Disarming Uganda

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online, December 11, 2002 10:10 a.m. More by Kopel on Ugandan gun control.

More gun control, more genocide. That's the lesson of the 20th century in many nations, including Uganda. Yet the United Nations is again trying to make it impossible for Ugandans to protect themselves. Once again, the U.N. is supporting repression rather than human rights.

"The Ugandan government has established a national body to combat the proliferation of illicit small arms into the country," announced the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on September 24.

The NFP (the Ugandan National Focal Point, an agency that coordinates Uganda's relations with multinational bodies) will be responsible for fulfilling the country's obligation, pursuant to the Nairobi Declaration, to reduce "the demand and supply of illegal firearms" in Uganda. According to the March 2000 Declaration, illicit small arms have had "devastating consequences . . . in sustaining armed conflict and abetting terrorism, cattle rustling and other serious problems in the region." To the contrary, it has been disarmament which has been the prime facilitator of state-sponsored terrorism in Uganda.

Occupying the northeast corner of Uganda are the Karamojong pastoralists, a marginalized minority of about 100,000 people who wander with their cattle from one pasture to another. Comprising three percent or less of the total population of Uganda, the Karamojong belong to a larger group of African peoples called Nilo-Hamites, some of whom live across the borders in Kenya and Sudan. The remainder of the Ugandan population are Bantus. About 90 percent of the country's inhabitants live in rural areas.

At the heart of the Karamojong pastoral lifestyle is the cow. Through its milk and blood (animals are bled, especially during dry seasons when they don't produce milk), and occasionally its meat, the cow provides the major source of dietary protein. Wealth is demonstrated, and local political power commanded, by the size of one's cattle herd. In terms of raw purchasing power, two to three cows will buy one AK-47.

In light of the absence of a strong central government, and the easily transportable nature of bovine assets, it should come as no surprise that cattle rustling (with its concomitant social violence) has been a traditional Karamojong activity.

Low-quality firearms were first introduced to Karamojong society in the late 19th century by ivory hunters and traders, but were not generally available until the fall of Idi Amin. The British (who ruled Uganda from 1894 to 1962) were mostly successful in keeping firearms out of the hands of the indigenous population.

Uganda's first prime minister, A. Milton Obote, perpetuated British policies, including the gun-control laws. But pastoralists across the borders to the north and east had access to modern firearms, which facilitated raids on Ugandan herds. While Obote's armed police were ineffectual in protecting the Ugandan pastoralists, they were nevertheless quite diligent about thwarting the Ugandans' acquisition of firearms.

Like most African leaders of his generation, Obote led an independence movement premised on democratic self-rule, but installed himself as dictator for life. In 1966, he suspended the constitution. On December 19, 1969, Obote used a failed assassination attempt to justify imposing a nationwide ban on the lawful possession of firearms and ammunition. Of course, government officials and other favored individuals were exempt. Accompanying the ban on non-government guns was a ban on all political parties, except Obote's government party, the Uganda Peoples Congress.

In 1970, a new Firearms Act replaced the 1955 British Firearms Ordinance. The law imposed national firearm registration and gun-owner licensing under exceedingly stringent requirements. In practice, the law was used to make it illegal for anyone to have a firearm, except persons deemed politically correct by the Obote dictatorship.

A year later, army chief of staff Idi Amin wrested control of the country in a military coup. The ensuing genocide of the Amin regime was perpetrated against a populace whose primitive armaments did not approach the effectiveness of the murderous government. By the time the genocide ended in 1979, the estimated toll was 300,000 slaughtered Ugandans, the Karamojong suffering a disproportionately higher percentage, at about 30,000 tribesmen.

In response to Amin's murderous rule, the Karamojong began producing their own guns, fashioning gun barrels from the steel tubing of metal furniture. These homemade guns were then used tactically to acquire better and more powerful ones by attacking isolated police outposts where acquisition would not be terribly costly in terms of tribal lives. When the Amin government was toppled and his army fled, military firearms were traded, sold, or lost along the way to local tribesmen, who also found easy access to now-deserted weapons depots.

