In one of Uganda’s poorest and most lawless regions, anxious mothers clutch bone-thin infants in a malnutrition ward, terrified their child could be next to succumb to starvation in Karamoja.
One of Maria Logiel’s youngsters, too weak to sit up, bears telltale skin lesions caused by extreme hunger. The other, strapped to her back, stares gauntly from sunken eyes.
“I came with these two because they were badly off, and going to die,” Logiel told AFP at a hospital in Karamoja, a vast and isolated northeastern border region afflicted by drought, disease and armed bands.
“(But) I left two others home, and I worry that by the time I get back, they’ll be no more,” the 30-year-old mother said.
More than half a million people are going hungry in Karamoja, some 40 percent of the population of this neglected, long-suffering rural region between South Sudan and Kenya.
Natural disasters, plagues of locusts and army worms, and raids by heavily-armed cattle thieves have left little to eat.
As food has become ever more scarce, Karamoja’s most vulnerable residents are struggling to survive.
“In three months we have lost more than 25 children under five due to the malnutrition,” said Doctor Sharif Nalibe, the district health officer in Kaabong, one of Karamoja’s worst-hit districts.
“And these were the ones under our care, but (who) were brought at the last minute to the hospital. But there are many who die and (are) not reported in the communities.”
– Out of sight – Starvation in Karamoja is going largely unnoticed as higher-profile crises, including looming famine in the Horn of Africa, and the war in Ukraine, compel global attention.
Even in Uganda, the desperation is out of sight, unfolding 500 kilometres (310 miles) from the capital Kampala in a part of the country long written off as harsh and volatile.
But the level of hardship is extraordinary, even by the extremes sometimes endured in Karamoja.
Across the region, about 91,600 children and 9,500 pregnant or breastfeeding women are suffering from acute malnutrition and need treatment, according to the latest assessment by humanitarian agencies and foreign donors.
“In terms of acute malnutrition… this year we have experienced the worst that we have had in the last 10 years,” said Alex Mokori, a nutrition specialist from UNICEF, which is screening for malnutrition in Karamoja with local authorities.
Logiel said she resorted to foraging to put food on the table, but the wild plants often made her children sicker.
In desperation, she would sometimes purchase the mealy dregs from a popular locally-made sorghum brew called “malwa”, even if the effect was mildly alcoholic.
Half a litre of this residue goes for about 40 US cents — often more than she could afford.
“Often we failed to raise money and the children sleep hungry,” Logiel said.
– ‘Worse to come’ – With a porous border and thriving illicit trade, Karamoja has endured decades of tit-for-tat armed cattle raids between nomadic clans that wander the lawless frontier between Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya.
These incursions make life even more miserable for Karimojong communities entirely reliant on livestock and crops to survive, and government interventions to disarm rustlers have not stopped the cycles of violence.
The erratic effects of a changing climate — Karamoja is experiencing harsh drought, but last year witnessed damaging floods and landslides — have only multiplied the hardships bearing down on the region.
“Now, with the prolonged drought, and cattle rustlers, and communities left with no source of livelihood, we are heading for the worst,” said Nalibe, the Kaabong district health officer.
For some, the worst has already arrived.
Nangole Lopwon went to sell firewood in a nearby village and left her hungry twins with one of her older children, only to return and find one of the young ones had died.
“What could I do? The child was not sick. It was purely hunger that killed him,” said the mother of five from Kaabong.
Now she, too, is malnourished, and the surviving twin in a dire state.
Ugandan opposition leaders on Tuesday slammed the government’s decision to purchase limousines for senior parliament officials, drawing attention to the country’s skyrocketing cost of living as inflation climbs.
The country of 45 million people has been hit hard by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, with food prices soaring in recent weeks as President Yoweri Museveni ignores calls for tax cuts and subsidies, urging citizens to live frugally instead.
The 2.4-billion-shilling ($640,000) purchase of two limousines for the parliament speaker and her deputy has stoked public anger, with the country’s main opposition leader, Bobi Wine, attacking the government for failing to “prioritise the suffering of Ugandans”.
“How do we spend 2.4 billion to purchase two vehicles for the speaker and the deputy speaker to attend ceremonies when millions of Ugandans sleep hungry, when the people cannot afford the basics of life,” the rapper-turned-politician told AFP.
Museveni opponent and former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, who has been charged with inciting violence after he urged Ugandans to protest against the price rise, called the purchase “scandalous”.
“It is clear this is a parasitic government and it has to be stopped,” he told AFP.
