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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Horn of Africa > Uganda > Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict

Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict

Africa Report N°77 14 Apr 2004


For nearly eighteen years the insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, has produced great suffering in Northern Uganda, including some 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland recently termed the situation among the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. In February 2004, in one of the most horrific atrocities since the conflict began, the LRA massacred approximately 200 civilians, revealing serious deficiencies in the government’s capacity to defend the population and defeat the insurgency. The conflict seriously blemishes the record of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), which has otherwise brought relative stability to the country. The international community has leverage and at least strong humanitarian reasons to urge a more politically oriented strategy to resolve the conflict.

The conflict has four main characteristics. First, it is a struggle between the government and the LRA. Secondly, it is between the predominantly Acholi LRA and the wider Acholi population, who bear the brunt of violence that includes indiscriminate killings and the abduction of children to become fighters, auxiliaries, and sex slaves. This violence is aimed at cowing the Acholi and discrediting the government. Thirdly, it is fuelled by animosity between Uganda and Sudan, who support rebellions on each other’s territory. Finally, it continues the North-South conflict that has marked Ugandan politics and society since independence.

The LRA insurgency lacks any clear (and negotiable) political objective. Its claim to represent the grievances of the Acholi people is at odds with its methods. Because LRA actions are difficult to place within a coherent strategy aimed at achieving an identifiable political outcome, it is also difficult to develop an effective counter strategy. LRA targeting of the Acholi has created a self-perpetuating cycle of loss, resentment and hopelessness that feeds the conflict but also widens the gap between the government and local populations.

President Museveni pursues a military solution in part to justify the unreformed army that is a key pillar of his regime. Indeed, the war helps him justify and maintain the status quo in Ugandan politics, denying his opposition a power base and offering numerous opportunities for curtailing freedom of expression and association in the name of “the war against terrorism”. As long as the situation in the North is dominated by security matters, the monopolisation of power and wealth by Southerners is not put into question.

Without the active support of the Acholi, however, the government is unlikely ever to defeat the LRA. While the political and security configurations of the conflict need to be changed, Museveni’s response to international pressure and proposals for negotiation such as Washington’s Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI) has been sceptical at best. Although the LRA’s desire for genuine dialogue appears minimal, the government has rarely acted in good faith when a variety of actors have sought to promote a settlement. The small likelihood that the LRA will respond to a concerted effort to negotiate does not remove the onus from the government to make the attempt. That would signal to both its opponents and supporters – and to the people of Northern Uganda – that it is genuinely pursuing all options. The Khartoum government, the LRA’s only known external supporter, should also be drawn into a negotiating strategy.

Most discussion of how to end the conflict centres on the false dichotomy of a military versus a negotiated solution. Elements of both approaches will be required, along with recognition of the limitations of each. A purely military solution could conceivably deal with the immediate manifestation of Uganda’s northern problem, the LRA, but would make solving the North-South divide and achieving national reconciliation even more unlikely. The army’s operational deficiencies in any event make such a solution unlikely. Similarly, there are limitations to negotiations, which can be manipulated by the belligerents for battlefield advantage, leading to more violence.

A main vulnerability of the LRA is that Joseph Kony is central not only to its organisation and tactics but also to its very purpose. Reported leadership tensions, particularly in a deteriorating military and political environment, may provide an opportunity to split the insurgency by isolating or removing him.

Another major element of any successful strategy will have to be a genuine effort to address Northerners’ grievances. The Acholi must be made to feel more a part of Ugandan society. The NRM simply has not unified the country after the turmoil created by colonial policies of ethnic division and decades of armed conflict. Rectifying this will require specific political, economic and social initiatives aimed at building the North’s stake in the central government and enhancing local decision-making. It is in the interest of Acholi leaders to develop mechanisms for articulating the views of their people, and it is in the interest of Museveni and the NRM to promote the emergence of effective and credible Acholi leaders.

