A Memory of Loss: Ecological Politics, Local History, and the Evolution of Karimojong Violence

By Gray, Sandra J. | Human Organization, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

A Memory of Loss: Ecological Politics, Local History, and the Evolution of Karimojong Violence


Gray, Sandra J., Human Organization


Since early March 1999, deadly confrontations among pastoralists and government forces in northeastern Uganda's Karamoja region have escalated. Raiding and banditry are long-established features of intertribal relations in this region, and government reprisals against such operations date from the colonial period. However, present-day violence has assumed a singular form among the Karimojong, often involving them in the murder and raiding of other Karimojong as well as people from neighboring ethnic groups. It has been argued that ongoing violence in Karamoja is the result of the acquisition of automatic weapons by the Karimojong and their neighbors. While this might explain the increased virulence of intertribal conflict since the end of the colonial era, the direction of aggression by the Karimojong against members of their own ethnic group suggests that there are other factors to be considered. In this paper, I examine the sequence of ecological, political, and historical events leading to widespread intratribal violence in Karamoja. On the one hand, the modern manifestation of violence in Karamoja is a logical outcome of an interplay of environmental catastrophes and political mismanagement dating from the colonial era. In this sense, the Karimojong sequence is continuous with events taking place in the 20th century throughout the pastoralist zone of northeastern Africa. On the other hand, the present configuration of Karimojong society represents a discrete, localized response to regional events. Specifically, serendipitous acquisition of automatic rifles provided opportunistic pastoralists with a new stratagem at a time when a shift in intratribal politics already was under way. To be sure, easy access to guns altered relationships among the Karimojong, neighboring groups, and the changeable Ugandan state, but more significantly, modern weaponry supported the transformation of fluid structural relations within Karimojong society into increasingly inflexible internal divisions. The analysis underscores the complexities of conflict resolution among pastoralist groups in northeastern Africa.

Key words: pastoralists, cattle raiding, ethnicity, Karimojong, Uganda

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in East Africa in the late 19th century, livestock raiding played a critical role in the response of nomadic pastoralists to environmental uncertainty (Getachew 1996; Hendrickson, Armon, and Mearns 1998; Lamphear 1998; Simonse and Kurimoto 1998; Turton 1991, 1996). Checked by military and civil administrations during Pax Britannica (Barber 1968), cattle raiding has regained its prominence in political interactions in recent decades and is again the central feature of political relations among pastoralists in northern Uganda and Kenya. However, both the form and function of raiding in these societies appear to have been altered: raiding has become more arbitrary and more deadly, and it is increasingly likely to be directed intratribally, a pattern coincidental with the widespread adoption of automatic weapons by pastoralists in the region in recent decades.

In a recent study of raiding among Turkana pastoralists in northwest Kenya (Figure 1), Hendrickson, Armon, and Mearns (1998) attribute the random, savage character of modem cattle raiding to a shift in its economic function, from redistribution of animals among neighboring pastoralists to predation for profit on Turkana herds by outsiders. Similarly, Fleisher (1998, 1999) hypothesizes a shift in the emphasis of raiding, from ecological to market motives, among Kuria herders in Tanzania. In their analysis of the "criminal logic" of predatory raiding, Hendrickson, Armon, and Mearns (1998:191) link it to a more general African trend toward the criminalization of violence that stems from its economic uses (Chabal and Daloz 1999a). Although not essential to this progression, automatic weapons enhance the conditions for the establishment of criminal raiding in pastoralist societies.

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