Sunday, February 26, 2012
In northern Uganda, a difficult peace
26 February 2012
In northern Uganda, a difficult peace
By Michael Deibert
Le Monde diplomatique
(Read the original article here)
Gulu, Uganda — Gazing out from this bustling provincial capital in northern Uganda, a lifelong resident gestured towards the red dirt roads that lead out towards the Sudan border and talked of the changes that have come to this corner of Uganda in recent years.
“We used to not even move from town, going for two miles was a terrible challenge,” says John Lukwiya (not his real name) who works with displaced people in the region. “You thought you may or may not live. But today things are quite okay, development is going on and people are planting their crops.”
The conflict in Acholi — the ancestral homeland of the eponymous ethnic group who stretch across northern Uganda and southern Sudan — raged for the better part of 25 years. But today the region is, however tentatively, starting to get back on its feet.
The Acholi conflict has its roots in Uganda’s history of dictatorship and political turmoil. A large number of soldiers serving in the government of dictator Milton Obote (who ruled Uganda from April 1965-January 1971 and then again from December 1980-July 1985) came from across northern Uganda, with the Acholis being particularly well represented, even though Obote himself hailed from the Lango ethnic group. When Obote was overthrown by his own military commanders, an ethnic Acholi, General Tito Okello, became president for six chaotic months until Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army took over. Museveni became president, and has since remained so, via elections — some legitimate, some deeply flawed.
Upon taking power, the Museveni government launched a brutal search and destroy mission against former government soldiers throughout the north, which swept up many ordinary Acholi in its wake. Some Acholi began mobilizing to defend themselves, first under the banner of the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (largely made up of former soldiers) and then the Holy Spirit Movement.
This movement, directed by Alice Auma, an Acholi who claimed to be acting on guidance from the spirit Lakwena, brought a mystical belief in their own invincibility that the soldiers of the Kampala-based government at first found terrifying: Holy Spirit Movement devotees walked headlong into blazing gunfire singing songs and holding stones they believed would turn into grenades. The movement succeeded in reaching Jinja, just 80km from the capital Kampala, before being decimated by Museveni’s forces.
Out of this slaughter was born the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, a distant relative of Alice Auma. Kony added an additional element of targeting civilian Acholi to his schismatic blend of Christianity, frequently kidnapping children and adolescents to serve in his rebel movement. The Museveni government responded by viewing all Acholi as potential collaborators, rounding them up into camps euphemistically called “protected villages”, where they were vulnerable to disease and social ills, and had few ways to carry on their traditional farming.
“It was not about enemy confronting enemy, but about controlling civilians to cut off the source of information,” explained Francis Odongyoo, executive director of Human Rights Focus, a Gulu-based human rights organization. “The government said they were failing to defeat the LRA because the population was providing information to them; and the LRA was saying that they were failing to survive well and failing to overtake the government because the civilians were providing the information. The civilians were caught between two fires.”
Many concur that the LRA-Museveni struggle upended life in the region as no other conflict before.
“The impact of this last war was almost universal,” says Ron Atkinson, a history professor from the University of South Carolina who has studied the region for 40 years and authored several books on the Acholi. “Almost everyone was impacted very directly by overt violence, not just from the LRA or earlier rebel groups but from the Ugandan army and government, especially its policy of forced displacement.”
The LRA’s policy of targeting civilians (though not the Museveni government’s draconian measures) eventually drew international condemnation and in 2005 the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Joseph Kony and several other seniors LRA commanders for crimes against humanity and war crimes. After peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government collapsed in 2007, the group decamped from its bases in southern Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
Following the end of negotiations, the Museveni government launched its Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), an effort to stabilize northern Uganda after years of war. Since then, according to the United Nations 98% of internally displaced persons have moved on from the camps that once sheltered hundreds of thousands of frightened people.
Despite criticisms from the Acholi that the government’s program has been insufficient, local initiatives and the work of some foreign organizations have helped restore a sense of normality and gradual progress to the region, with people returned to their homes and travel between once off-limits parts of the region now facilitated with relative ease.
Now a thousand miles from the cradle of their insurgency, the LRA would appear to have little hope of returning to Uganda, though their potential to wreak havoc on civilians remains little diminished. In Congo’s Haut-Uele province, between December 2008 and January 2009, the LRA massacred 620 civilians and abducted more than 160 children; and a year later they returned and killed 321 and abducted another 250 people in December 2009.
In October 2011, President Barack Obama announced that he was sending 100 Special Forces soldiers to help the Ugandans hunt down Kony. By the end of the year, the Ugandan army confirmed that the troops had moved along with the Ugandan army to Obo in the Central African Republic and Nzara in South Sudan,
Though life remains very difficult for the Acholi, those who have seen the crisis remain cautiously optimistic about the future here.
“Whatever else has gone on, whatever disappointments there are, however hard life is — peace is better than war," says Ron Atkinson.
(This article first appeared in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo.)
Michael Deibert is a journalist, Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University, and the author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, Zed Books, London, forthcoming.