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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
13 January 2006

UGANDA: Year in Review 2005 - Rebel activity and political upheaval

NAIROBI, 13 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - The continued war between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government, coupled with political turbulence over upcoming general elections, made 2005 a difficult year for Uganda.

The year began on a low note, with the breakdown of key peace talks between the government and the LRA, mediated by former Ugandan minister Betty Bigombe.

A ceasefire agreement at the end of 2004 promised to end the nearly two-decade-long conflict, but hopes for peace were abandoned when the government ended the ceasefire on 1 January 2005 before the LRA had signed the agreement. An 18-day ceasefire in April also failed to yield any tangible results for peace.

Despite high-profile surrenders by senior LRA figures, the rebellion continued to claim lives in northern Uganda, and increasingly in southern Sudan. In October 2005, an estimated 400 rebels fled bases in southern Sudan for the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) under LRA deputy commander-in-chief Vincent Otti.

One of the more worrying trends was the rebels' deliberate targeting of humanitarian aid workers, which made it increasingly difficult to assist the region's estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Insurgents killed five aid workers in Uganda and Sudan in October and November alone.

"In northern Uganda, gains are being lost as security erodes," said Jan Egeland, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on 19 December. "While the overall number of LRA combatants may not have increased, they have spread out over a larger area and now constitute a significant threat to regional security, with appalling consequences for several million people."

The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between northern and southern Sudan in January 2005 revived hope that the LRA could once and for all be ejected from its bases in southern Sudan. The government of Sudan and the Southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) both promised to act to end the rebels' presence in their country.

However, the death of SPLM/A leader and newly appointed Sudanese vice- president John Garang de Mabior in a helicopter crash at the end of July dashed many of those hopes. As the year progressed, the rebels continued to attack civilian targets.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague issued arrest warrants for five senior officials of the LRA, including commander-in-chief Joseph Kony. The move was widely praised, with the European Union saying the measures could "put and end to impunity."

Many local leaders in northern Uganda were less welcoming of the move, however, warning that it would jeopardise the fragile peace process.

"This is like a blow to the peace process. The process of confidence-building has been moving well, but now the LRA will look at whoever gets in contact with them as an agent of the ICC," said Archbishop John Baptist Odama of northern Uganda's Gulu Catholic Archdiocese.

By December, however, both Otti in the DRC and Kony in Sudan had reportedly expressed a desire to revive the flagging peace process through southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar.

"Unacceptable" humanitarian conditions

The already dire humanitarian situation in the north was worsened by ongoing insecurity during 2005, with the UN only being able to access 18 out of a total of 200 IDP camps without military escorts. In addition, it hampered preparations for the return of refugees from the DRC, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Uganda.

"A recent joint Ministry of Health, WHO [UN World Health Organization] and NGO study indicated that crude and under-five mortality rates were more than double the emergency thresholds," Egeland said in December, noting that life in the camps continued to be "unacceptable".

An August 2005 report by the Ugandan health ministry and its partners had also revealed a shocking statistic: 1,000 IDPs in northern Uganda die every week from violence or disease, notably malaria and HIV/AIDS.

"Given the conditions in the camps, it is not surprising that many LRA combatants remain in the bush," Egeland said. "We have not done enough to create a 'pull factor' that could draw more of the LRA to disarmament and reintegration programmes."

Political uncertainty

In the political sphere, 2005 began with a cabinet reshuffle, in which observers said President Yoweri Museveni - who has ruled the country since he came to power through a military coup in 1986 - surrounded himself with loyalists who would not oppose a proposed constitutional amendment to lift presidential term limits. Such legislation would effectively allow Museveni to stand for a third term in office during elections scheduled for February 2006.

Several donor countries expressed concern early in the year over the slow progress in the transition to political pluralism, with Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK all withdrawing varying amounts of aid.

Parliament eventually lifted presidential term limits in June, and with the population voting overwhelmingly for a return to multiparty politics in a July referendum, preparations for the upcoming election began in earnest.

The government came under scalding criticism for its arrest of opposition frontrunner Kiiza Besigye in November on charges of treason and rape just three weeks after his return from exile in South Africa. Besigye is accused of heading a rebel group - the People's Redemption Army - based in the DRC. The retired colonel, formerly Museveni's personal doctor, is also accused of terrorism and possession of illegal weapons, charges he will face under a military court.

The international community has widely censured the Ugandan government for Besigye's arrest and particularly its refusal to grant him bail.

The government was dealt another heavy blow at the end of the year when the International Court of Justice found Uganda guilty of violating human rights laws with its invasion of the Congo in 1997, as well as looting and plundering the country's wealth. Uganda is liable to pay damages of up to US $10 billion.

Uganda has also faced condemnation over its closure of a radio station and arrest of a journalist on charges of sedition for discussing Garang’s death. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists criticised the government's "arbitrary censorship and harassment of journalists.”

In August, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria suspended all grants to Uganda over "evidence of serious mismanagement" of the funds. The agency lifted the ban in November, citing the "intensive efforts" made to rectify the situation. The suspension brought into question the government's commitment to the fight against corruption.

As Uganda enters a new year, the country faces several challenges. Improving the humanitarian situation of the people living in IDP camps in the north remains a matter of urgency, as does ending the LRA rebellion, which has become a regional menace and put millions of lives at risk.

"It is of utmost importance that the three governments [DRC, Sudan and Uganda] fully acknowledge how dangerous the situation has become for civilians and humanitarian workers, and that they do whatever they can to protect their citizens, secure access for relief workers and promote regional solutions," Egeland said.



This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006

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