Destruction by Deprivation? The “Genocide” Label in Northern Uganda
[Spring 2008, Volume IX]
While ongoing atrocities in Darfur, Sudan receive due labels of “genocide” from the international community, controversy and confusion continue to surround attempts to classify violence occurring 150 miles south of the Darfur border. In northern Uganda, nomadic rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have terrorized citizens in an ongoing 21-year insurgency, the longest standing conflict in Africa. The situation’s unique character—and why it proves so difficult to label—stem from the fact that it encompasses two conflicts in one. Victims face a dual threat; caught between a rebellion that claims to fight in their name but targets them for violence, and a government that uses its power to perpetuate, and not prevent, the suffering of its civilians. In an August 2006 issue of Foreign Policy, Olara Otunnu, the former U.N. Under-Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict and a native Ugandan, published “The Secret Genocide”, which makes the case for a recent uprising of scholars and activists who claim that the situation in northern Uganda deserves to be labeled “genocide”. The regime of President Yoweri Museveni, they allege, has crafted a “carefully scripted narrative” of war that is being “employed to mask more serious crimes by the government itself.” Otunnu declares that the impunity of Ugandan soldiers, coupled with an overt failure to prevent the slow wasting away of the 1.7 million people herded into deplorable displacement camps—which he calls concentration camps—reflect a deliberate attempt to destroy the Acholi, a northern ethnic group and the primary bearers of the war’s suffering.
These allegations demand closer examination. Does the conflict in northern Uganda possess characteristics of a deliberate campaign of extermination? Do the government’s actions—or, perhaps its inaction—amount to genocide? In analyzing patterns of violence and applying relevant theories of genocide and mass killing, this article finds weak evidence that the Ugandan government is performing a calculated,methodical campaign of discriminate extermination. While highlighting Museveni’s blatant inability to protect his citizens, Otunnu’s accusations fail to acknowledge the complex dynamics that underpin the conflict and other contributory factors behind the government’s actions; proving to be an overly simplistic way to explain the situation in northern Uganda.
My examination will address only allegations of genocide against the Ugandan government. The LRA’s atrocities have received no such credible charges, and the nature of the rebel movement—a sporadic and unpopular insurgency that persecutes members of its own ethnic group and displays a clear intent to punish, not exterminate, its victims—clearly lack the characteristics of “genocide” as it is conceptualized under the 1948 U.N. Convention. The intent of this article will be to analyze whether the actions (or inaction) of the Museveni regime amount to an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” by acts listed under Article II of the Convention, subsections (a) through (d), which include:
• Killing members of the group
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
I will concentrate on the third subsection, as Otunnu points to the government’s indifference towards northerners’ harsh living conditions as the main weapon by which Museveni has waged a deliberate campaign of destruction. Another point to note is that I spent the summer of 2006 conducting research in Uganda, focusing on the humanitarian relief structure for civilians displaced by the northern conflict. While my particular fieldwork did not focus on the war’s genocidal dynamics, I spoke with numerous citizens, government officials, journalists, and aid workers regarding the situation on the ground there. The genocide topic arose more than once. Where appropriate and necessary, I will draw on my personal interviews and firsthand experiences to provide supplementary evidence for my argument.
The rise to power by President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) in 1986 spawned a rebellion of former government soldiers and disaffected citizens in the northern regions of Uganda. Led by a local witchdoctor, Alice Lakwena, the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) united dissidents and marched within 100 kilometers of the capital, Kampala, before being quickly crushed by Museveni’s army. While the HSM dissolved soon afterwards, the movement set the stage for the emergence of another, more formidable insurgent campaign— the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by a self-proclaimed spirit named Joseph Kony. Initially a popular uprising, the LRA quickly lost its support among local populations, and began abducting citizens to fill its ranks. The guerillas accused civilians of conspiring with the very regime they pledged to fight, and started committing killings, mutilations and rape against civilians in the northern regions of Gulu, Pader, Kitgum and Apac; districts that are dominated by the ethnic Acholi. Operating out of the bush, the LRA raids nearby villages andtowns; snatching children, burning homes and murdering civilians along the way. They indoctrinate their abductees with violence; turning the boys into child soldiers and taking females as concubines and wives. The rebels’ rampages have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the enslavement of over 30,000 children, while fear of abduction has spawned a phenomenon of “night commuters”—40,000 rural Ugandan youths who embark on nightly walks to local towns to hide in bus parks, hospitals and other public areas.
