Turkana: Highway to Karamoja
The Karamoja sub-region with its huge gold deposits could become the next frontier of mineral exploitation after oil in the Albertine region.
However, the natives, politicians and opinion leaders in the area warn that serious conflict might emanate from the scramble for resources. From the shabby outposts of Rupa, Bobong, Nakilipa in Moroto district, to Rata in Amudat district and Moruita in Nakapiripirit, gold lies in every tiny pocket of Karamoja, a region, ironically, enveloped in poverty.
According to an August 2011 compilation by Annet Tumwine of the department of Geological Survey and Mines, some of the other areas with gold are Nakapel, Lopedo, Kalere and Kekwil in Kotido district, and Cheparrak Nabilatuk, Karita, Amudat in Nakapiripit district. Karamoja is also endowed with other minerals like limestone, uranium, marble, graphite, gypsum, iron, wolfram, nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium, tin, base metals, lead and talc.
Yet Karamoja is home to the wretched of the earth — the economy lies in the backwaters, children and adults have been known to starve to death, and the region is the poorest in Uganda. Amid this situation, allegations are emerging that compradors working on behalf of powerful individuals are running an opaque gold mining industry. Exploiting the internecine conflict pitting clans against one another, powerful individuals are said to be carting off vast amounts of gold and other minerals.
“The greatest challenge is that we have vultures, both among the Karimojong and non-Karimojong. They are grabbers who want to take advantage to plunder gold,” says Capt Charles Koriang, who hails from the sub-region.
The Commissioner of Geological Survey and Mines has given mining licences to about six small-scale operators. However, because the gold industry is not streamlined, murky operators are profiteering from the trade. John Odida, the acting commissioner, Geological and Mines Department, was cagey when asked whether he was aware of any illicit mining activities in Karamoja.
“Those are big rumours; it might be true or might not be true,” he told The Observer on telephone, Wednesday.
He said government, in the next financial year, will carry out a geological survey to establish the commercial quantities of gold in Karamoja. Odida explained that planes will be fitted with geophysical equipment and will fly at low altitudes of about 80m above the ground and at 200m line spacing. Using the fitted equipment, he added, magnetic, radiometric and electromagnetic data will be captured. Government geo-scientists and interested private companies will conduct follow-up ground geological surveys, and mineral exploration will follow.
“The prospect for gold in Karamoja is quite high. We could not do mapping because of insecurity in the region, but after the disarmament programme has brought peace, we are now able to do it,” Odida said.
The junior minister for Mineral Development, Peter Lokeris, himself a Karimojong, said it is only the natives who are engaged in small-scale gold mining.
“I am not aware of the illegal activities. You should do it officially by applying for a licence, except local people who look for small amounts of gold,” he said on Wednesday.
However, The Observer has seen a list of firms that have been issued licences by the Energy and Surveys Commission. These include AVR Engineering and Infrastructure Ltd, whose licence expired on February 19, 2012; NPK Resources Ltd, whose licence expired on the May 12, 2012; and Megha Minerals and Mines Ltd, whose licence expires on November 17, 2013.
Other licence holders include Saba Saba Mining Ltd, which belongs to David Mutebi; Doher Industries Ltd, owned by Pravini Ghelani; and Savanah Mines, owned by Mothing Samson. In an industry shrouded in secrecy, some firms continue to operate even after their licences have expired.
“People think we [Karimojong] are ignorant. They pay as little as Shs 2m to get a licence and even when it expires, they continue operating,” says Koriang, who revealed that the ultimate plan of some individuals is to grab land in the region.
“We are proposing that all the exploration licences be suspended until the industry is streamlined, otherwise it will be a time bomb,” Koriang warns.
If a conflict occurs in Karamoja over minerals, he argues, it could have far-reaching implications in the geo-politics of a volatile region that neighbours South Sudan and Kenya’s Turkana, where oil was recently discovered. In the 1990s, a South African firm, Branch International, was given a commercial licence to exploit gold in Moroto. However, it pulled out for reasons that are still not clear.
Odida says the company pulled out because it did not find commercial quantities for exploitation, but Koriang thinks the withdrawal was a result of poor relations between Branch International and opinion leaders in the area. The company later returned as Heritage Oil in 1997 — one of the companies that discovered oil in the Albertine region.
According to the Mining Act 2003, a firm can be issued a licence three years after applying. The owner of the land, the sub-county and district, where the gold is found, are entitled to royalties. However, it appears that the dividends from gold will take a while to trickle down to the grassroots. Lawmakers from the region recently threw pent-up frustration at government, claiming well-connected politicians are grabbing land as part of the scramble for minerals.
The MPs claimed that 6,130 hectares (15,325 acres) of land located at Kimacharin in Moruita sub-county, Nakapiripirit district have been sold and leased to a company called Feronia Uganda Ltd, while 2,001 hectares have been sold and leased to another entity, Pro-Solutions Ltd, at Shs 140m without the consent of the customary land rights owners.
The minister of state for Minerals, Lokeris, points out that contrary to the MPs’ claims of marginalisation, this government has done more for Karamoja than any of the previous regimes did.
“Karamoja is not neglected. Government is looking for money for roads, and has done a lot. Look at the schools; power has been connected — Abim has electricity; Amudat and Nakapiriprit have power as well. Over Shs 20bn has been spent on electricity. How can you say [the region] is neglected?”
Waxing lyrical about the First Lady, who is the minister for Karamoja Affairs, Lokeris told The Observer, “The First Lady has done many good things. There are water dams in Kobebe, Moroto district and Nakichumet in Napak district. We have model homes; she is a good resource mobiliser.”
Even Koriang who speaks harshly about the mining firms, has kind words for the First Lady.
“She is enthusiastic and hard-working,” he says.