Northern Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army
By James Akena MP
06 November 2006
The conflict in northern Uganda has been one of the longest lasting conflicts throughout Africa and yet at the same times probably the most neglected conflict in the world. This conflict which has demonstrated its very complex nature through the fact that it has failed to be resolved through both military means or through peaceful mechanisms. Additionally this conflict has lead to massive displacement and the virtual total destruction of a way of life affecting the majority of the people in the area where it has been prosecuted.
Causes of Conflict
The root causes of the conflict in northern Uganda by far predate the conflict and they are those which can be empirically defined while at the same time there are those which can at best be referred to or categorised as perceived causes. It is important that we recognise the actual as well as perceived causes because both factors have played a role in the beginning as well as the continuation of the conflict and are also playing a role on the resolution of the conflict.
Briefly the current phase of the war in northern Uganda is widely perceived to be a continuation of the conflict in Luwero Triangle (1981-1986) a conflict which itself is also perceived to be a continuation of a clash between the Buganda Monarchy and the Central Government way back in 1966.
Since the 1966 crisis which in itself was a culmination of the Referendum of 1964 for the Lost Counties which had been annexed from the Kingdom of Bunyoro during the colonisation of Uganda (late 1800's) and was the implementation of a Constitutional provision that within two years of Independence the matter must be put to a Referendum to sort out whether these counties which had been given to Buganda as a reward for fighting alongside the combatants should remain in Buganda or return to Bunyoro. Even though the culmination, was a single event unlike the prolonged wars which have followed it was a matter which struck right into the psyche and sensibilities throughout Buganda and therefore could be used to strike a resonant cord in the later conflicts.
The northern war began in August 1986 with an attack from Southern Sudan by officers and men under a force known as the Uganda Peoples Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A) which was the reconstitution of the faction of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) which had overthrown the UPC Government in July 1985. The main reason for the return of the forces so soon after their defeat was the way in which the then National Resistance Army (NRA) of President Yoweri Museveni conducted itself. The army behaved more akin to an army of occupation rather than a national army. The period preceding the resumption of war was characterised by indiscriminate arrests of mainly able bodied young men leading to a new category of detainees in the prison system then known as "lodgers". Later "lodgers" were people collected from the countryside as suspected "rebels" or rebel sympathisers and held indefinitely in deplorable conditions where many died from diseases such as dysentery.
Below is an excerpt of an interview conducted in 1989 in the Government owned New Vision newspaper.
Caroline Lamwaka: People have criticized what they called, "the scorched-earth policy", that is, civilians were moved from areas of rebel sanctuaries to population centers, and then the burning of houses and granaries, etc. to deny rebels food. Is this policy still in force?
Yoweri Museveni: That is a misnomer. There was no policy of scorched earth. There was a policy of destroying foodstuff being used by the rebels.... What there was was a policy to destroy food stocks that were assisting the rebels to continue disturbing the peace of the ordinary people. This was done after due notice was given to the population through dropping of leaflets in the disturbed areas of Gulu District well in advance, by the helicopters. These leaflets in vernacular were telling people to evacuate the fire areas where the security forces would clash with rebels, to safe zones. It was only food found in such areas that were destroyed. But not food belonging to wananchi. Now, whether that policy is still continuing or not is no longer a major issue because we have already - even in some of the Counties in Gulu District, the rebels have been cleared and the population have gone back like Omoro County and Atiak, areas like Pabo and Amuro. We hear the population have already gone back, the operation was over. It is only in Nwoya County , that is Anaka, Olwio and the Park - that where they are still operational. And in those areas, there isn't any food anymore. So there is nothing more to destroy . That is one of the reasons why the rebels are desperate. And that is why they are waylaying people on the road because they have nothing to eat and that is why they are surrendering in big numbers now because they have nothing to eat really.
(New Vision - 27 June 1989)
REASONS FOR THE LENGTHY CONFLICT
The conflict has lasted for a very long time for various reasons ranging from being the "world's most neglected humanitarian crisis and conflict" according to Jan Egeland the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs to purported restrictions in budgetary allocations reducing the capacity of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) from militarily ending the conflict. Other factors are the regionalisation of the conflict where regional interests have played a role in sustaining the capacity of waging war in the region.