In 1996, the Ugandan government implemented a policy of “forced displacement”, herding endangered northerners into “relocation camps” to protect them from rebel attacks. Following the exile of 1.8 million people from their homes, by 2003 nearly 95 percent of the population in the three Acholi-dominated northern districts was residing in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. While the camps have become vulnerable targets for LRA attacks, their living conditions are, according to World Vision, “nothing less than disastrous.” A report by the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the U.N. revealed that 1,000 IDPs continue to die each week from disease and hunger; a mortality rate well above emergency thresholds and nearly three times greater than the death rates in Darfur. Outbreaks of cholera and AIDS are prevalent, illiteracy is rampant, sanitation services are scarce and malnutrition is reaching epic proportions. Neither an adequate amount of soldiers nor substantial police forces have been provided, fitting the camps with skeleton security to protect citizens from the rebels. Camps range from 20,000- 65,000 inhabitants, yet the average protection per camp is 170 government soldiers and ten to twelve police officers. The Ugandan government’s failure to provide victims with adequate relief resources and its inability to stop the LRA militarily or diplomatically has sparked an array of accusations against Museveni that range from political apathy to murderous conspiracy.
In 1987, journalists and activists began reporting that Ugandan soldiers were committing violence against civilians in the north. These charges faltered over the course of a decade, however, and in 1997 Robert Gersony, an American researcher and expert on civil conflict, conducted one of the most comprehensive field studies of the northern situation. He observed:
The UPDF’s human rights conduct, despite some recurrent problems, appears to have made a significant, sustained improvement since about 1992, a view in which even some of President Museveni’s most strident critics concurred. In comparison with LRA conduct, for example, the author received no allegations of massacres or major incidents.
Documentation of civilian maltreatment remained sporadic until 2003, when Human Rights Watch released Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda, to be followed up in 2005 by Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda. Both of these reports describe various human rights abuses by Ugandan soldiers and their unlawful killing of civilians, mostly in their roles as “protectors” of the IDP camps. Restricted in movement by a harsh curfew, citizens discovered outside the camps have been commonly assumed to be LRA or LRA collaborators and shot on the spot by the army. This has presented a disastrous conundrum for encamped civilians. Northern Uganda is a fertile region that depends on an agricultural economy; if farmers are prevented from cultivating their fields, it forces them to rely on aid resources that have proven to be horrendously inadequate. Meanwhile, the army routinely abuses civilians within the displacement camps, subjecting them to beatings, rape, and unlawful detentions. Yet no effective accountability structure holds soldiers responsible for their crimes; reports of abuse rarely result in criminal investigations or prosecutions. While significant and well-documented, the army’s cruelty has lacked a systematic element, and the most potent source of destruction for displaced northerners has been the deprivation of food, water, medicine and other basic living necessities.
Unlike archetypal cases of targeted extermination, like the Nazi’s death machine or the hundred-day massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, it is difficult to infer intent from the patterns of violence in northern Uganda. Victims are dying at the hand of mass deprivation—not mass slaughter—and those in Otunnu’s camp claim that the deprivation is not only intentional, but part of a secret campaign to annihilate the Acholi. Applying theories of genocide—which identify the prevalent elements and causal factors of genocides and mass killings throughout history—to northern Uganda can help indicate whether the conflict possesses distinct genocidal characteristics. In virtually every academic, humanitarian, and journalistic analysis of northern Uganda, the conflict is portrayed as the manifestation of national fragmentation and a consequence of political tribalism. Accusations of genocide, then, argue that the Ugandan government has “stoked ethnic racism” to provoke discrimination and division, laying the foundation for genocidal policies and targeted destruction. Therefore, my analysis will focus on applying theories that relate to ethnicity and racial divisions: fragmented societies, cultures of prejudice, elite manipulation, institutionalized discrimination and organic nationalism.
