Uganda, Forgotten Crisis

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Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman for leading us to this story.

night commuters 2

Uganda’s night commuters [John and Melanie Kotsopoulos / Flickr]

For the past 19 years, the Lord’s Resistance Army — half religious cult and half rebel paramilitary group — has terrorized Uganda’s northern Acholi province.

They have raped and mutilated the inhabitants of countless villages and killed at least 12,000 people. They have kidnapped and enslaved over 25,000 children, often forcing them to kill their own families before joining the LRA as child soldiers or sex slaves. Almost two million Ugandans have fled their homes and are now living in refugee camps under horrendous conditions. (The LRA has attacked camps, too, and government soldiers who are supposed to protect the refugees have been accused of committing atrocities as well.) Tens of thousands of children, Uganda’s “night commuters“, regularly walk a dozen miles from their rural villages to city centers to prevent night-time abduction by the LRA.

What could explain these actions? The group’s leader, self-proclaimed “spirit medium” Joseph Kony, says he wants to establish a government according to his own “unique interpretation of Biblical millenarianism.”

Who is Joseph Kony? Is he a mad man, prophet, military genius, an Acholi nationalist or a terrorist?…The battle to answer this question [has been] pursued with equal vigour by both his friends and adversaries. An obsession with violence and its use as an instrument to pursue LRA’s equally opaque goals has been a shocking staple in the LRA mystery.”

Angelo Izama, Uganda: Kony’s New Face,, 8/2/06

The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for five LRA leaders and is launching a full investigation into crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, independent negotiators are trying to broker some sort of a peace deal between the LRA and the Ugandan government.

How did this happen, and can anyone stop it? What role has the Ugandan government played? Will the ICC’s involvement bring Kony to justice, or will it complicate chances for peace? How does this conflict fit in to other regional conflicts, in Sudan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Are we ignoring another wholesale slaughter in an African country?

Olara Otunnu

Former U.N. Under Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict

Founder and President of LBL Foundation for Children

Betty Bigombe

Chief Peace Negotiator between the Uganda Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Former Uganda government minister and social scientist at the World Bank

Marieke Wierda

Senior Associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice, responsible for work in Uganda

Extra Credit Reading

Olara Otunnu, The Secret Genocide, Foreign Policy, July/August 2006: “To the extent…Uganda receives any attention, it is generally in the context of the bizarre and brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)…. Harrowing images of Ugandan children walking at night to avoid LRA raids have seeped into the public consciousness. That is where the awareness ends, however, and that’s just how the Ugandan government wants it.”

Abraham McLaughlin, Africa’s Peace Seekers: Betty Bigombe, Christian Science Monitor, 9/13/05: “Bigombe spends hours every day talking on her two cellphones – coaxing, encouraging, and scolding the Army commanders, President Museveni, and rebels.”

International Criminal Court, Warrant of Arrest unsealed against five LRA Commanders, 10/14/05.

Ethan Zuckerman, Just how crazy is Joseph Kony?, My Heart’s in Accra, 6/29/06: “Kony used his interview to make it clear that Ugandan president Museveni was responsible for the atrocities in Acholi, not him…. Needless to say, very few people are buying this story.”

Matthew Green, Kony Tells Acholi He’s Sorry, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 7/8/06: “Even more remarkable was not what he said at the August 1 press conference, but what he told assembled northern Ugandan and southern Sudanese elders in closed sessions beforehand. He apologised for the many atrocities inflicted by the LRA.”

LRA victim: ‘I cannot forget and forgive’, BBC News, 6/29/06: “Then on the seventh day, because I never expected to live, I insulted their commander in the hope that in revenge he would kill me.”

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  • siennaf1

    the western world is simply racist. we do not care about blacks killing blacks, and we raise hell when jews stand up for themselves.

  • dkr

    The children are caught in the middle of a complicated, violent mess.

    The war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces began twenty years ago and approximately 1.9 million people have been forced out of their homes and into unsafe displacement camps in Northern Uganda. Aside from the displacement, the government has failed to protect the security of the inhabitants of the camps. For example, the police are unable to control the vast criminal acts committed against the displaced persons, as there are more than eighty of these camps in Northern Uganda. The lack of protection has forced the children into nightly migration.

