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A Letter From Uganda on #Kony2012
Posted on Mar 14, 2012
Museveni’s tactical stroke of genius was to unify disparate Bantu groups by championing a southern identity. To hear him tell it, it did not matter whether one was Muganda or Mugisu, Musoga or Munyankole. What mattered was that all these groups were southerners, and that they had to unify against the tyranny of the savage north—of a Langi president and his (largely, though by no means entirely) Acholi army.
This message was given credence throughout the early ’80s by a series of grisly massacres carried out by Obote’s forces in a region known as the Luwero Triangle. To this day, many southerners look back on these events as proof that the Acholi are an inherently violent and bloodthirsty people. “The only good Acholi,” I’ve been told on more than one occasion in Kampala, “is a dead Acholi.”
I will not detail the succession of power during the years of the so-called bush war. Suffice it to say that by the time Museveni and the NRA captured Kampala, the presidency was in fact held by an Acholi named Tito Okello. As soon as Okello capitulated to Museveni, northerners in what had up to that point been the national army took flight. Fearing retribution from the new southern-dominated regime, many Acholi soldiers fled past their home territories and all the way into Sudan.
Whether Museveni genuinely feared a northern rebellion, or simply wished to exact revenge on his Nilotic opponents, is a matter open to debate. The fact is, however, that he sent his National Resistance Army in pursuit of the previous regime’s fleeing soldiers, instructing them to quash any opposition movements in the country’s northern regions.
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The mid-80s saw the birth of several Acholi resistance groups, many of which have now faded into obscurity. Strongest among these was a militia known as the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF). Led by a young woman who called herself Alice Lakwena, the group blended spirituality and militarism and attained a remarkable level of support and success in the early months of its existence. When a former altar boy by the name of Joseph Kony came to Lakwena claiming to commune with the same spirits who possessed her, the two mediums clashed. Kony was dismissed by Lakwena’s followers and withdrew with a small and insignificant group of his own devotees.
It was not until late 1987, when the HSMF was decimated at Jinja and Lakwena fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, that Kony began to be taken seriously in the Acholi region. Thus, the defeat of one extremist leader paved the way for the rise of another.
Does this mean that today, among the Acholi, there is another Kony or Lakwena waiting somewhere in the wings, ready to take the stage if the LRA is ever defeated? I wouldn’t go that far.
But I will say this: Although northern Uganda is relatively safe these days, the fundamental tensions between north and south, the history of oppression and mistrust, and the marginalization of this part of the country have not been resolved. If anything, all these were only exacerbated by the two decades of conflict in this region. And until the core issues at the heart of this situation are addressed, no one here can truly rest easy.
The Myth of the Good Guy
In its fairy tale depiction of this conflict, Invisible Children asks us to believe that this is a fight between good and evil. While we can safely grant it that Kony is “the bad guy” in this story, we should be careful accepting the claim that the Ugandan government and army represent the forces of good. The assumption that Museveni and the UPDF have always sought to end the LRA insurgency ignores a dizzying array of critical factors in this conflict.
To begin with, the conflict affected only specific portions of the country—all of them in the Nilotic districts—far from Kampala or any other area where Museveni enjoys mass popular support. At the height of the war, it was possible to go through daily life in southern Uganda without ever realizing there was a war in the north of the country. Put quite bluntly, the violence affected a group the ruling party didn’t care about anyway. This is not to say that Museveni did not deploy troops to fight the LRA; he most certainly did. His intentions, however, were always murky at best.
In the nearly 50 years since independence, Uganda has had nine presidents. Two of these lasted less than six months in office. Of the remaining seven, one was removed by a military commission and four were ousted through direct military action (with Obote garnering the dubious distinction of being deposed by not one, but two military coups, 14 years apart). In a country in which the armed forces have played such a key role in transitions of power, is it so hard to imagine that the sitting president would want his army kept as busy and as far away from the capital as possible?
The war in the north provided Museveni with the pretext for an outrageous defense budget (often at the expense of other services in the country). Furthermore, in 2004, when the Bush administration placed the Lord’s Resistance Army on the list of terrorist organizations to be defeated in the war on terror, the LRA became a source of funding for the Museveni government. To make a long story short, throughout the history of this conflict, it has been more profitable for Museveni and the UPDF to continue fighting Kony than to actually put an end to his activity.
During this period, defense of civilians has always ranked abysmally low on the list of government priorities. In 1996, the UPDF began a campaign of coerced resettlement into Internally Displaced Persons camps in the north. Nearly 90 percent of the Acholi population was ultimately driven from their homes and interned against their will. Ostensibly established for the population’s protection, the camps soon developed into a form of imprisonment. Now dominated by southerners, the national army had little compassion or concern for its northern compatriots’ suffering. In times of LRA attack, UPDF guards would often abandon their posts altogether, leaving the civilians within the camps vulnerable to massacres and abduction. Furthermore, on a day-to-day basis, the camps’ inhabitants lived in alarmingly poor conditions. At one point in the early 2000s, a humanitarian report demonstrated that more than 1,000 people were dying every week of preventable causes.
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