Francis Losigaara believed that rustling cattle would be a lucrative business in Kotido, Uganda. It appeared simple enough to obtain a weapon and take livestock, providing food for his family.
But as successive raids went wrong, he witnessed the deaths of his four closest friends one by one, leaving him all alone. As wives and children who remained begged for his support, the men he used to drink with and court women were buried. It no longer seemed to be so simple.
During a 2010-end-of-the-war disarmament campaign, an exhausted Losigaara gave his gun to the Ugandan military. He sadly said, “I just decided not to do it anymore.” Instead, he started farming, encouraging crops to grow in his hometown of Kotido.
Losigaara realized he had to change things when raiding returned to Karamoja four years ago. He assisted in forming a group of reformed raiders who supported peace efforts out of desperation to spare others the suffering he had.
In order to persuade their fellow cattle rustlers—known as karachuna or youth in Karamojong, the local language—to hand over their weapons to the Ugandan army, they travel to meet them.
1.2 million people live in Karamoja, a remote subregion in Uganda’s northeastern region, making up 2.5 percent of the total population. Rounds of conflict have long raged in its scrublands.
There is an annual rainy season and a hot, dry climate. Growing crops is difficult for farmers, and finding grass and water to graze their livestock is challenging for pastoralists. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics reports that the poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average.
According to Simon Peter Langoli, director of the Karamoja Development Forum, a group of advocacy groups in Moroto’s regional capital, it is among the poorest regions in the nation.
Scarcity is what causes the conflict there. Cattle raiding appears to be the only viable option when there are few jobs and little food because guns are flowing over the porous borders of South Sudan and neighboring Kenya.
The Ugandan army was able to recover about 50,000 guns during its most recent disarmament campaign. To replace the money that rustling provided, the government, however, was unable to create employment opportunities. Large-scale cattle raids had resumed by 2019.
Lowat Longorialem lost all of his animals to the raids in 2019 in Kotido town, where cattle rustling was particularly common. He therefore made the choice to return them.
While armed karachuna threatened the cattle keepers, he joined a group of cattle rustlers and was tasked with shooing scared cows out of perilous livestock pens. Longorialem claimed that because it was difficult work and he didn’t own a gun himself, no one was obligated to pay him.
He took a chance in the chaos of one raid by pinching five sizable bulls from the karachuna. The money was then used to purchase his own weapon. He then set up camp in the hinterlands and participated in robberies one after another.
Instead of robbing their close neighbors, Karachuna walk miles to other neighborhoods, where they come into conflict with other rustling groups and soldiers attempting to keep the peace.
He explained that a raider is constantly searching for animals. “You are hiding and sleeping in the bush.”
It’s personal to be at peace.
Losigaara made the decision to make a change in 2019. Since traveling his fields was risky, farming had become impossible. He came to the conclusion that he would need to persuade the karachuna to give up their weapons in order for Karamoja to experience true stability after working with cattlemen, traders, and another former raider.
Others might be persuaded to follow the example set by the reformed raiders.
Losigaara and his fellow activists were able to empathize and appeal to people’s sensibilities because they were aware of the obstacles that young men face when stealing cattle.
Losigaara would say to convince raiders to turn over their weapons, “None of these leaders can bring us this peace unless we do it ourselves, because they do not suffer from the problems that we go through.” “We must cultivate peace and look after what little we do have.”
But it was challenging to persuade people who were scared and frustrated to stop using violence.
The army started a ferocious campaign to dearm Karamoja in 2021. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the country’s land force commander at the time and the son of President Yoweri Museveni, foresaw the arrival of “hell” in the area.
The army surrounded villages where they believed there were hidden guns and rounded up every man and boy using harsh cordon and search tactics.
The raiders ventured deeper into the wilderness out of fear of being apprehended.
Longorialem was getting tired in the meantime. He said, “I started to realize that if I held this gun, I would die.” I was losing friends every time I went on raids. I saw people dying everywhere I went.
He soon joined the peace-seeking rustlers who had been converted. Five Kotido-based leaders and about 200 former raiders, dispersed across several districts, make up the network today.
According to Emmanuel Lojok, who hosts a weekly radio program on Kotido’s The Voice of Karamoja station, “we saw some fruits of peace falling the moment they started engaging the people who were directly involved in raiding – the karachunas.” He jokingly continued, “You have to engage the footballers when you talk about football.”
Former raiders are occasionally hosted by Lojok in his tiny radio booth, giving them a new venue to communicate their message of unity.
Peace activists’ work was made simpler by a government amnesty policy that was announced in May and permitted rustlers to surrender their weapons without fear of arrest.
Losigaara’s group focused on forgiveness conversations as more karachuna returned home, enabling communities that had stolen cattle from one another to repent and start over.
Museveni Nakoritodo, one of the five leaders in the peace group and the president of Uganda, said, “For me, that was a point where I said I can never go back to it.”
I won’t take part in the raids any longer, he continued, even if these guys decide to restart them.
drought and poverty
However, Karamoja is difficult to support, adding to the difficulties faced by peace activists.
Al Jazeera encountered a group of young men in Kotido who were quarrying rocks in the scorching sun. They muttered that since they had worked rather than attended church on a Sunday morning, they would have to beg God’s pardon.
Over the clang of metal on stone, one of the workers, Namiyam Lokorii, said, “There is nowhere else to turn to to look for any other form of livelihood.”
The government promised to support reformed raiders when it announced its amnesty policy, but peace activists like Losigaara claim that assistance has been slow to come. He worries that people may start raiding again due to economic difficulties and a poor harvest.
Local officials in Kotido claim that lists of ex-raiders who are eligible for assistance have been created, and some goats have already been delivered.
Paul Lottee, the chairperson of Kotido’s Local Council 5, stated that “processes have been involved, so it has taken a while.” It has not been without challenges or scandals to obtain the required items and deliver them to beneficiaries.
Rich Ugandan politicians, including two cabinet ministers who have since been detained and are currently facing charges, are said to have stolen iron sheets intended for Karamoja raiders earlier this year.
However, activists continue to hold out hope that Karamoja’s stability will enhance all facets of life, allowing people to send their kids to school and bringing in wealth and employment.
According to radio host Lojok, “people who have chosen peace are so much more than those who chose violence and raids.”