Juvenile slaughter machine
Jim Terrie, The Observer |
13 Apr 2004
The Lord's Resistance Army has terrorised northern Uganda for 18 years. It is time for the country's friends and creditors to get involved, says Jim Terrie of the International Crisis Group.
The brutality seems inexplicable. At sunset, rebels attacked a refugee camp, turning a supposed sanctuary into a slaughterhouse, with more than 300 men, women and children hacked, burnt and shot to death. And children were not just the victims, but also the perpetrators.
The 21 February massacre in northern Uganda brought a blip of international attention to the bizarre and violent Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which consists mainly of underage soldiers - children kidnapped during raids and forced to fight for the group.
Solving the problem presented by this self-fuelling juvenile slaughter machine with no recognisable military goals or political aspirations brought even less than a blip. The world moved on.
Sadly, the LRA is not going to go away so easily. It is led by the malignly enigmatic Joseph Kony who has combined Christian and traditional religious ideas with a pathological and violent opposition to the government of Yoweri Museveni. Those abducted to become members of the LRA are indoctrinated and incriminated through brutality, often by the killing of their own kin. The LRA has been terrorising the population of northern Uganda for the last 18 years, funded and armed for much of that time by the government of neighbouring Sudan. An estimated 23,000 Ugandans have been killed or abducted during this conflict. Some 1.3 million people have been driven from their homes, a situation described by a senior UN official in November 2003 as "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world".
The conflict has four main characteristics. First, it is a struggle between the government and the LRA. Secondly, it is between the predominantly ethnic 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 gaining independence in 1962.
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, which only give the Acholi more to grieve about. Because LRA actions follow no coherent strategy, 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, who feel unprotected by the state.
President Museveni pursues a military solution in part to justify an unreformed army, which is a key pillar of his regime. Indeed, the war helps him 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 on terrorism". As long as the situation in the north is dominated by security matters, the monopolisation of power and wealth by southerners is not questioned.
Debate on ending the conflict splits between those who favour the military option and those calling for a negotiated solution. Few seem to recognise that elements of both approaches will be required, along with a sober 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 it would make solving the north-south divide and achieving national reconciliation even more unlikely. In any event, the army is too weak to make such a solution likely. Similarly, there are limitations to negotiations, which can be manipulated by the belligerents for battlefield advantage, leading to more violence.
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 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 Ugandan state receives about half of its budget from international donors, so the government needs to be attentive to advice coming from the likes of the US, the European Union and individual European states. Uganda has a good record on a number of issues, including AIDS prevention, and this disposes the international community encouragingly towards it. But the conflict in the north undoes much of this goodwill.
As the former colonial power, the UK has a long and varied history in Uganda, but today it is one of the main countries engaged across the spectrum of assistance, and it is therefore influential. For example, the UK has helped the Ugandan government undertake a top-to-bottom defence review, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the central position of the military in dealing with the LRA, improving its ability to protect civilians will be a significant contribution to national reconciliation. These reforms will also deal with other defence-related issues that donors are concerned with, such as corruption, human rights abuses and a lack of financial transparency in military spending. These measures will greatly improve its relationship with the international community and, more importantly, they will also improve the confidence that Ugandans have in their government and in the military.
Uganda's friends, including the UK, have an interest and a right to pressure it on the humanitarian disaster produced by the LRA insurgency. In doing so they must also assist in reforms that will help solve the problems that Uganda is faced with today.
Jim Terrie is a Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group.