Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict
Northern Uganda: Understanding and Solving the Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
Report 77 / Africa 4 minutes

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

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