Uganda’s Karamoja; where abundant natural resources haven’t transformed lives

Karamoja pic

FUTURE BLEAK?; Karamajong youths


To scores of Ugandans, Karamoja is identified with cattle rustling, food insecurity and chronic poverty.   “You cannot wait for Karamoja to develop” is a popular saying that  encapsulates how majority Ugandans feel about this Northeastern region in which “development” still seems a distant dream in 2015.

At one time it was said that when seeds were given to the Karimojong to engage in agriculture, they instead first roasted them before they could plant them, rendering the seeds useless.

Many Karimojong have a preference of looking after their animals, so those peddling that lie intended to dishearten authorities that were interested in the introduction of agriculture to the region.

The Karamoja region is found in the distant northeastern region of Uganda and comprises of seven districts: Moroto (mother district), Kotido, Nakapiripirit (bordering Sudan and Kenya)Nakapiripirit, Abim, Amudat and Napak.

The topography is so intimidating as the scrubland stretches from the edge of the road to the horizon, in a region where very angry warriors at times stage ambushes from time to time or clash with adversaries in pursuit of their livelihood, the cattle.

In the Karamoja region food shortages, insecurity and poor infrastructure remain major development challenges despite growing attention by both the Ugandan government and development agencies.

“Hunger and insecurity are the main challenges; a high percentage of the population live below the poverty line,” says Mark Musooka, chairman of Moroto District Local Council. “Government should treat Karamoja as a special case,” he suggests

janet-museveni kARAMOJA PIC

First Lady of Uganda, and State Minister for Karamoja Affairs Janet Museveni


To Mr. Musooka’s point, the Ugandan government has always dedicated special   attention to Karamoja but unfortunately there is little to show in terms of positive results for all the government’s efforts.

The Ugandan First Lady and Minister for Karamoja Affairs, Hon. Janet Museveni has been influential in the effort to wean the Karamojong off their traditional pastoralism to crop farming instead.

The $35 million Karamoja Action Plan for Food Security (KAPFS, 2009-2014),  launched in 2010 with the  priority of crop farming over traditional pastoralism (livestock), but there has been reports of mismanagement of the plan and expert claims that the plan was ill-conceived in the first place.

Some experts argue KAPFS would have supplemented and improved cattle-keeping rather than seek to underfund and undermine it.

“I look at food production, provision of water, security and the NAADS (National Agricultural Advisory Services) programme as the factors that would enable Karamoja develop.” Mrs. Museveni said upon assuming office in May 2011.

The other problem for Karamoja according to some aid workers, “is to boost education, develop basic infrastructure and improve livelihoods. It is also necessary to urgently address high illiteracy rates, chronic poverty, inadequate water, environmental degradation and lack of electricity.

Despite the aforementioned headwinds, the region has  some potential, “Karamoja is endowed with considerable mineral deposits such as gold, gemstones, limestone, marble and other minerals’’ according to Isaac Kabongo, the Executive Director of Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO). ECO is  Ugandan non-governmental organization working to improve the quality of life and sustainable livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable groups.


Kabongo observes that In order to realize maximum benefits from these natural resources, mining companies, local and central governments should ensure that transparency and accountability principles are practiced. He also bemoans the endemic food shortage that has forced the local population to solely depend on handouts from aid agencies but also hopes industrialization and modern mining practices will eventually come.

Kabongo says mining is being carried out crudely in Karamoja, hence not benefitting the community economically.

“If we want to fasttrack development in Karamoja, we need to support the communities that are currently involved in artisanal and small-scale mining using crude and perilous methods,” he said in interview with Afrika Reporter.

He adds, “local governments have given liberty to companies mining minerals especially, limestone and marbles to do as they want, they are not monitored and it is up to them to determine how much to pay to the local government and miners”.

Gifted by nature but still impoverishedSimon Nangiro, the chairperson of Karamoja Mining Association, says there are about 50 different minerals and precious stones in the region; gold, silver, copper, iron, titanium, manganese, Cobalt, niobium, tantalite, chrome, rare earth and radioactive minerals among others.

“gold is found in the entire Matheniko County of Moroto district as well as spotted zones of Upe County in Amudat, which experts say  has one of the world’s pure gold” Nangiro explains.




GOLDEN TOIL: the Karamajong child helping out in the search for gold


Gold is usually purchased by Somalis who penetrate the communities in search of the mineral and Nangiro says “prices, quality and quantity are determined by the traders and middlemen, each with their own scales and standards in this informal business”.

Although a significant number of the Karamajong engage in gold mining  in areas of Katita, Moruita, Rupa, Ropedo, Moluremu, Alerek and Boribori, these illiterate and poor locals have no idea the stones they toil to excavate on a daily basis are quite valuable.

