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As 2003 draws to a close, the conflict in northern Uganda shows no sign of abating. For the past seventeen years the north of Uganda has been mired in a conflict that is difficult to understand. Since the National Resistance Movement (NRM), now known as the Movement, came to power in 1986, the government has been bogged down in numerous armed conflicts. However, unlike those that came before it and even during it, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony has managed to survive, where other armed groups negotiated peace talks, surrendered under amnesties or were just wiped out by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).

Ostensibly the LRA fighting in Acholiland, northern Uganda, demands freedom from discrimination for the Acholi people and the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. While it is true that historically the Acholi people were discriminated against, the actions and deeds of the LRA, however, belie their demands as they continue to commit atrocities against the civilian population of northern Uganda reminiscent of the RUF in Sierra Leone.

The civilian population is often the deliberate target of the rebels: They are abducted as the rebels forcibly recruit children for use as soldiers and sex slaves, houses are burnt and villages and camps for internally displaced persons (IDP), which have extremely limited access to food and water, are targeted by the rebels for food and medicine. New figures show that from June 2002 to July 2003 8,500 children were abducted. People are unable to harvest their fields, leading to an increased pressure on humanitarian agencies to provide aid and other relief supplies. However, many agencies are unable to operate in such an insecure and volatile environment and lacking secure access to remote areas are usually restricted to the towns. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) remains the only agency that, with a military escort, can reach the majority of IDPs. Many of the major roads that link the north to the rest of the country are highly insecure and prone to frequent rebel ambushes. As the countryside becomes depopulated and agricultural production ceases, combined with the lack of services, IDPs and refugees are suffering from severe cases of malnutrition. The conflict is stretching resources of many districts and is having a severe impact on water, sanitation, health, and education services.

This conflict remains one of the most intense long-term conflicts within the region. Why does northern Uganda continue to be mired in a bloody and barbaric conflict when other armed conflicts such as in Sudan and Somalia have pursued peace with the backing of the international community? Why has this conflict been forgotten by the outside world while it is uprooting and slowly killing entire communities?

The few details known about the LRA and its structure hamper any real effort towards effective peace talks. The recent ‘peace talks’ were conducted with one group within the LRA, although it was not apparent whether they had the full backing and authority of Joseph Kony. It is often agreed that unless Kony himself is involved all peace talks are bound to fail. Very little is known about Kony. Stories from escaped or captured abducted children continue to show that Kony believes that he has mystical powers and communes with the Holy Spirit. Like Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, out of which grew the LRA, Kony believes that he endows his forces with magical powers to defeat the UPDF. However, the reality is very different. Far from being a committed force, many of the rebels are abducted children forced to commit horrific atrocities against one another, and often against members of their own family or village, in order to sever all ties with their community.

The Ugandan government has historically both fought against and then tried to negotiate peace with the rebels. Both strategies have failed, but continue to be reflected in the government’s present actions. Although President Museveni has been to the north twice to oversee operations of the UPDF, who are a permanent presence in the region, their ability to engage with the rebels remains sporadic. Their presence is limited to certain areas and their forces are often thin on the ground. Deadlines issued by the government as to when the conflict will end belie the fact that ambushes, looting, killings and mutilations by the rebels steadily continue, and in some areas increased. Their poor track record also gives rise to allegations that those with a vested interest in the conflict continue to manipulate it to their own ends. As long as fighting the rebels is a legitimate reason for continued and increased spending in the defence budgets, an end to the conflict may not be in the interest of those in the UPDF leadership with immediate access to these funds.

Poor communication from both sides continues to overshadow any formal negotiations without a neutral third party to mediate. At the start of the year, talks between the Presidential Peace Team (PPT) and the rebels had collapsed even before formal negotiations could begin. The PPT, led by former Premier Prime Minister Eriya Kategaya, is now a defunct body languishing in Kampala without a new chairman and no direction. Likewise the sincerity of the government in negotiating is crucial to making peace a reality. The actions and words of President Museveni continue to reflect and dictate the attitude of the government. Looking at the rebels as terrorists, his scepticism of any successful peace talks, and his conviction that only a military solution can wipe out the rebels all highlight his reluctance to involve the international community – for their involvement would give the rebels a mantle of legitimacy and justification for the conflict.