Leo Kuper, hailed by many as the founder of genocide studies, argues that culturally and politically plural societies possess the dynamics of division that can lead to genocide. From an ethnic standpoint, Uganda is very diverse, with over 73 different ethnic groups and 43 native languages. Much of the country is racially segregated, as ethnic groups are congregated into four regions—west, central, east, and north—with the greatest diversity being found in the central regions near the capital, Kampala. Intermixing and intermarrying are common, and most Ugandans practice the same religion—83% are Christians. The cleavages that exist are primarily political divisions set along ethnic lines, which were embedded in the country’s colonial history under British rule and perpetuated by its political dynamics following independence in 1962. The geographical and cultural separation of the country’s population is a direct result of colonialists’ “divide and rule” policies that split Uganda into functional regions for maximal administrative efficiency and economic profit, using the south as an agricultural and industrial base while the north was seen as “disturbed, hostile territory, in which there were some tribes powerful enough to offer stiff and prolonged resistance.” Members of the southern Buganda tribe were rewarded for their cooperation with British rulers, and the country’s entire infrastructure—including its capital city, parliament, university, hospitals and railroad—was built in the south. While southerners were viewed as intelligent and capable political rulers, Ugandans from the north were viewed as barbaric and brutal, which made them fit to dominate the ranks of the national army.
When Museveni, an ethnic Banyankole from western Uganda, took power by building a coalition of western and central groups to overthrow the regime of Milton Obote, it broke a chain of northern domination of the government that had persisted since the country’s independence. In the midst of change in the mid-1980s, as remnants of Obote’s regime and Museveni’s NRM troops clashed in the Luwero Triangle, Obote’s Acholi-dominated army committed massacres against the NRM and scores of innocent civilians. After Museveni ascended to power, he retaliated by breaking off a 1985 powersharing agreement and sponsoring cattle raids in the north; actions which left northern groups, particularly the Acholi, with a significant loss of political and economic power. Northern discontent was furthered as Museveni began delving out jobs and favors to western ethnic groups while political and economic power continued to remain concentrated in the southern part of the country. While many people view this history as a simple tension between two regions, as Uganda’s Refugee Law Project—a local NGO based in Kampala— contends, “The north-south divide is symptomatic of the other regional divisions that exist throughout Uganda.” Indeed, the LRA has not been the only rebel uprising in Uganda since 1986; fourteen other guerilla groups picked up arms to resist Museveni within a half-decade after he seized power. Many hailed from other regions than the Acholi-dominated areas in the north; for example, the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF), which remained active until 2004, mobilized in the southwestern part of the country. While fragmented along ethnic lines, these insurgencies reveal that the functional divisions within Uganda are not merely the remnants of archaic tribal hatreds. According to James Okuku in his essay Ethnicity, State Power and the Democratization Process in Uganda, the problem in Uganda “is not of ethnicity in itself,” but that ethnicity “is more intimately linked to political and economic conditions, that is, the unequal distribution of and competition for power and wealth.”
Daniel Goldburg argues that genocide is likely in societies where a prejudicial culture has taken root, portraying certain citizens as inferior, even inhuman. Have Uganda’s ethnic and political schisms manifested a specific prejudicial culture against northern groups, particularly the Acholi? Many nonnortherners view the LRA conflict with indifference, perceiving it as an isolated event among one group of people. According to the Refugee Law Project: Political upheavals become geographically localized or ‘regionalized’, and are perceived by other Ugandans as distant and unimportant, “as long as it doesn’t come here!” As one interviewee in Luwero said, “Those Acholi are killing each other up there, and they always will. Why should we be concerned? We have our own worries here at home.” Some of this attitude may be beginning to change, however. According to interviews in Soroti, most people said they knew very little about the LRA because for 17 years it was not affecting them. “When they came here, we knew what the Acholi have been going through, and we now feel we need to look at this as a national problem.”
