On the Trail of Uganda’s Arrow Boys
On the Trail of Uganda’s Arrow Boys
In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents
In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents
A photo taken as a Certificate of Appreciation is presented for services rendered by the Arrow Boys during the LRA campaign at a ceremony in December 2004. CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor
A photo taken as a Certificate of Appreciation is presented for services rendered by the Arrow Boys during the LRA campaign at a ceremony in December 2004. CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor
Our Journeys / Africa

On the Trail of Uganda’s Arrow Boys

As part of Crisis Group’s research on civilian defence forces, Horn of Africa Analyst Magnus Taylor spoke to former fighters in Uganda known as the Arrow Boys. The group played an instrumental role in routing the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army when rebels attacked Teso in eastern Uganda in 2003.

Musa Ecweru’s office is on the top floor in the Office of the Prime Minister in central Kampala. He is a Member of Parliament for Amuria, a constituency in eastern Uganda, and since 2006 has been State Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees. 

Ecweru’s career might have turned out quite differently if, more than a decade ago, Joseph Kony, head of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had not directed part of his force into then peaceful eastern Uganda. The LRA was already notorious for killing and maiming civilians and abducting women and children as part of its insurgency in Uganda’s northern Acholi region since the late 1980s.

In 2003, the LRA entered Teso, in eastern Uganda, and Ecweru, then a regional district commissioner in Kasese in the west, was seized by a desire to protect his homeland. He left Kasese and drove to Soroti, in the Teso sub-region, where he met an old contact, Captain Mike Mukula, a pilot and then health minister and MP for Soroti; John Eresu, then MP for Kaberamaido; and a collection of local politicians, administrators and church leaders to discuss what to do.

The local leaders concluded that the government security forces were not in a position to repel the LRA. At the time, Teso was considered relatively peaceful, and the army was occupied fighting Kony in Acholiland.

The answer to what the Arrow Boys were, and perhaps still are, could only be found up-country.

Villages Full of Ex-combatants

While Teso was unprotected, it had many ex-soldiers who had fought for Uganda’s People’s Army (UPA) against the government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ecweru himself had previously been the UPA’s head of external relations. Most of these veterans were living quiet lives back in the villages, while some had been integrated into the local administration. As one former UPA member told me: “We had so many revolutions that the villages were full of ex-combatants”. The UPA conflict, also known as the “Teso War”, fizzled out in 1992 when President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), in power since 1986, began to exert greater control over the country’s peripheries.

When the LRA appeared in 2003, most of the former UPA members had been out of action for at least a decade, but they had the experience and training to lead the counter-insurgency. The group became known as the “Arrow Boys” – a name intended to highlight their skills as a silent, deadly force – and would eventually drive the LRA out of the region.

Assembled from the remnants of a force that had once fought against the government, they needed to convince Museveni that the group wasn’t a political power-play by local leaders plotting to complete unfinished business. Smooth-talking, politically connected Captain Mukula chaired the group, and, as he had never been a UPA member, helped reassure the government. Now a businessman with a company called Fortune Energy, he tells me that the Arrow Boys leadership “did our part. We enjoyed it. It was an opportunity for us!”

Mukula and Ecweru’s success with the Arrow Boys clearly benefitted their own careers. Ecweru, in particular, rose from regional district commissioner to minister in three years and is widely praised by his former comrades. When Museveni came to campaign in Teso during the 2016 election, Ecweru was the president’s conduit to the Iteso people.

In Kampala, I also meet with John Eresu, a voluble, substantial presence. Proud of what he did to defeat Kony, he is eager to share his strategy: “You fight him all the time … push him into the swamps ... there he cannot fight unless he has amphibious vehicles. And he doesn’t”. The Arrow Boys’ success, he says, was down to organisation: “We sat and structured it. … When people make a resolution, they can do anything”.

These leaders, impressive as they are, all seem comfortable now. The thrill is a practised story. The answer to what the Arrow Boys were, and perhaps still are, could only be found up-country.

Uganda’s Eastern Edge

On the eight-hour journey from Kampala to Soroti we cross to the eastern side of the Nile River at Jinja town and head north. Mbale, the biggest town in eastern Uganda, passes in a haze of orange dust. Two hours later, Soroti arrives in a blast of dry air as hot as a hairdryer. It’s a hard-scrabble place that feels like it’s on the edge of somewhere. Taking an exploratory walk in the moderately cooler evening, I discover a shop called the Arrow General Produce Store.

