Northern Uganda – a brief History to 2007

[Modified notes: Talk for Bangor & Ynys Môn Peace & Justice Group, June 2007]

To set the context, a potted history of Uganda – a nation with 50 tribes and languages, more complicated than that of Rwanda but probably less controversial in interpretation.  But it is a simplified version, and thus inaccurate to degree.

About 90 years ago, the young Winston Churchill visited the then Uganda Protectorate and described it as “the Pearl of Africa”, a description which survives to this day not only in tourist brochures, but in business names and the everyday conversation of the educated.  Central, southern and western Uganda has the potential to be a regional breadbasket, with it’s good climate and generally fertile soils, though already noticeable climate changes may affect that in a big way.  I’m not sure if Churchill went to the less luscious northern savannas, but certainly not to the semi-arid north-east.

It is not surprising that the peoples of the areas of Uganda we can broadly label as north and south are rather different from each other.  As it happens, due to the known movement of peoples from the 1500s to the 1800s, the southern peoples are generally of the grouping known as Bantu (a name misused by the apartheid regime in SA) and the peoples of the north are generally of the grouping known as Nilotic.  These groups arrived in Uganda around the same period, about 300 years ago and with the jockeying of position there was a lot of fighting during which most of the previous inhabitants fled, many to the hills, and many to further south.  Present day pygmies in the forests bordering Uganda and Congo, and the Twa of Rwanda are descendants and relatives of some of these, and perhaps earlier residents of some area are thought to be related to the Han / Bushmen of southern Africa.

The Bantu and Nilotic peoples are the owners of language groups of similar names which are completely unintelligible to each other.  Also the Bantu tend to be mostly agricultural, and the Nilotics tend to be more interested in cattle keeping.  Cf. Rwanda, Cain & Abel.

The current war in the north is centred on the Acholi people who belong to the huge Lwo sub-group of the Nilotics, which means they have relatives not only in other parts of northern and eastern Uganda, but also in Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and perhaps elsewhere.  The Acholi are generally characterised as a tall, dark, proud, handsome people who have been traditional enemies of the Baganda people of central Uganda who tend to be more or less the opposite (except the proud bit).  Beauty of course is in the eye, not only of the beholder, but of the bearer I suspect.

In the days before mass communication and long distance weaponry, to be enemies meant living nearby, or among each other.  It certainly did not preclude inter-marriage, either by force or by consent.  Thus the Baganda today are a little darker in colour than their Bantu fellows and don’t like be reminded of their mixed blood (many cannot believe it).  Yes, skin colour is talked about a lot in Uganda, usually quite matter-of-fact-ly.; “brown” is acceptable as part of a description of someone’s appearance.

During the colonial period, as agriculture developed with the advent of cash crops, the agriculturalists became wealthier.  Northern areas turned more to agriculture than before, but their success in this would always be tempered by weather and the degree of soil fertility.  Uganda was actually a British Protectorate, that is there was a treaty, albeit unequal, signed between the government of Queen Victoria and the Buganda Kingdom in central Uganda which meant that the British had to protect the Buganda Kingdom (ie keep them top-dogs in the region) in return for access to the Nile head waters flowing from Lake Victoria.  Britain’s interest in Uganda stemmed from its need to keep power in Egypt (another story, yes) – “he who controls the Nile controls Egypt”.  Uganda was never opened up for colonial settlement, as was Kenya for instance.  As usual with such treaties, trade started and more and more administration became necessary.  Basically, the Baganda and, to a much lesser extent, other Bantu tribes in country, became the pen pushers for the whole of Uganda.  The Luganda language was forced upon all regions of Uganda as an administrative language, to a greater or lesser extent, together with English and Kiswahili.

Meanwhile, such an imposed administration needed protection and enforcement.  Who better than the apparently less developed tribes of the north?  These were recruited into colonial forces such as the relatively famous King’s African Rifles (whom we have to thank for giving us Idi Amin).  Such forces protected administrative centres, discouraged uprisings, eventually fought in the white man’s wars (WWs One and Two).

This division of labour added to the differences between the  Nilotic and Bantu peoples, and became to a degree the accepted facts of life.  Then hey presto – Independence in 1962 (well it took a while but it’s along story).  Milton Obote, a northerner from the Lango tribe – yes a few northerners made it – became the first Ugandan Prime Minister in 1962, with the then King of Buganda as the first titular President, with the possibility of this post revolving to the other three traditional kings.  Langis are neighbours to the Acholis, speaking a different Lwo dialect.  Obote began well, the economy was growing, schools, hospitals and hotels built – the future at first looked rosy.  But he felt the need to keep the Baganda under his thumb and in 1967, when he considered they were getting too uppity, sent his army no2, one Idi Amin, to the Baganda Kingdom HQ in Kampala to squash them.  The Kabaka (king) narrowly escaped to exile in UK and Obote proclaimed himself executive President.  There followed increasing political chaos and economic disintegration, with Idi Amin seizing power (in 1969), who continued to seriously damage the economy by exiling the Asian shopkeepers in 1971.  Amin, who also did some good things in the development of the country, succumbed to the evils of absolute power and killings took place, tribal “punishments”, etc.  He was overthrown with the help of the Tanzanians in 1979 and eventually Obote was re-elected President in a fraudulent election in 1981.  [That’s 19 years in one paragraph.]

