Background of the war: the plight of northern Uganda (from my publication “Rendering Justice, Pursuing Peace”)

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Uganda has experienced a certain degree of development over the past twenty years, and thanks to its apparent stability it has become the darling of many foreign financial investors and governments. President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986 and as a matter of fact – despite some unstable neighbouring countries and Uganda’s ghastly past marked by the abuses of Idi Amin in the 1970s and the atrocities of Luwero under the second Milton Obote’s government in the early 1980s – the country as a whole has enjoyed economic growth and poverty reduction, which make it a success story in the region.  

However, the progress achieved mostly in the South has trivialised and overshadowed the obscenely long war in northern Uganda. For more than 20 years, the Acholi Sub-region in the north has been at the centre of a chronic war – the longest in Sub-Saharan Africa – and a humanitarian disaster long ignored by the international community. 

Acholiland has been in the grip of civil war since 1986. At the beginning of that year, the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) led by Museveni marched into Kampala and captured the capital, ignoring the peace agreement signed in Nairobi after Tito Okello Lutwa overthrew Obote and seized power in 1985. The defeated Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) that fought under Obote and Okello was predominantly – though by no means exclusively – formed by northerners from the Acholi and Lango ethnic groups. After Museveni took over, many UNLA soldiers fled towards their home areas in the North. “After the years of war in central Uganda [in an area popularly known as the Luweero Trangle] in the 1980s many Acholi soldiers of the previous governments found it difficult to adjust to a rural life back home. … Instead, many of the ex-soldiers chose to join rebel ranks when the war reached northern Uganda” (Finnström, 2003: 104, 105). 

Some of them regrouped in southern Sudan and formed the Uganda People’s Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A), one of the many rebel groups that over the years have carried on military campaigns against the government, the latest one of these known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Museveni, who was confronted by the arduous task of turning the NRA guerrillas into a regular army, chased the fleeing Obote and Okello soldiers, shifting the geography of the war to the north. 

Initially, the UPDA received support from the Acholi population, and farmers were providing livestock to the rebel movement that used most of the cattle for food but also for trading in arms and ammunitions with Sudan. The NRA soldiers hot on the heels of the UPDA, soon began behaving brutally against the civilian population, carrying out summary executions of alleged suspects and defenceless civilians, tortures during interrogations, destruction of granaries, and cattle confiscation. 

In a very short time, the Acholi fell into abject poverty. Plundered of their cattle by the NRA and raiders from Karamoja, and subsequently looted also by the rebels, the Acholi were increasingly deprived of what constituted their main source of wealth. Reportedly, the cattle population in 1985 in Acholiland was about 300,000. After ten years of raids, in 1997 the herd was estimated at 5,000. The replacement cost for the loss has been estimated to be around US$ 25 million (Gersony, 1997). 

When the cattle were confiscated, writes Gersony: 

“the Acholi farmers were deprived of the milk their cows provided; the additional acreage and higher yields which their oxen permitted them; their fallback for marriage bride price and education; and the savings which carried them through drought, hard time, sickness and old age.  The self-respect which was attached to cattle ownership and the cultural functions upon which exchange of cattle had relied were disrupted. It was one of the greatest economic and morale blows of the war.  It also deprived the insurgents of livestock upon which they relied for food and which they might have used to trade for the arms and ammunition upon which their viability increasingly depended” (Gersony, 1997: 31-32).

Seizing the opportunity of the UPDA’s demoralisation, a woman called Alice Auma infused hope into the hearts of many Acholi, becoming the leader of the rebel group named the Holy Spirit Movement. Known as Alice Lakwena – which means “the messenger” in vernacular – she was a spirit medium who claimed to channel messages from the spirit of a dead Italian war veteran who died near the source of the Nile during World War I, in order to instruct and advise the UPDA about resistance operations. She was convinced that the Acholi had to regain power in Kampala and, surprisingly, she managed to mobilise deserting UPDA fighters using a powerful combination of Christian beliefs and healing rituals. 

