No-peace-no-war in Uganda

>> Thursday, December 27, 2007

Northern Uganda has been afflicted by war since 1986. The situation in the region has been described by a high-rank UN representative as one of the worst humanitarian crises of today. Yet, recently there have been developments which have encouraged some commentators to speak about a ‘post-war’ situation. In this brief commentary, I warn against declaring a post-war situation too soon.

By: Sverker Finnström, Researcher and lecturer, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University, Sweden, and affiliated to the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies, Gulu University, Uganda.

In 1981, Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement/Army launched a guerrilla war in central Uganda with the objective of replacing Milton Obote’s second government (1980–85). Museveni took to arms with the argument that the 1980 elections that brought Obote back to power were rigged. In his book Uganda since independence: A story of unfulfilled hopes (1992) Mutibwa holds that there was an absolute need to revolutionise Ugandan politics in the aftermath of Idi Amin’s fall from power in 1979. He argues that “the system” that brought Obote back to power for the second time had been “created” by the colonialists and “inherited at independence,” thereafter “perfected” by Obote in the 1960s and “matured” under Amin’s rule. Museveni captured state power in 1986, and introduced his no-party Movement system. Unfortunately, and despite positive developments in large parts of Uganda so often reported on, the northern region has been war-torn ever since. To be blunt, in 1986 the war zone simply shifted from central to northern Uganda. Especially affected is Acholiland (Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts), where I have conducted anthropological fieldwork. Today the Ugandan army is fighting the Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army (LRM/A, or more commonly in the media, LRA).

For an excellent overview of the background to the conflict and its stakeholders – in particular with reference to the many peace efforts that have failed over the years – I recommend Protracted Conflict, Elusive Peace, a volume edited by Lucima. The free online version includes a rich list of Internet resources as well. The conflict has recently found its way to the centre of international attention. As quoted in The New Vision, Uganda’s state-owned daily, on November 11, 2003, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, claimed that “northern Uganda must be one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world”.

The Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army rebels, with bases in southern Sudan and led by Joseph Kony, are notorious for their gross violence against the non-combatant population. They have abducted thousands of minors. The rebel movement has become increasingly isolated and alienated from society over the years, and perhaps also increasingly fragmented. Their military practices have also changed considerably over time, becoming more violent and terror-like. In the aftermath of September 11 and with direct US support, the Ugandan army launched “Operation Iron Fist”. This extensive military campaign was meant to once and for all flush out the rebels. It is being carried out on Sudanese territory with the approval of the Sudanese government. It has seriously added to the pressure on the rebels. Small and extremely mobile rebel units operate increasingly in isolation from the high command. “If the rebels face difficult battles, they will be rude to the civil population. If they don’t face the battle, they are not rude,” a fieldwork associate concluded when we discussed Operation Iron Fist and the increase in rebel atrocities.

Yet another local, peripheral war in Africa?

In my own work, I have focused on the role of politicised rumours, cosmology, religion and local moral worlds in war. I have also discussed the discrepancy between the Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army’s violent insurgency practices and its political manifestos as well as internal mass displacement and the Ugandan army’s counter-insurgency tactics. In recent years, for example, a growing number of human rights abuses also committed by the Ugandan armed forces has been recorded. In its counter-insurgency tactics, the Ugandan army has forced large portions of the population into camps with strict curfews. More than 80 percent of the Acholi population, or more than one million people, are internally displaced, living in a chronic state of emergency. More than 1.6 million people are internally displaced in northern Uganda.