Museveni has also indicated that the amnesty, under which the rebels can be re-integrated into the community if they renounce their activities, will not be extended to cover the top LRA leadership beyond the end of the year. Therefore, the government’s increasing belligerent and militaristic actions, using more helicopter gunships and ground troops, is in Museveni’s eyes the only real and effective response in dealing with the rebels. This is in direct conflict with the belief of a significant portion of the affected population, religious leaders, in the form of the Acholi Religious Leader’s Peace Initiative (ARLPI), the only body continuing to undertake constructive engagement with the rebels, some MPs and local leaders as well as some members of the international community who have all pushed for peace talks.

There is also a wider regional dimension to the conflict: Sudan has historically supported the LRA in retaliation for Uganda’s support of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). The 1999 Nairobi Peace Accord, although flawed by not involving the two rebel groups in its discussions, ensured the co-operation of each country to end this support. Under provisions of this Accord, in June 2002 Sudan allowed the UPDF, through Operation Iron Fist, to enter southern Sudan to fight and destroy LRA bases. It has never been completely believed that each side fully adhered to provisions in the agreement, most notably the injunction against aiding and supporting rebel groups. It is now certain that Kony has re-established two new camps south of Juba in the Sudan and that some Sudanese military officers continue to provide the rebels with weapons and other necessities. Church leaders and children who managed to escape from the rebels backed these allegations. Relations continue to remain polite but strained and in August both countries withdrew their observer posts set up to monitor and prevent rebel cross-border activity. Although the Protocol to extend Operation Iron Fist was renewed for the eighth time in September it remains to be seen if these new accusations impact negatively on it. What will be interesting is how the outcome, and perhaps the longevity, of the negotiated peace settlement between Khartoum and the SPLA/M will considerably affect relations between the Sudanese government and the LRA.

Since Operation Iron Fist began the rebels have re-entered Uganda. The repercussions of this policy are devastating and it has become the catalyst for the worst humanitarian disaster to date. As a consequence of this policy, the conflict has extended beyond its traditional boundaries of the north – mainly in the districts of Gulu, Pader, Lira and Kitgum – into the Teso region, northeastern Uganda, encompassing Katakwi, Soroti, Kumi, and Kaberamaido districts. There has been speculation as to why the rebels expanded their activities into northeastern Uganda, probably for food, medicines, and because of a low army presence in these districts.

Uganda is now looking at possibly the worst humanitarian crisis since the start of the conflict: insecurity continues with a lack of economic and social activity, displacements of whole villages, and the influx of refugees into the region. Figures are bleak and in no way can convey the misery and suffering by those directly affected by the conflict. The WFP estimates that about 1.6 million people in Uganda are in need of food aid, including over 1.1 million displaced in northern and eastern Uganda, with over 820,000 displaced in the north, the majority of the population. The IDP population within the Teso region has increased enormously since rebel activity began in June. It is estimated that around 300,000 are displaced and are mainly reliant on the host communities.

With increased rebel activity local authorities have established paramilitary groups to help fight alongside the UPDF – the Arrow Group in Teso and the Rhino Defence Unit in Lira. Most recently in September another militia was established composed of Karimojong fighters, from the eastern Karamoja region, a group more well known for carrying out violent cattle raids on its neighbours. However, arming the Karimojong can only exacerbate old tensions and ensure that a region already awash with small arms becomes even more volatile and insecure.

The reactions of the international community to date have been worryingly muted: Although they continue to express concern about the insurgency, there has been no concerted effort beyond rhetoric to find a peaceful solution to the fighting. On his first visit to Uganda in June of this year, George Bush made no overt attempt to push for a peaceful resolution. International institutions have called for an end to the conflict: The East African Legislative Assembly passed a resolution to establish a peace committee to negotiate between the two sides. On 3 July 2003, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the atrocities and called for constructive engagement by all parties and wider international support for the reconciliation process. At the present time no action has been taken to implement any of these resolutions.

Many religious and civil leaders feel the momentum is at present with the rebels, regardless of government’s claims that a military solution is the successful formula to defeat the rebels. It seems that the international community implicitly agrees with the government. What is needed, however, is an immediate ceasefire, guaranteed safe humanitarian access to the region and peace talks preferably outside of Uganda arbitrated by a neutral party.

To the international community, this conflict seems to be just one of many dotted on the African continent. To the people of northern Uganda, it is an every-present danger, keeping them away from their homes, their fields, disrupting their lives and families, forcing them to live in constant fear and hunger. Would it be too cynical to think that the people of northern Uganda are just not dying in sufficiently large numbers to be worthy of the attention of the international community, and jolt someone into action? What kind of disaster will make the international community sit up and take concrete and deliberate steps to ensure peace is brought to the region?

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