    The conflict between the LRA and the UPDF has become progressively violent since 1986. Essential background information of this evolution involves the Northern territory of Uganda, which therefore explains why BOTH SIDES of the war are violating the inhabitants of this region. In 1986, the Ugandan group called the National Resistance Army (NRA) took over power and the soldiers on the opposing side headed north, as they originated from northern Uganda. Northern Uganda consists of a large Acholi population and a woman named Alice Lakwena began a Christian movement called the Holy Spirit Movement in this region after the overthrow. Her movement headed south, towards Kampala, and was pushed back by the NRA. Alice Lakwena fled to Kenya after this event. An opportunist named Joseph Kony began the Lord’s Resistance Army and followed behind the Holy Spirit Movement by making claims to the people that the same spirit that guided Alice Lakwena guided him and the LRA. Due to the resistance movements like these historically originating from the Northern region of Uganda, President Museveni, head of the NRA, had very negative relations with people of this region. Through elections in 2000 and 2001, people from the north voted in parliamentarians who were against Museveni. Members of the LRA lost support of the Northerners through the 1990’s also and began turning on the people that Museveni’s administration placed into displacement camps in Northern Uganda as well. The attacks by the LRA against the displaced are said to be because the LRA views them as a supporter of the government.

    It is important to mention that it is documented in various human rights reports that the Sudanese government has consistently backed the LRA over the past couple decades. Since the overthrow in 1986, there have been reports that rebels have crossed the Ugandan-Sudanese border for protection. In 1999, the two governments made an agreement that they would cease the financial and weaponry support of the opposing rebel groups in both Sudan and Uganda. In 2002, the government required the Ugandan people to move to displacement camps due to Operation Iron Fist. This Operation was launched against Sudan with the consent of the Sudanese government, which caused the LRA to move into Northern Uganda and out of southern Sudan. This operation added to the polarization between the Northern Ugandans and the government because it pushed the violent LRA into their region again.

    (SOURCE USED : Human Rights Watch, Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda, September 2005, Vol. 17, No. 12 (A), pages 2-11.)


  • Robin

    Hi dkr – wow, thanks for that rather exhaustive summary. Do you have personal experience with this crisis? Or are you an impassioned observer?

  • dkr

    I chose to write a communication on this crisis for my International Human Rights Law course. I researched this for about 3 months.

    I understand the post is large. I felt compelled to shine a giant light on the criminals that have set up the environment that is victimizing these children. These children need the international community to exert major pressure on the violators.

    It is impossible for me not to be passionate about this subject after the testimonies that I read.

  • I was in Uganda during the months of November and December 2005 carrying out research for a Master’s thesis in Conflict and Sustainable Peace (K.U. Leuven in Belgium). At the time I arrived, the International Criminal Court had just issued its arrest warrants for the top five rebel commanders of the LRA. However, there were two other forms of justice (restorative) that existed in Uganda. As a result, I decided to research conflict resolution techniques in northern Uganda.

    For those of you who don’t know about the conflict situation in Uganda, here is a small exert from the introduction of my masters thesis:

    “Violence in Uganda – one of the poorest countries in the world – has been pervasive for almost two decades. The protracted war in northern Uganda has affected all elements of society. Uganda has suffered severe damage to its “political and economic institutions and processes from prolonged intra-elite conflictâ€?. The conflict between the government’s Uganda People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) and a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been ongoing in northern Uganda for nineteen years. The result of this conflict has been described as “one of the most excessive cases of violations of the rights of innocent peopleâ€?. Foremost of the atrocities has unquestioningly been the abduction of children. Since the beginning of the conflict, estimates reveal the LRA have abducted more than 20,000 children.

    Once a popular war supported by the local Acholi community of the north, civilians became targeted in the early 1990s because their declining support for the LRA was interpreted as collaboration with the Ugandan government. The war worsened and the humanitarian situation declined. Marketed as a ‘safety strategy’ carried out by the Government of Uganda (GoU), the conflict has resulted in estimates of 1.4 to 1.9 million Ugandans being forced to live in squalid and overcrowded camps for protection. These camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) are almost totally reliant on food aid from the UN World Food Program (WFP).�

    I can also post a story about my experience/trip to northern Uganda if anyone is interested…

  • I would just like to add that the conflict is now in its twentieth year….

  • Robin

    Hi Melanie (who also took that picture!) – thanks for posting. I’d love to hear more from you about the different forms of tribal or traditional justice in Uganda, and how they’re being considered alongside the “modern” justice solutions offered by the UN or ICC.

    Also, I should say that the more I read the post I wrote, the more I realized that I largely omitted the government’s role in the crisis: herding people into IDF camps etc. We will talk about their role in this as well.

