Northern Uganda Has Lived on a Knife's Edge for Too Long
2 July 2006
"Injustice somewhere, is a threat to peace everywhere", Martin Luther King.
The past week has seen the issue of war in Northern Uganda stealing some headlines. What is evident from all that has been written in the media is that tradgedy of an enormous magnitude, which some have rightly called "silent genocide", has been unfolding in Northern Uganda for the past 20 years and has been ignored by the world's community. That a whole tribe and their cultures, values, and economy is being systematically anihilated. That as high as 95% of Acholi people in Northern Uganda have been forced to leave their ancenstral lands to live in poorly supplied concentration camps. Some 200 of them. That the current Ugandan government, which has been sending out contradictory signals whether to negotiate with LRA, is largely to blame for this human tradgedy.
Some words of concern have been expressed in the US and Britain. An alliance of organisations in Itally has petitioned president Yoweri Museveni to pursue peace. But more pressure is needed. In some cases, action is yet to follow words if this human catastrophe is to be halted in Northern Uganda.
Meanwhile, the ICC (International Criminal Court) has been busy in attempts to torpedo Riek Machar Initiative for peace in Northern Uganda. And New York based Human Rights Watch acknowledges the fact that terrible abuses have been committed by president Museveni's army and the ICC has done nothing to investigate the abuses, yet Human Right Watch paradoxically supports the ICC's flawed justice which does nothing but makes it much harder for LRA to come to a negotiating table.
The increased debate over the war in Norhern Uganda has vastly improved our knowledge of realities of this dirty war that went on for 2 decades in the backyard of an African nation that the IMF and World Bank regard as exemplary. As exposed in the following passages, not all the Ugandan citizens have been lucky under Museveni's rule.
WHAT NAME DO WE GIVE TO THIS?
Mark Simmonds (MP, Boston and Skegness, UK) who visited Northern Uganda recently and read reports by World Vision (Uganda) told British Parliament last week that 3,500 people die every month in Uganda's Internally Displaced-Persons' camps.This mortality rate is 3 times higher than those recodred in Darfur in 2005. He said it is not the Lord Resistance that is only terrorising people in those camps but also Ugandan Army "which is perpetrating some appalling atrocities with impunity, whether it be beatings, rape or, as is rumoured, killings"; that there are about 950,000 small arms in Uganda which is causing insecurity in northern Uganda, that about 40,000 children travel from rural country to displaced camps every night to seek protection.
Writing in the US infleuntial journal, Foreign Policy (July/Aug. 2006), an article entitled "Secret Genocide", Olara Otunnu, former UN undersecretary and special representative for children and arm conflict said:
" Imagine 4,000 sharing a latrine, women waiting for 12 hours to fill a jerrycan at well, 10 people packing themselves sardine-like in a hut."
He also said 1000 childern die every week in the region and the figure has been raised recently to 1,500 every week. On the LRA, Otunnu who is also a board member of Carnegie Endowment for Peace in the US, wrote:
"The truth is that reports of indisputable atrocities of the LRA are being employed to mask more serious crimes by the government itself. To keep the eyes of the world averted, the government has carefully scripted a narrative in which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and will only end with its demise"
"But, under the cover of the war against these outlaws, an entire society, the Acholi people, has been moved to concentration camps and is being systematically destroyed physically, culturally, and economically. Everything Acholi is dying..".
He continued: "The Acholis plight, ..is well known to embassies, U.N. agencies, NGOs, and human rights organizations. Yet those in a position to raise their voices have chosen to remain silent or worse, speak out in support of Museveni's regime..."
"The LRA is frightening, but northern Uganda's people have more to fear from their own government." He added (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006).
The debate sparked off by recent peace initiative in Northern Uganda has come to challenge long held stereotypes that have been carefully designed by Ugandan government and rehearsed by the media. Apart from demystifying the LRA, the veil on the Ugandan government has been lifted. And what we see is not good, to say the least. For a Southern Sudanese like me, it is a too familiar story of oppression of the North by a Southern-dominated government in Kampala. It bauffles me how president Museveni, the architect of a policy that has killed and still kills so many Acholis has got away with it so lightly without being called to account or quickly negoatiate peace that will faciliate the speedy dismantling of these death camps.
In an article entitled "Survival in war-torn Uganda" publsihed in Anthropology Today, April 2006, Sverker Finnstrom, an academic at the University of Uppsala in Sweden who has been studying LRA and the war in northern Uganda for many years confirms the shocking truth which many had suspected all along about the government concentration camps. Finnstrom wrote:
"As part of its counter-insurgency tactics, in effort to deny the rebels food and other resources, the Ugandan army has forced large portions of population into camps with strict curfews...Oficially the camps, called 'protected villages', were created to protect people against rebels attacks. In practice it is different. It is the people protecting the army."
