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Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict
Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest
Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest
Report 77 / Africa

Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict

Executive Summary

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.

Nairobi/Brussels, 14 April 2004

Op-Ed / Africa

Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest

Originally published in African Arguments

Economically and politically, Uganda's government’s actions are leading to growing frustrations and lawlessness.

After 30 years of President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s system of government has shifted from broad-based and constitutional to one increasingly reliant on authoritarian power and patronage.

Although Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has won elections – most recently in 2016 – allegations of rigging and vote buying abound. The president’s popular support is waning, while the arrest of political opponents and activists has significantly undermined his international legitimacy.

As detailed in a recent International Crisis Group report, Uganda faces a growing crisis of governance on numerous fronts. Politically, economically and socially, the government’s actions could be laying the groundwork for future civil strife.

Staying in Power

Museveni will likely run for re-election on 2021. But in order to do this, the 73-year-old president will have to modify the constitutional provision that bars presidential candidates older than 75. A proposal to make this change was introduced to parliament this October. It was put on hold following protests, but despite its unpopularity, it will likely be voted through eventually.

Museveni’s early years restored stability after years of civil war. But alongside his use of clientelism and political authoritarianism, he has buttressed his position by tightening control over key institutions, including the army and police. The president has centralised political power into his own hands and those of his family.

For many Ugandans [...], a political transition is not the priority. They are more concerned with the daily struggle of poverty, unemployment, food shortages, the rising cost of living and lack of access to land or social services.

What an eventual transition might look like, or how it could come about, is yet to be determined. The opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) looks too frayed by repression and its leaders’ rivalries to take the lead. Instead, the emergence of new political actors and youth protest movements may represent a greater challenge for the president. These include the reggae star turned MP Bobi Wine, who offers hope to those suffering from the inequities of Museveni’s era.

International partners and donors concerned about the country’s direction should encourage the government to return to the idea – discussed after the divisive 2016 election – of a credible National Dialogue that would enhance relations between the opposition and government, and ensure a peaceful transition to a post-Museveni era.

A Daily Struggle

For many Ugandans, however, a political transition is not the priority. They are more concerned with the daily struggle of poverty, unemployment, food shortages, the rising cost of living and lack of access to land or social services. Underdevelopment is widespread. Annual economic growth, which ranged between 6-10% during the boom years of 2000-2011, has fallen to an estimated 4.6% in 2017.

Sharp declines in the financial sector and in global demand for commodities, a lack of bureaucratic support, and continuing instability in neighbouring South Sudan give little hope for improvement.

Uganda’s youth suffer most from these conditions. This makes them more susceptible to political mobilisation or, in the worst cases, criminal recruitment. Programmes designed to improve livelihoods tend to be swallowed by the patronage system and function as little more than hand-outs in exchanges for political support.

As President Museveni manoeuvres to extend his 30-year rule, a wide range of political and administrative reforms are urgently needed to avoid unrest.

Corruption in government has also affected the public sector, which delivers poor quality services, especially in health and education. Ugandans living in rural areas and surviving through subsistence agriculture are struggling with unpredictable weather patterns, environmental degradation, farm fragmentation and insufficient government support.

The army-led Operation Wealth Creation aimed to boost agricultural production but proved utterly inadequate, focusing on seed distribution instead of the main problem for farmers: the lack of fertilisers and irrigation.

Increasing Lawlessness

Alongside political and economic uncertainty, a process of administrative decentralisation, which has doubled the number of districts between 2002 and 2017, has also bred identity politics and ethnic polarisation.

After 15 years with no local elections at village level, the government released a roadmap for new council elections for November 2017. However, they were postponed, apparently for fear elections would lead to a loss of strong local NRM representation.

Local security and crime has also increased due to the ineffectiveness and politicisation of the police force, which is relied upon by government to disrupt opposition activity. This is part of a wider structural problem, including the deterioration of local governance and the expansion of informal security networks. International and domestic human rights organisations have reported a range of violations by the police including arbitrary arrests, physical abuses and extortion.

Furthermore, a dysfunctional land ownership system has led to community-level violence and disputes. This is made worse by popular mistrust of police and politicians as well as ambiguities associated with customary ownership, corruption and land grabs.

As President Museveni manoeuvres to extend his 30-year rule, a wide range of political and administrative reforms are urgently needed to avoid unrest. Elections for local councillors should be held at the earliest possible date. The government should act to restore trust in institutions. Land ownership reforms should take place only after wide-ranging public consultation, while the creation of further administrative districts should be halted.

Despite its shrinking, the amount of political space may still be far above the levels reached during civil conflicts in the 1980s. However, pervasive corruption, polarised politics and authoritarian trends are setting the scene for future civil strife.