In an effort to end, once and for all, the 15-year conflict in northern Uganda, in March the Government of Uganda launched “Operation Iron Fist”, a determined military campaign to root out Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) by taking the war into southern Sudan, the LRA’s military and logistical base. In this report, African Rights urges the Ugandan government to consider the plight of captive combatants in the LRA, as well as the effects of conflict on local populations before pursuing a single-minded strategy of conflict.
Working for Justice
OPERATION IRON FIST
What Price for Peace in Northern Uganda?
9 May 2002
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In an effort to end, once and for all, the 15-year conflict in northern Uganda, in March the Government of Uganda launched “Operation Iron Fist”, a determined military campaign to root out Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) by taking the war into southern Sudan, the LRA’s military and logistical base.
The vast majority of the LRA combatants are formerly abducted persons, many of them still children, including those born in captivity. Accounts of the fighting in southern Sudan describe women fighting with children strapped to their backs and the sound of babies crying in battle. It is difficult to see how military confrontation will avoid tragically high casualties. LRA methods of forcing the captives to commit atrocities binds them to the rebel group which indoctrinates members to believe that they have to fight to the death or risk being killed. These circumstances make any military intervention fraught with problems since there is no easy way of drawing a line between victims and perpetrators. The Minister of Defence, Mr Amama Mbabazi, acknowledged this when he commented in a radio programme that “it is difficult to distinguish between a captive and a willing combatant when you are under fire.”
There are indications that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), working with the Sudanese army, had hoped to effect a large-scale rescue of children and non-combatants at the initial stages of the operation. The Ugandan army had even advised the Amnesty Commission to prepare for the return of large numbers of people from the Sudan. But the government’s initial calculation that the confusion of battle would lead to more escapes by LRA combatants has not materialised. The deployment of heavy armour in southern Sudan-including tanks and artillery pieces transported in broad daylight towards the border-have also been cited as evidence that the government plans to use maximum firepower, regardless of the consequences.
As the name of the operation was intended to signal, the government means to deal firmly and decisively with the LRA. Although it had hoped to free many of the LRA captives, it seems to have invested little by way of preparations to achieve this tactically complex objective. Only belatedly, and after an outcry from local people, did the government begin to emphasise the goal of freeing abducted children. The belligerent tone that has accompanied Iron Fist, and the deployment of heavy weapons, belie the government’s argument that the objective of the mission is to lead captives to safety. To date, the government has not presented convincing arguments as to how this will be achieved without inflicting serious casualties on the captives and without destroying the hard work which the Acholi community of the area has invested in peace. Reports about the early encounters suggest that no prisoners were taken when the UPDF ambushed the LRA near Agoro hills in March. During April, few encounters between the LRA and the UPDF were reported, as the LRA abandoned its camps for the relative safety of the mountains to the south of Sudan. According to the Uganda army, up to 30 LRA combatants were killed in the Sudan early in May. This, and other army reports of hundreds of Sudanese civilians brutalized and murdered by LRA, have not been independently confirmed. What is verifiable, though, is the absence of any rescued captives, so far.
Conflict in the north is rooted in the history of Ugandan politics which has left many Acholi people feeling left politically and economically marginalised following the ouster of the Milton Obote and the Okello regimes by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA). With thousands of Acholi former soldiers still reeling from the shock of the loss of power and status, the seeds of insurgency found fertile ground in which to grow. Significant sections of the community also feel locked out of the political life of the nation. The years that followed saw an alliance between the ascendant LRA and the Sudanese government which introduced a new and complex regional dynamic which has sustained this insurgency. Finding a permanent solution must, therefore, involve improved relations with Sudan, raising the standard of life for ordinary people in the north and a greater sense of political inclusion in order to give them a stake in the national economy and political system. No quick-fix military action against the LRA can resolve these issues. Instead, killing the children of Acholi will simply sharpen their grievances and stoke future strife. Unless and until the government addresses these perceptions and realities, the guns are unlikely to fall silent in northern Uganda.