Concerning the LRA and Northern Uganda many factors have fuelled the bitterness and henceforth provided reason for the continuation of the war. The destructions of the productive capacity epitomised by the loss of livestock throughout northern Uganda far beyond the reach of the Karamojong warriors added credence to an already firm belief that the Government was intent to annihilate the peoples of northern Uganda. When the army first arrived in northern Uganda they sung a song in Swahili which used the term 'Anyanya' for northerners and included all nilotic and nilohamatic peoples. The song was about how the NRA had defeated the Anyanya and that they would finish off the Anyanya. The usage of this term is tied to the coup of January 1971 where a mercenary trained force operating in Southern Sudan was used to bolster the coup. The mercenaries training the force for the coup worked under the guise of supporting the separatist Anyanya Movement in Southern Sudan. Therefore whether the term initially referred to those forces which came from Sudan it later came to signify all northerners of non-Bantu Ugandans who were considered to be an army of occupation and/or oppressors by some Ugandans without considering the role played by our colonial history.
The early part of the war set the tempo in that many people believed that the NRA was intent on wiping out all northerners a belief which many today still believe. This belief is grounded on certain unexplainable facts which for example when the Government of Uganda sought to enter Sudan in 2002 to fight the LRA; they had declared that the LRA were only remaining with four hundred (400) combatants while at that time there were six hundred thousand (600,000) IDPs. After assuring the nation that within six (6) months the LRA would be no more what actually happened was that more people got displaced and the theatre of war expanded and therefore it is hard to believe that 400 poorly armed rebels can be the sole cause for two million (2,000,000) people to become displaced and lose absolutely everything.
IMPACT OF THE CONFLICT
Due to the length of the conflict in northern Uganda much of the causes of the war have been lost and any resolution of the conflict must be based on alleviating the impact of the conflict. The impact of the conflict include:
- Massive displacement of the people who have lost everything from their homes into poorly facilitated Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps where in Acholi about 90% are living in this deplorable situation
- Loss of lives and destruction of properties including the breaking of the peoples will.
- Declining educational standards due the destruction of infrastructure as well as lost opportunities. Schools lack libraries and laboratories thereby putting the students at a serious disadvantage most especially in sciences.
- Abuse of women through rape and as sex slaves.
- The phenomenon of children commuting to places of relative safety hence the development of the term "night commuters" in acknowledgement of the thousands of children who sought safety in urban centres to avoid ending up child soldiers or death.
- Great disparity in incomes with northern Uganda coming at the bottom with the overall stagnation of the local economy.
- A real political and economic divide between Northern and Southern Uganda.
- Perceived marginalisation, hopelessness and insecurity for and by the people of northern Uganda.
EFFORTS OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION
There have been efforts at resolving the conflict in various ways. Notably there were the mediation efforts by Betty Bigombe in 1993/94 and 2004 which laid a firm foundation for the beginning of the peace process in Northern Uganda. It is also necessary to note that the conflict which predated the LRA such as the UPDA was resolved through negotiations whereas on the other hand the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) of Alice Lakwena was defeated militarily. They were later followed by several initiatives led by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), Cultural Leaders and The Government of Uganda involving Hon Eriya Kategaya the 2 nd Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Affairs and Lt.Gen Salim Saleh and Minister of State for Micro Finance.
With the longstanding conflict in Southern Sudan reaching a negotiated settlement with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) providing an opportunity of bringing about peace and stability since the conflict in Southern Sudan had a regional dimension.
The Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army created a suitable avenue for the talks to take place through their determination to bring about peace within Southern Sudan and further a field in the region.
LRA's move to DRC brought about the internationalisation of the conflict in a new way leading to the attempted arrest of the leaders while in the DRC.
Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) offering to mediate in the process provided for the first time an independent and honest broker that had felt and seen the impact of the war both in Uganda and in Southern Sudan.
