The Ugandan government and the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have negotiated a cease-fire that may mark the end of one of Africa’s most vicious insurgencies, which has devastated the whole region, politically and economically. But this vital breakthrough should not obscure the nature of the real crisis in Uganda, which has over the past two decades seen the insurgency used as a pretext for a massive campaign of intimidation and oppression of all the Acholis and other northern Ugandans, who are seen as President Yoweri Museveni’s opponents. And even though they hate the LRA, nearly 2 million of these people are now incarcerated by the government in “protected” camps.
This two-decade-old tragedy is a blot on the conscience of the world, which allowed a great disaster to develop unchecked because Museveni was a strategic Western ally. The West in particular must now insure that the peace being pursued is not one restricted to the Ugandan army and the LRA. The torturous camps must be immediately dismantled and the rights of the Acholi and other northerners fully restored so that they can once again compete freely for political and economic leadership alongside their compatriots.
This crisis was almost unknown until three years ago, when the courageous and now well-known United Nations humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, forcefully raised the alarm about the camps and what he called the world’s “most neglected emergency.” The United Nations and other donors immediately mounted intensified relief operations, but governments still did not pressure Uganda to end this nightmare and give residents the freedom, enshrined in international law, to return to their homes to resume farming and other life-sustaining activities.
A recent visit to the camps showed what death traps they are. Congested and disease-ridden, with few social services, sources of power or clean water, they are simply unfit for human habitation. The tiny huts accommodate as many as ten family members and sometimes a prized goat and a chicken or two. The huts are also built so close together that a small fire would immediately engulf dozens of them, killing many. According to the United Nations, about 1,000 people, mostly children, are dying every week, not from LRA attacks but from disease. Rape and other violence at the hands of alienated and aggravated residents as well as security personnel are not uncommon. More than 100,000 people have so far died in this conflict.
Whatever possible justification might have existed for the camps disappeared a while back. There have been virtually no LRA attacks this year, and not a single child has been abducted in Gulu District, which is the heart of Acholi territory. The Ugandan army has pretty much triumphed over the LRA, which is a spent and isolated force operating primarily in small contingents out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and southern Sudan. Both of these governments had made clear that they would act against the insurgents’ presence; southern Sudan, which brokered the peace deal, allowed the Ugandan army to conduct attacks on the LRA in its territory.
But despite this dramatic reduction in insecurity, Western governments continued their acquiescence with the forced incarcerations. Britain has led the way by proposing a UN resolution in support of the International Criminal Court’s indictment of LRA leader Joseph Kony and four of his commanders, but has remained silent on the massive human rights violations being committed by the Ugandan authorities. To its great shame, the Commonwealth, which has made human rights a primary motto, similarly offered support for the government by agreeing to hold its summit meeting in Kampala next year, which Queen Elizabeth is expected to open.
Such international complicity in crimes is hardly surprising. In the world order that now prevails, it is only the weak and the unfavored that are called to account for their crimes. Darfur, Somalia and Zimbabwe are forceful Western concerns, and rightly so, but favored Uganda has been permitted to carry out collective punishment on its citizens because it was an ally providing support for southern Sudan in the civil war against the Khartoum government.
Museveni has done well to avoid the temptation of trying to completely destroy the LRA and opt for peace instead. He has good reasons for doing so. The Commonwealth Summit is a major one; any insecurity at that time would be a huge blow. In addition, the economic emergence of southern Sudan and its need for routes to the outside world through a peaceful northern Uganda will provide a huge economic boost for both countries. Finally, the dubious nature of last year’s presidential election has tarnished Museveni’s luster in Western eyes, and he cannot be certain of unqualified support now that Sudan’s civil war has ended.
If peace does emerge, and the camps are dismantled, there will still be the enormous challenge of rehabilitating a vast and traumatized population. Luckily, since Jan Egeland’s cry, UNICEF, the World Food Program and other relief organizations have already built up an excellent infrastructure of support for some dynamic and innovative Ugandans, most of them women, who are working miracles even in the current tension-filled environment.
But first of all, the Ugandan government must be firmly pushed toward suing for peace with the Acholi people in the north.