The Impulse Behind Operation Iron Fist
It is not difficult to understand the frustrations which prompted the government’s decision to pursue the LRA into southern Sudan. Kony has been a difficult rebel leader to deal with and has repeatedly spurned previous overtures or regarded them with suspicion. Negotiations have not yielded the quick political dividends that the government was looking for. The war has proven to be a serious political liability, both domestically and internationally. An embarrassingly long insurgency in the north has sapped the Movement government of support in the north, as illustrated by the trend of voting in Acholi where President Museveni has had a poor showing in presidential elections. Internationally, the suffering in northern Uganda has attracted attention, especially in light of the government’s inability to protect the thousands of children who have been abducted, and the plight of the many thousands of internally displaced people. In addition, the situation in the north has tended to be conflated with the wider, complex question of southern Sudan and now, with the international war against terror.
Two main recent developments appeared to favour the timing of Operation Iron Fist, the most important of which is the improved relations between Uganda and Sudan. As long as the two countries were using the rebel groups stationed on their territory as proxy armies, the wars in northern Uganda and southern Sudan were set to continue. Various bi-lateral and regional initiatives to bring the two sides closer, and to end support for their respective opponents, had failed to come to fruition. International developments since the September 11 attacks on the United States have dramatically altered the course of events. The LRA, long branded as terrorists by the Ugandan government, has now been included on the list of groups regarded as terrorist organisations by the US. Sudan, accused by Washington of links with Osama Bin Laden and fearful of American retaliation, has sought to end its diplomatic isolation in the west and to forge closer links with the US. It is, therefore, anxious to be seen to be co-operating with anti-terrorism measures. Immediately after September 11, Khartoum offered intelligence on Al Qaeda, whose leader, Bin Laden, had in the mid 1990s operated bases inside Sudan. Allowing the Ugandan army to operate within its own country, in pursuit of the discredited LRA, is clearly an important political investment both in the regional context and internationally.
Secondly, following the return of troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kampala now had the forces to deploy inside Sudan. It would seem that the government was anticipating military action early this year when it boldly asserted that the people of Acholi would return to their homes from the dozens of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2002.
The Military Reality
With the conversion of so many factors, the government had banked on pulling off a spectacular end to the conflict in the north. But the government’s calculations have not gone according to plan, with grave consequences for the prospects of peace and for the people of the north.
The preparations for the mission appear to have been rushed. It is likely that the Sudanese, sensing the opportunity, might have seen the advantage of Kampala acting quickly. The longer this operation takes, the greater the domestic political risk for the Khartoum government. Mindful of public opinion, particularly the opposition of Islamists to foreign troops on its soil, the Khartoum government has also been careful to allow a few weeks at a time for the operation, leaving open its political options. On 5 March, Sudan and Uganda signed the first protocol which permitted limited operations against the LRA in Sudan. Already the mission has had to be extended on 22 April, for a month. These limited time periods allow the Sudanese a get-out clause, and are likely to intensify the pressure on the UPDF to deliver, with the result that minimising casualties is unlikely to be considered a major priority. Military missions with tight deadlines are a recipe for political and humanitarian mistakes. Operation Iron Fist has been no exception.
Even from the military perspective, the campaign can hardly be described as a success so far. In separate attacks on March 23 and 24, the Ugandan and Sudanese forces suffered exceptionally high casualties at the hands of the LRA, with several top officers and scores of men killed or injured. This prompted the Sudanese People’s Armed Forces (SPAF) to announce, towards the end of March, that they would henceforth join in the action against the LRA. However, there has been little evidence of the Sudanese army in action, perhaps because of the LRA’s relocation further south of Juba, into territory controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). According to reports, the Sudanese authorities are now putting out radio announcements calling on civilians to vacate the operations area ahead of intensified military action. Predictably, the LRA, which has been operating from southern Sudan for about ten years, abandoned its camps splitting into smaller groups. Today, the LRA has relocated to the Imatong mountain range not far from the Ugandan border, leaving the UPDF to overrun several empty camps and to recover large amounts of ammunition. The quantity and sophistication of the weaponry in the hands of the LRA are a testament to the extent of assistance that the LRA has received within Sudan, and raise questions about the seriousness and long-term nature of Sudanese support for the mission. Perhaps a sign that the Ugandan government was not satisfied with the progress of the military action is the fact that Colonel Muheesi, the Northern 4th division commander, whose troops are operating in southern Sudan, was removed from his position and re-deployed to a desk job along with at least one other senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Mugyenyi.
