Thousands continue to flee Karamoja as famine and insecurity have convulsed the sub-region at the tip of north-eastern Uganda.
Despite the abundance of minerals in the bowels of its earth, Karamoja remains afflicted by the paradox of plenty. The region today is a place of disease, pestilence and death.
During the dry season, the grounds crack as streams and rivers, which were once a trickle dry up. Leaves and plants wither as the punishing heat sweeps across the windswept pockets of Karamoja. Starving locals feed on seeds and leaves to escape hunger.
Today as thousands of its children line Kampala’s crowded streets with begging bowls, there is widespread exploitation of Karamoja’s mineral wealth as large chunks have been parcelled out to both foreign and local investors, leaving a trail of environmental destruction.
Cattle raids among clans have displaced thousands. Relative peace is returning as the army attempts to tackle livestock banditry egged on by the proliferation of light arms across porous border points.
In 2021, Parliament passed Shs 39 billion as a supplementary vote to purchase relief items meant for Karamoja Sub-region to help the most vulnerable within the poverty-stricken communities, including widows, the elderly, and youth abdicating rustling. Parish chiefs selected these groups and each prospective beneficiary was to receive 16 goats.
However, during a recent sting operation by officers of the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, the mother, brother and nephew of Karamoja Affairs minister Goretti Kitutu were allegedly found selling OPM-branded iron sheets to residents of Namisindwa District. They were briefly detained and later freed.
As more evidence continues to emerge, Karamoja MPs submitted to the offices of the Speaker and the Clerk to Parliament a notice of motion to censure minister Kitutu as provided for under Rule 109 of the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure.
According to the notice, Dr Kituutu is accused of failing to deliver iron sheets and other supplies meant for Karamoja to support the ongoing disarmament exercise and the diversion of some items.
These, the MPs say, constitute the offence of mismanagement and abuse of office or willful violation of oath of allegiance or oath of office, which are grounds provided in Article 118 of the Constitution for censure of a minister.
The MPs further accuse the minister of misusing Shs25b meant for the procurement of goats to be distributed across the region, as well as picking 500 bags of maize seeds from Namalu Prison Stores, under the Feed Karamoja Project out of 200 bags were allegedly found in her house.
Whereas the iron-sheet diversion appears to be the archetypal boardroom graft that has chronically afflicted the Office of the Prime Minister, involving top technocrats, there is another procurement, which requires an inquiry — Shs25 billion tender in 2021 for the supply of goats to vulnerable households.
On a visit to Kotido District in Karamoja Sub-region, this publication was told that 13,000 goats have already been distributed and another 5,000 are yet to be procured and given out to beneficiaries.
Sourced briefed on the matter identified the supplier of the goats, whose number and health have been contested, as relatives of powerful individuals and politicians at OPM.
Mr David Amoding, a community development officer in Kotido, said: “Some goats died of Peste des petits ruminants (PPR), some sold the goats because of hunger and some goats were stolen by cattle thieves, but the main challenge that we saw, most of the goats from Teso had PPR. Most of [the beneficiaries] lost those goats that came from Teso, there is a farmer here in my community, out of 11 goats, he lost 10 goats and remains with only one goat, which is a Galla [breed].”
PPR, also known as ovine rinderpest, is an acute, highly contagious transboundary viral disease of sheep and goats associated with high mortality. Clinically, the disease resembles rinderpest (RP) in cattle and is characterized by high fever conjunctivitis and oculo-nasal discharges, among other symptoms.
The other goats that were supplied included the Boer, a muscled South African breed bred mainly for meat. But most of the Boer goats could not escape the terrain in Karamoja.
“Most of those that died were Boer goats. Most of the sub-counties received goats. Other goats died at the quarantine where veterinary doctors treated them, goats died in hands of farmers and veterinary officers giving the impression that these goats were already infected with PPR, and most of the goats died within two weeks. Farmers quickly sold the remaining goats when they realised they were dying,” Mr Amoding said.
However, a few of the Galla goats from Kenya continue to survive the punishing weather. “Hunger will strike and the peak is in April, this is not a success story, it is still a challenge. Next time if there is a distribution of livestock, locals and veterinary officers should be consulted so that they purchase the best goats,” he added.
Was the procurement subjected to the requirements under the public procurement and disposal of public assets guidelines and was the local community consulted?