Finnstrom further explained that the army barracks are normally located in the centre of the camps surrounded by the displaced-persons huts. When a camp comes under a rebel attack, the army simply moves out of the camp before beginning to throw rocket launched gernades back into the camp, hence killing the very people they meant to protect. In this scenario, Finstrom conlcuded, those forced into the camps are being used as human shields against LRA attacks (PDF copies of a number of Finnstrom excellent articles can be obtained from this author on request).
ICC, THE UNWELLCOMED GUEST IN ACHOLILAND
Given the above shocking reality, there is no question that the much flouted ICC's arrest warrant of Joseph Kony and his commanders is very much an unwellcomed news in Northern Uganda. The efforts of the government of Southern Sudan which resluted in at least two face to face meetings between South Sudan vice president, Riek Machar, and Joseph Kony, the LRA chief, has raised hopes for peace in Northern Uganda. Hence the predominant opinion in Norhern Uganda is against the ICC's arrest warrent.
A church leader in Northern Uganda, Monsignor Matthew Odongo, the vicar-general of the Catholic Diocese of the northern district of Gulu, recently told IRIN:
"As religious leaders, we are concerned about the announcement by the Interpol. The ICC and Interpol should hold on and give room to negotiations and see how far this dialogue can go... This is throwing a stone into water that had settled."
"..Any move that adds to suffering of the people will not be good. We think there is no contigency plan for the ICC and Interopl to arrest Kony when the government, with an army, has failed for the past 20 years."
He then urged the international community to work for the immediate end of the conflict that continues to destroy lives of many innocent people in northern Uganda. "Can't the ICC wait and take opportunity offered by this meeting [in Juba, Southern Sudan]?", Odongo asked(IRIN, June 2, 2006).
Jackson Otto, a human rights activist in Northern Uganda also asked: "Why should they [the ICC] time this announcement ahead of the meeting in Juba? Where have they been when all these people where suffering? ... They should put peace ahead of all their intention."
Certaintly these are indeed tough questions but few answers from the ICC which at the moment has its hands in both ears.
But these were not the only voices that spoke against the ICC's arrest warrant for Joseph Kony. Betty Bigombe, a former Museveni peace minister for Northern Uganda who tried for many years, first in her capacity as a government official and later as a private citizen, to mediate between Museveni and LRA said recentlty that the ICC arrest warrant against Kony is a "complication". All her past efforts to bring the government and the LRA to a negotiating table were torpedoed by the government at the last minute. The last effort was in December 2005 in the shadow of the ICC's arrest warrent. From her new residence in the US, Ms Bigombe recently told Tristan McConnel, a reporter for Christian Science Monitor, in a telephone conversation, that "any initiative to end war must be supported by all efforts."
Bigombe remarks echo the recent statement in Kampala by the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer: "If the government of Uganda can come to some agreement with the LRA, that has to be a priority."
They also coincide with opinions expressed by Norbert Mao, a local government top official in the northern Uganda and by John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu.
Norbert Mao told Christian Science Monitor: "Peace has a higher value than anything else...I believe in the ICC. It is a great thing. But the chief presecutor's[Luis Moreno-Ocampo] mother is not in a displaced-person camp..We are grappling with and living a difficult reality."
The Archbishop of Gulu is no less cynical about the ICC's move: "Something good is coming out, and threat to arrest Kony does no good...This is the time for the ICC to keep quiet...If there is a peace process going on, and you talk about arrests, I cannot understand you." (Christian Science Monitor,June 26, 2006 edition)
If this powerful concensus from such credible bunch is in favour of peace mediation initiated by the government of Southern Sudan does not cause the ICC and Human Right Watch bureaucrats to blush in shame, what else would?
Insisting to pursue a course that can only lead into blind alley, ICC chief prosecutor, Mr Luis Moreno-Ocampo, dismissed the recent peace initiative by asserting that the LRA is only "buying time to regroup." Well, these are words of a politician, not of an impartial international judge. And when so importnat a figure gets that close to local politics, justice flies out of the window.
I would be least surprised of all if the international law upholder is booed tomorrow should he venture to visit the IDPs camps in northern Uganda
THE BBC AND THE TRUTH ABOUT JOSEPH KONY, TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?
