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Commercial cattle raids impoverish Uganda’s pastoralists

Ibad year, when the rains stopped and the sorghum withered, Maria Loudia would usually sell an animal to survive. But in January, gunmen stole three of her cows, leaving her destitute. Since 2019, the Karamoja dry plains of northeastern Uganda, home to 1.2 million people, have seen another cattle raid. Livestock have been taken, fields have been scared away, and the Karamojong have no safety net for this year’s dry season. More than 2,400 people have died of starvation, local officials said.

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Like many pastoral areas in Africa, Karamoja is going through an uneven transition. The elders recalled the days when cows were plundered for prestige or bridal wealth. But in recent decades, cattle raiding has become big business. As the city’s demand for beef increased, the stolen animals were shipped to distant markets. On the grasslands, livestock ownership became increasingly unequal as the big owners got bigger and the poorer ones struggled—even starved. “In Karamoja, your bank is a cow, it’s a goat, it’s a sheep,” said Paul Komol Lotee, chairman of Kotido, which Tito is one of the areas worst affected by the violence. “If you don’t have those three, you can’t survive.”

Attackers flourished in Karamoja in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thousands of cattle were stolen. Others died of disease after squeezing into kraals (pens). The army eventually defeated the attackers with clubs. By 2010, cattlemen were starting to restock. Now the attackers are back. In Kaabong district, they emptied 32 of the 34 stalls that were supposed to keep the cattle safe. Locals blame several factors: the flow of guns across the porous border with Kenya; covid-19 lockdowns and outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, both of which have disrupted legal trade; and the failure of the police and army to recover stolen cattle, which has Empower young people to enforce the law on their own. Hundreds were killed.

In the hunt for illegal guns, the military has rounded up thousands of young people, often under flimsy excuses. In March, a spokesman said it had killed more than 300 “fighters” in a disarmament operation.this United Nations The government’s own human rights commission accused soldiers of extrajudicial killings. Former captives described being tied to trees and whipped. Locals wondered if some officials were profiting from the attack. How did a truckload of stolen cattle escape a checkpoint? Why do military cartridges sometimes fall after raids? The military insists it was not involved.

Raids started to dwindle again, partly because of the actions of the army and partly because there was so little left to steal. The Karamoja Resilience Support Unit, a research group, estimates that Karamoja’s livestock generated $444 million in value for their owners during the 2018-19 season. These benefits include meat, milk, plowing and informal insurance (in case of emergency you sell the last cow). However, even before the latest wave of attacks, most households owned fewer than 3.3 “tropical livestock units” per person, equivalent to about 5 cows or 33 sheep. Below this threshold, it is difficult for a household to get enough calories from livestock, even if it grows some crops alongside.

Many Karamojong turn instead to find casual work on farms, brewing beer or driving motorcycle taxis around town. Others eke out a living in the small-scale mining economy, burning charcoal or digging tunnels for gold. Auda Lokwang left her baby at home from sunrise to sunset as she collected firewood from the bushes and traded it for money in the town of Moroto Adake, the edible residue left after sorghum beer is brewed. “You just have to bear with it,” she said.

For generations, the Karamojong people have survived the vagaries of their environment by balancing grazing and crop cultivation. “If the ox dies, there will be a crop,” is a traditional prayer. “The crops are not growing, and there are cattle.” Without cows, they are now more vulnerable to rising food prices, voracious pests and climate change, which makes rainfall more erratic. Loita Kume, an elder in the Moroto region, muses that perhaps the cattle-robbing angered the gods. The rain will return only when the bleeding stops.

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