But Uganda’s parliament commissioner, Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi, on Tuesday defended the decision to buy the cars, telling AFP: “The public anger is misplaced.”
“The cars which the speaker and the deputy were using were 10 years old and had to be replaced,” she said.
In his annual state of the nation address on Tuesday, Museveni said that “cutting taxes and subsidies, especially on imports, is suicidal because our people may buy carelessly and we end up draining our forex (foreign exchange) reserves.”
Julius Mukunda, the executive director of Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group, an umbrella body of civil society organisations, told AFP “the purchase was in bad taste and in contrast to the president’s call to people to be frugal.”
The United States is shipping 840,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine to Uganda Tuesday through an international initiative for humanitarian crises, a White House official said.
This will be the first shipment of the J&J jab under the “humanitarian buffer,” a stock of vaccines managed by Covax, the international scheme aimed at ensuring vaccine access for poorer countries.
The US will also stockpile another 300,000 doses of J&J for distribution to humanitarian workers and UN peacekeeping missions worldwide, the official said.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said his country would be the world’s “arsenal of vaccines.”
His administration has continuously stated that US vaccine donations are unconditional and not intended to further diplomatic or strategic objectives.
The international community — with the support of Gavi, the public-private partnership that co-leads Covax — decided in March 2021 to establish a “buffer” stock of vaccines, which would be administered by international agencies or NGOs.
This buffer should benefit populations facing humanitarian crises, Gavi explained on its website, as well as vulnerable groups such as refugees, asylum seekers, people who are stateless, internally displaced people, migrants, minorities and people living in conflict-affected areas.
A top Chinese lender has imposed “aggressive” repayment terms on a $200 million loan to expand Uganda’s international airport, US-based research lab AidData said Monday, criticising the bank for forcing the government to repay its debt before funding public services.
Chinese state banks are the biggest source of infrastructure funding to Africa and have been criticised for their predatory lending practices although details of contracts are rarely made public.
Under the loan from China’s Exim Bank to modernise the Entebbe Airport, the Ugandan government is required to channel all revenue from the country’s only international airport into an account held jointly with the lender, according to the contract published Monday by AidData.
The government is then required to use part of the revenue to repay the loan each year before it can invest in public services.
“These are (more) aggressive terms than what we have seen earlier,” Bradley Parks, executive director at AidData, told AFP, saying the contract “limits the fiscal autonomy of the government”.
State-owned China Communications Construction Company began repairing runways and building new airport hangers in Entebbe in 2016 and the work is expected to be completed this year.
Chinese creditors — unlike other lenders from developed nations — require governments to deposit some earnings from big infrastructure projects in bank accounts they control to serve as collateral.
But the contract for the Ugandan airport goes further.
“The lender is asking not just for revenues from the new projects they are funding, but also from the underlying asset — or the airport — that already exists,” Parks said.
The airport, built in 1951, was generating about $68 million in annual revenue prior to the expansion project and the money was used to fund public services according to Parks, citing data from the government.
The project led to public outrage last year after Ugandan media reported China will take control of the airport if the government in Kampala defaulted, a claim that Beijing later denied.
China Exim Bank did not respond to a request for comment.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this month said China needs to contribute more to global efforts to provide debt relief for poor nations that are struggling to repay after the pandemic battered their economies.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has appointed a former military intelligence chief, who is blacklisted by the United States over alleged rights violations, to the top command of the country’s feared police force.
Major General Abel Kandiho was recalled late Tuesday from his posting as security envoy in South Sudan barely two weeks after being dropped as spymaster.
Kandiho has “been appointed to the position of the Joint Staff of the Uganda Police Force,” Uganda’s military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Kakurungu said in a statement.
Until last month, Kandiho was the commander of Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and has faced accusations of abuses including beatings, sexual assault and electrocution.
The US Treasury slapped Kandiho with sanctions last December over alleged human rights violations committed under his watch.
People arrested by his bureau were “subjected to horrific beatings and other egregious acts by officials, including sexual abuse and electrocutions, often resulting in significant long-term injury and even death,” it said in a statement.
The US said Kandiho was sometimes personally involved in leading interrogations of detained individuals, including those singled out for criticising the government.
Uganda has long suffered a series of crackdowns aimed at stamping out dissent, with journalists attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled.
Abductions and torture
Kandiho’s appointment will shine a spotlight on the police force with increasing cases of abductions and torture at the hands of security forces.
