Uganda Civil War
Northern Uganda had suffered from civil unrest since the early 1980s. Hundreds of people were killed in the rebellion against the Ugandan government, and an estimated 400,000 people were left homeless. Conflict and violence have plagued much of Uganda since independence, from Idi Amin’s military coup in 1971 to the 14 insurgencies since Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) took power in 1986.
The most protracted of these conflicts has been the ongoing war in northern Uganda, which lasted nearly two decades, encompassed five different rebellions and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in districts from Adjumani to Soroti. Furthermore, the war has displaced over 1.4 million people and all but completely destroyed northern Uganda’s economic base, agriculture. Beginning in 1986 when Museveni captured power from General Tito Okello Lutwa, the northern war was initially a popular revolt by Okello’s ousted army troops and their numerous civilian supporters who formed the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). Both these rebels and their successors, who came together to form the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) of Alice Auma “Lakwena", received massive popular support in the north and thus seemed to act on behalf of an Acholi population that was both alarmed by and angry at the new Museveni regime.
Fear of national marginalisation by a government they perceived to be dominated by western Ugandans, as well as resentment against what they believed were NRM- sponsored atrocities and devastating cattle raids, were at the heart of the early insurgencies. While these rebellions ended, Joseph Kony started in 1987 what later become known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the northern conflict entered an entirely new chapter. This phase is unique in that the grievances of the original war remain unaddressed, and yet Kony’s LRA does virtually nothing to try to represent them.
Political violence increased in Kampala with the 1998 and 1999 bombings of several popular restaurants nightclubs, and other public places. Eight foreign tourists, including 2 Americans, were murdered by an Interehamwe guerilla group in Bwindi National Forest in March 1999. Rebels were active in the northern and western sections of Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni used Uganda's military to battle the 2 main rebel groups, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Thousands of children fell victim to the war, abducted by both the LRA and the ADF to serve as fighters or porters. As the conflict between the Government of Uganda (GOU) forces and armed insurgent groups intensified in late 1996, the GOU military began encouraging rural people in affected areas to move into protective camps. However, the military provided only a short period for the move and undertook little preparation for the influx of people to the protective camps. Uganda's economy also suffered, with billions of dollars of the government's budget going to the military. The instability from the civil war, and growing domestic and international pressure to find a way to stop the fighting, apparently prompted President Museveni to back away from the military option and look for a political solution.
People in the Uganda districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader continued to be terrorized by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. They were victims of brutal attacks and kidnappings by the rebel group. The main victims of the LRA had been the Acholi people of northern Uganda. More than a million Acholi had moved to protected camps. As a result, they had not been able to plant their crops and hunger was widespread. After suffering for so many years, Acholi leaders had been at the forefront of efforts to open up a dialogue with the rebels. Ironically, the LRA claimed to be fighting the GOU forces because of their prejudice policies against the Acholi people.
Forty-eight people were hacked to death near the town of Kitgum in the far north of Uganda on 25 July 2002. Local newspaper reports said elderly people were killed with machetes and spears, and babies were flung against trees. Ugandans were shocked by the brutality of the latest attack by the rebel LRA.
The vicious rebel attack in northern Uganda raised questions about planned peace talks between the LRA and Uganda's government. President Yoweri Museveni had agreed to peace talks brokered by Ugandan religious leaders. The Ugandan army had been trying to crush the LRA rebellion for over 18 years without success. President Museveni gave his backing to peace talks to be brokered by religious leaders. Ugandan army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza said he believed the talks to be a waste of time because the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, did not have any real agenda to discuss.
In February 2003, Sudan agreed to let troops from neighboring Uganda enter its territory to attack the LRA rebels who had been trying for years to overthrow the Ugandan government. The Ugandan army called on the LRA to surrender or be defeated. Ugandan officials said the agreement gave them what they had long been waiting for, the chance to eliminate the LRA. The agreement set the stage for a decisive blow against rebels.
By early 2003, optimism was growing that 16 years of fighting in northern Uganda may soon come to an end. The ADF had effectively ceased to be a major threat to the GOU. The LRA declared a cease-fire and said they wanted to hold talks with the government of Yoweri Museveni. The pledge by the LRA to cease all ambushes, abductions and attacks was welcomed by the Uganda government. The LRA was in a tight corner after its bases in southern Sudan, just over the border from northern Uganda, had been destroyed by Ugandan troops following an agreement with the Sudanese government. The rebels' main sources of food and military supplies were now back home in northern Uganda, which made them much more vulnerable to attacks by government troops. Then in June 2003, Kony told his fighters to destroy Catholic missions, kill priests and missionaries, and beat up nuns.
