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Karamoja Historical Perspective  

Mustafa Mirzeler

The 18th and 19th centuries in northern Uganda’s Karamoja were characterized by successive social, political, economic, and ecological disruptions that led to transformation. Among the major causes of disruption were the expansion of pastoralism; the onset of the ivory trade; epidemics and droughts; the incursion of Swahili, Ethiopian, and early European ivory traders; and Britain’s establishment of colonial rule. The Karimojong were members of an agropastoral community in the arid zone who encountered Ethiopian and Swahili ivory traders and, later, the British colonial state. The traders brought with them cattle. Later, guns were introduced to protect the family herd, as well for raids. In exchange for cattle and guns, Karimojong-speaking communities offered the ivory traders security, knowledge of the locations of elephants, and their labor, leading to the decimation of the elephant population for the global ivory markets. From this interaction, a new way of raiding and plundering evolved that had never been part of the community and that did not reflect the traditions of a people that respected life and property. Karimojong-speaking people’s conflict in the early 21st century has its roots in economic interaction with ivory traders and the colonial states’ concerted efforts to control traditional leadership and raiding patterns. These efforts caused the emergence of small-scale thefts, which afflicted the dry zone with a vigorous form of political anarchy. Thus, the traders and the emerging colonial state were forged in an area troubled by successive devastating famines and wars, triggering one of the most lawless forms of pastoralism. The viciousness of the intercommunity conflict escalated, continuing even after the abrupt departure of the British colonial state in the 1960s.