Kotido, Uganda – Francis Losigaara thought cattle rustling would be a good way to make money. Getting a weapon and stealing livestock seemed easy enough, and would keep his family fed.
But one by one he watched his four best friends die, shot in successive raids gone wrong until he was alone. The fellows he used to drink and woo women with were buried, as wives and children left behind begged for his support. It did not seem so easy any more.
An exhausted Losigaara surrendered his gun to the Ugandan military, during a disarmament campaign that concluded in 2010. “I just decided not to do it any more,” he said sadly. He took to farming instead, coaxing crops from the dry earth in his home district of Kotido.
When raiding returned to Karamoja four years ago, Losigaara knew he had to make a difference. Desperate to prevent others from suffering as he had, he helped found a group of reformed raiders championing peace efforts.
The men travel to meet other cattle rustlers – called karachuna or youth in Karamojong, the local language – hiding in rocky fiefdoms in the Karamoja wilderness and convince their colleagues to give their guns to the Ugandan army.
A remote subregion in the northeastern corner of Uganda, Karamoja is home to 1.2 million people – 2.5 percent of the national population. Its scrublands have long been subject to rounds of conflict.
The climate is hot and dry, with an annual rainy season. It is hard for farmers to grow crops, and for pastoralists to find grass and water to graze their livestock. The poverty rate is well above the national average, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.
“It’s one of the poorest, if not the poorest [areas], in this country,” said Simon Peter Langoli, head of the Karamoja Development Forum, an advocacy organisation in the regional capital of Moroto.
The conflict there is driven by scarcity. With guns flowing over neighbouring Kenya and South Sudan’s porous borders, cattle raiding seems the only viable option when jobs are few and food is scarce.
In its last disarmament campaign, the Uganda army managed to recover some 50,000 guns. However, the government failed to create livelihood opportunities to replace the money that rustling provided. By 2019, large-scale cattle raids had returned.
In Kotido town, where cattle rustling was particularly rampant, Lowat Longorialem lost all of his animals to the raids in 2019. So he decided to steal them back.
Joining a group of rustlers, his task was to corral frightened cows and goats out of thorny livestock pens with a stick, while armed karachuna threatened the cattle keepers. It was hard work, and since Longorialem did not have a gun himself, he was not entitled to payment, he said.
In the chaos of one raid, he took his chances, pinching five large bulls off the karachuna. He then used the proceeds to buy a weapon of his own. Afterwards, he camped out in the hinterlands, taking part in robbery after robbery.
Karachuna do not rob their close neighbours, but travel miles on foot to other districts, putting them in the crosshairs of other rustling groups and soldiers trying to maintain calm.
“A raider is always looking for animals,” he explained. “You are sleeping in the bush, hiding.”
Peace is personal
In 2019, Losigaara decided that change was necessary. Farming had become impossible, as it was dangerous to travel his fields. Working with a cattleman, a trader, and another former raider, he concluded that for real stability to come to Karamoja, he would have to convince the karachuna to surrender their weapons.
The reformed raiders could in turn persuade others to do the same.
Knowing the challenges that push young men to steal cattle allowed Losigaara and his fellow activists to empathise; to appeal to common sensibilities.
“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,” Losigaara would say to persuade raiders to hand over their guns. “It is on us to become peaceful and take care of the little that we have.”
But convincing frustrated and frightened people to abandon violence proved difficult.
In 2021, the army launched a fierce campaign to disarm Karamoja. At its start, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son to President Yoweri Museveni and then commander of the country’s land forces warned that “hell [was] coming” to the region.
The army employed tough cordon and search tactics, surrounding villages where they suspected guns were hidden and rounding up all of the men and boys.
Fear of arrest pushed the raiders further into the wilds.
Meanwhile, Longorialem was growing weary. “I started to realise holding this gun meant I was going die,” he said. “Every time I went for raids, I was losing a friend. Every time I went, I saw people dying.”
He soon joined the reformed rustlers in pushing for peace. The network is now comprised of five leaders who operate from Kotido, and some 200 former raiders, spread across several districts.
“The moment they started engaging the people who were involved directly in raiding- the karachunas – we saw some fruits of peace falling,” said Emmanuel Lojok, who runs a weekly radio show on The Voice of Karamoja station in Kotido. “When you talk about football, you have to engage the footballers,” he added jovially.
Lojok sometimes hosts former raiders in his small radio booth, providing another platform for them to spread a message of unity.
A government amnesty policy announced in May, allowing rustlers to give up their weapons without fear of arrest, made the work of peace campaigners easier.
As more karachuna came home, Losigaara’s group turned its attention towards forgiveness dialogues, allowing communities who had robbed each other of cattle to apologise and begin anew.
“For me, that was a point where I said I can never go back to it,” said Museveni Nakoritodo, who was named for Uganda’s president, and is one of the five leaders in the peace group.
“Even if these guys decide to go back to start the raids again, I am not going to participate in it any more,” he added.
Poverty and drought
It is hard, however, to make a living in Karamoja, compounding the challenges peace activists face.
In Kotido, Al Jazeera met a group of young men breaking down rocks in a quarry under the baking sun. It was a Sunday morning, and they quipped that they would have to ask God’s forgiveness since they had worked instead of going to church.
“There is nowhere else to turn to to look for any other form of livelihood,” said Namiyam Lokorii, one of the workers, over a clang of metal on stone.
When it announced its amnesty policy, the government promised support to reformed raiders, but peace activists like Losigaara say help has been slow to arrive. Coupled with a poor harvest, he fears that economic challenges could push people into raiding again.
In Kotido, local leaders say they and Ugandan military officials have drawn up lists of ex-raiders eligible for aid and some goats have already been delivered.
“It has taken long because there are processes involved,” said Paul Lottee, chairperson of Local Council 5 in Kotido. Procuring the necessary items and getting them to beneficiaries has not been without hurdles – or scandals.
Earlier this year, iron sheets meant for reformed raiders in Karamoja were allegedly stolen by wealthy Ugandan politicians, including two cabinet ministers who have since been arrested and are being prosecuted.
Still, activists hope that stability will improve all aspects of life in Karamoja; that they will be able to send their children to school; that money and jobs will flow into the region.
“The people who have chosen to embrace peace are so much more than the ones who have chosen violence and raids,” said Lojok, the radio host.
“If we all accept peace, Karamoja, the people, will become rich again and there will be development,” added Losigaara.