President Museveni's 1980s dismantling of Uganda's security infrastructure left the Iteso vulnerable to Karamojong attacks and provoked their uprising, writes Ben Jones
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Karamojong warriors, Katine Armed Karamojong warriors. Photograph: David Pluth
If you ask anyone in the Teso region when things got bad they would say that it was "the time of the Karamojong". In 1986 warriors from Karamoja started looting cattle from the Teso region. The raiding began in the north-east spreading gradually south and west towards Soroti, Katine and Kumi. It destroyed what remained of the region's economy.
Estimates put the number of cattle in the region at around 500,000. An astonishing figure for a region of only about 700,000 people. For the people caught up in the raids, these numbers were of less importance than the overwhelming nature of what was lost. The raiding involved the burning of huts, the theft of ploughs and hoes, and the looting of stores of grain and flour. Once prosperous homes with more than 100 cows were reduced to ash.
Those who could fled to the towns. But most remained in the villages where they had to contend with repeated raids and attacks. An older woman from the village of Oledai, where I spent time a decade on, told of her experience of those years. With her family she would hide out in the rocks when the Karamojong came. They would do this for days at a time. "We were praying while running", I was told.
The loss of cattle was a heavy blow to the identity of the Iteso. As has been noted before on this site, cattle are at the heart of social and cultural life in the region. They play a pivotal role in marriage negotiations, where the bride's family is given cattle in appreciation for their daughter. The slaughter of a bull is also part of the traditional funeral rites of a "big man". When a father gives cattle to his son it is a way of signaling that he has become responsible, able to marry and manage on his own. To be a man in Teso, like in Karamoja, is to have cattle.
This crisis in Teso was the direct result of the arrival in power of Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni. Museveni disbanded militias that had been set up in the early 1980s to patrol the border between Teso and Karamoja. This made Teso vulnerable to attack from the Karamojong.
As a former exile from south-western Uganda, Museveni remains distrustful of people from the Teso region. The Iteso served in the army and the police force of his predecessor, Milton Obote, in disproportionate number. In echoes of US policy in Iraq, Museveni disbanded the security infrastructure of Obote's government without compensation. Whatever the logic of the approach, the results were disastrous for those living in northern and eastern Uganda. The ongoing conflict in northern Uganda is, in many ways, a continuation of that decision.
The growing insecurity in eastern Uganda, the loss of cattle, and the summary sacking of an entire class of civil servants, alienated many from the new government. There was a groundswell of support for armed opposition. Soldiers, police officers and politicians from the previous regime returned home and brought guns and grievances to the countryside. Many ordinary Iteso supported the call for rebellion for no other reason than the belief that rebel leaders could do no worse than Museveni in making the region secure.
The insurgency against the government made a bad situation worse. The cattle raiding continued into the late 1980s, and the rebellion lasted for seven years and laid waste to the region's economy.
The irony is that the Karamojong are often spoken of as the "uncles" of the Iteso. The languages spoken are fairly similar, the love of cattle the same. They form part of the same migration into north-eastern Uganda dating back to the 17th century, and the names "Iteso" and "Karamojong" tell us of this history. The "Karamojong" are literally "the old ones who stayed behind", while the Iteso were those who moved on. They were taunted by those who stayed back during the migration: "You will have your graves where you are going." Amojongaar is the verb "to become old". Ates means "grave".
Much of the sympathy I felt for the people of Karamoja, after my car crash there, was tempered by the knowledge that many graves in the village where I worked came from the time when Karamojong warriors destroyed much of Teso's economy and society