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‘Hell is coming’: The Ugandan army’s heavy-handed crackdown in Karamoja

‘If you question, they will beat you.’

Women and children watch for their loved ones during a cordon-and-search operation in Moroto on 1 November. Liam Taylor/TNH
Women and children watch for their loved ones during a so-called "cordon-and-search" operation by the army in Moroto, one of the main towns in Uganda's long-marginalised northeastern region of Karamoja, on 1 November.

More than 300 men sat in a sun-baked sports field here in Moroto – shoeless, shirtless, and surrounded by soldiers. Some were builders from a construction site, others staff from a tourist hotel. Ten were community health workers who had come to town for a training session with an international NGO.

All were detained for no other crime than being an adult male – and therefore a potential cattle raider.

This is the unforgiving logic of the Ugandan army’s disarmament campaign in Karamoja, a region of 1.2 million people in the country’s northeastern borderlands. Soldiers round up men indiscriminately and detain some for long periods without charge. They allegedly extort money, torture suspects, and kill civilians. 

  • At a glance: Torture, hunger, and livestock losses

  • The army’s aggressive response to a surge in cattle raiding has prompted allegations of indiscriminate detentions, killings, and torture
  • Torture allegations include beatings, water deprivation, and the tying of limbs and testicles
  • The insecurity has triggered a hunger crisis, with people too nervous to farm, and livestock losses impoverishing communities
  • The army says its methods are justified, and Karamoja is now “more secure and safe”

For this story, The New Humanitarian spoke to dozens of people across three districts, including civil society activists, political leaders, and humanitarian workers. Most spoke anonymously for their safety.

Many acknowledged that cattle raiding by armed and violent young men had declined, partly due to the army’s campaign. But they also warned that human rights abuses have eroded trust and undermined the efforts of humanitarian groups responding to an interlinked hunger crisis in this rural region, 400 kilometres from the capital, Kampala. 

By the security forces’ own reckoning, since July 2021, security forces have arrested more than 18,000 people and killed over 300 others – all of whom the government contends were raiders shot in gunfights. More than 600 guns and around 30,000 stolen animals have also been recovered.

But resentment was palpable during the recent round-up of suspects on 1 November in Moroto, the region’s largest town. Women clustered outside the fence, bringing identity cards for their loved ones. Others pleaded with the soldiers, many of whom had ripped off their name badges so they couldn’t be identified.

After hours in the searing heat, most of the detainees were screened and released. One of the first to come out was a 72-year-old man who had been on his way to hospital when soldiers accosted him. “If you question, they will beat you,” he said. 

Escalating insecurity

After a decade of tentative calm, cattle raiders returned to Karamoja in 2019. They have emptied cattle enclosures of livestock and killed hundreds of people, as The New Humanitarian reported in January.

The escalating insecurity made national headlines in March when two soldiers, two government geologists, and a student intern were killed.

Map of Uganda showing Karamoja

The incident outraged Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the powerful son of President Yoweri Museveni, and the commander of the Ugandan land forces at the time.

“My Karimojong brothers!” he tweeted. “We have begged you to stop the life of robbery and violence. We have begged you to stop attacking your neighbours but to no avail! You have refused all our appeals! Well, now we are coming, and hell is coming with us!”

Although the residents of Karamoja were appalled by his belligerent language, many do want tough action to disarm raiders and recover stolen cattle. On a visit to Loyoro sub-county, in Kaabong district, it was easy to see why. In October, raiders made off with the community’s tiny remaining herd of 14 cows. Then they came back to try to steal the goats.

Violent waves of cattle raiding and tough disarmament campaigns by the authorities have swept across Karamoja since colonial times. Historically, most raids were tit-for-tat tussles between different ethnic groups. But locals say there has been a growth in commercial cattle raiding, where criminal gangs steal cows for sale. Raids draw in young men who have few other economic opportunities in the region.

In large parts of Karamoja, the insecurity has made it dangerous for people to go to their fields, exacerbating a severe hunger crisis worsened by erratic rains. Robbed of their cattle, in a region with few other sources of wealth, they have no assets to sell to get by on.

“If it wasn’t for insecurity and people were able to open up land, there would have been a reasonably good harvest.”

By late July, before the harvest brought some relief, there had been 2,465 hunger-related deaths this year in the nine districts of Karamoja, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

“If it wasn’t for insecurity, and people were able to open up land, there would have been a reasonably good harvest,” said Kennedy Owuor, the head of the WFP office in Karamoja, adding that many households only have good food stocks for another two to three months. 

The parched but picturesque valley of Loyoro, in Kaabong district, is now bereft of cows.
Liam Taylor/TNH
Karamoja's picturesque but now parched Loyoro valley is empty of cattle.

Colonial-era tactics

Local leaders had long been calling for a more proactive response to the raids, built on peaceful disarmament and civil-military co-operation. But when the army stepped up disarmament in May, it resorted to the same iron-fisted approach deployed in Karamoja since colonial times – and which earned the military the name “ariang”, or “the rough one”, in the Ngakarimojong language. 