A shop in Soroti Town memorialising the Arrow Boys for the local community. CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor

I link up with a former Arrow Boys commander I had met in Kampala, who promised to introduce some of his old comrades. He sips a Coke and speaks of local peace-building initiatives, development partnerships and the struggles his men have been through to find jobs since the conflict.

A local security officer stops by and nods benignly when I explain what I’m doing in Soroti. The former commander is clearly a person of some influence – a status perhaps conferred by his association with the Arrow Boys.

Mobilising for the Fight

Four former commanders turn up at intervals over two days. Their stories of the campaign are remarkably consistent. When the LRA came to Teso in early 2003, the army was nowhere to be seen. Some wondered whether the community should let them pass through with the hope that the rebels would leave them alone. But it soon became clear that the LRA was there to spread its campaign of killing and abduction. It would have to be fought.

First, the local leadership started a recruitment campaign through radio and local networks, particularly the church. This was remarkably successful, and many people rallied to the cause. Donations to support the volunteers were organised by the bishop of Soroti.

While the Arrow Boys had a store of ex-rebels and enthusiastic new recruits, the group initially lacked guns. For Museveni’s government, arming a group substantially comprised of former rebels must have been a difficult prospect. Could it now rely on these men, who had spent hard years in the bush fighting the national army? This question occupied the government for a while, but in the end it had little option.

Robert Adiama, Former Arrow Boy Head of Counterintelligence, with a medal presented for services during the LRA campaign. CRISIS Group/Magnus Taylor

Ecweru tells me that after driving to Kampala and then Soroti in June 2003 with his four rifles, he organised a group of 60 recruits, mostly former UPA members, to attack the LRA at a place called Komolo. They had been given guns by the internal security agency, but had no uniforms and must have appeared something of a rag-tag bunch, slowly feeling their way back into combat. Still, their resistance took the LRA by surprise and temporarily routed the rebels. One former Arrow Boys commander tells me, with a hint of derision, that Kony’s forces were no match for them. Kony’s men were not great fighters, but instead relied on the fear that could be instilled through extreme violence, mostly directed at civilians.

President Museveni took note. He called Ecweru and demanded to know why he had left his post in Kasese. Ecweru responded that the LRA was attacking Teso. On 30 June, the LRA attacked Soroti airstrip. By early July, Museveni was seriously worried and in Captain Mukula’s words: “State House moved to Soroti”. This hands-on approach gained approval from the former commanders, who still respect the president’s willingness to travel to the field. 

It didn’t take long for Museveni to work out what needed to be done. He issued 7,000 rifles to the new Arrow Boys auxiliary force, which would also be formally integrated into the army. At its height, the Arrow Boys would boast a force of over 7,000, divided into twelve battalions, each commanded by an army major. As soon as the Arrow Boys were formally integrated into the army, that spelled the beginning of the end for the LRA in the region. The Arrow Boys were determined recruits, trusted by local communities who would willingly supply them with information on the terrain and the enemy’s whereabouts. As one former commander told me: “We had a conviction to liberate our community”.

At its height, the Arrow Boys would boast a force of over 7,000, divided into twelve battalions, each commanded by an army major.

Disappointed Hopes

By December 2003, the LRA had been driven out of Teso. Some Arrow Boys saw this as the end of their contribution and left the group immediately. Many remained deployed for some time and were later included in a demobilisation program over several years. The final three battalions handed in their guns in 2007. Some were given the opportunity to join the army and a few were offered highly coveted posts as reservists to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

But most Arrow Boys just went back to their communities, upset about the lack of recognition they received from government. Many claim that salaries and demobilisation payments were delayed or never paid. Some allege that the army stole these funds and then beat those who protested. 

Among the Soroti Arrow Boys, there remains a strong fraternal bond. There is hope that the government may recognise their contributions one day, but not much expectation. The former bishop of Soroti, Bernard Obaikal, says he has tried to mobilise funds for a statue, but has found none yet. 