  • uNight

    The list of crimes committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army against the civilian population in northern Uganda is long and horrendous. They have abducted and maimed children in the thousands. They have committed many unspeakable atrocities against the civilian population, including killings, and rapes, mutilations. For this they have been justly condemned by the international community and their leadership indicted by the ICC. But there are two great omissions in the debate about the gross humanitarian crisis in Uganda.

    First, the role of the Uganda government in perpetuating the crisis is often ignored or unduly minimized. (Hence, Robin thanks for your last posting.) It’s admitted by the government itself that the LRA has killed about 10,000 people in the 20 years it has waged this gruesome rebellion. Astonishingly, the government policy of forcing 2 million people in northern Uganda into squalid displacement camps that have been described by many observers as “concentration camps” have led to over 1,000 deaths per week due to preventable diseases, neglect, malnutrition, and suicide, according to the United Nations. This translates to close to 50,000 deaths per year, due entirely to government policy. In other words, the policy of President Museveni has led to within one year five times as many deaths as the LRA have committed in 20 years. What is worse is that the international community has elected to ignore this disturbing fact.

    As you may know, in 1996 the government of President Yoweri Museveni herded over 2 million people in northern Uganda, and 90% of the Acholi population (the main ethnic group in the north), into squalid camps without water, sanitation, food, or any form of economic activity. For a decade now, most of the population of northern Uganda has been living on hand-outs from international humanitarian organizations. Poverty is rampant, as is suicide by mothers. Families and family bonds are being torn apart. The culture and way of life of the population in camps are being systematically destroyed. A whole generation of children have grown up without education or proper family values. HIV/AIDS infection has become rampant, posting the highest incidence of infection in the country. Government soldiers who are supposed to protect the population from the LRA are often encamped inside the camps, thus being protected from the LRA by the displaced population, who are then killed by both the LRA and government soldiers.

    Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Uganda government soldiers of rapes, killings, scorched earth tactics, and a culture of impunity. Soldiers that have committed crimes in the camps or in the north generally usually go unpunished and commanding officers of such units are promoted instead. These facts have led some observers to accuse the Uganda government of deliberate genocide, partly as a policy of revenge against the northerners who controlled the previous government.

    Second, the United Nations, UNICEF and the government of Uganda have all consistently stated that the LRA has abducted over 25,000 children. The LRA is accused of using abductions as a form of forced recruitment and of relying on child soldiers. Less than 3,000 of the abductees have ever been returned to their families by the LRA. Recently the Uganda government has estimated the LRA’s strength at less than 700 soldiers. This raises a disturbing question to which the international community must seek an urgent explanation from both the LRA and the Uganda government. What happened to 21,000 abducted children? Were they all killed in battles? What happened to those children. The fate of thousands of these children must necer be ignored by the international community, and certainly not by UNICEF.

    Daniella, uNight: for the children of Uganda

  • katie.hill

    I strongly encourage anyone who is interested to visit uNight: For the Children of Uganda works to mobilize the public and build a network of concerned citizens in the United States and abroad to raise awareness on the 20-year civil war in Uganda and to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims–the two generations of children whose culture and way of life has been systematically destroyed by war and neglect.

    Through panel discussions, film screenings, conferences, and its blog, uNight educates and facilitates meaningful discussion about how to resolve the humanitarian catastrophe in northern Uganda. Through a nationwide chapter network, uNight provides expertise and guidance to students and community groups interested in raising awareness about the crisis. Finally, uNight is working to implement rehabilitation programs on the ground in northern Uganda.

    Please visit the website:

  • Thanks Katie and Daniella. You both have raised some very good points that are largely forgotten or unknown to the international community.

    I would like to touch upon a few more things: the ICC, the Amnesty Act, Acholi restorative justice and my thoughts about what road the resolution of the conflict should take.

    Despite the existence of modern penal codes and other legal instruments applying forms of retributive justice, the Acholis still use the mechanisms of their traditional justice system to resolve disputes and repair broken relationships. To complement traditional Acholi forms of restorative justice, and at the request of those most affected by the violence in northern Uganda, amidst these and other atrocities, the GoU created an amnesty in an effort to bring peace to the regions in conflict. Effective in 2000, Ugandas Amnesty Act was intended to provide a blanket amnesty to LRA fighters who returned from the bush. However, to date, it has done little to bring about peace in northern Uganda. Its contribution to ending the conflict remains questionable.

    Established in 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has the power to exercise its jurisdiction over persons for the most serious crimes of international concern. The Rome Statute governs the jurisdiction and functioning of the ICC. In 2003, under Article 14, the GoU referred the situation in the north to the ICC to bring violators – i.e. the LRA rebel group – of the Rome Statute accountable. This is the first state party referral to the ICC. As a result of investigations carried out since the referral in December of 2003, the ICC has issued indictments in the form of arrest warrants for the top five LRA leaders, including Joseph Kony. A largely forgotten war by the international community with appalling violations of crimes against humanity makes it a challenging case for the ICC.