Besides gold, copper is another sought-after mineral, copper fields are situated in Lie County and along the Kenya-Uganda border. Other mineral deposits in the region are mica, green and red garnets, tin, marble, beryl, cuprites, hematite, limestone, talc graphite, columbite, magnetite, platinum, and zircon.

However, with all these mineral resources, Karamoja is by and large a poor and remote area, it is lagging behind in development,  82% of the Karamajong are  illiterate, and 79 %  languish below the poverty line.  Also, the Ugandan government’s universal primary education policy notwithstanding, over 60% of school-age children in Karamoja are not in school.

Betty Nachap, a miner at Rupa along the Moroto – Kenya highway says “A point of gold is purchased at as low as Shs 4,000. To earn the Shs 102,500 needed to pay school fees for my daughter at Moroto High School, I have to sell not less than 26 points of gold”

Ms Nachap said mining that amount of gold is quite a tedious task, adding “mining in this area depends on one’s luck, some individuals take a month to collect three points”.

Currently, Tororo Cement and African Minerals are the major players in mining limestone and marble respectively and Nangiro says lack of government regulation has exposed the Karimojong miners to exploitation and delayed payments.

He says they sell their marbles to companies on credit and at times firms take up to three months without paying them yet the miners take loans to pay for labour.

karamoja map

Map of Karamoja


Scramble for land, land mismanagement

Kabongo (ECO Executive), notes that since residents think every area in the region bears minerals, they have started scrambling for land. “Everyone wants to benefit from their ancestral wealth. They think this can only be achieved by owning a piece of land,” he says.

Land ownership is another major bottleneck holding back this region.  In this part of Uganda, there is no such a thing as individual ownership of land, land is communally owned.

This, clearly has made it hard for residents and miners to hold the government and mining companies operating in the area accountable.

Kabongo says since small scale mining is not regulated, the level of land degradation is high hence affecting the climate. “We need to work with the companies (mining) to restore the depleted land for better development,” he adds.

Nangiro (Karamoja Mining Association) adds, instead of promoting agriculture, which has failed to take root in the region due to erratic weather patterns, the government should promote and modernize mining and livestock farming instead.

“Five years ago, they introduced cassava but much of it has been destroyed by rain. Cassava is rotting in the fields and sorghum has moulded. We think leaders can push for mining and livestock that has proved beneficial to us.” he said.

He also suggests that the government should assist them to acquire mining licenses.

ECO in partnership with RIAMRIAM Civil Society Network have started mobilizing key stakeholders to advocate for transparency and accountability in the management of revenue from the extractive sector in Karamoja.

Government and civil society

Sylvia Atugonza, the programmes coordinator, RIAMRIAM (an umbrella organization for all civil society organisations operating in Karamoja) emphasizes the need to solve water problems in the region.

“Karamoja’s problem is lack of sustainable water. People cannot grow crops because the region is semi-arid rendering them to food aid dependency.” She said

Atugonza notes that water scarcity has crippled government and civil society interventions in the region.

“School child drop out is high due to lack of food. Others are withdrawn from school to move in search for the scarce water to save livestock and for domestic consumption. Karimojong are too poor and this is because of the rampant illiteracy rate,” She observes.

She also casts doubt on the area’s development potential because of poor road network, and lack of industry and power.

“With all the available raw materials and minerals in the region, Karamoja could have all its youths employed if government made it an industrial area,” Ms Atugonza says.

But Kabongo says it is sad that Karamoja is among the most impoverished regions in Uganda, yet it has huge amounts of minerals such as gold, gemstones, limestone and marble.

“This calls for committed leadership and organizational skills to support small scale miners to enable them buy modern mining tools, protective gear as well as sensitizing them about the best mining methods, which do not cause danger to their lives,” he said

Kabongo  indicated miners are susceptible to disease and injury as they mine with bare hands.

To maximize benefits from mining in the region, Kabongo says, the government should also incentivize investors establishing mineral processing plants thereby creating meaningful employment to the locals.

He also argues that there should also be a certain percentage given back to communities. “Companies extracting these minerals should be able to take to school children from the area where mining is  carried out,” Kabongo says.

According to the Mining Act of 2003, royalties are shared as follows; 80% is remitted to  the central government, 17% goes to the local governments and 3% to the land owner subject to mineral rights.

But because land in Karamoja is customary (communally owned), non-payment is attributed to a lack of basis of claim and negotiation.

The Karamajong , also face restrictions on animal movement. Some mining firms do not allow animals to trespass in the gazette areas.

Many residents say this is a malicious denial of access to ancestral resources for the Karamojong. The right to land, water, education, life, food and protection are being violated in the region, they argue.

And according to Kabongo, his organisation, the Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO) is committed to working with all key stakeholders in order to empower local communities to enjoy and make good use of their land.