A well-known local journalist, Peter Mulira of Kampala’s New Vision, also explored the populations’ views towards the suffering of their northern countrymen: Yes, the war in the north is seen as a thing which should not concern us, and unfortunately it also evokes sad memories of their own kind in many peoples’ minds. The attitude of many was captured by my friend, John, who, in an angry voice [said] “Those people killed us when they were in power!”
The sentiments that “they killed us!” and “those Acholi are just killing themselves up there” indicate prejudicial attitudes, but racism is not the overlaying theme of Ugandans’ indifference towards the war. Apathy appears to be the result of distance and disconnect more than a reflection of overt hatred for the Acholi or other northern groups. When a small part of the population is victimized in a regionally-fragmented country that suffers from rampant poverty (requiring citizens to focus on day-to-day survival), effective national engagement with an isolated event is unlikely. But once civilians are affected by the conflict—as the Refugee Law Project found in Soroti—their perspectives change dramatically. This reality, and the prevalence of ethnic integration through intermingling and intermarrying, provides evidence that any existing racism in Uganda is neither deep-seeded nor pervasive enough to constitute a “culture of prejudice.”
Indeed, amplified racial and political fragmentation has primarily been a product of manipulative governing by political elites. This has remained consistent throughout Uganda’s history. Exploiting ethnic tensions allowed the British to rule efficiently and effectively during the colonial era, and the practice was mimicked and maintained by post-independence regimes. Each successive government failed to focus on nation building and built their policies around narrowly-tailored political interests that included the exclusion of opposition groups. Like their British masters, post-colonial Ugandan leaders have used such calculative tactics to maintain their authority; hoping to minimize disloyalty and potential revolt. Ugandan scholar Mahmoud Mamdani notes this pattern in declaring that the country’s various regimes “have rested on distinctly ethnic political foundations” allowing them to “reproduce themselves on the basis of definable, and in most cases, narrow ethnic alliances.” This has been characteristic of the Museveni regime as well, which has exacerbated the cleavages between former elites of the north and the centralwestern dominant government. Since taking power, Museveni has become notorious for relishing the display of thousands of skulls of people killed by the Acholi-dominated army in Luwero during the NRM’s 1986 rebellion, a symbolic exhibit that he uses to invoke images of cruelty and barbarity:
The skulls were publicly displayed on the main roadside leading to Northern Uganda ostensibly to show the evils of Milton Obote’s army. But now in hindsight, it seems the skulls were displayed strategically to demonize Northerners, especially the Acholi, and set them up for revenge killings and extinction so that the unfolding genocide in the IDP Camps and lack of protection from LRA attacks.
According to Africanist Amii Omara-Otunnu, the NRM “has bolstered its position by manipulating ethnic factors” and therefore “it is evident that the rise of Alice Lakwena was due to [Museveni’s] repressive policies and to the inability of the educated elite to articulate and organize the aspirations of those living in northern and eastern Uganda.”
But there is a significant difference between exacerbating cultural and social differences to cripple all opposition, and using it to deliberately institutionalize oppressive policies directed only at one particular group of people. A characteristic of Museveni’s ethnic alliances and tight grip on power in the early days was an indiscriminate crackdown on all dissent and opposition, regardless of ethnicity or individual affiliations. Upon entering office, the president implemented a no-party system that outlawed any organized political opposition, allowing for “the monopolization of state authority by one powerful group.”37 His reasoning was an innate fear of the social phenomenon that he exploite —Museveni claimed that a multiparty system would lead to host of rival political factions based on tribal units. In reality, he was paranoid of any formidable opposition, and began taking harsh measures to preserve his power and reduce large sections of the populace to mere “spectators of politics.” As early as October 1986, critics were incarcerated for “acting against the government” and the secretary-general of the Uganda Human Rights Activist Organization was thrown in jail after beginning to criticize the regime’s failure to address the developing situation in northern Uganda. While Museveni was undoubtedly inspired by the threat of resistance, his oppressive policies did not target a specific ethnic or political group. He feared opposition from various actors, particularly from within—as Mamdani said in 1988, “Never before in our history have state employees been penalized so severely for being Ugandans” (italics inserted). Although the one-party system was indicative of pure political oppression, Museveni finally adhered to a national referendum in July 2005 and allowed the open registration of opposition groups, leading to challenges of the incumbent leader from six contesting parties in the February 2006 elections.
