North Ugandan Conflict, Forgotten But Still Deadly

From Sudan to Congo to Côte d'Ivoire to Rwanda, the African continent seems plagued with humanitarian crises. Some of these situations have received international attention – though often times, too late. Others have been virtually ignored. Such is the case with Northern Uganda, home to one of Africa's longest and most brutal civil wars. As Katherine Southwick reports, the anti-government Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has ravaged the region – abducting children, slaying innocents, and displacing millions. And without substantial and coordinated international efforts, the Ugandan conflict could threaten regional stability, stifle economic development, and hinder HIV/AIDS prevention. After several failed ceasefires, the peace process now stands at a crucial juncture: International Criminal Court involvement may undermine negotiation efforts, and military intervention could sabotage any hope for reconciliation. "Recent history shows that African conflicts can respond well to patient and concerted international pressure on all sides to negotiate," Southwick concludes, "Such attention to the suffering of the Acholi is long overdue." – YaleGlobal

North Ugandan Conflict, Forgotten But Still Deadly

Unless the world helps in the peace effort, civil unrest could destabilize the region and hamper progress
Katherine Southwick
Wednesday, March 9, 2005
Suffer the young: A group of children formerly abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army enjoy their freedom, but others may be kidnapped to replace them

NEW HAVEN: For nineteen years, war has plagued northern Uganda. Led by the messianic Joseph Kony, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has brutalized the Acholi, the largest ethnic group in the north. Facing massacres, mutilations, lootings, and child abductions, around 1.6 million people – 90 percent of the region's population – have been internally displaced, and up to 500,000 have died. In the name of the Lord, the LRA has created a true hell on earth. Jan Egeland, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, recently dubbed northern Uganda's war as the world's most "forgotten" humanitarian emergency. "We have all done too little," he said.

Developments in recent months now offer the international community an opportunity. A team of mediators, led by Ugandan ministers Ruhukana Rugunda and Betty Bigombe, have painstakingly built a peace process between the Ugandan Government and the LRA leadership. Some top LRA leaders have already surrendered. Major donors – namely the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK – are providing more support to the mediation than they have to previous peace initiatives. To reach a sustainable settlement, however, there must be more international pressure, especially from the United States, on both sides to negotiate. If left unchecked, the war could destabilize the region, undermine Uganda's prospects for development, and certainly prolong the agony of the northern Ugandans.

Resulting in part from colonial policies, ethnic and political differences in Uganda have run largely along geographical divisions between north and south. The LRA emerged out of earlier northern rebel movements, which sought to prevent government violence against the population shortly after current President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, took power in 1986. Espousing a cult-like ideology of spiritually cleansing the region, the LRA was originally committed to establishing a national government based on the Ten Commandments. With its forces now reduced to a few hundred, the LRA today is likely focused on mere survival. Based in southern Sudan, the LRA has directly engaged the Ugandan Army and has terrorized the Acholi – its own people – viewing them as government collaborators. (Local support for the insurgency waned in the early 1990s.) Acholi are also attacked for supplies and fresh child recruits; the LRA has abducted over 20,000 children to serve as rebel fighters and sexual slaves.

The conflict, rooted in political division, has been exacerbated by the neighboring Sudanese government's involvement. It has supported the LRA in retaliation for Museveni's support of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought to guarantee the region a greater stake in its natural resources and to counter Khartoum's efforts to impose sharia (Islamic) law. The LRA has also fought against the SPLM at the behest of the Sudanese Government. Since reaching a peace agreement for southern Sudan earlier this year, the Sudanese government has pledged to cease LRA support.

The northern Ugandan conflict is not simply an extension of the war in southern Sudan, however. It is tempting to assume that the Sudanese peace accord would ensure the LRA's dissolution – but this is wishful thinking. The LRA already has its own substantial hidden arms caches and cost-effective tactics for difficult terrain (e.g., splitting into smaller groups and using basic machetes, rather than guns, to kill). Closely monitoring peace in southern Sudan is certainly important, but there must also be direct focus on the northern Ugandan conflict itself.

Launching a serious international peace effort without further delay could be critical for assuring regional and national stability. So long as the LRA exists, the rebels can threaten the peace agreement in southern Sudan, which in turn has serious ramifications for stabilizing Darfur. If the region is poorly monitored or the agreement weakens, hard-liners in the Sudanese government can still supply arms clandestinely to the LRA and use the rebel army to renew fighting with the southern Sudanese.

Furthermore, the longer the conflict persists, the more it deepens regional divisions in Uganda. While the south has developed significantly in the past two decades, protracted failure to end the war has left the north desperately impoverished, marginalized, and embittered. Nearly every military engagement with the LRA involves killing child abductees, who form the bulk of the rebel fighting force, and precipitates further LRA attacks on civilians.

As such, a peaceful solution is preferable. For this to happen, the current – essentially passive – international approach to this conflict must change. The default international position on Uganda has been to give tacit support for a military solution, despite repeated failures over the years by the Ugandan Army to capture Kony and his top leaders. Instead, the United States must join, and therefore intensify, the efforts of major donors to support the current mediation. This will require a direct appeal to President Museveni – some have suggested appointing a Special Envoy – and clearly defining the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which commenced investigations into the LRA in 2004, upon Museveni's referral.

Convincing the international community to pressure Museveni will not be easy. At best, he has been lukewarm about negotiating, and outsiders tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perceived as one of Africa's best leaders, Museveni has campaigned commendably against the spread of HIV/AIDS and boosted economic growth. On the surface, he appears to be making a reasonable effort to address the war, maintaining a substantial military presence in the troubled region and encouraging the ICC investigation. A predominantly military solution thus plays into existing international inclinations to support Museveni, punish the LRA in the name of international justice, and legitimate the tough approaches taken by other nations, including the United States, in dealing with "terrorists."

Yet without a robust peace effort, the military effort could drag on indefinitely. In this context, the ICC's role must be defined more carefully, ensuring that its strategy is more constructive than disruptive to the peace process. The statement of ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo that he can allow "time, but not immunity" fuels LRA confusion and distrust. It is also at odds with more than a decade of Acholi efforts to facilitate peace. Not only does it discourage LRA members from seeking amnesty pursuant to a Ugandan law passed in 2000 – with vigorous support from the Acholi community; it potentially undermines traditional mechanisms of reconciliation and reintegration. The threat of prosecution may serve as a stick, but the carrot of amnesty and reconciliation must be retained in order to reinforce the peace process.

Recent history shows that African conflicts can respond well to patient and concerted international pressure on all sides to negotiate. Disarmament, amnesty, and reintegration provide a starting point for talks. A genuine effort by the Ugandan Government to resolve the conflict peacefully will also raise its democratic standing, especially as the country heads for elections in 2006. Using their relationships as friends and major donors – international aid comprises more than half of Uganda's budget – the United States and its European partners should seize this opportunity. Such attention to the suffering of the Acholi is long overdue.

Katherine Southwick is a third-year student at Yale Law School.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization