The Indigenous World 2021: Uganda
Indigenous Peoples in Uganda include former hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Benet and the Batwa. They also include minority groups such as the Ik and the Karamojong and Basongora pastoralists who are not recognized specifically as Indigenous Peoples by the government.
The Benet, who number slightly over 8,500, live in the north-eastern part of Uganda. The 6,700 or so Batwa live primarily in the south-western region and were dispossessed of their ancestral land when Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were gazetted as national parks in 1991. The Ik number some 13,939 and live on the edge of the Karamoja/Turkana region along the Uganda/Kenya border. The Karamojong people – whose economy is traditionally based on livestock - live in the north-east of the country (mainly drylands) and had an estimated population of 1,094,100 according to a mid-2018 estimate by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. The Basongora number 15,897 and are a cattle-herding community living in the lowlands adjacent to Mt. Rwenzori in Western Uganda.
All these communities have a common experience of state-induced landlessness and historical injustices caused by the creation of conservation areas in Uganda. They have experienced various human rights violations, including continued forced evictions and/or exclusions from ancestral lands without community consultation, consent or adequate (or any) compensation. Other violations include violence and destruction of homes and property, including livestock; denial of their means of subsistence and of their cultural and religious life through their exclusion from ancestral lands and natural resources. All these violations have resulted in their continued impoverishment, social and political exploitation and marginalization.
The 1995 Constitution offers no express protection for Indigenous Peoples but Article 32 places a mandatory duty on the state to take affirmative action in favour of groups that have been historically disadvantaged and discriminated against. This provision, which was initially designed and envisaged to deal with the historical disadvantages of children, people with disabilities and women, is the basic legal source of affirmative action in favour of Indigenous Peoples in Uganda. The Land Act of 1998 and the National Environment Statute of 1995 protect customary interests in land and traditional uses of forests. However, these laws also authorize the government to exclude human activities in any forest area by declaring it a protected area, thus nullifying the customary land rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Uganda has never ratified ILO Convention No. 169, which guarantees the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples in independent states and it was absent in the voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.
Legislation, policies and programmes
There have been no major changes in legislation related to Indigenous communities in Uganda. On the contrary, repressive laws still restrict them from accessing their ancestral lands. There continues to be limited media coverage of issues affecting them and repression has continued to take place in all Indigenous communities in Uganda.
There is, however, a notable realization on the part of government of the importance of understanding possible roles that Indigenous Peoples can play in putting climate-friendly programmes in place. For instance, the local district governments have been advocating for targeting the Benet Indigenous community in programmes on restoration of the forest cover through distributions of tree seedlings. This is meant to supplement conservation efforts and the Ministry of Lands recently launched a pilot project in Benet community on soil protection, training communities in how to use modern farming methods as well as digging trenches to reduce soil erosion along riverbanks.
The Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development organized regional consultation meetings with Indigenous people across the country between October and November. This was part of the process of finalizing the draft National Affirmative Action Programme for Indigenous People in Uganda (NAAPIPU), headed by the same ministry in which 10 Indigenous Peoples’ representatives are supposed to represent the Indigenous communities at the National Indigenous Peoples Reference Committee (NIPRC). Through financial and technical support from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous people were able to organize national, regional and local consultations with stakeholders on shaping the NAAPIPU.
The Benet community in Kween district and their local district council drafted and presented a petition to the President during his visit to Sebei sub-region on 25 November 2020. The petition raised issues related to resettlement of the landless Benet families, access to resources/controlled grazing, representation through the creation of a Mosop constituency, recognition as a tribe called Mosopishek, and sports development. The Benet lobby group organization spearheaded a joint local influencing and engagement effort, which brought the Sebei local district leadership to seek a way forward on the Benet land question. One immediate resulting agreement was that since protected areas and land are governed by the central government, there is an urgent need to request that said central government convene a national engagement on these issues. This proposed engagement eventually took place in Kampala and was attended by representatives from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The Indigenous Benet women and youth have taken progressive initiatives to demand their rights by organizing peaceful demonstrations against the massive human rights violations, especially the shootings of their Indigenous children in July and October by park rangers, which led to the death of two children - Kamakete Moses and Kiplimo Clinton - who were found grazing their animals in a protected area. Benet women and youth have also protested against the heavy fines levied on cattle grazing in the Mount Elgon National Park, and they have been involved in awareness rising programmes via radio talk shows on relevant land and human rights issues affecting the Benet community.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and subsequent lockdown seriously affected the Batwa people. They could neither access food nor offer casual labour services (which much of their meagre income depends upon) since almost everything was closed down. Tourism activities in national parks came to a standstill, and this seriously affected the income of many Batwa people who normally work as porters, guides and dancers.