One of the main concerns in my own work regards the fact that the war in northern Uganda has been dismissed for too long as an essentially local problem. Uganda is widely regarded, among both academics and influential organisations, as a success story of reconstruction, structural adjustment and economic liberalisation, celebrated for its fight against HIV/AIDS. To mention only one example, Bayart, Ellis and Hibou (1999) have listed Uganda among the African countries “where a logic of violence has been replaced by a political process of negotiation and rebuilding”. An exception to these positive developments, the northern region has been described as peripheral, and particularly war-prone. In the war propaganda, reference has been made to the alleged primitiveness of the Acholi people. Major General James Kazini, a non-Acholi and long-time member of the Ugandan army’s high command, illustrates the trend when he blamed all military violence upon the Acholi. “If anything, it is local Acholi soldiers causing the problems. It’s the cultural background of the people here: they are very violent. It’s genetic,” he claimed in an interview with Human Rights Watch. Taking issue with such conclusions, I found it necessary to devote substantial space in my PhD thesis to discussing colonialism and its racist ideologies, Uganda’s imperial inheritance and the country’s contested political history, and global politics.

No peace, no war

“ Suddenly,” writes the Gulu based Justice and Peace Commission in a statement from August 2004, “there is real hope that the 18-year old war that has afflicted Northern Uganda – particularly Acholi – may come to a quick end. Many organisations are even beginning to talk of the imminence of a ‘post-war’ situation.” The statement continues: “A ‘military peace’ won by a Government victory over the LRA may be in sight.” The monthly newsletter of the Justice and Peace Commission, freely distributed via e-mail, always includes well-researched and updated chronologies. The newsletter is essential reading to anyone who is following the developments in northern Uganda.

The reason for the commission’s optimism, it seems, is that rebels surrender on a daily basis. In November 2004 a former Ugandan minister, Betty Bigombe, who was active in peace talks in 1993–94 that eventually failed for various reasons, was again instrumental in linking the rebels with the Ugandan government. However, we need to be careful in declaring any post-war situation. The army’s Operation Iron Fist continues, and so do rebel attacks on civilian targets. Alleged rebel collaborators are arrested on a daily basis, including a priest and other peace emissaries. These days one can frequently read in Ugandan media, that the helicopter gunships of the Ugandan armed forces have been successful in yet another battle against the rebels. More often than not these stories are reproduced in Western media as well. In these news flashes, a given number of rebels are reported to have been killed. Yet on other occasions, the same news channels report that the Ugandan armed forces have again been successful, but now in rescuing a number of abducted children from rebel ranks. The bitter irony, however, is that the people referred to are most often minors, but categorised differently depending on how the propaganda of war describes the situation. If killed, they are labelled “rebels”. If they survive the bombing of the helicopter gunships, they become “rescued abductees”.

In early 2004, the Ugandan government requested the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to collect evidence of war crimes committed by the Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army in general and its leader Joseph Kony in particular. The Ugandan government’s call for international justice left out possible war crimes committed by its own army. “Our position is if they [the International Criminal Court investigators] come across any allegations against government officials, they should let them be tried by the government,” as the army spokesperson is reported to have said to The Monitor, Uganda’s independent daily, on August 16, 2004. In addition, the International Criminal Court was created on the international diplomatic consensus not to include any crime committed before 2002. But having this year as starting point for investigation, regardless of the international diplomatic consensus behind it, cannot be said to be a correct choice, something that must be obvious to any person who has an informed understanding of the conflict in northern Uganda. It is notable that the initial fifteen years of war in northern Uganda will perhaps be left unaccounted for. In the light of Bigombe’s recent peace efforts, which many of my informants hope will be successful but which they from experience remain sceptical of, the Ugandan President has indicated that he may even be willing to plead with the International Criminal Court to drop the case against the LRM/A. Most likely he has listened to local clan chiefs and religious leaders who have argued all the time that there are better ways to become reconciled with the rebels, than international law. Amnesty International in London has however protested firmly against this.

Here it becomes necessary to interpret the conflict in relation to the wider national, even international, context. The Ugandan scholar Oloka-Onyango has described the ruling government as a “quasi-military” government and Prunier has exposed the Ugandan army’s murky involvement in eastern Congo. Despite a blanket amnesty offered to the rebels, the political environment in Uganda is increasingly volatile. For high rank rebels, amnesty means nothing other than plain surrender, and the risk of being sent to The Hague adds to these rebels’ scepticism.