A prominent author was recently held for nearly a month on charges of insulting Museveni and his powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba in a case that has raised international concern.
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a 33-year-old satirical novelist, says he was tortured in custody and appeared on television at the weekend to reveal painful-looking welts crisscrossed on his back and scars on other parts of his body.
The European Union and several member states issued a joint statement on Monday calling for a “comprehensive investigation” into rights abuses in Uganda.
Security and military analyst Charles Rwomushana said on Wednesday that Kandiho’s appointment was a testament to Museveni wanting to “have a firm grip (on) the police force.”
Kandiho will be “powerful enough” to make crucial decisions “in favour of (Museveni’s) government”, Rwomushana told AFP.
Once hailed as a reformist, Museveni has ruled Uganda with an iron fist since seizing control in 1986, when he helped end years of tyranny under Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
It followed a visit to Kigali by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, where he met Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The main Gatuna crossing post, known as Katuna in Uganda, officially reopened at midnight, and traffic was expected to gather pace throughout the day.
Museveni and Kagame were close allies in the 1980s and 1990s during struggles for power in their respective countries, but relations turned deeply hostile.
Rwanda shut the frontier after accusing Uganda of abducting its citizens and supporting rebels seeking to topple Kagame.
Uganda in turn accused Rwanda of spying as well as killing two men during an incursion into Ugandan territory in 2019 — a claim Kigali denied.
Both governments said last week they hoped the border reopening could contribute to the normalisation of ties.
Before the closure, Ugandan exports to Rwanda — predominantly cement and food — totalled more than $211 million in 2018, according to World Bank figures, while Rwanda exported $13 million worth of goods to Uganda.
Trade plummeted in 2019, with the situation further exacerbated by the Covid crisis.
The United States is shipping nearly 1.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to Uganda, a White House official said Thursday, in the latest wave of jabs donated to stem the global pandemic.
“Thanks to the US commitment to playing a leading role in ending the pandemic everywhere, the United States is shipping 1,684,800 doses of Pfizer vaccine to Uganda,” a senior US official said, asking not to be named.
The vaccines are being shipped, starting Thursday, through Covax, the global distribution initiative co-led by public-private partnership Gavi.
On Wednesday, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients announced that the United States had reached the milestone of 400 million vaccine doses delivered to 112 countries.
“Four hundred million doses shipped for free with no strings attached,” Zients said.
Washington has pledged 1.1 billion shots to the rest of the world — more than any other country — and has already sent vaccines to countries ranging from Guatemala to Papua New Guinea.
The US shots often cross paths with shipments from China and Russia in what has been dubbed “vaccine diplomacy,” although the US official insisted “we are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions.”
According to figures from Johns Hopkins University, just 4.36 percent of Uganda’s population is fully vaccinated.
Uganda ended the world’s longest school closure earlier this month, ordering millions of students back to the classroom nearly two years after learning was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The country of some 45 million people recorded 160,778 Covid-19 cases, with 3,497 deaths, according to latest figures from Johns Hopkins.
A traders association in northern Uganda has banned women from riding up front in trucks after deciding that short skirts and bare thighs could be distracting drivers and causing accidents.
The order handed down in Lira city prohibits drivers from permitting “even their wives” in the front cabin of lorries.
An association representing local traders and vendors said the decision banning female passengers was made in the name of safety.
“Some of them wear short dresses which expose their thighs and distract drivers, and the drivers end up causing accidents and people on board die,” Patrick Opio Obote, chairman of Lira’s mobile market vendors group, told AFP Wednesday.
“The ban takes immediate effect and all drivers and passengers are complying.”
Obote said the decision was taken after examining the cause of road accidents in the area involving truck drivers.
“We discovered other than high speed and indiscipline of truck drivers, some women sit in front cabin while wearing short dresses, some take the drivers to bars and drink alcohol and the drivers end up causing accidents,” he said.
The ban follows an accident on January 10 in which nine traders died and 20 others were injured when a truck returning from a weekly market near Lira overturned.
Police blamed speed and reckless driving for the crash.
Women’s rights activist Alice Mugwanya Kabijje said the edict was unnecessary and “male chauvinism” in action.
“This is another attack on women by the officials in Lira,” Mugwanya told AFP.
“It is totally against the constitution of Uganda where exclusion of a certain gender to freely participate in the daily work is prohibited.
“The attribution of a dress code to a road accident is clumsy reasoning and an indicator of how a woman is still segregated in our societies and men prefer them to stay in the kitchen,” she said.