Despite the shift in policies of political mobilization, there is no denying that the north continues to bear the brunt of underdevelopment in Uganda, suffering from a stagnant and marginalized economy that lags behind the rest of the country with a 66% poverty rate, compared to the national average of 46%.42 Many Museveni critics argue that this is purely a result of NRM policy and a characteristic of the current regime and its desire to exclude the north. But in his field report, Robert Gersony found that many Acholi “blame their area’s lack of development in great part on Colonial policies”, and acknowledges that “even under Obote and Amin the fruits of development had not reached the Acholi to the degree that they reached other areas.” The isolation of the northern economy, then, is not just a hallmark of the current administration, but a distinctive element of a fragmented country that persisted even when northerners were in power. In fact, the current regime has implemented several programs in the northern region to spur development, including the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), which includes institutional and infrastructure development. One policy that has led to disastrous results, however, is the NRM-enforced policy of forced displacement. In Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century, Benjamin Valentino argues that governments engaged in counterguerilla warfare, like Uganda’s, may find mass killing attractive as a potential option to help “drain the sea”:
Some regimes have found it easier…to wage war against a guerrilla army by depriving it of its base of support in the people than by targeting the guerrillas directly…frequently resulting in mass killing”… strategies included “massive programs of population resettlement.”
Valentino cites displacement as a potential strategic pursuit that “may stem from more ‘pragmatic’ concerns, such as the effort to eliminate specific kinds of political or military threats…” It is clear that the Ugandan government justifies the use of IDP camps as a protective measure for civilians and a strategy to deprive the LRA of the food and support from the local population. But, in accordance with Valentino’s theory of “cumulative radicalization”, could the NRM’s policy of forced displacement reflect a conscious, strategic, and evolutionary decision by Museveni to promote the destruction of the Acholi?
Evidence would be more conclusive if not for the fact that the Acholi, despite being the primary war victims, are not the only ones suffering from rebel atrocities and government policies. The history of Museveni’s ascent to power, and his exacerbation of the divide between the previous government and his own, indicate that his only grievances are with those from Acholiland. Yet other ethnic groups, including the Lango, the Karamojong, and the Teso—which have larger national populations than the Acholi—are also succumbing to death, deprivation and general destruction of their way of life. In fact, representatives from these other regions have submitted complaints to government and humanitarian officials that they do not receive the material relief that Acholi in the Gulu, Kitgum and Lira are afforded. Speaking with aid workers from World Vision in Kampala, I was told of the heavy resentment among the displaced population in the Apac district because they lacked the extensive relief resources distributed to the Acholi-dominated regions. Although the scope of distress does not detract from the victimization of the Acholi, the north as a whole has been marginalized.
In addition, the government has implemented several policies and strategies that would be inconsistent with a systematic and deliberate attempt to exterminate northerners. In the 1990s, Museveni began providing weapons to local militias in the north to help them protect their villages, sometimes deploying them with official army units to protect civilians, particularly in rural areas. But, as history has shown, one of the first steps a regime takes before committing mass murder is to disarm the soon-to-be victimize population. Why, then, would the Ugandan government equip northern militias with weapons that not only empowers local villages, but gives them the means to wipe out the very rebel force whose existence allows the continual destruction of northern societies? Later, around the year 2000, the government implemented a new law that gave blanket amnesty to all LRA fighters who voluntarily
returned from the bush. The “Amnesty Act” prioritized ending the conflict over ensuring modern forms of justice for rebel perpetrators. But if Museveni is determined to annihilate the Acholi, allowing combatants from an Acholi-dominated force to return to their homes and villages with no repercussions or legal punishment seems to be an ill-advised policy.