Things were supposed to get better.  But they got worse, Obote apparently looted the aid money and his army continued the looting, raping and killing started by Amin’s army (both of them constituted mainly of northerners) as they fought the more disciplined army of Yoweri Museveni who came to power in January 1986, and is still there today.  But don’t think only the southerners were suffering from this.  Amin set tribe against tribe in the north, so carefully constituted military units ravaged much of the north too.

All this against a background of zero successful development almost everywhere in the country.  But the southerners, living a more fertile area with a more conducive climate, could at least grow crops to sustain themselves whereas the northerners were always more susceptible to crop failure.

So, after 6 months of a military regime headed by the Acholi, Tito Okello, Museveni came to power with promises of a fundamental change, fair shares for all.  There was a certain amount of punishment meted out to Langis and Acholis because they had naturally supported their leaders, Obote and Okello.  But Museveni has a lot of support from the “west” and good things do begin to happen.

Enter Alice Auma, better known as Alice Lakwena (messenger) after the main spirit of the many said to possess her; she is appalled at the bloodshed taking place, and the occupation by Museveni’s predominantly southern forces.  There was also a degree of breakdown of traditional beliefs and practises, with soldiers returning from defeat refusing traditional cleansing ceremonies.  With her “Holy Spirit Movement” she led an insurgency against Museveni’s army the National Resistance Army (NRA) and she scored some remarkable successes before being defeated.  Being very disciplined towards the populace, she was very popular.  She and her soldiers believed that smearing oil on their bodies would protect them from their enemies’ bullets.  It didn’t and eventually she fled to Kenya.

One of the groups that sprang up in 1987 after the defeat of the Holy Spirit Movement was the equally mis-named “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA).  This one led by another spirit medium Joseph Kony (pronunciation).  He claimed that Museveni’s Government was impure and that he wanted to bring in a regime based on the Ten Commandments.  However, from the beginning he broke the one about not killing, and the summary commandment “Love your neighbour”.

Whilst still encouraging his forces to believe in similar divine protection as Alice Lakwena’s forces, Kony mounted a traditional guerrilla campaign, always  hard to put down as Museveni well knew, having mounted a successful one himself.  Kony’s LRA increasingly mounted surprise attacks, sometimes quite large, against the villages of their own people, purportedly to demonstrate their ability to challenge Museveni’s power.  Kony’s forces were less disciplined than Lakwena’s, and the Acholi populace began to have very serious fears about a violent backlash from NRA, so his support was eroded until in 1991 the government mounted a new offensive creating local defence forces – the “Arrow Groups” which were supposed to help stave off attacks by Kony.

This failed as the Arrow Groups were not as well armed as the Kony’s LRA.  Kony now began to take revenge against those Acholis thought to support Museveni.  Mutilations and killings of Acholi by Acholi began in earnest.  The Acholi people were in a situation where they trusted neither the Government nor the rebels.  Indeed, the government failed over the next 12 years to protect them against Kony’s ravishes.  Over the next few years there were attempts to hold serious peace talks, named as always by the Ugandans (who manage to see humour in almost any situation) as “Peace Jokes”.  Why they failed is debatable, but as the years passed it became clear that it would become increasingly difficult to pay army salaries if the money given by European countries to support Museveni’s actions against the rebels were withdrawn.  Thus there was a degree of inertia on the government side.

After the failure of that round of talks in 1994, Kony and his troops crossed the northern border into Sudan where they were said to be welcomed and aided by Sudan government troops, themselves involved in a 20 year civil war with the separatist SPLA.  Museveni’s supposedly secretive support for these latter was in fact well known, and this may well have been a tit-for-tat measure by the Sudanese.

Now convinced that the local populace was supporting Museveni, Kony carried out many forays from southern Sudan into Acholi territory with brutal killings, mutilations – cutting of noses, ears and lips; and now added abductions mostly of children and youth.  The most infamous of these was the abduction of 139 students from the Aboke Girls’ High School in Lira District in October 1996.  These girls were taken and forced to work as slaves and concubines for the LRA soldiers.  The published story about their headmistress’s unbelievably courageous journey to get some of them back, and the bravery of some of the girls themselves, is mind-boggling.  Boy abductees were forced to become soldiers. How can you force them to fight in the bush and not run away whilst on forays?  By “training” them in their home camps.  This training consisted of half of them being given knives or guns and then given the option of killing the other half of their own fellow-abductees, or being killed themselves by their so-called officers.  Kill or be killed.  What would I do in these circumstances? What would you do?  And then if the war ends, what would we feel about going home?