Local media quoted Uganda’s deputy director of traffic and road safety as saying Lira fell within a region with the second-highest rate of traffic accidents over the recent festive period.
Uganda announced on Tuesday it was suspending mandatory COVID-19 testing at the border with Kenya after the measure caused huge truck queues, disrupting fuel supplies across the country.
The crisis has led to panic-buying and skyrocketing prices at the petrol pump, with one minister warning traders not to take advantage of the shortages to “cheat” Ugandans.
Kenyan media reports spoke of traffic snarl-ups snaking as much as 70 kilometres (40 miles) from its border with Uganda because of the delays caused by the coronavirus testing.
“The (Ugandan) ministry of health has immediately and temporarily suspended mandatory testing at the two border points to ease movement of trucks into and within the country,” ministry official Charles Olaro told AFP.
He said the move was also aimed at averting a “potential super-spreader” event at the border with so many drivers caught in the logjam.
In some parts of the country, petrol stations had run out of fuel while at others, petrol was selling for 12,000 shillings ($3.40, three euros), a threefold increase.
– ‘Recipe for disaster’ –
The border delays first began in late December when truckers staged protests at a Covid testing fee imposed by Uganda. The fee was later scrapped but the backlogs persisted because of what drivers say was the slow rate of testing and customs clearances.
“The suspension of mandatory testing was long overdue. It was a recipe for disaster because of congestion of trucks at the borders, a situation that has seen the fuel prices hit all-time highs,” Juma Sentongo, a member of the Uganda Long Distance Truck Drivers Association, told AFP.
“As of this morning, we have seen many trucks leaving the border points and heading into Uganda with cargo and hopefully we will see fuel prices coming down in next 24 hours.”
Truck driver Alex Mwerinde added: “The congestion at the borders is slowly easing but the heavy traffic will take longer than expected to clear because customs clearance (as well as) Covid-19 testing has been also problematic.
“Until the trucks have cleared out of the borders, is when Ugandans should expect a drop in fuel prices and this is not going to take one day,” the 41-year-old told AFP.
In Kampala and other towns, many motorists were rushing to fill their tanks fearing further shortages, causing traffic jams in the capital.
Some were stocking up using jerrycans, defying a ban on their use under anti-terrorism measures introduced after a spate of deadly bombings last year.
Ugandans were also reporting hikes in taxi and bus fares in many parts of the country.
Energy Minister Ruth Nankabirwa said Monday the border delays were caused by a faulty scanner used by custom officials to check incoming cargo vehicles as well as “issues regarding COVID-19”.
“I call on the dealers not to use this chance to cheat Ugandans,” she said.
The East African country of some 45 million people remains under some restrictions because of the pandemic although schools opened last week for the first time in nearly two years.
It has recorded 158,676 cases of Covid-19 including 3,424 deaths, according to latest government figures issued on January 15.
A court in Uganda on Tuesday charged a prominent author and government critic with “disturbing” the country’s President Yoweri Museveni and his son in unflattering social media posts.
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was charged with two counts of “offensive communication” and remanded in prison until January 21, said Charles Twine, spokesman for the Police Criminal Investigations Department.
Rukirabashaija, who last year won an international award for persecuted writers, was arrested at his home on December 28 and allegedly tortured after posting on Twitter about Museveni and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
In one post, the satirical writer had described Kainerugaba — a general who many Ugandans believe is positioning himself to take over from his 77-year-old father — as “obese” and a “curmudgeon”.
In a charge sheet released by Buganda Road Court in Kampala, state prosecutors said Rukirabashaija “willfully and repeatedly used his Twitter handle to disturb the peace of His Excellency the President of the Republic of Uganda, Gen. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni with no purpose of legitimate communication”.
On the second count, Rukirabashaija was accused of the same offence against Kainerugaba.
Rukirabashaija’s lawyer Eron Kiiza confirmed the charges and his client’s detention in a brief text message.
Under the Computer Misuse Act, the charge of “offensive communication” can carry a year in jail.
The government had challenged an earlier court order to unconditionally release Rukirabashaija from police custody.
The 33-year-old’s detention sparked calls from the United States, the European Union, and civil society groups for his immediate release and protection from persecution.
The author won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel, “The Greedy Barbarian”, which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country.
He was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage, which is presented annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.
Rukirabashaija has been repeatedly arrested since “The Greedy Barbarian” was published. He has said he was tortured while being interrogated by military intelligence about his work.