Firearms thus became plentiful and readily available throughout Karamoja. Inter- and intra-tribal raiding (which included cross-border raiding from Kenya and Sudan), previously fought between warrior herdsmen armed with spears, was now fought by pastoralists many of whom were armed with AK-47s. This disturbed a centuries-old balance between Ugandan tribes that had been evenly matched. The imbalance fostered the perception of an increase in violence, permitting Ugandan leaders to use the promise of reducing violence as the carrot for disarming the now-powerful, albeit poor, minority.

Obote, who was fortuitously out of the country when Amin took control and thus escaped being killed, was restored to power in 1979, after Amin attacked Tanzania and was toppled by the Tanzanian army. Obote again began to attempt to disarm the Karamojong. His efforts were forcefully repelled. Obote was too late, for the Karamojong had learned that cows and guns are equally indispensable: One needs a gun immediately at hand to protect one's herd. The most heavily armed tribes fared the best.

Obote stole the 1980 election, driving his political rivals into rebellion. One of Obote's rivals, Yoweri Museveni, "went to the bush with only 26 guns and organised the National Resistance Army (NRA) to oppose the tyranny that Obote's regime had unleashed upon the population" — as Museveni's website puts it. Defeating Obote and seizing power in 1986, President Museveni reconstituted his rebel forces as the new national army. Like his predecessors, Museveni attempted to subdue the Karamojong. The army's tactics did not win them any friends. In Africa Studies Quarterly, Michael Quam explains that "the soldiers misbehaved, bullying people and looting stores, and generally convincing the Karimojong that their only protection from men with guns lay in keeping guns themselves." The Ugandan government's coercive disarmament efforts met with so much resistance that Museveni let the matter drop in 1989.

Then the United Nations began its program to disarm everyone, everywhere, except for governments. On December 2, 2001, Museveni announced a voluntary gun surrender program in Karamoja. Promises were made for building materials, farm implements, schools, new wells, and capital investments, all contingent on a successful outcome of the gun surrender program. But funds in Karamoja have a habit of being diverted before the ink has dried on the check, and government assurances were met with skepticism. As John Robert Otto, an elder Kotido tribesman, said, at least "with the gun one would be sure of the next day's meal."

Museveni also promised trained, armed militias (Local Defense Units, or LDUs) and army troops for Karamoja. As Uganda's government-owned New Vision newspaper reported:

The Army has assured the Karimojong that the UDPF Uganda People's Defence Forces, Uganda's army] would protect them against inter-tribal raids and external aggression from the Turkana of Kenya during and after the disarmament exercise. 'Don't worry about the cross-border raids by the Turkana because we have found the medicine to that problem. Just bring the guns. We know what to do if they disturb you,' the commanding officer of the 405th Brigade in Kotido, Lt. Col. Patrick Kiyingi, said. . . .

When the voluntary gun surrender expired on February 15, 2002, and only a disappointing 7,676 guns (out of a conservatively estimated 40,000) were collected, Museveni turned up the heat. He gave the army free rein to switch roles from guardian to terrorist, and the army launched a "forcible disarmament operation" in Karamoja to get the rest of the guns. Yet despite the risk of imprisonment, the remaining gun-owners refused to disarm.

The UPDF went on a rampage, beating and torturing Ugandans, and raping and looting at will, all the while using firearm confiscation to justify the violence. On March 21, 2002, Father Declan O'Toole, a member of the Mill Hill Missionaries in Uganda, and his companions were executed by UDPF soldiers because O'Toole asked the army to be "less aggressive" in the disarmament campaign. The murderers were apprehended and their death sentence was carried out within days, before they could appeal it — and also before they could reveal who had given them the order. Just one week after O'Toole's murder, New Vision reported on the death of an expectant mother who "died of injuries sustained when a soldier kicked her in the stomach during forceful disarmament."

Museveni's answer was to blame the Karamojong, whose torture by the army was the basis for O'Toole's complaint. According to an article in New Vision, Museveni "said the best way to stop such incidents in [the] future is for the Karimojong to hand in their guns to eliminate any justification for the UPDF operations in the villages."

But the Karamojong know that security lies in their own hands. In remote Karamoja, when you discover your cattle being raided and your wife being raped, there is no 911 system to call. Indeed, what exists there is a barely functioning phone system, described as "poor and unreliable".