For the first time since the break out of war in northen Uganda, the BBC broadcasted a video recording of an interview conducted by Sam Framer, a journalist with the UK-based paper, The Times. Franer made a 12-day long jounreny from Southern Sudan capital, Juba, to meet Joseph Kony in the bush across the border of Democratic Republic of Congo. Kony told Mr Framer:
"I am a human being like you..I have eyes, a brain, and wear clothes, but they are saying we don't talk to people, we eat people. We are killer.That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer."
Kony dismissed the accusations of killing, mutillations, and abductions as "Museveni propganda". He said "That is not true, it is just propaganda. Museveni went into the villages and cut off the ears of the people, telling the people it was work of LRA. I cannot cut the ear of my brother, I cannot kill the eye of my brother...I kill the soldier of Museveni."
Kony accused Museveni of suppressing the Acholi people with the aim of taking over their land. He called for a free multi-party democracy to be reconstituted in Uganda. It is to be recalled that in the last presidential election, northern Uganda was the only region that voted overwhelmingly against Museveni. A fact which demonstrates LRA, despite its manifested anti-community actions, does express the general disaffection by north (Pader, Langa, and Gulu regions) with Museveni's regime who comes from the south. We may fail to admit, but having seen the man on the video, Kony and his comarades, notorious they may be, stil embody the North's defiance of Museveni's rule that has tried for two decades to subdue and crash the Achoilis physically, economically, culturally, and morally. I added "morally", because despite the Musevani counter insurgency strategy that has killed so many, he still comes out to the world as the "good guy", and Kony and those sympathetic with him amongst the Acholi's as the "bad guys". The fact is, in this dirty war, no one is a "good guy."
While this is a good thing for BBC to do, it was rather too late and too little. Here one could see the BBC departure from its well known tradition of presenting a "balanced" view about contentious issues by involving speakers on the opposite side of the argument. And if that is not possible, to strive to give a robust counter argument to the incumbent on behalf of the party not represented. In this case, Jeremy Parxman allowed the Ugandan High Commissioner to read a well prepared script and to get away with it so lightly. He did not follow his usually robust and hostile probbing of the official line.
Worst, Jermy Parxman came out to be critical of Ugandan government acceptance in principle to negotiate with LRA. Apart from Kony's video, no other views in defence of LRA position were presented by the BBC. An authority in LRA war in northern Uganda like Swedish academic Sverker Finnstrom could have been asked to present a more enlightend and objective opinion.
In this age where the Internet is challenging the traditional media outlets, where information access is no longer the preserve of the BBC, CNN, and VOA, it appears the BBC is losing credibility in the third world. Increasingly when reporting on the third world, the BBC is being selective, bias, or misleading.
Together with CNN, the media giants can even be accused of conspiracy and "news fixing" by towing the official version, whatever the cost and the implication on the affected communities. If that is not the case, why it took 20 long years for the BBC to broadcast the LRA's view on the attrocities in northern Uganda?
BBC could still play a more objective role in educating the international community about war in northern Uganda.
THE WAY FORWARD
The widening debate on war in northern Uganda is a wellcomed news. But actions must follow words. The US and Britain should join Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, and South Africa in backing the government of Southern Sudan to bring the government of Uganda and the LRA to negiating table. The ICC should withdraw its threat to arrest Kony and give peace a chance.
The parties to war in Northern Uganda should be encouarged to come to a negotiating table with no preconditions. Human Rights Watch should stop attempts to criminalise the government of Southern Sudan in its peace-mdeiating efforts. The UN must appoint a peace Envoy for Northern Uganda. Time tables, land marks, and targets must be drwan up, and followed through to implementation. A high level UN personnel must pay visit to Northern Uganda to give a boost to peace process.
It is evident also that the government of Uganda is unwilling to negotiate unless it is pressurised by the international community to do so. All the parties must be encouraged to sign a declaration of principles (DOP) as soon as possible. That should be followed by a cease-fire. Full blown negotiations should then follow under the supervision of UN and any countries willing to contribute possitively to a peaceful end to LRA war in Northern Uganda.
Out of desperation, many leaders in Northern Uganda are calling for peace at any cost. This is understandable, given the suffering and mortality rate in the region resulting from 20 years of insecurity. But peace at any cost can not survive morning to noon day. Only peace with justice is the greatest insurance against return to war. But what precisely forms a "just peace"?
The international community has surely learnt from experience of Sudan's wars in which political marginalisation, uneven economic development, human rights abuse, and lack of basic freedoms has continued to undermine Sudan's stability since independence. Examined closely, Ugandan's problems are not very dissimilar to Sudan's problems. This will be the topic of my next artilce.
But let it be known, it is not a matter for one person or few to define what constitutes a just solution, it is high time that the LRA and the people of northern Uganda start talking loudly about what they see will bring a lasting peace to their battered country.