Human rights violations have continued to take place towards the Batwa people and, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it was sometimes hard to report these issues due to the closure of offices and limited public transport. Some violations therefore went unaddressed while others were solved amicably. Such cases dealt, among others, with issues of sexual assaults and land grabbing.
Despite all the challenges faced by COVID-19 and the lockdown, the Batwa people sought to adjust to the reality and find ways of surviving. This included engaging more in farming activities and opening up small-scale businesses such as sugarcane or charcoal selling. They kept together and comforted each other as most family members were at home due to the lockdown. Batwa people were also supported by their donors who provided essential supplies such as food and soap and they continued paying salaries to the staff of the Batwa organization UOBDU to enable them to continue their work from their homes.
The biggest achievement for the Batwa people in 2020 was that their court case against the Government of Uganda for the loss of their land rights – for which they have been fighting for more than eight years now - was finally heard on 20 August 2020 and the judgment is pending.
The Batwa struggle for their land rights is still continuing despite COVID-19 and the upcoming elections in Uganda and the community is determined to work hand in hand with their organization UOBDU and their partners to reclaim their land rights.
One of the longest standing desires of the entire Basongora community is to be granted a district in which political representation and cultural identity would be a reality, accompanied by effective service delivery, security as well as economic empowerment. The community had hopes that such district status might be granted in early 2020 but, with the outbreak of COVID-19, there was silence on the issue leading to a loss of hope. Two members of the Basongora community petitioned the Speaker of Parliament over the issue but she noted that the issue needed to be looked into politically.
Meanwhile, the majority Bakonzo people are continuing to fight the Basongora attempts, making it difficult for the Basongora to have their own district in which they can make majority decisions. Most Bakonzo propose boundaries that will further marginalize the Basongora by dividing them into smaller units that would make it even harder for Basongora to garner a simple majority vote.
Some of the promising aspects of 2020, however, are that five (one being a woman) members of the Basongora community started campaigning for the district council representative seats and chances are they will be successful during the January 2021 elections, which will significantly improve the direction of district council resolutions regarding the Basongora community.
The situation of the Karamojong people
The security situation in North Karamoja remained fragile in 2020 with violent raids on livestock committed by the formerly conflicting communities of Dodoth, Jie and Turkana. These raids have destabilized the relative peace in the region and caused communities who had embarked on farming production to flee from fertile areas such as Lolelia and Sangar sub-counties. The security situation in Karamoja region deteriorated at the start of 2020 as a result of the rearmament of the Karamojong youth with weapons from the Turkana people in Kenya and the Toposa people of South Sudan. This led to an increase in livestock thefts and raiding was noted across the sub-counties coupled with killings during the raids, all of which led to loss of life and property. There are community reports that guns are being exchanged for animals, with two cows per gun from the Turkana (Kenya) and Toposa (South Sudan) black markets.
During dialogue meetings in November 2020 in Kotido and Moroto Districts, the Karamojong pastoralists - especially women and students - raised issues of the rearmament and the lack of cross border engagement between Uganda and Kenya as a potential trigger for conflict in the region with the government authorities. A regional programme on disarmament or arms control is needed to deal with the long-term supply of weapons in the Karamoja region.
The insecurity became even worse in 2020 due to COVID-19 as more of the security apparatus was shifted to managing the enforcement of COVID-19 measures. In mid-2020, the Uganda Peoples Defence Force (UPDF) deployed helicopters to quell the livestock raids and cattle rustling that had risen during the lockdown. This left scores of animals and armed warriors dead due to aerial bombing and bullets used in the process and in the fire exchanged between warriors and security forces. On Christmas Eve, a pregnant woman was shot dead by the Local Defence Unit (LDU) in Kangole Town Council in Napak district.
On 2 May 2020, over, 1,000 head of cattle and goats were raided in Kololo Kraal in Kaabong Town Council by suspected Karamojong Jie, and this left two Uganda Peoples Defence Force and Local Defence Unit soldiers dead in Kaabong. The Kololo kraal only had oxen to support the women in cultivating and marketing their crops, and this attack forced women to protest by marching to the Resident District Commissioner’s (RDC) office calling for action.