Lakwena was merely a vehicle through which social discontent in the North of Uganda found expression. She was able to gain tenacious followers who were prepared to risk their lives against all odds because a cross-section of marginalised inhabitants recognised her as a symbol of both their plights and their aspirations” (Omara-Otunnu, 1992:458).

In November 1986, followed by 150 UPDA combatants and their weapons, Lakwena achieved two extraordinary victories against the NRA in southern Kitgum district, taking the government army by surprise. Her victories motivated many enthusiastic Acholi youths to join her, and their successful military campaigns led them as far as to the south of the country where, eventually, they were defeated outside Jinja in November 1987. 

Back in Acholiland, negotiations started between the UPDA and the government and many UPDA fighters surrendered. Not all of them though. Groups inspired by Alice Lakwena were reformed, and the two most relevant are the one led by Alice’s father, Severino Lukoya who was defeated in 1989, and the one launched by Joseph Kony, later named the Lord’s Resistance Army. 

Initially, Kony was not perceived as a threat by the government. Claiming to be the cousin of Alice Lakwena, like his famous relative he asserted that he was a spirit medium, able to convey messages from spirits and perform healing and cleansing ceremonies. However, the nature of his movement changed dramatically by 1988, when Kony’s rebel group started abducting children that soon became the bulk of its soldiers, and in a very short time it grew into a formidable resistance group. 

While the previous resistance movements that fought against the government seemed to be leading a “fairly orthodox war”, the group led by Kony committed innumerable human rights abuses against the very civilian population they were ostensively fighting for. 

For example, in 1988 Kony’s forces hacked and clubbed to death hundreds of villagers in raids in Koch Goma and many other parts of Gulu and Kitgum, including in February bed-ridden patients in a dispensary. The abduction of children and adults to be soldiers has been a consistent practice, although not at the levels that began in 1995. For example, on 6 March 1989 over 300 civilians were abducted in Ngai in Apac District” (Amnesty International, 1999:14).

The increase in human rights violations against men, women, and children alienated the Acholi population, victimised by both the passivity and misconduct of the Ugandan army and the atrocities committed by rebel movement. Gersony points out that “the attitude of the Acholi people appears to have evolved from enthusiastic support for the UPDA and Alice Lakwena; to skepticism during the Severino and early Kony period; to total opposition during the current LRA period, characterized by bitter anguish over what they fear is the ‘disappearance of the Acholi people’” (Gersony, 1997: 68).

The complete metamorphosis of the war in northern Uganda into a dirty and unorthodox war  started at the beginning of the 1990s when the NRA – renamed the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF) in 1995 – launched a counter-insurgency operation – called Operation North. This consisted of a four-month military intervention, that included gross human rights violations, and  resulted in further alienation of the Acholi population (Amnesty International, 1991). The Acholi Parliamentary Group, in a report submitted to the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs investigating the northern rebellion, charged that people were herded into camps without food, health care, etc. for days at various locations purportedly for screening. Many people died and there were human rights abuses all over. Some innocent civilians were buried alive in Bucoro, while others were shot, crops in the fields were destroyed by the National Resistance Army. The NRA Mobile Battalion nicknamed ‘GUNGA’ committed homosexual acts even with very old men, raped wives, mothers and daughters in the presence of their families. This painted a terrible picture of the National Resistance Army. At the same time, Kony had also started abducting, raping and killing of innocent people using pangas” (Human Rights Watch, 1997:41).

A few years later, in 1994, the LRA started receiving support from the Sudanese government as part of a proxy war against the government of Uganda. Being badly in need of material and human resources, the LRA’s main target became the civilian population. NGOs and INGOs documented the dramatic increase in assaults, torture, rape, and abduction of children to use them as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. Abductions intensified to the point that it is estimated that at least 80 percent of the LRA soldiers are abducted children (Oxfam, 2006). “This period of intensifying violence peaked in January 1997 with the massacre of 412 women, men, and children in Kitgum district – the largest single attack (by the LRA) upon civilians in the history of the war.” (Oxfam, 2006:9).

