UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland has declared that the humanitarian situation in northern Uganda is worse than the current situation in Iraq. It’s hard to compare the scale of tragedies, but it’s probably safe to say that the conflict in Uganda is one of the strangest in the world today.
The conflict Egeland is referring to involves the Lord’s Resistance Army, a bizarre paramilitary organization led by Joseph Kony, who claims to be fighting for a government based on the biblical ten commandments. In a recent incident in Lira, a town in northeast Uganda, LRA gunmen killed at least 40 civilians. According to reports, some of the victims were beheaded, and others burned as their huts were set aflame. More than 3000 civilians have fled the area.
Kony is the successor to his aunt, former prostitute Alice Lakwena, who led a group of Acholi rebels from northern Uganda in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the Kampala government in 1988. Lakwena (an adopted name, which means “messenger” in the Acholi language) claimed to channel the spirit of a deceased WWI Italian army officer. Telling her followers that the sticks and stones they wielded against the Ugandan army would be transformed into rifles and grenades, the “Holy Spirit Army” was decimated almost immediately when it invaded Kampala. (Richard Petraitis gives an excellent history of the HSA and the LRA in his article “Joseph Kony’s Spirit War”.
Kony rallied the few survivors of the Holy Spirit Army, renamed it the Lord’s Resistance Army and began a campaign of terrror from bases in southern Sudan. The LRA “recruits” most of its soldiers by kidnapping children, abducting them to Sudanese bases and indoctrinating them into the army. It’s estimated that 20,000 children have been abducted in the past 5 years. Young boys are turned into soliders, while some of the young girls are sold as sex slaves. Kony is reported to have over sixty “wives” selected from the abductees.
While Kony and the LRA have a distinct flair for the surreal – Kony has declared that bicycles violate biblical principles and his followers routinely slash the buttocks of bicycle riders with machetes and destroy the offending machines with axes – the Ugandan conflict has as much to do with tribal politics as with religion and magic. Milton Obote, Uganda’s first post-independence prime minister, was a northerner and favored by the Acholis. When he was ousted for the second time by current president Yoweri Museveni (he was ousted over a decade before by Idi Amin), a southerner, Acholis percieved a loss of power, and many joined the HSA and later the LRA. (The BBC has an excellent Uganda timeline, outlining some of these events.) Their discontent has been amplified by Museveni’s “no party system”, which has outlawed all political parties but Museveni’s. (Museveni claims that his party is a “national movement” for all Ugandans, not a political party.) Putting aside the brutality and magical trappings, the conflict looks a little like the tribal and political one that’s been tearing the Ivory Coast apart.
Convential wisdom suggested the solution to this conflict involved Sudanese cooperation. Sudan had, historically, allowed the LRA to operate with impunity in Southern Sudan because Uganda had supported the SPLA, the southern Sudanese rebels struggling to overthrow the Northern Sudanese government. But earlier this year, in an attempt to improve its international image, the Sudanese government permitted 10,000 Ugandan troops to carry out “Operation Iron Fist”, raiding the Sudanese countryside to capture LRA leaders. The operation appears to be a failure, though, as the LRA is striking back in an increasingly bloody fashion.
Waiting for international intervention in this situation? Don’t hold your breath. In Liberia, ECOWAS was able to deploy ECOMOG as peacekeepers. Without a strong regional peacekeeping force, East African conflicts have been handled by the African Union in Burundi, or the UN in eastern Congo. But the UN has been unable to put a large enough force in the Bunia area to disarm warring forces, and Burundi is the AU’s first peacekeeping mission. So unless someone discovers oil in northern Uganda sometime soon, the conflict may well continue indefinitely.