There is not yet enough pressure on the LRA to make a political opening possible. While Museveni’s government should make an honest, unconditional attempt at negotiations, the nature of the LRA is such that creating an environment conducive to negotiations should not mean renunciation of military and political pressure on the insurgency, including by invoking the help of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Sudanese government.

The role of the international community has been central to the conflict and will be central to achieving a resolution. The government needs to be attentive to the advice of donors, from whom it receives approximately half its budget. It has a good record on a number of issues, such as AIDS prevention, which disposes the international community positively towards it, but the conflict in the North undoes much of this goodwill. Uganda’s friends have an interest and a right to pressure it on the humanitarian disaster produced by the continuation of the LRA insurgency. The U.S. initiative, however, would have greater promise if Washington also worked more closely with would-be European partners.


To the Government of Uganda:

1.  Build confidence between the government and local populations in the North and Northeast by:

a) making greater efforts to develop the capacity of local agencies;

b) improving and increasing dialogue with Acholi and other community leaders; and

c) transferring unpopular and antagonistic officials out of the region.

2.  Create a single authoritative team to represent the government in contacts and negotiations with the LRA, announce that a ceasefire is available as a first step towards comprehensive political negotiations if the LRA makes a clear gesture, and otherwise lay out objectives and expectations for such initiatives in coordinated public messages.

3.  Exclude Joseph Kony from application of the Amnesty Act but continue to offer amnesty to all other LRA commanders in order to develop potential divisions within the leadership, and improve reintegration incentives and programs for amnestied LRA returnees.

4.  Prioritise security sector reform by:

a) implementing fully the recommendations of the defence review;

b) expanding current investigations into army corruption and prosecuting publicly, independently and transparently all those with cases to answer; and

c) creating an independent body to investigate human rights abuses by army personnel and cooperating fully with any investigation pursued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

5.  Provide greater protection to civilians and IDPs through better focused military operations, including improved coordination between regular and militia forces, and increase coordination between those forces and humanitarian agencies.

6.  Return IDPs to their homes and villages when the security situation improves.

To the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA):

7.  Declare a willingness to accept a ceasefire as a step towards negotiations, cease all operations against civilians, including attacks on IDP camps and abduction of children, cease using abductees as combatants and allow the return of abductees who do not wish to remain with the LRA.

To the Acholi Community:

8.  Work to improve the relationship with the government by creating a single authoritative body to represent a unified Acholi view on the conflict, seeking partnerships to better the humanitarian and political environment, and publicly rejecting the LRA, including by ending any support it may obtain from Acholi within or outside Uganda.

To the Sudan Government:

9.  Cease all support for the LRA and persuade it to end military operations and enter into negotiations.

To the U.S. Government:

10.  Exert pressure on Sudan to stop aiding the LRA and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

11.  Refashion its Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI) to focus more directly on the political and security issues influencing the LRA and increase consultation on it with other countries engaged with and in Uganda.

To Donors:

12.  Work with the Ugandan government to develop incentives for LRA commanders and fighters to drop out of the insurgency.

13.  Condition all military assistance to Uganda on security sector reform, particularly with respect to corruption and human rights.

14.  Create an international contact group to act as a conduit for communications between the parties to the conflict.

15.  Increase humanitarian assistance to affected populations.

To Participants in the Sudan Peace Process:

16.  Ensure that any planned observer/monitoring mission for Southern Sudan established as part of a comprehensive agreement between the government of Sudan and the SPLA takes into account the presence of the LRA and includes areas that the LRA operates from such as the Imatong Mountains.

To the International Criminal Court (ICC):

17.  Investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by any party in the context of the conflict in Northern Uganda, with particular attention to building a dossier for possible prosecution of LRA leader Joseph Kony.

To the World Bank:

18.  Focus the Social Action Fund on building the Ugandan government’s capacity to deliver services in the North, rather than creating a separate parallel funding mechanism.

Nairobi/Brussels, 14 April 2004

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