Thus when Museveni’s Army attacked the rebels after this time, who were they perceived to be attacking?  The victims.  Quote: The moral ambiguity of this situation, in which abducted young rebels are both the victims and perpetrators of brutal acts, is vital to understanding the current conflict”. (Wikipedia article Lord’s Resistance Army).

In 1996 the Government began to establish “protected villages”; supposedly grouping people together would make it easier to protect them from the rebel insurgents.  It failed in this, which made the Acholi people even more antagonistic to the Government.  However they were forced to remain in these camps, which were over crowded and unsanitary.

By 1997, things cooled a little, but another tactic began to be used by Kony’s forces.  Roads were mined and long distance buses hijacked.  The wife of the Anglican bishop of Kitgum, the second largest city in Acholi, was killed when the pick-up in which she was travelling hit a land mine just a few miles from the town.  The Bishop forgave, but for some months the destroyed pick up stood in his yard as a reminder.  The conflict also spread to Apac and Lango Districts, even as far west as the West Nile sub-region.  During this period also, the conflict began to be much more widely known internationally.  While Bill Clinton issued his doubtful apology in Rwanda, Hilary Clinton was delivering a speech to students of the original University of East Africa, Makerere University in Kampala in which she made a plea to the majority southern audience on behalf of their suffering compatriots in the north.  The student body failed to take up the challenge.

During these years children began to walk in the early evenings to Gulu and other towns from the surrounding villages in order to sleep safe from abduction. By the middle of 2004 their numbers reached 25,000 in Gulu alone. They became known as the Night Commuters, sleeping in hospitals, parks, markets, shop verandas and eventually in shelters provided by various organisations. Two Gulu bishops and a Mufti joined them for a week to raise attention to their plight.

By 2002 Museveni’s relationship with Sudan had improved, largely as a result of the improved co-operation of both of them with the US Government after Nine-Eleven, and he was allowed to send a massive expedition against the LRA into Southern Sudan, codenamed, Operation Iron Fist.  This eventually failed to find and destroy the rebels in their bases and, after a period of confusion, Kony again began his attacks, now spreading far East into the Soroti District of the Teso people, beyond Lango and even (briefly) into Karamoja.

In November 2003 during a visit  to northern Uganda, the United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland stated, “I 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.” In December 2003, Ugandan President Museveni referred the LRA to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to determine if the LRA is guilty of international war crimes.  The result was eventually positive, a fact which has contributed to the difficulties in the negotiations.

Museveni kept up the military pressure at least within Uganda and from the middle of 2004 rebel activity decreased markedly after a period of insurgency and horrific crimes against the populace comparable to that in the mid-90s.

In 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti and three of his commanders.

Since July 2006 Peace Talks have been going on in Juba, the southern Sudanese capital, between the LRA and the Government of Uganda mediated by the new south Sudanese vice President of Sudan.  A truce was signed on 26th August, bringing much hope.  People have begun to move out of the protected villages on a daily basis to cultivate their lands, the night commuters feel safe enough not to leave their homes to sleep in the town every night.

But  the difficulty of the ICC warrants continues –  can these people be allowed to go free, or be submitted to  traditional reconciliation procedures when the Uganda Government has a perceived obligation to hand them over?  Acholis have traditional tribal ways of reconciliation after a murder for example, culminating in a symbolic animal slaughter and drinking ceremony called Mato Oput followed by payment of compensation.  Many of them believe this is the way forward – not the ICC way.  Forgiveness again, and a traditional view of justice, much different to ours in Europe.  The ICC way does not restore relationships, but then the traditional way may find it difficult to encompass all the wrong against so many people.  The Ugandan Government has in fact asked the ICC to suspend the war crimes indictments.  Kony says he will not sign a peace deal unless they are suspended.

Consider the problem of rehabilitation of former abductees who went on to commit atrocities.  They are no longer the people who were abducted and can never be them again.  Whatever route they take, they are scarred for life.  Many of them have been rejected by their families.  Consider also the unknown number of children born to female abductees as a result of forced unions with guerrilla fighters.  How can these fit in to a recovering society?

Peace negotiations stalled after both sides accused the other of breaking the truce.  It has been suggested that the LRA is moving towards the Central African Republic, which has a border with both the Sudan and Congo, the nearest point of which is 500 km from the nearest point in Uganda.  However the cease fire has now been renewed and extended to 30th June, 2007.  The talks were due to re-start in Juba on 26th April.  We believe they did so, but there seems to be no news coming out of Juba.

June 2007.

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2007. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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