OCTOBER 11, 2010: Army Under Scrutiny for Rights Abuses in Karamoja

Army Under Scrutiny for Rights Abuses in Karamoja

SOURCE: The East African

By Julius Barigaba

Suddenly, the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces find themselves at the centre of controversy.

The force is being accused of playing a lead role in perpetrating gross human rights abuses including murder and extortion.

The theatre this time is not in northern Uganda where the army spend decades fighting insurgency nor is it in the wilderness of Congo, Central African Republic, or Southern Sudan in pursuit of Joseph Kony and his rebels.

The stage has shifted to Karamoja -- the land of warrior nomads, the Karimojong, where in the 1990s, the army started a disarmament campaign.

The Karimojong had been terrorising the region, neighbouring districts and even crossing into Kenya and Sudan, on deadly cattle raids.

But in recent months, that disarmament exercise has gone badly wrong -- even if the army has virtually secured Karamoja by reducing the number of illegal guns in the hands of Karimojong cattle rustlers, from an estimated 40,000-50,000 in 2001, to less than 10,000 today. However, the supply channels have not been cut off completely.

A disciplined force for the most part, the UPDF has gone beyond the permitted parameters to the point of undoing its own previous good work.

It has detained, tortured and murdered civilians.

There are also reports of bribery, extortion and theft. In a non-combat situation, the army's hitherto "clean" human rights record is under scrutiny.

Among the documented cases since the beginning of this year are women being raped and torture cases.

The army is being accused of rounding up suspected warriors, mercilessly beating them up and pricking their testes with sharp objects, in a bid to coerce them to name their allies.

Other suspects are tied up, and their skins burnt with flat irons.

In April this year, among the killings were children who were shot dead, while others were run over by an army truck.

Two lucky children survived with bullet wounds.

The following month, there was more slaughter. The army said those killed were armed criminals.

But when local leaders started to make noise, the UPDF devised a new mechanism to deal with the Karamoja headache -- round up whole communities and throw them in jail, a rewind to the Neanderthal-like swooping raids of the "panda gari" era of the earlier regimes of terror, observers say.

In its bid to completely disarm the community, the army has employed a crude method -- cordon and search, which has invited the wrath of the European Union, one of the key donors of the disarmament programme.

The EU says the method is an affront to the dignity and human rights of the Karimojong, and prefers sensitisation towards voluntary disarmament.

Karamoja leaders are also spitting fire, accusing the army of a sinister agenda, riding on the disarmament bandwagon, to purge the Karimojong.

Son of the soil David Pulkol, a political nomad, who for the most part practised his politics in various positions in President Yoweri Museveni's governments, is one of the biggest critics of his former employer.

"If the issue is disarmament, why do you round up everyone? Why do you torture people? Why do you prick people's testicles?

This is unacceptable...there has to be an agenda. Why doesn't the army just take the guns and leave our people?" says Mr Pulkol.

"Karimojong have the right to justice, and the right not to be tortured. But because most of them are illiterate, our government is taking advantage to violate their rights," the former minister and spy chief adds.

So, why has the disarmament exercise supplied news editors with more headlines this year than ever before?

Has the exercise just gone haywire or has the UPDF developed a new ethos, in which brutality complements graft?

(The army is largely believed to have a good human rights record, a few bad cases of torture by its security agencies like JATT, ISO and CMI notwithstanding; the same however, cannot be said of UPDF and graft -- the two have had a fairly long, happy and stable relationship).

In the absence of war, the Karamoja flare up simply points to how much the two-decade LRA conflict in northern Uganda helped to mask the army's flaws.

Theft, rape, murder and torture cases often went unpunished or at best were blamed on the LRA.

Any talk of UPDF atrocities was done only in whispers -- unless you are former UN Undersecretary Olara Otunnu, who has been publicly denouncing the army's war crimes against Acholi.

Since the guns went silent in 2006, the army's sins are now being exposed because, first, there is no LRA to provide a fitting scapegoat.

Two, a YouTube video -- Karamoja, Uganda's Cattle War -- shot in 2007 raises unsettling issues about the army's credentials, especially to end cattle raids.

In the video, Northern Karamoja Bishop James Nasak and an elder, are agitated after a neighbouring clan raids a village near an army barracks, leaving many dead and wounded, including children.

The UPDF had just combed that village for guns, leaving them vulnerable.

Having taken away their defences, the army should have protected the disarmed village, but they do not.

The elders see no rationale for "warriors" to hand over their guns when the army cannot protect them.

"If there were guns left, we would have defended our cows; we would have defended our village. Yes, because the brigade, the army battalion is not helping. So, yes I feel I should get my guns back. If the army were protecting me, it would be fine to have no guns," the old man charges.

Thirdly, elements within the army have been sucked into making profits from the economic activity that is cattle rustling, especially now that they can't get a decent cut off the LRA insurgency budget.

Within the space of three months, for example, the army in Karamoja is reported to have cashed in on more than 700 head of cattle that were under their protection.

Karamoja, unlike Acholi sub region, has been in the good books of the ruling party.