Against this shifting situation, the Ugandan army has had to change its military strategy and has moved its tactical headquarters to Palotaka, closer to the mountain ranges where the LRA has sought refuge. The military task will not be any easier now, since the army will have to abandon the use of heavy equipment and to send forces up the mountains during a season of heavy rains. The army says that it is prepared for the task. With 10, 000 troops said to be committed to the operation, the army is sounding confident, while at the same time, readjusting expectations of a quick end to the conflict. Likening Joseph Kony to the slain Jonas Savimbi of UNITA, Brigadier Aronda, the field commander of the mission, speaking on a radio interview, has predicted the imminent demise of the LRA. For his part, the army commander, Major General James Kazini, has camped in Gulu to oversee the operations and has publicly staked his career on the outcome of Iron Fist. He told the press early in May: “You call me on December 31; if Kony is still alive I will resign.” Such pronouncements are, no doubt, a routine part of psychological warfare, but they do nothing to nurture hope that the conflict can be ended with the minimum loss of Acholi lives.
This background should prompt the government to reflect deeply on the alternatives to the military path on which it has embarked. The heinous crimes which the LRA has committed against the population of southern Sudan and northern Uganda are a matter of public record. But the people of northern Uganda insist that the suffering will only end through dialogue and peaceful strategies to deprive Kony of recruits and political support. Both governments must revive and exhaust all the avenues for averting the impending military confrontation in the mountains of Sudan.
Human Rights Concerns on the Domestic Front
Alongside the operations in Sudan, the army has opened a new front in domestic counter-insurgency. A number of ordinary people, especially those living in the camps outside Gulu, have been arrested by army patrols. They are typically picked up in the middle of the night in the course of patrols and held at army camps, accused of collaboration with the LRA, desertion from the army or possession of weapons. Army detachments in Coope, Katikati, Pabbo and Koro in Gulu have apparently been used to detain suspects. Sometimes entire families have been rounded up. The Uganda Human Rights Commission in Gulu has received about a dozen complaints that the detainees have been subjected to serious torture and that some have needed hospitalisation following their release. It is continuing its investigations into these cases. But the actual figure for those arrested is higher. The arrests are likely to continue. Early in May, the army announced that it had recovered over 1000 letters in Kony camps within Sudan which linked a number of people within Acholi, and elsewhere, to the LRA. Amongst the letters cited in the government’s New Vision newspaper of 1 May was one purportedly written by former President Milton Obote. The newspaper report linked the spate of arrests of supposed LRA collaborators to the alleged discoveries in the Sudan.
During conflict, the army invariably assumes policing roles for which soldiers have not been adequately trained. However, because of the circumstances, it views its activities as a legitimate response to the security situation. But security concerns should not be a cover for human rights abuses. These arrests and reports of ill treatment are wrong in themselves and will do nothing to foster trust between the government and the people of Acholi during a time when the army should be striving to maintain harmonious relations with the community. The Human Rights Focus (HURIFO) in Gulu acknowledges that there had been improvements in the army’s relations with local residents when Colonel Muheesi was at the helm of the 4th Division. But it warns that these gains have now been squandered. According to HURIFO, about 31 people have been arrested, 10 of whom have been charged with treason, while 20 are on police bond. The patchy record of the Director of Public Prosecutions in successfully pursuing treason charges should indicate just how difficult it is to prove treason cases. The suspicion in Acholi is that these charges are simply being brought in order to justify holding the suspects, with no prospect of successful prosecutions. But bringing inappropriate charges simply clogs up the justice system, bringing that system too into disrepute.