In some of my conversations, there are hints that the community’s reaction to the Arrow Boys, particularly in the several years after the LRA was driven out of the region, was more complex. Some mention that “wilder” recruits from the villages on occasion had to be disciplined for using their new-found status to intimidate or extort community members. Predictably, the former commanders are not keen to dwell on this. Those not involved militarily, including the ex-bishop and current mayor, tell me that while there were regrettable incidents, the abiding community memory remains that the Arrow Boys protected Teso when the government was not able to do so.

Learning from the Arrow Boys?

The Arrow Boys offer a fascinating example of how a local defence force was effectively mobilised, in a genuine emergency, to protect its own community. But it may not be an example easily replicated in other locations. Following the Arrow Boys’ military successes, similar units were formed around Lira, in Lango region, and Kitgum, in the north, with mixed results. The groups were less proficient than the Arrow Boys and consequently more at risk from LRA attack. The Teso success had several unique factors, including the presence of a dormant but capable force that could be redeployed, and the existence of a united community, determined to repel Kony from the region.

The risks of arming the remnants of an anti-government rebel group, via political networks with a recent anti-government history, should not be underestimated. On this occasion, the government was successful in gaining support from the group’s leadership, but it could easily have lost control. Its major success was the effective integration of the Arrow Boys into army structures.

The Arrow Boys played a significant role in the fight against the LRA, but they were an improvised solution and the result of government failure to provide security in the region. While their successes are celebrated in Teso, the failures that led to their mobilisation – and the dangers associated with it – should not be overlooked.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research.

A photograph from the early 1990s of an early Kamajor unit, civilian militiamen who fought against the rebellion, from Bonthe in southern Sierra Leone. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby
A photograph from the early 1990s of an early Kamajor unit, civilian militiamen who fought against the rebellion, from Bonthe in southern Sierra Leone. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby
Our Journeys / Africa

In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents

As part of Crisis Group’s research into civilian vigilante groups in counter-insurgencies in Africa, Senior Research Analyst Ned Dalby went to Sierra Leone to investigate the wartime Civil Defence Forces and their core fighters, the Kamajors. For an in-depth analysis of vigilantism in the Lake Chad basin, see Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram.

Much has changed in Sierra Leone. New arrivals no longer need ride one of the rickety Russian helicopters that once shuttled between the airport on one side of the bay and Freetown, the capital, on the other. Their successor, a hovercraft, lies sadly deflated on the Atlantic Ocean’s edge. “It has a small problem”, says a passer-by. In their place, two high-speed launches buzz travellers across the water. One has Wi-Fi.

I soon arrive at the New Brookfields Hotel, an ultra-shiny establishment that makes good on its promise of “quality and comfort in the city”. Seeing it makes me realise how much of its violent past this West African state of six million people has left behind. But change doesn’t mean that everything has been forgotten. I’m here to learn about the legacy of vigilantes, or civilian auxiliaries, who played a major part in Sierra Leone’s war. The same kind of bold civilian groups are now in the thick of fighting against the resilient insurgency of Boko Haram further east in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The hovercraft that used to shuttle travellers between Lungi airport and Freetown awaits repair. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

I soon hear that, despite the hotel’s makeover, the Brookfields site brings back uncomfortable memories for local residents. From about 1998 until the end of the war in 2002, the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) – civilian fighters endorsed and supported by the government to help suppress the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – were billeted in the old Brookfields Hotel.

The CDF’s core were fighters of the Mende tribe called the Kamajors. My questions about the CDF and the Kamajors elicit jarringly different responses: to some they were heroes who risked their lives for the democratically-elected government; to others they were a brutal tribal militia and war profiteers.

Residents of Brookfields, also the name of the neighbourhood around the hotel, fall in the latter group. They felt the brunt of the CDF’s lack of discipline and professional training. But why are Sierra Leoneans so polarised on this? How significant was the CDF’s contribution to the war effort? And why did the Kamajors believe bullets wouldn’t hurt them? Over ten days and conversations with politicians, military officers, youth workers, journalists, academics, businessmen and former CDF fighters of high and low rank, I pieced together their story.

Freetown from above. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

From Community Protectors to Paramilitaries

Kamajor means hunter in the language of the Mende tribe, predominant in the south and east of the country. Traditionally, it was a title given to a man after his initiation into a local society of hunters, recognising his skill in killing wild animals and his responsibility for protecting the community, whether from beast or man.