    The history of Uganda has seen extensive, recurrent upheavals for power that have resulted in structural imbalances underlying social conflict. Seizing power through conflict in the guise of military coups has been a common theme as well as wars with neighbouring countries and civil wars. The underlying causes of the long history of political upheavals were colonially derived regional, ethnic, and imbalances. The roots of the present conflict go deeper, dating back to when Uganda was under British rule. The roots of the conflict are complex and sometimes contradictory. However, if one thing is certain, the recent history of Uganda has shown that military force is the manner in which the involved actors have chosen to achieve their goals. Is it any wonder Kony and the LRA see the only way for change is through conflict and violence? (e.g. violence begets violence).

    In 2003, during a visit to northern Uganda, Jan Egeland, the UNs under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs (OCHA), declared that he cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda, that is getting such little international attention. While the horror has been widespread, children have particularly suffered as the LRA has abducted them and forced them into service. The conflict has had devastating effects on the livelihoods of the population. The GoUs counter-insurgency strategy of placing people in IDP camps has not only failed to protect civilians, but has also deprived the vast majority of the population of their livelihoods.

    The conflict in northern Uganda between the LRA and the GoU has been ongoing for almost twenty years. Thus, it may now have arrived at a point in which it requires something more than the Acholi population or even the GoU alone can provide if the conflict is to see a conclusion. Acholi approaches to justice and reconciliation should be fervently applied on former rebels once they have returned from the bush. This restorative approach can be a means to strengthen communities and build the foundations for sustainable peace. However, not enough evidence has proven that these restorative approaches will guarantee forgiveness and reconciliation for those responsible for the most atrocious of the crimes committed. The suggestion I offered in my Masters thesis is for stronger methods of accountability to be utilised on those most responsible – the five top LRA rebel leaders – as their malicious intentions were obvious.

    A joint statement by Moreno Ocampo and the community leaders from the Lango, Acholi, Iteso, and Madi districts, states they have agreed to work together as part of a common effort to achieve justice and reconciliation, the rebuilding of communities, and an end to violence in northern Uganda. All parties agreed to continue to integrate the dialogue for peace, the ICC and traditional justice and reconciliation processes. If justice is delayed to the people of northern Uganda, does it necessarily mean that justice is denied? Obviously this remains to be seen as the ICC went ahead, against criticisms from civil society and religious and cultural leaders in Uganda and issued arrest warrants for the five senior leaders of the LRA. We are now at a point in which the ICCs action cannot be revoked. Not only Ugandans, but also the international community must move forward and use the knowledge and tools that exist, i.e. an international court of justice, an amnesty act, and a traditional form of restorative justice. The future of northern Uganda will need these different sets of tools applied at different times and at different strengths if peace is to be sustainable. Peace and justice may not be mutually exclusive. As such, it is important for future stability and peace that those most responsible for atrocities are held accountable with the perpetrators responsible for the most serious of war crimes and crimes against humanity be investigated and prosecuted.

    One thing is for certain and that is the military approach employed by the GoU has never been effective in quelling the violence, nor has it brought about any indication of peace. Rather, it has had the opposite effect of perpetuating the conflict through renewed offensives by the LRA. Moreover, any military approach should be deemed unproductive, as it is only injuring and killing children who are, for the most part, fighting against their will.

    Further action should be taken with respect to those crimes committed before the ICC jurisdictional limit, since the ICCs mandate is limited to crimes against humanity and war crimes committed after July of 2002 – a date which cannot take into account the long history of the war in the north where all sides of the conflict are guilty. But does punishing Kony and senior LRA commanders really absolve them? Perhaps in terms of modern justice, but is that any consolation to the Acholi people? However, an underlying question that has surrounded the conflict since it began is that accusations have been made supporting both Government (UPDF) and LRA forces have committed violations of international humanitarian law. This issue has been widely articulated by Ugandans, civil society, religious and cultural leaders, and even the LRA have made accusations against government forces. The ICC is within its jurisdiction to investigate these accusations as well and Ocampo did not rule out the possibility. The accusations against the UPDF are confirmed by a statement Museveni made in reference to atrocities committed by UPDF soldiers in which he indicates the GoU would punish them itself. However, observers highly doubt the GoU will be as supportive in pursuing the matter. In addition to formal justice, the Ugandan government and the president himself should admit to killings, atrocities, looting, havoc, and destruction committed by the Ugandan army in northern Uganda ever since 1986, if any path towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict is to be opened.