In The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann contends that developing, multi-ethnic countries are most susceptible to mass violence and genocide. Uganda certainly fits that bill. Mann claims that “organic nationalism” perverts democracy and perceives the state as belonging to a biologically connected population group, causing an inherent exclusion of other political, ethnic, or national groups as the socially-constructed “other” and laying the foundation for genocidal violence. According to Mann:
Many developing countries possess a dominant ethnicity or religion; many possess minorities with strong regional implantation, some of which form the majority in a neighboring state. Many experience some degree of exploitation by foreign imperialism [in combination with] small-arms which enable small groups of young men to coerce their own community into the prisonhouse of organic nationalism…All this is the recipe for intermittent organic nationalism, occasionally surging into murderous cleansing.
While it does not automatically ensure “murderous cleansing”, organic nationalism has been a consistent factor in the incidence of genocide in the 20th century. Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire used the state to push for the advancement of pan-Turkism during the early 1900s, helping formulate the idea that the “other”—minority Christian Armenians—needed to be eradicated. Through incessant propaganda, the Nazis bolstered German nationalism by declaring that any non-Aryan citizens—particularly Jews—were impure and inferior, setting the state for Hitler’s “Final Solution.” In the 1970s, The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia emphasized “original people” and the “ethnic ideal” in purging “unclean” minorities, intellectuals and city dwellers from the population. Extremists in the Rwandan government in 1994 positioned the state as being an organic Hutu mechanism that needed to rid the country of unclean Tutsi “cockroaches”. One year later, Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist fervor of a “greater Serbia” helped inspire ethnic cleansing and massacres against Muslims by Bosnian Serbs. And in present-day Sudan, the Khartoum government has utilized its “Arab” appeal to exacerbate ethnic tensions and sanction the slaughter of “inferior” black Africans in Darfur.
With the exception of Bosnia, each conflict entailed a dominant majority sharing “virtuous ethnic and/or political characteristics” discovering in the state “a sympathetic instrument for the advancement of their own interests” conceiving of a “perfect union” that required the “exclusion of minority communities and political opponents from full membership in the nation.” Yet in Uganda, ethnic diversity has made it difficult for one dominant group to retain a sustained and unwavering command of political authority. The country lacks a clear ethnic majority—in fact, no single group lays claim to more than 20% of the population. Museveni’s Banyankole ethnic group make up a mere 9.5%—not a very large demographic to rally an entire organic nationalist movement. The makeup of the Museveni regime encompasses the entire country—including representatives from the north—and the use of the state as a tool stems not from an attempt to “purify” Ugandan society, but as a result of the current leadership’s awareness that, according the Refugee Law Project, “If one’s ethnic group is not in power, one’s security is not guaranteed.”
In most cases, for the seeds of organic nationalism to come to fruitation, leaders require an ideology of purity or general push for utopianism that, according to Eric Weitz, “necessitates population purges.” Valentino argues that “the ideology of ruling elites played a crucial role in past instances of mass killing”, and highlights that one of the most dangerous ideologies is one “seeking national purification” Although the NRM has used the Ugandan state as an instrument for the advancement of its own interests, there has been no rhetoric from Museveni or other public officials indicating that the government harbors a racist ideology. In addition, there is no evidence of any racially- or ideologically-charged propaganda campaigns undertaken by the NRM—a fact to which, as a Ugandan resident for three months, I can personally attest. In public declarations and writings, including his biography Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda, Museveni has demonstrated that his idea of utopianism depends upon national integration, not ethnic purity; and that his 1986 revolution was inspired by a need to cleanse the government, not the nation.
