1. the past: how did we get here?

Soldier and resident, Labuje IDP camp, Kitgum district, 2006.

This is part 1 of a series of posts trying to advance conversation about Kony and the LRA. I apologize in advance for errors or omissions. I’d appreciate your input in the comments section, especially from those of you more familiar with DRC, CAR, and South Sudan.

Considering the conflict with the LRA has gone on for a very long time, I will not try to write a comprehensive history but instead give a little context in my attempt to explore: How has this situation been allowed to go on for decades?

This is a tricky question. As one peace activist has said: “It is very difficult to point out one cause or another. Now the consequences have become causes.”

A too-brief background: In 1986, Yoweri Museveni became president of Uganda through a military coup, ousting northern General Tito Okello Lutwa. Many people in northern Uganda opposed the coup. Acholi people in particular feared marginalization and possible reprisals for the violent actions of past regimes led and supported by northern

ers. Museveni came to power by violating a power-sharing agreement and quickly moved to dismiss northerners from military and civil service. These and other grievances drove the formation of two northern rebel movement called the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) and the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM). However, the national military defeated HSM in 1987 and the UPDA signed a peace agreement the next year. Joseph Kony refused to give up the fight, mobilizing former HSM fighters to join what would become his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Before long, LRA actions contradicted their original logic. Kony began terrorizing the Acholi communities whose rights he purported to defend, abducting civilians to replenish his forces.

So, what’s the fuel that’s kept this fire burning?

Governance…or lack thereof: The LRA succeeds where governments fail. Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Uganda rank 4th, 8th, and 21st respectively on the 2011 Failed States Index. (South Sudan wasn’t independent yet, but Sudan ranked #3.) The LRA has terrorized communities where governments are unwilling and/or unable to protect civilians against violence.

Politics and power: As Musa Okwonga puts it,”when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it.” Many leaders simply haven’t consistently prioritized the LRA issue, and they have largely managed to avoid taking responsibility or paying political consequences.

Makeshift shelters at Lira camp for IDPs, 2006.

Most populations attacked by the LRA are politically marginalized within their own countries. In Uganda, the conflict has hit the Acholi people in the north as well as Ateso and Langi in eastern Soroti and Lira districts. Some areas where the LRA conflict has operated are rich in natural resources (whether farmland, mineral, or oil) or hold other strategic importance, a fact not lost on politicians, rebels, militaries, or foreign powers.

Human rights concerns, on all sides: That the LRA has committed atrocious crimes is well documented. In 1998, estimates said 80 percent of Kony’s “troops” were children.

In the four countries concerned, governments have less-than-stellar human rights records. Ugandan security forces have a history of violence against civilians in all four nations, including their own. This has led to mistrust, and the governments in CAR, South Sudan, and DRC have asked Ugandan troops involved in LRA pursuit to leave their territory at various times.

Within Uganda, the memory of how northerners were, in many cases, forced into camps, lacked adequate protection once there, and endured nightmarish living conditions still breed resentment, not just against the LRA, but also against the government. In 2005, 1000 people were dying each week because of the conditions in camps. Historically, government operations against Kony’s forces have been marked by human rights violations by the Ugandan military.

Additional resource [added 4/10/12]: Human Rights Watch Report “Uprooted and Forgotten” regarding abuses by LRA and Ugandan military forces.

Proxy wars and influx of arms: The LRA has capitalized on instability and other conflicts in the region. From 1994-2005 (some allege longer) the group took advantage of an “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” dynamic between Sudan and Uganda to get material and technical support from the Sudanese government. The Ugandan government funded the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in retaliation. These actions in Sudan, combined with major wars in neighboring DRC and failures of the state in CAR led to a massive influx of weapons. Some still allege Khartoum support for the LRA.

President Museveni meets with President Reagan at the White House in 1987.

American policies: The American government has long supported the government of Ugandan President Museveni (in power for 26 years and counting), even during times when his administration has ignored the LRA conflict or faced allegations of abuse in the north.

There have been changes in this dynamic in recent years, with aid to northern communities and US criticism of some Museveni actions increasing. Some see the changes as motivated by increased US regional interests (particularly regarding anti-terrorism, the situation in Sudan, newly found oil, and Ugandan troop commitments for Somalia), others not.

Failed peace talks: Despite many cease fires, peace negotiations between the Ugandan government and the LRA have collapsed several times. Two of several notable attempts:

In 1994, Kony asked for 6 months to gather his troops and leave the bush and a UN observer to oversee the peace process. Museveni responded with a seven day ultimatum demanding surrender. Talks collapsed.

The two sides engaged in an 18 month rollercoaster of stop-and-start peace talks from 2006-2008, interrupted by various accusations and restarted with renewed ceasefires. Kony’s negotiators refused to sign a deal that didn’t offer amnesty from International Criminal Court (ICC) charges. In 2008, Museveni announced that his government would agree to these demands, but Kony never came out of the bush to sign the deal. The ICC charges stand.

Failed military operations: I’ll give a few examples here.

School children look at the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck near Kitgum, Uganda. Oct, 2009.

In 1991, the Ugandan military launched Operation North, an attempt to root out LRA rebels that depleted LRA forces but abused civilians in the process. The campaign also called for creation (and some say, forcible recruitment) of “Arrow Groups” of civilians armed with arrows, spears, and machetes. The government left these groups to largely fend for themselves as the LRA stepped up attacks. The brutality of Kony’s tactics increased in retaliation. Mutilation became his signature punishment for suspected government cooperation.

In 2002, the Ugandan military conducted Operation Iron Fist. During this offensive against the LRA’s bases in southern Sudan, the Khartoum government imposed conditions that may well have allowed Kony to escape. Worse, the military action allowed the LRA back into northern Uganda in large numbers, leading to more widespread displacement and attacks on civilians in new areas. LRA rebels were ejected from South Sudan after a peace agreement ended civil war there in 2005, favoring territory in DRC and CAR.

Another military offensive against the LRA failed in 2008. Operation Lightning Thunder significantly reduced the LRA’s numbers, but didn’t capture commanders and set off retaliatory attacks against unprotected civilians that killed almost 1000 Congolese and displaced 180,000.

Local efforts for peace: Throughout the region, there are many competing ideas about the best road to attaining peace and justice. More on this in the next few posts.

Kitgum, Uganda. View of IDP camp from the air.

Loads of traditional, religious, and civil society organizations and individual activists, politicians, and other leaders in northern Uganda have tirelessly worked for recovery and peace-building. Despite ongoing challenges, there are many successes stories of groups that are providing education, healthcare, and basic needs along with specialized disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration services for returned soldiers. More on some of these later too.

For those interested in a full conflict timeline, I suggest visiting the Beyond Juba Project.

Next post: 2. the present: what is the situation today?

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2 Responses to 1. the past: how did we get here?

  1. Steve says:

    There is a broken link for “abused civilians in the process” It’s not that I doubt this, but I did want to read more about it.

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