Acholi politicians often made such wild statements to discredit a regime they did not support, but were often lambasted as suffering from paranoia against a perceived Bantu-led isolationist regime. Karamoja has not always voted in concert with the rest of the "political" north. So, what is the problem?

Early this year, President Museveni went to do his "Prosperity for All" (his 2006 re-election slogan which is also the heartbeat of his manifesto) campaigns in Karamoja, but when he disembarked from his chopper, religious and local elders sick of being raided as the army looked on, read him a humbling protest note: "We can't keep voting you in when our people are dying. The army you sent here is either compromised, incompetent or simply cowardly."

President Museveni was miffed. He immediately abandoned his manifesto to deliver lectures on security.

That evening, you didn't want to be in the shoes of the Third Division commanders who got the wrong end of an angry Museveni's tongue.

He berated them for failing to take guns away, protect cattle and ending the bloody raids. Now their failure was going to cost him the Karamoja vote.

This partly explains the brutality with which the army responded -- combing villages, bundling civilians onto trucks and leading them into the torture chambers in army detachments.

Because the "warriors" use guns that are otherwise a monopoly of the armed forces, once rounded up--suspected or otherwise -- they are quickly tried by the field court martial and sentenced to eight years' prison.

The army leadership has been at pains to remind everyone that the UPDF is a disciplined force.

It hardly interferes in civil matters; it is rumoured to be apolitical, even though it has 10 voting representatives in a partisan parliament.

It is also sold as a respecter of human rights. Yet the accusations of rape, murder, torture and extortion being levelled against the army by political, religious and civic leaders of Karamoja are the antithesis of the sort of institution the UPDF is purported to be.

Pulkol's ranting apart, Upe County MP Francis Kiyonga has compiled a report, which is now before Parliament.

He says 17 people were killed between January and April and that the killers are the Special Forces Group.

Naturally, politicians' claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt because there is capital to gain.

However, reports of the Local Council leaders corroborate the politicians' claims. The EastAfrican has obtained documents detailing the losses suffered in villages at the hands of UPDF.

"We as the community of Kosiroi village in Katikekile sub county have lost lives and property to the UPDF of (the 13th Battalion) of Katikekile detachment," an April 2010 official letter of the LC I states.

The letter states further that on March 31, the UPDF arrived moments after the village had been raided "by enemies who came from the Loputuk side," but instead of rescuing them, the army mounted a cordon and search exercise, found no guns, but made away with some Ush3.12 million ($1,560), looted property and arrested 88 civilians. Most were released two days later, but 12 were detained.

A fortnight later, the same village was honoured with two more inauspicious visits from the UPDF.

The army arrested and detained two LC politicians, took 247 head of cattle and 62 goats.

Nine cows were shot dead before the army crowned its day, with the killing of two elderly women, while a 13-year-old boy took a bullet in his upper leg.

A May 15 status brief to President Museveni written and signed by Michael Akol, LC III chairman of Katekekile sub county revises the number of livestock lost to UPDF to 731 head; torture and casual murder, once again, get mention.

"Allow me your Excellency to mention the happenings of the disarmament exercise in my sub county. We have embraced the exercise because you can ride through all roads of the sub county without any problem or fear...bad thing that the UPDF has done during the operations is the impounding of animals especially cows because we do not receive the right number; others die, are lost, stolen and even sold to traders in the hands of the army; sometimes our people end up in cells and even die there, like my councillor Lopoya Kitetei Loritakany lost his life in the UPDF ditch in Katikekile where he was arrested on April 13, and torched...till he was about to die, then shot by a soldier under the 13th Battalion. This is not good," the dossier reads.

The UPDF has offered answers, taken straight out of a script from cadet school:

"We don't condone torture...a soldier who tortures a person must suffer for it," says Col. Joseph Balikudembe, the Third Division director of training and operations.

His boss, Brig Patrick Kankiriho adds: "If there are individuals who commit crimes they do it individually but not as an institution."

The army spokesman Lt. Col Felix Kulayigye then quips that body-piercing and removal of front teeth are well-documented cultural practices among the Karimojong; so, any leader saying their people have suffered torture of this kind is ignorant of their own cultural body art. Classic!

Karamoja North regional police commander Tomson Ogole said: "The question of torture, I cannot deny it...if it happens, don't fear to report it. Inhuman treatment could be happening with some individuals but we as security leaders are totally against it."

These are old, rehashed, tired lines. Besides torture, there are other sins. Corruption, for example, in all its forms is the leading vice the army has not learnt to forget.

Inflated procurement budgets, procurement of undersized uniforms, buying of junk choppers and tanks, intelligence dossiers on non-existent rebels, theft of soldiers salaries, ghost soldiers...the list goes on.

The officers who made money by bloating the register with ghost soldiers or flouting procurement rules during the war now have no warchest to steal from, hence their motivation to steal or extort money from Karimojong.

In Amudat District, one junior officer is in prison for "extorting bribes from the community to hand over cattle that had been raided from another area." Extortion has been reported in Moroto, Kaabong and Kotido Districts as well.

Mr Pulkol says: "When we find a pattern, it stops being a case of a few bad apples in the UPDF. Why set up protected kraals if you can't give them enough security?"

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