There were also reasons for the government to negotiate. Analysts were saying that President Museveni might have realized that, even with access to the rebel bases in Sudan, the military solution he once preferred was not going to succeed. He was under enormous public pressure to try the path of a negotiated settlement.
In January 2004, Ugandan Defense Minister Amama Mbabazi said that the government had killed 928 LRA rebels between 1 January 2003 and 16 January 2004. Speaking at a monthly press briefing in Bombo, a suburb of Kampala, Minister Mbabazi said 791 rebels were either captured by the army or surrendered during Operation Iron Fist. He said the army rescued 7,299 people abducted by the rebels. He also said 88 army soldiers died in the combat, 141 others were injured and 4 went missing during the period.
In May 2004, a report by the aid organisation, Christian Aid, condemned what it described as a shirking of the government's responsibilities to protect the people of the north "borne out of a lack of will." It accused the government of herding civilians into camps ostensibly to protect them from the LRA without offering those living in camps the protection they needed. The Ugandan government rejected the report, saying the report was "completely unfair."
Rebels of the LRA attacked a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in war-ravaged northern Uganda on 16 May 2004, killing scores of people and abducting others. A group of rebels attacked Pagak displaced people's camp in 3 prongs: one attacked the camp, a second one attacked the soldiers guarding it, and the third one concentrated on the patrol units. The group that attacked the camp set ablaze dozens of grass-thatched huts to create confusion, then looted food and abducted people whom they forced to carry their loot for a distance before they killed them along with their babies.
By November 2003, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland stated that he considered the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda to be among the worst on the planet. Several UN agencies, including UNICEF and the Food and Agricultural Organization, were expected to increase their presence in northern Uganda, provided the government was able to provide adequate security.
In October 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in the Hauge, announced arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and 4 of his top LRA deputies. The charges ranged from the mutilation of civilians to the forced abduction of and sexual abuse of children. Some Ugandans voiced concern over whether the warrants would undermine the peace process by forcing the LRA leaders into a situation where they had to either face trial at the Hauge or continue fighting.
In July 2006, LRA representatives were participating in a series of peace talks with the Ugandan government in neighboring Southern Sudan. The LRA representatives present did not include Joseph Kony, who was believed to be hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo to avoid prosecution for war crimes. While the LRA representatives present wished to portray the group as freedom fighters against President Museveni's system of patronage and discrimination against the Acholi tribe, the LRA had largely alienated themselves from the Ugandan population through their use of brutal tactics, even against the members of the Acholi tribe. The Ugandan government seemed to have little interest in the LRA's demands of reconstituting the Ugandan military under foreign control and a quota for Acholi in government jobs and instead seemed focused on determining the LRA's terms of surrender.
Some international observers thought a peace deal was going to be reached in October 2006. LRA leaders (though not Kony) met with GOU negotiators in the town of Juba in Southern Sudan. However, the talks broke down relatively quickly as both sides violated their predetermined conditions of the negotiation. LRA forces moved from their designated area along the Sudanese-Ugandan border and GOU forces assembled in unauthorized portions of Northern Uganda. The talks were also at an impasse. The main discussion was about the charges brought on Kony and 4 LRA leaders by the ICC. The LRA claimed they would sign a peace deal after the charges were dropped, while GOU negotiators demanded that a peace deal be in place before they discussed dropping the charges.
Peace talks with the LRA throughout 2007 had failed due to the refusal of Kony to appear to sign the agreements. Kony had argued that until all ICC charges were dropped, there would be no peace agreement. The LRA then continued to increase attacks in 2008 mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This prompted a reaction by the Ugandan forces and DRC forces to perform a joint military operation in December 2008 called Operation Lightning Thunder. This military strike effectively destroyed Kony's main base in the DRC and pushed the LRA into the Central African Republic (CAR).
With the movement of the LRA into CAR, the Uganda Civil War had effectively escalated into a regional conflict that involved 4 countries: the DRC, the CAR, Sudan, and Uganda. The LRA, the last remaining anti-government organization from the Uganda Civil War, continued to remain a threat to the region in 2010 by attacking remote locations and they continued to evade capture of the Ugandan military. The goals of the LRA had become increasingly unclear and they did not appear to pose a threat to the governments of any of the countries they operated in, preferring to prey on civilians, killing, raping, and mutilating the people of central Africa; stealing and brutalizing their children; and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. The United States government stated in 2010, that the Lord's Resistance Army had no agenda and no purpose other than its own survival.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list