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests that a broader truth and reconciliation process (like those introduced in South Africa, Rwanda, Yugoslavia) would be a valuable supplement to the ICC investigation. HRW feels this process could work alongside traditional rituals in which those affected wish to participate. The truth and reconstruction process as advocated by HRW would give people in northern Uganda a forum in which they could raise human rights abuses that occurred during the entire twenty years of war that they believe need to be addressed. This would deal with those that feel the ICC process is not comprehensive enough and that it is partial. It would also address the argument that the ICC process is not enough to bring about reconciliation and sustainable peace in a country that has witnessed armed conflicts for more than just the twenty year LRA insurgency. Reconciliation and amnesty must be adopted on a wider scale and incorporated into northern communities. Perhaps a more formalised process should be developed. This would indeed address the concerns of those advocating restorative justice and the amnesty law as well as the issue as to whether traditional reconciliation mechanisms are capable of tackling crimes against whole communities.

    With an announcement of talks for peace by Vincent Otti at the beginning of December 2005 and more recently (August 2006) by the LRA and the governments of Uganda and Sudan, it could potentially pave the way for the conflict in northern Uganda to finally be brought to an end, although observers remain sceptical. There is no doubt that the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the conflict, people being forced into camps for the internally displaced, witnessing and perpetrating brutal acts of violence, has had an effect on the northern region of Uganda. A population that has known nothing but war for over two decades will need a tremendous amount of support at all levels, most importantly being at the local and national levels, but also regionally and internationally as well. For example, the northern region will need economic reconstruction that will address the physical and social devastation caused by the conflict; counselling in such areas as trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation; specialised training; health care to those coming from the bush and from IDP camps; disarmament and demobilisation programs for rebels; and resettlement programs for displaced people to return back to their villages. Northern Uganda has a long road of rebuilding ahead of it but their future looks promising, as it cannot get any worse than we have already seen.

    It is painfully obvious that Uganda needs firm but nationally minded leadership, extensive broadening of the political process to include previously marginalized groups, intra-elite cohesion, and positive developments on the economic front.

  • In addition to the photo posted above, if you would like to see more of my photos while visiting two internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps (Acholibur IDP camp in Kitgum and Pabbo IDP camp in Gulu) in northern Uganda, please follow this link:

  • zeke

    Are you folks familiar with Helena Cobban, author, Quaker activist, Christian Science Monitor columnist and proprietor of Just World News at ?

    She has a book forthcoming titled:Amnesty After Atrocity?: Healing Nations After Genocide and War Crimes.

    She is recently returned from Uganda and also spent time in many other troubled parts of the world.

  • Sub-saharan Africa is such a mess right now. Can we confidently say, in objective terms, that they are better governed now than they were under colonial rule?

    Also, compare the Asian countries that were occupied and colonized by the west: India, Hong Kong, Singapore, and several others. More stable governments, lower corruption, lots of scientists and engineers, lots of high tech and R&D. Why did they turn out so much better than the African ones? The best performing Sub-saharan African nation is probably South Africa, but they were ruled for a long time by a small white clique under a brutal system of apartheid, so they are hardly an advertisement for self-rule.

    It’s interesting that Pakistan and the Philippines are probably the two worst-performing Asian ex-colonial nations and they have some similar problems to African nations WRT having lots of small divisive ethnic and tribal groups. Is that the answer? If so it suggests that the map of Africa should be redrawn along ethnic lines.

  • Robin

    Zeke- I’m not previously familiar with Helena Cobban. Her blog looks meaty and interesting though, so I’m going to check it out in more detail. Thanks!

  • fiddlesticks

    Could you please also bring up the Darfur issue:

    “Arab call for UN delay on Darfur puzzles key envoy”

    By Irwin Arieff

    Mon Aug 21, 6:31 PM ET

    “A key U.N. Security Council member said on Monday he was puzzled by an Arab…”

  • rc21

    pLnelson brings up a good point. One which few people are ready to explore.Africa was in much better shape during colonial rule.

    Africa for the most part seems to be going backwards instead of forward.

    Most countries are now ruled by corrupt leaders, Tribal warfare seems to be an on going event in a number of countries.The UN once again has failed miserably in any attempts to stop the violence.

  • surfacing

    Do we really have to wait for the lazy/indifferent masses to act before formal procedural and legal guildelines are made to deal with humanterian disaster ?

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