When the RUF launched its rebellion in 1991 in the far east of the country, coming in from Liberia, prominent civilians decided to help the army fend it off by mobilising the Kamajors. A healer from Bonthe, Allieu Kondewa, was one of the first to form a Kamajor unit. Sam Hinga Norman, a chief and former army captain in Bo district, heard of Kondewa’s group and others in Kenema formed principally by a professor, Dr. Alpha Lavalie, and replicated them in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city. By virtue of his military experience and inspiring leadership, “Pa” Norman quickly became the Kamajors’ figurehead and national face. Tribes in other parts of the country followed the Mende, charging the hunters, the local braves, with protecting communities from the RUF’s nightmarish brutality and with guiding soldiers through the bush.

The government created the CDF as an umbrella organisation for hunter groups from all tribes – an attempt to give a disparate collection of tribal militias a national character.

In 1996, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the party of southerners and the Mende in particular, won elections. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took up the presidency, a doctor involved with the Kamajors in Kenema, Joe Demby, became his vice president, and “Pa” Norman was appointed deputy defence minister. The government started supporting the Kamajors. This did not sit well with many who feared they would pursue narrow ethnic interests.

To allay these concerns, the government created the CDF as an umbrella organisation for hunter groups from all tribes – an attempt to give a disparate collection of tribal militias a national character. But the Kamajors remained the strongest of the groups, largely because the RUF had been most active in Mendeland, spurring young men to join up there more than elsewhere.

The army was particularly put out. Some soldiers believed the government was diverting their resources to the Kamajors. Frustration boiled over in May 1997, when junior soldiers launched a coup, forced President Kabbah into exile in next door Guinea, set up the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the RUF rebels to join them in power.

Kabbah was in dire straits. As well as appealing to neighbouring countries to step in militarily, he ramped up support to the CDF, supplying them with arms and ammunition, rice and medicine. Under Norman’s leadership and with the army in disarray, the CDF became a semi-formal paramilitary force. Its motto was: “We fight for democracy”.

The Kamajors’ Wartime Bastion

In Freetown I’m told that to learn the full story I need to go to Bo, the Kamajors’ wartime bastion and control centre. My driver and I leave town early to beat the traffic and the worst of the heat, and a little over four hours and as many police checkpoints later we’re in bustling Bo.

Bo in the early morning. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

I’m welcomed by one of “Pa” Norman’s former advisers. A kind old man, he pulls up a chair for me on the concrete veranda outside his home and tells me that Norman himself used to sit in it. He perches on a wooden bench and proudly shows me a photo of himself amid the great leader’s entourage and another of Kondewa’s first Kamajor unit. The grainy photos and the contrast between the lean youth in the picture and the wrinkles of the old man in front of me give the impression that the Kamajors belong to a different time.

I ask former fighters how the Kamajors, with little to no military training, were able to keep at bay the heavily armed RUF and turncoat soldiers of the AFRC. At times, I’m told, they fought alongside professional soldiers from Executive Outcomes – the South African military company hired by Kabbah to suppress the RUF in return for diamond mining concessions – and Nigerian troops in ECOMOG, the regional force that deployed in support of the government.

But many emphasise the power of the Kamajors’ secret initiation rites. Two initiators – one shows me his CDF identity card which confirms that his official job title was indeed “Initiator” – explain how they would burn special herbs and papers printed with verses from the Quran, press the ashes into cuts in the initiate’s flesh and wash his clothes in the same mix. The concoction, they say, made fighters immune to bullets as long as they followed certain rules before and during operations. These included: don’t drink alcohol, don’t have sex and, most importantly, don’t turn back. One former CDF battalion commander puffs out his chest saying, “to this day I believe it. Shoot me now: I will not be harmed”.

A former battalion commander and foot soldier in the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) with the author, Jerihun village near Bo, Sierra Leone. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

Weak Grip on a Heavy Tool

The CDF remains a source of pride to many former members, but some senior leaders frown with regret as they talk through how these auxiliaries’ discipline unravelled. “It was difficult to control them”, former Vice President Demby tells me in his dimly lit study in Bo. The vast majority were illiterate, and I noticed that the initiator had signed his CDF card with an inky fingerprint. As the war dragged on, many joined to take advantage of government handouts, take revenge on the RUF and AFRC or settle old scores.