Jie County Member of Parliament (MP) Peter Abrahams Lokii said most of the goats were meant to be purchased from Karamoja to support the local economy.
“We have had as members of Parliament to ask for support from government and a supplementary [budget] of Shs39b was approved … to support disarmament by supporting identified beneficiaries. We have had a problem with the intervention,” he said, adding: “Not all beneficiaries have received the goats and nobody is explaining to us when they will receive what has not been received. One year down the road, I don’t think the Shs39 billion is there; so, if it’s not there where are the goats?.’’
According to the lawmaker, the purchased goats were supposed to be transferred to holding grounds for monitoring by veterinary doctors to ensure they are healthy and adaptable to local weather and treated, if sick, or just vaccinated.
“… unfortunately in the case of the goats, this has not happened,” he said.
The MP accused some OPM staff of endangering his constituents’ lives through opaque procurement for their own enrichment.
“We have also not known who the suppliers are because we could have been able to petition the suppliers to say what you delivered is not good, we expect the district veterinary officer to have written an objection on the sick goats,” Mr Lokii said.
The government, the MP adds, should assign such supply tenders to Karimojong and red-flagged what he called a conspiracy riding on the wave of insecurity in the region to impoverish natives.
“We have [been] driven into conflict. I now think it is deliberate to keep us away from transformation, to keep the region away from moving forward. We are talking about [raid of] cows, we are talking about [proliferation of] guns, we are talking about thieves,” he said.
His Kotido Municipality counterpart, Mr Ismail Muhammad Lomwar, said the goat deal was a scam and the animals were procured at inflated prices.
“The cost of the goats was inflated from Shs500,000 to Shs800,000. A goat in Karamoja can cost between Shs100,000 and Shs150,000, the information was hidden from us, the leaders. The supply became a scam, the goats which were supplied most of them died,” he said.
The lawmaker says the most urgent need was to provide food supplies to rescue starving communities. “There was a hunger situation, which required food supplies, she [line minister] did not listen to the Karimojong and its leaders, they even infected local goats [with purchased sickly ones],” Mr Lamwor said.
Since the scandal of alleged diversion and sharing out of iron sheets by bureaucrats broke out a fortnight ago, the line ministers for Karamoja have said nothing, and they were unavailable by telephone to respond to the new claims of ghost and sickly goats.
In a separate interview, OPM Principal Communications Officer Joyce Babirye yesterday said Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja had ordered investigations into both the iron sheet diversion allegations and concerns raised regarding the procurement of goats for Karamoja.
MP Lomwar said they advised the Karamoja ministers against restocking because of the raging insecurity and subsisting cattle thefts, and suggested the money be used to buy tractors but their proposals were ignored.
“The second thing we asked the minister was that involve the local suppliers so that this money can boost the local economy so that it comes within the circulation, there were a few lucky [local suppliers] that got involved,” he said.
Mr Philip Muya, a community leader in Lopei Sub-county, Napak District, said the goat scheme floundered because local leaders were sidelined.
“We don’t know who was contracted, the goats were delivered by trucks, the person said I was told to deliver and when asked who the supplier was, they could not tell us,” he said.
A local veterinary officer cleared the Boer goats for distribution, only for them to start falling dead. But there were other problems with the breeds. They could not mate with the gallas. Besides, some recipients sold the goats to buy food in the wake of famine.
The mineral-rich Karamoja is ironically Uganda’s poorest region, according to official statistics, with income poverty at 66 per cent and food poverty at 75 per cent.
With a largely rural population, livelihoods are based on livestock and crop production. Recent diversified livelihood activities include mining, stone quarrying, and the sale of natural resource products.
Due to inadequate food access, poor dietary diversity, structural poverty, low-value livelihood options, poor hygiene and sanitation, and morbidity, the region has Uganda’s highest food insecurity and malnutrition levels.
In March 2021, the government commenced an airborne geological and geophysical survey mapping of Karamoja at a cost of Shs86b. With large swathes under the threat of violence and rustling, it is not clear yet when the assignment will be accomplished after government surveyors were ambushed and killed in the region last year.
A 2011 survey found that the region contains more than 50 mineral deposits, including gold, limestone, uranium, marble, graphite, gypsum, iron, wolfram, nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium, and tin.