There are other complex workings that contribute to the government’s inept failure to eradicate the LRA and protect northern victims; dynamics that transcend ethnicity and tribalism and offer alternative motivations for Museveni’s inaction. The war’s profitability, bolstered by donor aid and local corruption, has helped render the regime complacent, and the complex dynamics of the LRA rebellion make it difficult to achieve what many herald as an easy solution.
An often underlooked element of the northern conflict is the fact that, as the Refugee Law Project highlights, “there are individuals and groups who are benefiting financially from the war.”63 For Museveni’s government, profitability has swelled after September 11, 2001. International donors fund some 50 percent of Uganda’s budget, and in 2005 alone, the Ugandan government set aside a budget of $200 million for defense—a funding inflation that leaders are able to easily justify by invoking threatening images of the LRA.64 The U.S.’s strategic alliance with Uganda strengthened after the 9/11 attacks, as Washington officially labeled the LRA a terrorist organization and mandated increased military aid to the NRM regime. Yet, while the Ugandan government has garnished its budget with donor aid and committed extensive financial resources to the military, money has vanished in the process. Several investigations into the government’s bankrolling revealed numerous “ghost soldiers” cases—where paychecks were distributed to individuals who did not exist. For example, in December 2003, local media outlets in Kitgum and Gulu reported that budgetary funds were being set aside for combat units missing up to 60% of their troops. Between being released from central administration and arriving to troops on the ground, large sums of money have disappeared. Many humanitarian aid workers I spoke with in Kampala described how local officials and military commanders had used donated resources, including food, to sell for their personal profit. Corruption has prohibited IDPs from receiving material aid, while giving government and military officials an incentive to exacerbate the war and the suffering of its victims. The Refugee Law Project found similar allegations to be rampant throughout the north:
[There were] deep suspicions about smaller-scale war profiteering on the part of a number of different individuals or groups who are thought to be benefiting from the war…various actors were accused of benefiting financially from the war and actively encouraging it to continue. There was frequent reference to large sums of money given for defense, which were not reflected in increased military capacity on the ground. In particular, here is a strong belief among civilians that senior army commanders were benefiting financially from the war, something that the recent ghost soldiers’ inquiry confirmed.
All this has contributed to a widespread belief that “certain elements within the UPDF are actively working against resolution of the war”, based not on a deep-seeded desire to destroy the Acholi but because people are making money off the conflict.68 But northerners are not the only victims of corruption. NGO reports in 2004 and 2005 revealed that soldiers on the ground “were not getting their allowances and had to beg for food”, which compelled them to steal humanitarian resources from aid convoys and rob civilians. While officers and local officials reap the benefits of bloated defense budgets and fraudulent divergences of funding, those in the lower ranks have become “resentful because they don’t get anything, but it is their lives that are exposed every day…That is why they run when there is an attack and do not protect civilians.” While war profits have inspired many leaders’ contentment with the war’s continuation, it has also deprived many soldiers on the ground and helped inspire them to commit violence and steal from civilians in the IDP camps. This is why, when analyzing the intentions of the NRM and its motivations for perpetuating the LRA conflict, the profitability aspect cannot be understated.
The fact that the LRA, a nomadic insurgency with little local support, has survived for over twenty years is often pointed to as a sign of government complicity. However, many advocates and human rights group underestimate the formidability of the rebel campaign. In one field report, a former fighter commented that “Kony has no plan, but he has lots of weapons and soldiers,” while a local analyst explained that the LRA “has marvelous internal organization and management. They keep records when they abduct children – who their parents are, etc.” Although the government’s lack of effective engagement with the northern conflict has enhanced the LRA’s ability to survive, the dynamics of the rebellion makes defeating it extremely challenging. 90% of the rebel group is comprised of child combatants that have been abducted and forced to kill against their will; a disturbing fact that confronts the Ugandan government with an “impossible military dilemma.” These individuals are heavily indoctrinated and possess an allegiance that is unquestioned. The RLP explains how the guerilla’s exploitation of young soldiers renders military campaigns by the NRM ineffective: LRA commanders avoid government Mi-24 helicopter gunship attacks by passing uniforms over to child abductees and immediately dispersing into groups of 2-3. While children are disposable porters in the LRA’s overall strategy, and the LRA loses nothing militarily when they are gunned down by UPDF troops, the government risks political backlash for killing children.