COVID-19 emergency and pastoralism in Karamoja
The COVID-19 response in Uganda generally – and in Karamoja in particular – put in place public health measures aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. These included shutting down international air travel, and campaigns on social distancing and handwashing with soap and water. Although the measures were intended to be countrywide, many rural people, including those in Karamoja, are not yet aware of the recommended measures and have continued living as if it were business as usual. This indicates that information on public health measures has not adequately reached rural communities, especially pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the manyattas and Kraals (local settlements). It is thus evident that the communication channels used were inappropriate and non-responsive to the needs of the pastoralists. The COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures that led to the closure of most public spaces such as livestock markets also affected household income, food and nutrition – and reportedly also fuelled insecurity related to cattle theft and raids across the region. For example, in Karamoja sub-region, the cutting-off of the livestock trade in markets led to reduced access to income and an increase in cattle raids, theft, loss of property and lives – actions carried out by bandits from across the borders and internally within ethnic groups.
Due to the COVID-19 situation, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) declared a quarantine in Karamoja, restricting movement of livestock and livestock products within and outside the region. This had major implications for the livelihoods of pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities as their major source of income was affected. The communities resorted to undercover selling of livestock and using violence to fend off any obstacles to the illegal activity. The prolonged livestock quarantine broke the coping strategies of the pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities and increased animosity between people because they could not purchase and sell livestock products, thus limiting their access to nutritional diets. The end result of the livestock quarantine was that it led to malnutrition among the communities in North Karamoja.
Due to limited access to markets and thus limited access to food and income, the pastoralist and agro-pastoral communities – including women, young children and youth – have become more involved in deforestation for commercial firewood and charcoal production as a means to augment household incomes.
The prison break in Moroto district
In early September 2020, over 224 prisoners escaped from the Moroto prison facility in Moroto municipality of Karamoja sub-region,, most of whom were former armed gang members. The incident left seven prisoners dead. While 16 were captured, by the end of the year an estimated 201 prisoners were still missing. The break is putting the Karamojong people at risk as it is reported that many prisoners escaped with arms. Knowing that the inmates who broke out of prison were former cattle raiders and mostly from Kaabong and Kotido Districts, the community feels insecure.
Benjamin Mutambukah was formerly the Coordinator of the Coalition of Pastoralist Civil Society Organizations in Uganda and Chairman of the Eastern and Southern African Pastoralists Network (ESAPN). He is currently ESAPN representative on the Global Steering Committee of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP). He is passionate about issues of human rights for marginalized communities.
Yesho Alex is the Chairperson of MEBIO.
Loupa Pius is currently project Coordinator of the DINU and TRAIL projects in the Dynamic Agro-pastoralist Development Organization (DADO).
Penninah Zaninka is the Coordinator of the United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (OUBDU).
Edith Kamakune is a human rights and conflict resolution practitioner in Uganda.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 United Organization of Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU). “Report about Batwa data.” Uganda, August 2004, p.3.
 Uganda Bureau of Statistics. “2018 Statistical Abstract.” May 2019. https://www.ubos.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/05_2019STATISTICAL_ABSTRACT_2018.pdf
 Baker, Wairama G.. Uganda: The marginalization of Minorities. (Minority Rights Group International (MRG), 2001), p.9. https://minorityrights.org/publications/uganda-the-marginalization-of-minorities-december-2001/
 “Land Act.” 1998, Articles 2, 32; and “National Environment Statute.” 1995, Article 46.
 Nathan. “Basongora ask Kadaga to involve in the process of sub-dividing Kasese district.” Daily Media, 1 July 2020. https://dailymedia.co.ug/2020/07/01/basongora-ask-kadaga-to-involve-in-the-process-of-sub-dividing-kasese-district/
 Bisiika, Asuman. “Bakonzo, Basongora need to make concessions on Kasese District split.” Daily Monitor, 22 May 2020. https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/oped/commentary/bakonzo-basongora-need-to-make-concessions-on-kasese-district-split-1891312
 The Independent. “Kaabong to use diplomatic approach to recover stolen cattle in Kenya.” 16 June 2020. https://www.independent.co.ug/kaabong-to-use-diplomatic-approach-to-recover-stolen-cattle-in-kenya/
 Northernews Wire. “Pictorial: Protest in Kaabong as 1,000 Heads of Cattle and 2 Lives are Lost in Nasty Raid.” 7 May 2020. https://northernnewswire.com/2020/05/07/pictorial-protest-in-kaabong-as-1000-heads-of-cattle-and-2-lives-are-lost-in-nasty-raid/
 Misairi, Thembo Kahungu. “Moroto prison break: Only 20 escapes were convicts.” Daily Monitor, 25 September 2020. https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/moroto-prison-break-only-20-escapes-were-convicts-2371800