The mediation efforts of the GOSS have begun to yield some tangible results both in Southern Sudan in that the long suffering people from the IDP camps in northern Uganda begun soon after the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed on 26 August 2006 and with the movement of LRA troops out of northern Uganda to return to their homes in great numbers. In Southern Sudan the Nimule-Juba opened up to a lot of traffic soon after the signing. It is very unfortunate that the gains realised with the signing are quickly being eroded by forces which appear not to want peace to prevail throughout the region and shall require all efforts not to allow such destruction to again manifest itself. Mediation at this moment is progressing slowly and those of us who have been observers to the process remain optimistic that the process will end with a desirable outcome bringing about the much needed and longed for peace and opportunities to the numerous victims of this long running conflict.
One major factor limiting the full participation of the leaders of the LRA in the peaceful resolution of the conflict is the indictments by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The indictments have had the effect of making the leaders to prefer to remain away from the talks in Juba and be represented by a delegation. There is much work being done to explore how to resolve the issue through other justice systems such as the traditional Acholi method of Mato Oput without condoning impunity. The problem I have encountered when speaking to leaders of the LRA as well as many of the victims are the date from which the ICC has a mandate to investigate and prosecute. Most argue that this has been one long continuous conflict and therefore crimes against humanity committed in the early part of the war are just as much crimes against humanity like those committed in the latter part and should face the same justice. It is this vein that there are those who argue that unless we have a justice system which can address all crimes irrespective of when they were committed.
Way forward for faster conflict resolution
The prevalent perception is that the UPDF does not have the capacity and in some cases the will to end the war militarily as there have been several promises that within a specified time the LRA will be no more but have never managed to do so. The belief on the lack of will is centred on that there are military and political leaders who are benefiting from the war and do not want to see an end to the war. My on view is that we need to continue the negotiation and ask for more international support and involvement in seeking for a peaceful solution.
Ultimately in order to resolve the causes of the conflict there will be an urgent need to have national reconciliation. In order to achieve national reconciliation, apart from dealing with specific cases, there is need to have an objective look into our history as a nation because many historical events have been distorted and used to fuel conflict and we must therefore come to terms with our history. In dealing with specific cases we may need to establish and implement an independent National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In order to achieve the above a national conference where all stake holders can come together and discuss and chart Uganda's future as a united, prosperous and peaceful country.
In conclusion I would to provide a perspective in support for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. When I had the opportunity to visit the LRA High Command on the Sudan/DRC border and being a guest of the LRA leader for one night at his base established for the talks, I had an encounter which deepened my understanding on the complexities of the conflict. There was a young man who sought to send a message to his father who happened to be a constituent of mine. The message was simply in that all I had to do was to inform the father of this young combatant that he was alive and well. It was a simple enough assignment even though all I had was the combatant's name and his father's name with his last known employment, so after returning to Gulu and participating in a joint rally and on the way back to Lira, I contacted someone in Lira town and asked him to locate the young man's father and get his telephone number. Within 20 kilometres from Gulu town I had received the father's number and therefore went a head to call him. On answering his phone, I simply asked if he person whose name I was given, to which he affirmed. I then informed him that I was just returning from Sudan/DRC and I had met a young man by the following names who wished him to know that he is alive and well. The father thanked me and the conversation ended.
Ten minutes later the father called back and wanted to verify every bit of information. He started by asking if I was indeed his member of parliament. Then that I was returning from Sudan/DRC. He then said that he knew somebody by the names I had given him many years ago and left it hanging there. I assured him that his son who was abducted some seven years earlier was the one who wanted him to know that he was alive and well. The joy this father felt to know that his son whom he believed to have died years ago was alive could be felt not only in what he said but more importantly how he said it. Later that evening when reporting the events on a radio programme the same story came about as well as that of two other combatants from my sub-region. The hope generated by the discovery that these three abductees were alive and well rekindled hope in so many families whose children had disappeared. I have since received so many requests and encouragement to ensure that the war ends quickly so that families can be reunited with their loved ones. I have also come to realise the pain that so many people go through whenever they hear that so many rebels were killed or plans to finish the rebels.
The prospect for peace in northern Uganda is very high and achievable although it will require more efforts and commitments by the International Community and all stake holders to steer the process through but would require the achievement of national reconciliation as the bedrock upon which lasting and sustainable peace will be achievable.
For God and My Country
James Akena MP