This, and the fact that fighting in the bush caters to the rebels’ strengths has made the LRA a formidable opponent. As one local official admitted, “even a small number of LRA fighters can overcome a very large UPDF force.”
While the rebellion has received no support from the Ugandan government or the local population, its strength was maintained from 1994 until early 2006 by material and military aid from the government of Sudan, which retaliated for Kampala’s longstanding support of its insurgents, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Until they were forced to seek refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2006, the LRA operated out of bases in southern Sudan, and the constant supply of food and weapons from Khartoum bolstered the rebel force. In fact, Kony worked with the Sudanese army to attack strategic locations within Sudan, and the National Islamic Front regime considered him to be a “long-term strategic partner.” The harboring and supplying of the rebels by the Sudanese government presented another challenge to the NRM and its attempts to defeat the LRA militarily. While the loss of external support has severely weakened the guerilla force in the past year, newfound hope for peaceful reconciliation and amnesty continues to be undermined by the International Criminal Court, which refuses to withdraw arrest warrants for Kony and his top commanders. Whether militarily or diplomatically, a solution becomes more elusive as the government’s failure to achieve peace fuels greater discontent and distrust in the north, causing civilians to refuse cooperating with the army or supporting its counterinsurgency campaign. Such hostility has in turn inspired resentment among Ugandan soldiers so that they “don’t want to fight properly and end the conflict once and for all.”80 This vicious cycle of mutual antagonization has helped perpetuate the violence in northern Uganda.
While divided societies, difficult life conditions and opportunistic ambitions have been identified as contributing factors in genocides of the 20th century, the Uganda case lacks clear evidence of the ideological, national or ethnic radicalism that would supplement greed and frustration, aggravate national divisions to construct a culturally identifiable “Other” and promote the most extreme measures of ensuring their exclusion. The government’s “stoking of ethnic racism” is not so distinctly nationalistic or culturally, politically, and institutionally pervasive to indicate that Museveni, through a calculated effort of selective deprivation, has intended to “bring about the physical destruction in whole or in part” of the Acholi or other northern groups. There exists no ideological pursuit of “purity”; no clear ingrained ideals of ethnically-based organic hyper-nationalism; no campaign of racist propaganda and no prevalent cultural hatred. The patterns of deliberate harm inflicted by the Ugandan army is too sporadic, too indiscriminate and lacking the systematic element of genocidal persecution. Finally, although the north remains politically and economically marginalized, the policies of the current regime are not solely to blame—as regional separation and isolation continue to be endemic to the entire country. The multi-layered and multi-faceted dynamics of the situation in northern Uganda makes it one of the most complex conflicts in the world—and one of the most daunting, which has prompted U.N. Emergency Relief coordinator Jan Egeland to call it “the world’s most underreported humanitarian crisis.” This article concludes that there is weak and insufficient evidence of “genocide”, and that to label the conflict as such is brazenly presumptuous and overly simplistic. Of course, this does not excuse the Ugandan government’s failure to protect its citizens; nor does it absolve Museveni and his regime from responsibility for the north. Meanwhile, while Olara Otunnu’s allegations are inaccurate, they do provoke perplexing questions relating to the way that genocide is currently conceptualized. The term has been coined to classify proactive, positive actions that seek to exterminate a group of people. But can genocide be viewed as passive inaction that indirectly serves the same end? Can apathy or indifference to destruction be genocidal? As the international community watches northern Uganda with fresh hope for a peaceful resolution, these questions do—and should—remain.
Adam Lichtenheld is currently an investigative reporter for the National Security News Service and a correspondent for National Geographic. He received a B.A. from the University of Wisconsion-Madison in 2008.