In places, the CDF pushed out the local chiefs and administered their own often harsh justice in kangaroo courts. A radio journalist says that in Bo the CDF committed worse crimes against civilians than even the RUF had done. A Lebanese trader on the town’s main drag curls his lip and says dismissively, “they were all the same”. Outside their home areas, in Freetown especially, the CDF robbed and harassed civilians and did much worse if they suspected them of collaborating with the enemy.

At its height, the CDF numbered an estimated 36,000 men – as recruitment was unregulated and new members not always registered, nobody can be exactly sure. With so many fighters across the country, the CDF turned into an unwieldy counter-insurgency tool. Command and control lay not with central leadership, but with local field commanders, who assumed their positions through performance on the battlefield. Disciplinary action for misconduct was at best inconsistent, at worst non-existent.

Neglect and Betrayal

At the end of the war and thereafter, the government’s mishandling of the CDF had serious political repercussions. The UN launched disarmament programs for fighters of all stripes that began to take hold from 2001. The CDF handed in their weapons in return for cash and assurances that they would be supported to find work. But the three- or six-month vocational training courses in masonry, carpentry and the like were too short, difficult to turn into a business without start-up capital and ill-matched with post-war needs. Many who took the training sold the tools they were given and became motorbike taxi drivers (ocadas), instead.

The former CDF fighters I met were aggrieved that the government hadn’t helped them more – “They used us when they needed us, then dropped us”, said one – and feel sore that there was little public recognition of their efforts. A monument erected to the CDF I saw in central Freetown had lost whatever used to stand on top of the simple concrete base, and no one had taken the trouble to repair it.

A monument to the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) in central Freetown. A metal prong projecting sideways from the top of the base used to attach the monument’s upper part. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

Worse than neglect, former CDF, the Kamajors in particular, feel the government they fought for betrayed them when it allowed three of their leaders – Norman, Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana – to be indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court, set up to hold to account those who “bore greatest responsibility” for atrocities during the conflict, indicted leaders from each of the AFRC, RUF and CDF. Norman died after a hip operation before the end of the trial; an Appeals Chamber increased Kondewa’s and Fofana’s original sentences to twenty and fifteen years respectively.

What makes this humiliation yet more painful is the widely-held belief that Norman’s arrest was less the outcome of justice taking its unavoidable course than a convenient way for President Kabbah to remove from the political playing field an erstwhile brother-in-arms, who, through his leadership, had become too powerful, too much of a threat.

Whatever the mix of motives, Kabbah and the SLPP paid dearly. The perceived betrayal of Norman and the Kamajors was a major contributing factor in the SLPP losing the 2007 elections to the country’s other major party, the northerner-dominated All People’s Congress (APC).

In elections coming up in early 2018, it looks like the APC is trying to play the Kamajor card again. Vice President Victor Foh recently invited Norman’s son, Sam Norman Jr., to come back from the UK and join the APC campaign. He accepted. Though Norman Jr. was not around during the war, in a place where name recognition carries political currency, many who would have followed the Kamajor chief to the grave may pass their allegiance from father to son.

Treasured Memory or Shameful Episode?

A Kamajor war vest in the national museum in Freetown. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

It’s true that much has changed in Sierra Leone, but the war and its aftermath still inform how people see themselves and each other and, for some, shape their political allegiances. Back in Freetown on my last day, I visit the national museum and find there a Kamajor war vest, carefully embroidered with charms and cowrie shells. Having just talked with men for whom Kamajor is still an important part of who they are, it’s odd to see it displayed behind glass like an historical exhibit.

I suspect many Sierra Leoneans would think that putting the vest in the museum’s collection a good thing, but for different reasons. Some would be glad that the Kamajors are thus commemorated; others would be pleased to see a distasteful story committed to the past. As with much relating to the Kamajors, it depends on whom you ask.

This article was updated on 10 March 2017. The previous version did not name Dr. Alpha Lavalie as the principal creator of the first Kamajor units in the Kenema area and erroneously stated that the Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted three leaders from each of the AFRC, RUF and CDF. The court indicted five members of the RUF, of whom two died before being brought to trial; four members of the AFRC, of whom one left Sierra Leone before being brought to trial; and three from the CDF.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

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