War-torn Uganda shrugs at referendum

Far from the capital where the merits of democracy are debated in earnest, the impoverished residents of war-ravaged northern Uganda see little point in this week’s referendum on restoring multiparty politics.

Caught in a conflict nearly as old as the 20-year-old ban on political pluralism which President Yoweri Museveni now wants to repeal via Thursday’s vote, Ugandans here are more concerned with peace than politics.

“Referendum or no referendum, we are dying because of the war,” said Leonard Olobo, one of about 1,6-million northern Ugandans made homeless by the ongoing fighting between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“Sanitation, water problems, the health of my family and insecurity are more important,” said the 56-year-old at the crowded Palenga camp for the war-displaced where he has lived for almost 10 years.

“The best thing would be for the government to work as much as possible to end our suffering by ending this war,” Olobo said, readily admitting that he has heard of the referendum but knows “very little about it”.

Regularly identified by UN and private aid agencies as the world’s most ignored serious humanitarian catastrophe, the conflict in northern Uganda has raged for 19 years, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.

With a bizarre blend of religious righteousness and brazen brutality, the LRA and its elusive leader Joseph Kony claim to be fighting to replace Museveni’s secular regime with one based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. The rebels have left survivors maimed and destitute with basic survival the overwhelming priority.

About 45% of northern Ugandans have witnessed the killing of a family member while 23% have been physically mutilated during the conflict, according to a study released by United States researchers this week.

Over the years the LRA has abducted some 20 000 children to serve as fighters or sex slaves, forcing about twice that number to leave their home villages at night for the relative safety of towns, according to relief groups.

“It is disgraceful, it must stop and we will tell the world so,” Unicef director Ann Veneman said during a visit here last week.

Despite Museveni’s insistance that the conflict is near an end due to new government offensives following the collapse of peace talks late last year, there is little sign of improvement in the situation in the north.

“There is an average of four road ambushes in a week in Kitgum district and deaths have been recorded in many of the incidents,” said one relief worker in the region.

On Sunday, a government soldier was killed when LRA fighters ambushed a army patrol there, according to officials who say several similar incidents have been reported in recent days amid a surge in rebel attacks.

Kitgum, Gulu, Lira and Pader districts—the epicentre of the LRA rebellion near Uganda’s border with Sudan—are home to 619 174 registered voters, most of them living in squalid camps.

But to those living here, the referendum means little as do Museveni’s claims that a “yes” vote will enshrine democracy and the opposition’s call for a boycott on the grounds that the ostensible reform is merely a facade to hide the president’s ambition to stay in power for life.

It is not clear how many voters here will heed the opposition boycott, although it has gained some support as a result of Museveni’s pushing through Parliament this month a controversial repeal of presidential term limits that will allow him to run for re-election next year.

Northern Uganda is a traditional opposition stronghold where Museveni, who stormed to power in 1986 before winning two elections, has lost badly in previous polls.

And his failure to end the war is seen by many in the region as a blot on his political credentials which have already been damaged in the eyes of foreign donors by the slow pace of reform and his apparent ambition to stay in power. - Sapa-AFP

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