Amin, Soviet link to Pokot arms race

When pizza-loving Ugandan President Idi Amin was overthrown 38 years ago this month, he left a gun legacy among the Pokots of Kenya so complex that successful governments have been unable to undo.

As the military and the police continue to hunt and disarm Pokot herders, who recently waged an armed war on their Tugen and Marakwet neighbours, the story of the militarisation of Pokots is lost in the simplistic explanation of cultural cattle raids.

President Amin had a military barrack next to Mt Moroto, a forest reserve where springs of water emanate from the volcanic mountain, giving pastoralists in both Kenya and Uganda pasture during dry seasons.

The Moroto barracks was a hotspot of Cold War politics in Africa as Soviets stored their arsenals there under Amin’s watch.

It is estimated that the barracks stored 15,000 guns and two million rounds of ammunition for the Soviets before the Ugandan despot was overthrown by Tanzanian soldiers.

When Amin’s troops abandoned Moroto barracks, the Matheniko-based Karimojong pastoralists emptied this armoury and took off with Soviet-era guns.

They found more than they needed in AK47 assault rifles, the World War II Heckler & Koch-made G-3 army rifles, and millions of ammunition.

The fall of Amin also occurred at a time when there was prolonged drought in both Kenya and Uganda, leaving hundreds of thousands of pastoralists barely scraping by.

Acquisition of AK-47s by the Karimojong not only transformed their traditional arsenal with firearms but also gave them a powerful tool to preserve their pastoralist identity.

The reason they armed themselves was because the Turkana in Kenya were already armed with Austrian Steyr rifles, which they had for years smuggled from Ethiopia and bartered for camels.

This Steyr rifle, known for its accuracy, had been introduced to the region by Italian troops in 1930s during the occupation of Ethiopia by Benito Mussolini of the National Fascist Party.

Besides the Karimojong, the people who bore the brunt of Turkana raids were the then docile Pokots, who were armed only with bows and arrows.

In 1974, the Kenyan parliament was told that the Turkana Ngoroko — a group of armed marauding livestock rustlers — was still buying weapons from Sudan and Ethiopia.

“The Turkana members of Parliament should tell their people not to buy arms, and they should give us a chance to disarm them. They should tell their people not to attack other people,” a statement from the Office of the President said.

What was happening was that the entire pastoralists’ belt was caught up by spillovers of the Cold War of the 60s and 70s in Africa.

In the 1970s, the Soviets under presidents Nikolai Podgorny and Leonid Brezhnev became one of the biggest suppliers of arms to Uganda, Somalia, and Congo, as part of a $12 billion a year arms budget for Africa, until 1978.

It was this arms buildup that once perturbed Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, who privately said that if Amin and his Soviet weapons attacked Kenya, as he had threatened, Kenyan soldiers might have no chance.

Consequently, Kenyatta turned to US President Gerald Ford who sent Henry Kissinger in May 1976 to State House, Nakuru, to listen to these concerns.

“Our neighbours are armed to the teeth,” Kenyatta told the US delegation as he pleaded his case, for he had started arming the Turkana, who were already trained to handle firearms by the British in colonial days, so as to create a buffer-zone between the British colony and Mussolini’s Fascist-held Ethiopia.

Since Kissinger wanted to expand America’s influence in the region, he quickly agreed to Kenyatta’s request for an additional $20 million in FMS credits (to the $45 million already “approved”) to purchase a squadron of F-5Es.

Kenyatta wanted these F-5Es immediately and pleaded for earliest delivery.

The continued threats by Amin had shaken Kenyatta, who had been advised to take advantage of the geo-politics.

Kissinger immediately agreed to have Kenya Airforce purchase F-5As until F-5Es were available for delivery.

Two years early, in 1974, Brezhnev had signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with Somali’s Siad Barre, pouring arms and tanks into the country, which was still at war with Kenya.

Kenyatta had cautiously watched the rise of a Marxist regime in Ethiopia — the murderous Red Terror upheavals notwithstanding — after Mengistu Haile Mariam staged a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie.

Haile Mariam would later in 1983 become the conduit of small arms into South Sudan as the Soviets backed John Garang’s new outfit, Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA).

While Dr Garang was not a communist, his Soviet backing was part of an old Soviet strategy to bring the entire north-east of Africa under communist-style regimes.

As a result, the flow of small arms into this theatre of war was mind-boggling in 1970s and early 1980s.

The Turkanas had become masters of the game — since they also received government support through the Kenya Police Reserve unit created for all border districts to protect Kenyans where there were no police posts.

While these were meant to keep Amin at bay because of his territorial claims on Western Kenya (Pokot and Turkana areas were transferred to Kenya in 1921), they became a force unto themselves.