Crushed by the two fighting giants, the civilians fell into a spiral of violence that seemed indomitable. In 1996, thousands of people started leaving their villages and relocating themselves spontaneously close to army detachments or town centres where they would feel more secure. Some food relief began to be distributed by humanitarian organisations. Meanwhile, the government announced the creation of the so-called “protected camps”. People were given an ultimatum to leave the villages within a few days and move into these camps. The displacement camps were lacking the most basic services and were under frequent attack by the LRA, since the Ugandan army often failed to protect them. According to one of HURIFO’s reports: “the villagers were given only seven days, and so on the 2nd of October 1996, there was increased artillery and mortar bomb-shelling of the villages, followed by foot soldiers marching villagers to the centres” (Human Rights Focus, 2002a:13). 

The civilians did not welcome this forced – and what would prove protracted – displacement, questioning the military effectiveness of the tactic directed at weakening the LRA by depriving the rebels of people to abduct and houses and food to loot. Instead, the forcibly displaced persons failed to feel secure in the “protected” camps, which were scattered across the vast area of what was then Gulu district,  too vast for the UPDF soldiers to patrol. 

Furthermore, people feared that the destruction of their homes and abandonment of their fields, as well as the disintegration of the community bonds, would eventually exacerbate their situation making them victims of extreme poverty and social disintegration. 

Most displaced civilians in Gulu seemed to prefer the dangers of rural insecurity to the economic destruction which such endless displacement entails, i.e., the looting and burning of their homes, the abandonment of their fields, the disappearance of seed stocks. Since they can no longer fall back on the livestock that used to sustain them in such emergencies, they immediately become dependent on external assistance” (Gersony, 1997:60).

Notwithstanding the scepticism of the Acholi people and their concerns regarding the forced relocation, over the years since President Museveni announced the creation of the “protected camps” in September 1996, nearly two million people were eventually displaced, making northern Uganda by early 2005 the world’s fourth largest displacement crisis (Global IDP Project, 2005).

After many years of illusory peace negotiations, in July 2006 a new round of talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA started again in the capitol of South Sudan, Juba, where the two parties quickly signed a Cessation of Hostility Agreement (CHA). Over the two following years, the government of Uganda and the rebels reached agreements on reconciliation, accountability, and disarmament. However, in April 2008 and again in November of that year, Joseph Kony failed to show up to sign the final peace agreement which inevitably came to a standstill. In December 2008 the UPDF launched an all-out attack on the rebels’ main base in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), after which the rebels scattered and attacked civilians in DRC and neighbouring areas of South Sudan and Central African Republic, a situation that continued throughout 2009 despite ongoing UPDF pursuit. Despite the inconclusive end to the Juba talks, the agreements reached there are important achievements that could greatly contribute to building a sustainable peace. 

The period of relative security that northern Uganda has enjoyed since mid-2006, has encouraged many internally displaced persons to start the process of return. There are many obstacles that both individuals and communities have to face in this process, since they have been hard-hit on psychological, emotional, cultural, social, and economic levels. There is a need for cooperation between government, NGOs, and INGOs in order to help the afflicted population  return home. Most basically, there is a need for compensation and reparation from the government to help people deal with the economic, physical, and moral damage of war and displacement; there is a need for peace, and a sense of security that people will not be subject to additional crimes by either of the two parties; there is a need for justice to be achieved through local, national, and international mechanisms. 

Organisations like HURIFO give voice to the survivors, inform them about their rights, and help them to become conscious members of a revitalised civil society able to stand up against impunity and miscarriage of justice, and for a long and lasting peace.

One thought on “Background of the war: the plight of northern Uganda (from my publication “Rendering Justice, Pursuing Peace”)

  1. For an indepth look at Joseph Kony and the LRA, see the book, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

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