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A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
In late 2008, the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) came together to strike a supposed final blow to the LRA in the DRC’s Garamba National Park. The operation, dubbed Lightning Thunder, was planned under the supervision of U.S. military advisers. And it was an unmitigated disaster.
For a number of reasons (not least of all because the operation was vociferously and boastfully discussed in the preceding weeks), Kony and his troops were aware of the attack well before it started. By the time airstrikes began, the LRA had almost entirely evacuated its bases in Garamba. In the month that followed, the rebels retaliated in spectacular fashion—not against the armies that launched Lightning Thunder, but against the civilians living in the areas affected by the operation. Over the course of four weeks, in a series of attacks loosely referred to as the Christmas Massacres, the Lord’s Resistance Army slaughtered more than 900 villagers in northeastern districts of the DRC. In addition, it abducted an estimated 700 civilians—about 500 of who are believed to have been children.
In light of this, the #StopKony campaign’s Dec. 31 deadline for military action is both utterly arbitrary and potentially dangerous. The U.S. is in an election season—a period when candidates running for office feel the greatest need to pander to voters. And while I would hope that politicians would put sound policy ahead of popular appeal, it is not inconceivable to me that, given enough (well-meaning but misguided) pressure from constituents, certain people in government may push for attacks without truly gauging all facets of the situation. Were this to happen, were a strike to occur before all the necessary preparations are in place, we may well find ourselves facing a repeat of 2008’s botched operation and ensuing loss of civilian lives.
Even putting all this aside, though, there is a fundamental flaw in the assumption that catching Kony would in and of itself bring an end to this conflict. At present, the LRA is scattered across three nations, with its highest-ranking officers strategically divided among the army’s various subgroups. If Kony were to be taken out of the equation, it is entirely likely that another senior commander—say, for example, Dominic Ongwen—could step into the void and fill his leadership position.
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The Fallacy of the Senseless Rebellion
The #StopKony campaign plays into the all-too-popular and compelling myth that this is an utterly senseless war, that it has been waged for all these years by a band of madmen fighting without rhyme or reason. While it is true that the LRA of today fights primarily for its own survival, this was not always the case. The movement is horrendously violent and appallingly cruel, but it did not come out of nowhere. Any genuine understanding of the LRA conflict requires an analysis of Acholi marginalization throughout Ugandan history. While I will spare you the intricacies of British colonial policy in Acholiland, and the details of the Acholi ethnic group’s plight under Idi Amin, I do feel it necessary to give you an overview of the Acholi experience in recent times.
Like many countries on the African continent, Uganda is a nation of somewhat arbitrary borders. The Nile River, which originates in the southern district of Jinja, runs primarily east to west in this part of the world, effectively dividing the northern and southern portions of the country. Not surprisingly, the cultures on either side of this formidable physical boundary have developed very differently, with wildly disparate political structures, religions and (most significantly to my linguistically inclined mind) language families. While nearly all ethnic groups in the south speak Bantu languages (a subset of the Niger-Kordofanian family), northerners communicate almost exclusively in languages from the Nilo-Saharan family. This is no trivial distinction. To say that two languages come from separate language families is to say they have absolutely nothing in common. Phrased differently, languages such as the southern lingua franca Luganda have as little in common with a language like Acholi as English does with Chinese.
Such sociolinguistic differences were, if not fully appreciated and understood, certainly harnessed and exploited by the British colonial administration. Because certain Bantu groups of the south (most notably the Baganda) employed a centralized monarchic style of government, the British viewed these peoples as more advanced than the decentralized, clan-based polities north of the Nile. This perception influenced how the colonial “masters” governed the various groups under their control. Within the British system, southerners were promoted to posts of low-level civil service in governing institutions, while northerners were relegated to positions of unskilled labor or forced to serve as foot soldiers in British military units. As a result, the colony’s major urban, industrial and educational centers sprang up in the south, while the north remained isolated and underdeveloped. The trends set down under colonialism continued after independence and even up to the present day, contributing, among other things, to contemporary southern notions of northern backwardness and inferiority.
Post-independence, many northerners—and especially Acholis—discovered that the only careers open to them were those in the military. (Though the ethnic group’s presence and fortune in Ugandan armed forces fluctuated over the next two decades, I am choosing to skip past the Obote I and Idi Amin periods so as to address events in the country’s more recent past.)
Many people reading this ramble may not be aware that Museveni, who recently completed his 26th year as president of Uganda, himself began as the commander of a rebel movement. Known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), Museveni’s militia took to the Ugandan bush in 1981 after a fiercely contested national election reinstated Milton Obote as the country’s president.
As a member of the Ankole tribe, a fairly small and politically insignificant ethnic group from the extreme southwestern corner of Uganda, Museveni did not immediately enjoy popular recognition or support. Tucked against the Rwandan border, Banyankole were often dismissed as faux Ugandans—Banyarwanda at heart. This image was further reinforced by the fact that a sizable portion of Museveni’s troops were indeed Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had entered Uganda in the 1960s. (This contingent incidentally included Paul Kagame, current president of Rwanda. The layers and knots in this story simply do not end!)
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