000 weapons in Karamoja – one for every 24 people – and violent struggles are common. During the first six months of this year, 568 people died violently in Karamoja, many more were injured.
Uganda is in the process of disarming the tribal warriors, but on Oct. 29, an attempted cordon-and-search operation went wrong. At least 27 people were killed in a shootout, 16 of the dead were Ugandan soldiers who had faced tribesmen as well-armed as themselves. One week later, the army alleges that tribesmen shot at a helicopter gunship, which responded by bombing a Karimojong village and killing at least a dozen people.
Still, government officials claim success, saying that this round of disarmament has secured 4,500 guns in only six months. But local people complain that the Army simply disarms one group then moves on, leaving a security vacuum. Mark Apalia, a 25-year-old Karimojong man, says: "I was disarmed last year and since then cattle thieves came in the night and I can do nothing."
This pattern is common. "After I was disarmed in 2001, raiders came and took all my cattle. Then I regretted not having a gun to defend myself," recalls Lomoto Lochuman a 48-year-old elder.
The youth – known as karachunya – are also despondent. Without guns, they see no way to get cows. Without cows, they cannot pay the dowry necessary for marriage. "Without cows where can I get a wife? Where can I go to raid without a gun?" asks 22-year-old John Angolore. "I will just be killed."
Local official Churchill Lokoroi says that the role of the Army in attempting to prevent cattle raiding by returning stolen cows to their owners has also caused problems. "The Army is seen as just another raiding party," he says.
Following the deaths of the 16 soldiers, a government minister characterized the disarmament as "war" and referred to Karimojong warriors as "enemies." Caught between a government that sees them as a problem to be solved militarily and a harsh environment that is becoming ever drier, the Karimojong face a difficult future.