As the arrests have continued, so too have the allegations of renewed rebel activity. For a long time one LRA faction has remained in Uganda, operating in the Atiak area of Gulu under the command of one Kwoyelo. His band of LRA fighters has apparently been able to move around with remarkable freedom and ability to attack protected camps, burn villages and ambush traffic, escalating their activities in the wake of the UPDF incursion into Sudan. The army’s vows to crush the group have not brought about the expected results, raising questions about the effectiveness of the army’s internal counterinsurgency crackdown. Towards the end of April, President Museveni upped the political stakes when he linked Colonel Kiiza Besigye to the LRA; Besigye, a candidate for the presidential race last year, has since fled the country. According to Museveni, James Opoka, a member of the Reform Agenda (a political pressure group set up by Dr Besigye) was working with commander Kwoyelo in Acholi. More recently, security sources in Kampala briefed the press that a satellite phone has been supplied by unnamed sympathisers to the LRA through commander Kwoyelo. The Reform Agenda strenuously denies links to the LRA, but their arguments have not stemmed the flow of government accusations. In the meantime, one Patrick Okema, said to be a relative of James Opoka, has been arrested and is being held by the army in Gulu. The arrests and attempted prosecutions on flimsy grounds will only reinforce the sense of grievance among the Acholi during a time when ordinary people are greatly anxious about the government’s own tactics and strategies within Sudan.
Local Residents: Holding Back
Disregard for the views of local people is a major reason for the problems that have beset this initiative from the outset. In private conversations, a substantial number of northerners make it clear that they would welcome a decisive military victory by the government over Joseph Kony and the LRA, thereby bringing this seemingly endless war to an end. But they know only too well that military action will entail the loss of more Acholi lives, prolong insecurity and ensure that dislocation and displaced camps continue without respite.
The most widely-held view among the Acholi is that the current military operation should not have taken place at all. In the course of its research, African Rights came across this argument again and again from people of all backgrounds. Acholi traditional and religious leaders have already taken an unequivocal stand against the army’s activities. A statement released by the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative (ARLPI), and other non-government organizations on 9 April, states, in part:
We believe that there is a contradiction in pursuing peace through dialogue and peace through war - the military option - simultaneously. We are convinced that this conflict can be peacefully transformed, but it will require dedication, patience, and a willingness to take risks for peace and make sacrifices on all sides. We urge the governments of Uganda and Sudan and the LRA to step back from this dangerous situation and resume dialogue efforts.
Far from ending the bloodshed, the military option, they argue, will only derail the chances of a lasting peace. Both groups have worked hard, often behind the scenes, to urge the members of the LRA to return home. They have sought to provide assurances that the amnesty extended to rebels is genuine and that even those who have committed serious offences have nothing to fear on return. For its part, the government has not vigorously explained its mission in Sudan, reinforcing the impression that on such fundamental questions as war and peace-which affect their lives and will determine their futures-the wishes and views of the people of the north are irrelevant.
A long time ago the people of northern Uganda concluded that the insurgency in Acholi could not be resolved militarily and have continuously called on the government to adopt peaceful means of ending the war. Their efforts led to the adoption of a comprehensive amnesty by the government in January 2000. The casualty toll from Operation Iron Fist will serve as further evidence that the military campaign is needlessly costly. Today, the call for peace has been renewed by community organizations and religious and traditional leaders of Acholi who are opposed to the military action in Sudan. For the Acholi, this war has not only been the source of untold suffering, but it has presented this community with impossible political choices and moral dilemmas. Because most members of the LRA were originally abducted as children, and continue to be regarded by their communities as the principal victims, rather than the villains, of this situation. Since African Rights began its research in northern Uganda in August 1999, it is clear to us that people see the LRA for what it is-a brutal and ruthless organisation which has no political programme or vision for the north and no qualms about using defenceless civilians for its own military and political gains, no matter what the cost. But the fact that the LRA is largely made up of Acholi, as are many of the soldiers who must fight them, makes the violence painfully intimate and the choices terribly awkward.