In 1970s, Pokots, though largely using spears and arrows in their cattle raids, managed to buy rusty World War II guns and automatic weapons from Somali cattle traders.

These Somali traders had taken advantage of the 1976 Ogaden War insurgency in which their soldiers had invaded Ethiopia, creating a conflict that saw small arms become part of barter trade between Pokots and Somalis after Barre’s soldiers discovered huge, abandoned warehouses in Ethiopia stocked with American arms and ammunition.

It was the first contact between Pokots and some good guns — thanks to the Ogaden war.


One arms researcher found a 1908 Budapest-made Austro-Hungarian rifle among the Pokots, an indicator of an old illicit arms trade in the region.

With the ouster of Amin in 1979, the fall of Moroto barracks saw hundreds of Uganda soldiers flee to Pokot with their guns, which they instantly traded with locals, transforming Pokot cattle raids into deadly warfare.

The Karimojong — usually the victims of armed Turkana raids — sold some of the Soviet weapons to the Pokots.

That is why even today the gun profile of the Pokots, Turkana and the Karimonjong still reflects this Cold War reality.

Among the Pokots, Francis Polisi Lotodo rose to become the chief driver of Pokot rights, which included the right to own guns.

At one point in 1984, he was jailed by President Moi for “promoting war-like activities”.

This was at a time when Moi was arming Turkanas to provide a buffer zone following Sudan’s Islamic revolution of 1983 that led to the fall of Jafar Numeiri. They were also to contain the Karimojong.

Back in Uganda, the Karimojong took advantage of the post-Amin instability to raid the Lango and Teso, besides terrorising everyone in their neighbourhood.

It was only after the return of Milton Obote that special militias were placed on the borders between Karamoja with Langi and Teso.

But rifts developed between Acholi military leaders, led by the late Tito Okello Lutwa and Bazillio Olara, and President Obote was overthrown in July 1985, leading to a recruitment of the Karimojong into the army to fight guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army.

With the January 1986 capture of Kampala by Museveni, the Karimojong returned from their military duties and waged a disastrous war that included the 1989 Pokot massacre, which followed the disarming of Pokots by Moi in 1984, 1986 and again in 1989.

The Kenyan army pursued the Karimojong and officially killed 72 raiders.

Ever since, the Pokots have refused to part with their guns.

Researchers now say that cartels have emerged as part of cattle theft disguised as cultural raids.

While tensions heighten during elections as cartels seek to gather funds for campaigns, they also escalate tensions in order to send “foreigners” packing so that they do not support rival candidates.

For years now, the police have been watching this drama from a distance.

From Tot to Kitale, there are over 10 police roadblocks, but stolen animals often pass through them all and end up in Dagoretti abattoirs.

Today, Pokot raids also coincide with the annual coming of age of recently circumcised warriors.

These warriors need to marry, and that requires many cattle for dowry.

“In Pokot, for example, one bride can fetch up to 200 head of cattle in dowry. If 2,000 girls are getting married, the whole of Pokot land cannot provide the cattle required, and hence they have to move out.

“You will notice that the tension always affects West Pokot, East Pokot and their neighbours,” Prof Maurice Amutabi, a historian and vice-chancellor of Lukenya University, says.

The decrease in the number of animals per household because of drought and the static demand for cattle as dowry means that the gap can be filled only by raids.

“The local supply is, naturally, not adequate and that is why they move to neighbouring places and even cross the border to Uganda…. Pokot warriors raid even Kolongolo in Trans-Nzoia, Marakwet, far away Tot and Kapsowar, and deep inside Samburu, Marsabit and Baringo,” Prof Amutabi says.

While efforts have been made to disarm the Pokots and the Turkana, they have continued to replenish their stocks by exchanging cattle for guns with the SPLA, right from the 1980s to date. One bull is today equal to two AK-47s.

“If you just move north of Loima hills, you will see many buying centres. Those are the guns used from Ilemi Triangle by Nyangatom, Turkana and Toposa to Mandera in the East,” Prof Amutabi, who has done research in the region, adds.

At the moment, the search for a solution is as complex as the militarisation of the Pokots.

“If you disarm the Pokot, they could be annihilated by the Toposa, Jie and Karimojong of Uganda who are now relatively better armed due to SPLA supplies from South Sudan.

“The best thing is to put corridors that control their movement in Kenya. Moi had put GSU and Anti-Stock theft camps to curb raiding inside Kenya, but some of his own people let him down by joining the cattle cartels to make billions of shillings,” Prof Amutabi says.

[email protected], Twitter: @johnkamau1

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