Kenya, Uganda quarrel over detained herdsmen
The constant territorial tiff between Kenya and Uganda is reigniting, this time as Nairobi accuses Uganda of court martialling and convicting Kenyans to up to 20 years in prison.
Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua revealed that 32 Kenyans were arrested by Ugandan security forces in April and taken to Moroto Barracks in eastern Uganda where they faced a court-martial for the offence of possession of illegal firearms.
Days later, on April 11, the military court sentenced them to 10 years each, for each of the two counts of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
Kenya’s beef is that civilians were court-martialled for offences that are routinely tried in local civilian judicial organs. The second complaint is that Uganda kidnapped Kenyan nationals on Kenyan soil, which would amount to a violation of Kenya territorial integrity.
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In Uganda, civilians caught with illegal firearms are often tried in military courts, something that doesn’t apply in Kenya.
Back in April, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) entered Kenya following the killing of three Ugandan geologists and two UPDF soldiers who were guarding the geologists in Lotisan Sub-County in Moroto District.
The troops were hunting for herdsmen believed to have committed the acts in Uganda before fleeing into Kenya. The UPDF seized 27 AK 47 rifles, one self-loading rifle (SLR), 751 rounds of ammunition, 32 magazines, three sets of UPDF uniform and 19 bows and arrows.
“An important point to note is that any civilian found in possession of illicit firearms is subject to court martial under Ugandan law, specifically the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) Act, because the government deems them combatants,” Mutua told Kenya’s National Assembly this week.
He added that a month earlier, Ugandan authorities also accused eight Turkana herders of being behind the killings. In March, eight Turkana herders had also been arrested in Kotido in Karamoja on suspicion of the killings.
However, the herders denied the charges and informed the Ugandan side that those who had committed the offence had returned to Kenya with the weapons of the deceased UPDF soldiers.
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Nevertheless, the herders were still found guilty of possessing weapons at a Court Martial in Moroto in April 2022 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He said the Turkana herders are incarcerated at the Jinja Main Prison and Kitalya Maximum Prison.
Mutua said the action by the neighbour stems from the feeling that Kenya failed to take action after the killings of the five Ugandans by arresting the perpetrators.
“It should be highlighted that, while Kenyan authorities have made steps to recover and return firearms stolen from Ugandan security forces, they have yet to apprehend the perpetrators of the killings,” said Dr Mutua.
The Kenyan minister was responding to concerns raised by National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah over the arbitrary arrest and detention of Kenyan civilians by Ugandan authorities.
The tiff follows several others that mostly involved Kenyan fishermen being detained in Uganda for supposed illegal fishing. In most cases, the fishermen lobby themselves raised funds to bail their colleagues out. In other cases, the fishermen were found guilty and paid the fines, after having to surrender their catch to Ugandan authorities.
In 2018, Kenya and Uganda signed a Memorandum of Understanding on a cross-border programme for sustainable peace and development, to encourage closer interaction between the border communities of Turkana and Pokot in Kenya and Karamoja in Uganda as well as combat the illegal flow of small arms and light weapons (SAWLs) in the region.
Read: Kenya, Uganda opt for border post to stop bandits
Mutua pointed out that the framework allows Kenyans to cross over to Uganda to access grazing areas and watering points. However, Uganda expressly forbids Kenyans to cross over with weapons.
Nairobi has since tried to intervene in the matter with a delegation led by East African Community, Arid and Semi-Arid Lands and Regional Development Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Miano going to Uganda to negotiate the release of the Turkana herders.
The discussions saw the matter escalated to President Yoweri Museveni, who responded by issuing a directive on March 3, 2023, stating that the problem of the geologists’ murder must be addressed before Uganda discusses the issue of Amnesty and release of the Kenyan detainees.
Read: Museveni demands Kenya extradites herders for murder trial
The directive, said Dr Mutua, was followed by an executive order on May 18, which among other things gave Kenya six months to answer to the matter of the geologists’ murder, otherwise Turkanas would not be allowed to graze in Uganda.
Museveni said Uganda will only commence amnesty discussions after Kenya arrests individuals who killed the five Ugandans and makes reparations to the families of those deceased.
But Dr Mutua said the Kenya High Commission in Kampala, through the KDF Liaison Office in Moroto, arranged for a team of Turkana leaders and two KDF liaison officers to visit the inmates in June in the two prisons where they are incarcerated.
“All of the inmates were found to be in good health. They, however, requested to be relocated to a warmer place and one that is more accommodating to Kenyan inmates in terms of language such as Moroto Prison,” said the CS.
Dr Mutua said Kenya’s mission has made the request to the Ugandan government and is still awaiting a response.
Nonetheless, the Kenya High Commission in Uganda has made consular visits to Murchison Bay Prison (July 3, 2023) and Jinja Main Prison (July 10, 2023) and distributed basic supplies not only to Turkanas, but also to other Kenyans in the two jails.
Further, the Turkana County government leadership hired a lawyer in Kampala in April and filed an appeal in the matter.
Mutua said the appeal was filed to the General Court Martial at Makindye, which is the only available avenue of appeal under Ugandan law.
“The court is yet to respond on the hearing date, but the advocate is pursuing the matter. Another appeal was lodged through the Prison internal mechanism but was filed late.”