Anger lingers in Uganda's war-torn north

Although the rebel movement fighting in Uganda’s north has fostered an aura of religious mysticism based on an apparent wish to recreate a state following the Biblical Ten Commandments, its grudge against the Ugandan government is rooted in deep-seated grievances that stem back for years.

And even if there is an end to the reign of terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which initially claimed to speak for the north, observers of the prolonged conflict say these feelings of anger are likely to linger.

“Northern Uganda as a whole feels marginalised,” says Paul Omach, senior lecturer at the department of political science and public administration, Makerere University, in the capital, Kampala.

He says the rebel movement includes the Acholi, many of whom are the foundation of the LRA, and several other ethnic groups such as the Lango, Karamojong and Teso.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s seizing of power in 1986 from military commander Tito Okello Lutwa, which was supposed to usher in an era of peace and democracy, brought more unrest and only underscores the entrenched divide between the north and south of the country.

Northerners resented the fact that Museveni—someone outside their ethnic sphere—had assumed power.

Uganda had until then seen virtually endless northern domination of the government, through leaders such as Idi Amin, Milton Obote, Basilio Okello and Tito Okello Lutwa, since its independence in 1962 from Britain.

The north also monopolised the armed forces, a legacy of the former colonial regime. After World War II, the British government began to recruit soldiers mainly from the north because the country’s southern counterpart, home to the educational and economic elite, was the heart of anti-colonialism.

Neglected north

Despite its supremacy, observers argue, the north had in many ways been neglected by colonial and post-colonial administrators. Much of the infrastructure, such as road networks, educational institutions and hospitals created since British rule, was concentrated in the south, says Omach.

With Museveni’s ascendancy to the presidential office came accusations from the Acholi that they were subject to massacre, rape, the destruction of food stocks and domestic animals, and removal from the army—all because they supported the previous northern-led regime.

Museveni shook up the military, in which the Acholi made up about 60%, to reflect the country’s ethnic make-up better, says Peter Mulira, who runs a law firm in Kampala and is an official of the ancient Ugandan kingdom of Buganda.

“The Acholi used to feel that they had a special role in the army. Some Acholi had high positions. That’s why they’re angry. The Acholi men who lost their jobs in the army are the ones with [LRA leader Joseph] Kony,” he says.

Further evidence of northern punishment following Museveni’s power grab can be found in some of the top offices of the land, according to academics.

Organisations including the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Uganda Revenue Authority, as well as government ministries such as health, natural resources, water and foreign affairs, are headed by individuals hailing from regions other than the north, adds Yasin Olum, lecturer at the department of political science and public administration at Makerere University.

“You put people in strategic positions with colossal amounts of money and delivering critical services”, and what is the outcome, notes Olum. “These ministers [from Museveni’s western region] ignore the north.”

The war in northern Uganda has dragged on for nearly two decades because the region’s people feel distant from their own central government, Mulira explains. But that said, “They are not fighting the Ugandan government. They are fighting Museveni. Museveni symbolises their marginalisation.”

Positions of power ‘not needed’

Not everyone believes the Acholi or northerners are disenfranchised, though.

“I loathe that argument,” says Jacob Olanya, a northern MP. He argues his people need no positions of power in the government because, in the absence of the war, the fertile north would have an important role filling the breadbasket of Uganda.

Although there is disagreement about whether northerners feel neglected, two things are certain—they do not embrace Museveni at the ballot box, nor do they have warm feelings for the LRA that, in its battle against the new government, eventually turned its rage on its own people, murdering thousands and forcing children into both sexual bondage and its military ranks.

The impetus for this violent backlash was chief mediator Betty Bigombe’s urging that the Acholi take up arms against the LRA, notes Douglas Kilama, a landmine-risk education officer with the Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief, which is based in the main northern town of Gulu. Kilama himself was briefly abducted as a child and has not seen his rebel-soldier brother, who would now be 19, since 1997.

Northerners did at one point, however, support the Uganda People’s Defence Army (UPDA), a group of Acholi soldiers Museveni ousted from the armed forces that banded together to fight back against military abuses, Olanya explains.

But the UPDA eventually reached a peace settlement with the government, while the LRA lingered.

Acholi diaspora

The only group supporting the LRA today is the Acholi diaspora around the world, according to Olanya. He says these anti-Museveni expatriates, based in countries such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, are sorely out of touch with the violence the LRA is sponsoring in northern Uganda, and have adopted the weak argument: “Your enemy’s enemy is your friend.”

About 1,4-million people, mainly Acholis, live under poor conditions in displaced camps in northern Uganda, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Their existence on the fringes of Ugandan society suggest if Museveni leaves power next year, as mandated by a constitutional clause stating presidents may serve only two terms, the LRA may lay down its arms.

“It doesn’t matter if the person who replaces Museveni comes from the north,” Omach says, “but it must be followed by some tangible policies.”

Uganda needs national integration, argues Olum.

“There must be some form of national ethos, national psyche.”

He says this means that the public should be involved in formulating major policies related to health, education and land—just as they were consulted in enshrining two five-year terms in the Constitution.

Lawyer Mulira goes further. He says the key to building an inclusive society is to delegate greater responsibilities to northerners through the creation of their own regional governments and end the concentration of power in Kampala.

There is hope on this front. Mulira says Kampala agreed to implement a system in which districts have their own regional governments but the law, which will require changing the constitution, has not been passed.

“But I can bet that it will work,” he says.—IPS

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