Let me conclude this brief commentary by noting that Uganda’s political past is increasingly contested. The global war against terrorism continues in Uganda too, and president Museveni has indicated his unwillingness to step down from power. Like most of my informants, I doubt that the Lord’s Resistance Movement/Army can be defeated militarily. If there continues to be no genuine and consistent will to find a political solution to the conflict, it is difficult to see how the ruling government and its oppositional groups, including those bearing arms, can find avenues to replace a logic of violence by a political process of negotiation and rebuilding, to refer to Bayart and his colleagues quoted above. Rather, let us just for a second accept Mutibwa’s note on Uganda’s political history (also quoted above). He holds that Uganda’s political system was created by the colonialists and then perfected under postcolonial rule. Then it is again difficult to see, at least if the war in the north is included in the analysis, that Museveni’s military takeover in 1986 has resulted in any genuine departure from this unfortunate development.

Selected reading, references and quotations

Bayart, Jean-Francois, Stephen Ellis and Béatrice Hibou, The criminalization of the state in Africa. Oxford & Bloomington: The International African Institute/James Currey/Indiana University Press, 1999. (quotation from p. 5)

Behrend, Heike, Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: War in northern Uganda, 1985–97. Oxford, Kampala, Nairobi and Athens: James Currey/Fountain Publishers/EAEP/Ohio University Press, 1999.

Finnström, Sverker, Living with bad surroundings: War and existential uncertainty in Acholiland, northern Uganda. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis/Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, vol. 35, 2003. (PhD thesis)

Finnström, Sverker. “‘For God and my life’: War and cosmology in northern Uganda”. In Paul Richards (Ed.), No peace, no war: An anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts. Oxford and Ohio: James Currey/Ohio University Press, 2005.

Gulu Archdiocese, Justice and Peace News. A monthly newsletter of the Justice and Peace Commission of Gulu Archdiocese. Aug–Sept 2004. E-mail submission:

Human Rights Watch, The scars of death: Children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997. (Kazini quotation from p. 59).

Human Rights Watch, Abducted and abused: Renewed conflict in northern Uganda. Human Rights Watch, 2003. Available at

Lucima, Okello (Ed.), Protracted conflict, elusive peace: Initiatives to end the violence in northern Uganda. London: Conciliation Resources and Kacoke Madit, 2002. Available at

Mutibwa, Phares Mukasa, Uganda since independence: A story of unfulfilled hopes. London: Hurst and Company, 1992. (quotations from p. 155)

Oloka-Onyango, J., “‘New Breed’ leadership, conflict and reconstruction in the Great Lakes Region of Africa: A sociopolitical biography of Uganda’s Yoweri Kaguta Museveni”. In Africa Today, 50(3), 2004.

Prunier, Gérard, “Rebel movements and proxy warfare: Uganda, Sudan and the Congo (1986–99)”. In African Affairs, 103(412), 2004.

UN/IRIN, “‘When the sun sets, we start to worry...’: An account of life in northern Uganda”. IRIN, 2004. Available at

Van Acker, Frank. “Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army: The new order no one ordered”. In African Affairs, 103(412), 2004.

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Against all odds: Surviving the war on adolescents. Promoting the protection and capacity of Ugandan and Sudanese adolescents in northern Uganda. 2001. Available at

Updated 24 November 2006, 11:12


About This Blog

The X.U.G (Xpose Uganda's Genocide) Coalition was created to bring to light the truth about Yoweri Museveni's woefully undemocratic regime and the ongoing secret genocide in northern Uganda, with the aim of the restoration of human rights and peace.

The coalition's secondary goal is to ensure accountability for reconstruction and development funds slated for war-torn N. Uganda by the US and other donors.

A crisis of epic proportions, the genocide being carried out against the Acoli for the last two decades has produced devastating consequences.

For the sake of current and future generations in Uganda, the world must recognize and end the genocide in Uganda. All Ugandans have a right to basic human rights, including the right to health, protection and education.

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