Origins of war in North Uganda
Origins of the Conflict
The conflict started in 1986 when the current President of the Republic of Uganda, Mr Museveni, came to power by force with the support of the tribes from Southern Uganda.
At that time, the officials who supported Tito Okelo, the former head of state, all came from the Acholi tribe from Northern Uganda. They fled the country and sought refuge in Southern Sudan while waiting for further development of the situation.
When Museveni started attacking the civilian population of Northern Uganda, the officials who were in Southern Sudan decided to go back to Uganda in order to set up the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). Within this group there was also a sub-group called Holy Spirit Movement, led by a woman, Alice Lakuena, who claimed to be a magician capable of communicating with spirits.
Between 1987 and 1993 various incidents happened, with periods of calm following periods of internal war.
In 1988 the Karimiyong, a tribe close to the Acholi tribe, invaded Acholiland with the support of the government. They robbed or killed all the animals belonging to the tribe. This created a situation of poverty for the Acholi people and it was a severe act of humiliation for them.
Subsequently the Ugandan Government and the UPDA came to an agreement. The rebel officials were reintegrated into the regular Ugandan Army.
The Lord’s Resistance Army
The only group not to be involved in the agreement was the one led by Alice Lakuena. This group changed name and became the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) under the leadership of Alice’s relative, Joseph Kony, the current leader of the rebels.
Kony is a mad visionary, he also claims he has magic powers and has told the abducted children that a particular stone will protect them from being killed by bullets. He wants to impose the Ten Commandments in Uganda and overthrow Museveni.
In 1991, thanks to a consistent military operation, the LRA was considerably weakened and its members fled to Southern Sudan. A period of relative calm followed. but towards the middle of 1993 Kony was contacted by the Khartoum regime which was interested in making sure that the LRA fought against the Southern Sudanese rebels led by General Garang. The latter group wanted to control the south of the country and secede from the central government. In this area the conflict has in fact been going on for about 20 years and according to the estimates it has already caused the deaths of 2.5 million people.
The LRA, funded by the Islamic fundamentalist Sudanese regime and well armed with heavy weapons, went back to Northern Uganda to the districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira, Apac Katakwi and Soroti, looting, attacking people and abducting thousands of children belonging to the Acholi tribe. This conflict, in fact, affects internally the tribe of Northern Uganda.
The civilian population, in particular children, are no longer casual victims accidentally killed on the battlefield, they are now the main targets in a project aimed at destroying the Alcholi population.
This is a peculiar conflict. The LRA does not have effective control of any territory and is headquartered in Southern Sudan. This is the place from where the attacks to Acholiland always originate. The LRA rebels then stay in Acholiland for months, hiding in the savannah and always moving on foot. They spread terror and this is, de facto, how they can control the civilian population.
The suffering of the population
The LRA rebels spread terror in four different ways:
– Abducting children: this phenomenon has reached unprecedented proportions since 1994. According to the estimates the number of abducted children varies from 20,000 to 30,000. Boys are trained for combat. Girls are also used as soldiers but on top of that they are continuously sexually abused by the commanders. It is also very handy for Sudan to have an indirect source of soldiers fighting for Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Many children who escaped have then been forcefully enrolled in the Ugandan army and sent to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
– Attacks on the streets against the civilian population. It is highly dangerous to travel across Northern Uganda. The rebels stop cars by firing at them, looting and subsequently burning the car. The foreign citizens who lost their lives are mainly missionaries and have been killed in this way. The rebels also attack the towns at night, burning houses and killing hundreds of people with the aim of keeping the entire population under total control.
– Nowadays, even if to a lesser extent, people are killed or amputated by landmines.
– The creation of IDP camps, where now at least 90% of the population lives. These camps were created during the mid-90s. The government sent and often forced the people to move to these camps which are mere groupings of huts, usually unplanned and without basic infrastructures. The reality of those IDP camps is that it is normally the people who protect the few soldiers that, in theory, should be protecting the camp.
The conditions of the camps are inhumane. Acholi people are hard working people; they are used to working their land and breeding their animals. Now they can no longer work because the countryside and the villages are too dangerous. As reported by Mr Thimpson, UN officer for humanitarian aid in Gulu, the food and water supplies are insufficient (every person should have 20 litres of water at his/her disposal, currently they only have 3 litres each), basic hygienic conditions are not met and it is not surprising that cholera spread in the camps around Gulu). Children can rarely attend school and in the camps people feel useless and start being hooked on alcohol. Suicides were previously uncommon but are now on the increase. The rebels have attacked the camps on various occasions.
The current situation
In 2002 an agreement was signed between Sudan and Uganda, allowing the Ugandan Army to enter the Sudanese territory in order to attack the LRA headquarters. This has significantly weakened Kony who reacted by sending his rebels to Northern Uganda to further disseminate terror and death. According to Mr Thimpson the active rebels are more or less a thousand against the Ugandan Army with its 40,000-strong military and paramilitary units. The rebels are now disintegrating and move in smaller groups with few leaders, and they loot in order to survive.
If Uganda were willing to end this conflict, it could do it very swiftly. We hope this will happen thanks to a negotiated agreement. Will this happen this time? Let’s hope so.
It is necessary to say that Museveni has allowed this conflict to continue within the Acholi group for far too long. He fears the Acholi of Northern Uganda because they oppose his government, that’s why he has ignored the situation all these years.
Furthermore, humanitarian aid constitutes half of the country’s GDP, with the end of the conflict the aid would significantly decrease.
This time, however, it seems that the international community is putting lots of pressure on the Ugandan President to put an end to the conflict. According to recent information, the leader of the rebels, Joseph Kony, seemed to be willing to negotiate. Let’s hope this is really the case but obvious doubts still remain.