The defining tactic of disarmament is “cordon-and-search”: a homestead or village is surrounded; houses are scoured for guns; the men are rounded up and screened, with suspected raiders taken to military barracks for further questioning. 

The army insists these operations are “intelligence-led”. Accounts from detainees suggest otherwise.

For example, on 21 September the army rounded up about 600 men in Moroto town, pulling them from streets and houses at dawn. Speaking to The New Humanitarian two days later, two of those detained said soldiers had sorted them into groups. 

The first to be released were students, those with formal jobs, and those who spoke English well. The last were the “boda-boda” motorbike taxi drivers and the peddlers of local brew. Bruises, scratches, and traditional tattoos were all treated as cause for suspicion.

“[The soldiers] are now categorising people based on how they appear,” said one of the released men. “Those who are dirty, one side. Those who don’t dress very well, one side. Those who are somehow smart, one side.”

A witness to a cordon-and-search operation in Kotido district, some 80 kilometres north, said soldiers first checked the names of individuals against their files. Then they looked on the shoulder for the marks left by a gun-strap, and on the feet for the pricks of thorns.

In some places, the army’s heavy-handed approach, combined with the wanton violence of the raiders, is obstructing humanitarian efforts.

“We have a community dialogue, a meeting, [and] the security personnel come and they just take the participants,” said an aid worker in Kotido district, speaking anonymously to avoid damaging relations with the government. “As they are mobilised, sitting waiting for you, the army comes and takes them.”

Tales of torture

Suspects are held in prisons or army barracks. In Kotido district, four former detainees told The New Humanitarian they had been tortured in military custody.

One farmer said soldiers held him down on a bed of smouldering thorns, ripped off his traditional necklace, and strangled him.

“There were about 15 of them,” he recalled. “It was only one of them who tried to save me. He said: ‘Why do you want to kill this man for nothing?’ If it wasn’t for that man, I think I would be dead.”

“When the government comes, it should target the right person to arrest, instead of what is happening now where they just gather everyone.”

Others said soldiers beat them with sticks and batons, plucked at their flesh with pliers, or stamped on wood that was bound between their fingers. One showed marks around his wrists where he was suspended by rope from a tree as soldiers clubbed him. 

“When the government comes, it should target the right person to arrest, instead of what is happening now where they just gather everyone,” he said. “They take those people and they torture them for nothing.”

The men described being held in unbearable heat in metal huts, sometimes for weeks on end. At times, there were so many prisoners they could not lie straight. Two described being deprived of food for days. None were charged with any offence.

It is difficult to verify the details of these reports, but they are consistent with cases of torture jointly documented by the UN Human Rights Office and the state-run Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC).

Read more: In Uganda’s Karamoja, rampant rustling and a militarised response as violence returns

In a presentation delivered before army officers on 22 September, the UN and UHRC said they had received 35 complaints of alleged torture in the preceding three months, including beatings, water deprivation, and the tying of limbs or testicles. They also recorded five cases of “arbitrary and unlawful killings”, including one man tortured to death in a barracks, an 81-year-old shot in his home, and a boy shot after going to milk a cow. 

“Our office is seriously concerned about continuous allegations of human rights in law enforcement,” Grace Pelly, the deputy representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Uganda, told the 22 September meeting. “Human rights violations perpetuate distrust and fear among affected populations, endangering both peace and development in the whole of Karamoja.” 

The army defends its response

In March, the army reported that it had killed 309 “warriors” during its operations. No figures have been released since. Raiders engage soldiers in gun battles, so some incidents may be self-defence. However, these killings have not been independently investigated. 

Meanwhile, thousands of people have been rounded up. At the meeting on 22 September, army spokesman Major Isaac Oware said they had arrested 11,603 suspects since the disarmament operations began in July 2021. Of those, 9,087 had been released. 

A further 672 had been tried and sentenced by army court martial – a practice deemed unconstitutional by Uganda’s highest courts – with another 363 waiting to appear. Notably, of 1,481 suspects handled by civilian courts, none had yet been convicted. 

“That is the law, yes. But the reality on the ground is you need more time with the suspect as you are doing investigations.”

Oware told The New Humanitarian that cordon-and-search is a “normal procedure”, one which has made Karamoja “more secure and safe”. He rejected the suggestion that the army has been detaining people illegally.

“They are prime criminal elements or they are prime suspects, not people,” he said.

The army’s top spokesman, Brigadier-General Felix Kulayigye, said reports of torture had been investigated and “some of the officers have been arraigned in the court martial for misconduct”. 

Kulayigye confirmed that suspects are detained in barracks. When The New Humanitarian pointed out that barracks are not legal detention facilities, he laughed.

“I’m sorry to laugh at you. Reason: What are we dealing with? Are we dealing with formal criminality? Number two, do we have sufficient detention facilities in Karamoja to deal with this scale?”

Asked about the fact that suspects cannot be held without charge for more than 48 hours under Ugandan law, Kulayigye replied: “That is the law, yes. But the reality on the ground is you need more time with the suspect as you are doing investigations.” 

He batted away questions about whether the practices were unconstitutional. “I am not the attorney general,” Kulayigye said. “My job is to make sure there is peace.”

Edited by Pradnya Joshi.

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