Those who had credulously surrendered their guns were not rewarded with tranquility, but instead found themselves especially vulnerable. As New Vision had earlier admitted, "Most of the people whose cows were taken" in a raid in the recently disarmed Bokora district, "had handed in their guns to the government in the on-going disarmament exercise."

By May 2002, reports of fierce resistance from the remaining armed Karamojong began to trickle out, despite government attempts to suppress knowledge of that resistance and of the army's brutality. The Catholic Church charges that thousands of residents were displaced from Karamoja after their homes were torched by UPDF troops in the disarmament campaign. By mid-July, the total number of confiscated guns had reached 10,000 — only about 25 percent of the expected total.

Now, however, in addition to suffering from cross-border raids from Kenya, from other local Ugandan tribes, and from an oppressive standing army, the partially disarmed Karamojong face an armed invasion by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), an insurgency formed two decades ago north of Uganda. Based in Sudan, the LRA, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, have regularly ravaged the Ugandan countryside west of Karamoja, and terrorized the people of Uganda. Their activities have increased of late. The LRA, one of numerous movements that came into existence in opposition to Museveni, aims to overthrow him, and alleges that he ascended to power through the help of many of those same Rwandans who would ultimately perpetrate Rwanda's genocide.

To help check LRA incursions to the west, Museveni launched Operation Iron Fist in March 2002, an aggressive campaign that allowed him, with permission from Sudan (which has historically provided a safe haven for the LRA), to cross the border and take the fight to Kony's base camps. But Museveni needed more soldiers there, and he began to redeploy the army as well as many Local Defence Units west and north — and out of the Karamoja region.

Some of Kony's LRA rebels found relative safety in the void left by departing Ugandan troops. They also found easier pickings from a partially disarmed countryside. Reports of LRA atrocities in Karamoja included burning, looting, and castration (after which the men were left to bleed to death). Even so, the LRA claims to be a Christian organization.

The assertion of firearm-prohibitionists that fewer guns lead to less violence has not been the case in Karamoja. Even without recorded statistics, it has been admitted by many that "insecurity" has increased despite — or perhaps because of — disarmament efforts. The government-controlled press in Uganda acknowledges that the Karamojong are now "purchasing more guns to replenish those either voluntarily handed [over] or forcefully recovered by the Government."

Because of the need for Ugandan troops to battle the LRA, the government of Uganda has temporarily suspended the disarmament program in Karamoja, although first deputy prime minister Eriya Kategaya promises that "the disarmament exercise would, however, resume as soon as peace comes to northern Uganda."

The only uncertainty about that next initiative is when, not if, since the Nairobi Declaration calls for full involvement by the U.N., and specifically for the U.N. "to draw up appropriate programmes for the collection and destruction of illicit small arms and light weapons." And whenever the U.N. gets down to the business of civilian disarmament, it pursues that goal relentlessly, no matter what the human or economic costs.

In an address to the African Conference on the Implementation of the U.N. Programme of Action on Small Arms in March 2002, U.N. under-secretary for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, stated: "The threats posed by these [small] arms jeopardize . . . the protection of women, children, and innocent civilians everywhere. . . . We must ensure that the global edifice of controls over small arms rests on a foundation of solid 'grass roots' support."

Events in Uganda demonstrate that Dhanapala's claims run exactly contrary to reality. It was disarmament that facilitated genocide by Idi Amin, and it is the new disarmament campaigns which have brought such terrible suffering to the Karamojong.

The U.N. disarmament vision is for two, three, many Ugandas, all over Africa and the world. In Uganda, "disarmament" is a U.N. euphemism for war on the people's right to protect themselves from predators, including predatory governments, and if the people lose that war, then the next war may be a war of genocide.

Like the Saudi's funding to spread Wahhabi teachings of totalitarian assaults on people of diverse religious faiths all over the world, the U.N. disarmament campaign is a global attack on human rights. The result is widespread murder by governments and by terrorist groups, and the suppression of human rights.

— NRO Contributing Editor Dave Kopel and Paul Gallant and Joanne Eisen are of the Independence Institute.

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