The northerners interviewed by African Rights place their analysis of the problem and their suggestions for potential solutions, in a local context. From their perspective, there does not appear to be a justification for this latest UPDF onslaught. They point out that in the last year, there had been no belligerent incursions of the LRA into Uganda. They were encouraged by the fact that different groups of the LRA had engaged with representatives of the government and of the community in dialogue. The first encounter took place in Pajule, Pader district, in March 2001 when a small group of the LRA initiated contact with church and community leaders; (The meetings were disrupted by the UPDF in an incident the army attributed to lack of coordination). Later in the year, LRA commanders held more public talks with the Gulu Local Council V Chairman, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ochora, who represented the government. During the Gulu talks, the UPDF co-operated in creating a demilitarised zone at Awoo Nyim, just outside the town, from which the dialogue could be pursued. These talks did not lead to a peace process; the LRA left the demilitarised zone and returned to Sudan, reportedly under Joseph Kony’s orders. Nevertheless, given the history of this conflict, they were seen by many Acholi leaders as a modest but positive step in the right direction, to be built upon; a sign of flexibility in the LRA’s previous hard-line position.
A Missed Political Opportunity?
Given these tentative but genuine overtures from the LRA, it was vital that the government should not appear to shut the door to dialogue. The discussions in Gulu district showed that the LRA still had an incomplete understanding of the amnesty process, viewing it as a device for the government to exact admissions of wrongdoing without any concessions on its part. It became clear that the government needed to tread carefully, and with a great deal of sensitivity, if it was to convince a skeptical LRA and critics in the north, that it was serious about ending the war. Only through contacts with the community and government representatives will the LRA overcome the many years of mistrust, and begin to recognize the commitment of the community to look ahead and to work for a common future. As the Gulu talks highlighted, negotiating with the LRA is problematic, in part because it lacks a coherent political agenda which could serve as the basis for political give and take. However, in the last year, a significant number of LRA combatants who had escaped from the LRA in Sudan had returned home, many through Juba and Khartoum. Significantly one group, led by a major, had fought its way back into Uganda where it applied for amnesty and has been resettled in the community.
It seems likely that this trend would have continued as news of their success had evidently trickled back into the camps inside Sudan. With Sudanese support drying up, the incentive and opportunity to escape was greater and active Sudanese support for this process should have continued to be employed. But it would appear that the alluring prospect of a clinical end to the LRA problem drove both governments to short-circuiting the existing process.
Focusing on Dialogue
The LRA has never responded well to ultimatums. In 1994, Museveni’s declaration giving the LRA 10 days within which to respond to the offer of an amnesty is widely seen as having contributed to the collapse of talks and to driving the LRA into the disastrous alliance with Sudan. What is needed now is a return to the more difficult and painstaking process of concerted non-military pressure on the LRA. Already, the return of many thousands of children and several former members of the LRA High Command to Uganda in January this year, would have provided signs of goodwill on the part of the government.
To the government’s credit, and in a policy that reflects the wishes of the Acholi community, no attempt has been made to exclude the LRA from the amnesty law, even in the wake of tough new anti-terrorism measures passed by Parliament in March this year. On the contrary; the government has expressly restated that a defeated LRA would benefit from the comprehensive pardon. It is unlikely that Joseph Kony himself, and his key lieutenants, will heed the call of reason. But experience shows that some commanders and the rank and file are susceptible to persuasion. Given the consequences of Operation Iron Fist, they need to be convinced now, more than ever, that their best hope for their security is back in Uganda. Delivering such a message, and re-creating the minimum conditions of trust, will not be easy in the current circumstances. But neither task is beyond the resources of the Governments of Uganda and Sudan, provided the political will exists.
Peaceful resolution of this long-standing conflict was never an easy option. This has always been understood by the people of northern Uganda who view dialogue and the amnesty as the only way to secure a sustainable peace. From their point of view, a crucial, but delicate and complicated exercise, has been needlessly jeopardised in the search for a short-term solution which now risks deepening and prolonging the conflict. All sides have a responsibility to show flexibility, courage and leadership in offering peaceful exit strategies to the LRA. The government of Uganda’s handling of past insurgents, including the Uganda National Rescue Front II (UNRF II), a splinter rebel faction from Brigadier Moses Ali’s original group, shows that it has the capacity to engage creatively and patiently with insurgent groups. Since 1998, the government, working with the Yumbe community, had been involved in dialogue with the Sudan-based group. This has now resulted in the return of the bulk of the UNRF II, under the command of Major General Ali Bamuze, to Uganda where they are currently engaged in talks with the government in Yumbe district. The government can, and must, draw upon this and other experiences to bring the war in the north to a peaceful conclusion.