Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

UGANDA: War On Northern Insurgents In Danger Of Alienating Locals

LONDON, Aug 12 1996 (IPS) - Kampala’s battle to stop insurgents crossing over from Sudan and wreaking havoc in northern Uganda could alienate locals caught in the crossfire unless it is promptly followed by with political concessions to the region’s minorities.

Codenamed Operation Clean, the current government push is designed to stop incursions by rebel groups that have claimed the lives of some 400 innocent civilians in the northern capital Gulu alone in the last four months.

But Peter Willetts, an expert in conflict resolution in Africa at London’s City University, says the offensive will only worsen the crisis if northerners continue to feel marginalised by the Kampala establishment.

“A forceful response to the threat posed by these rebels could prove very dangerous, given that they are mainly northerners” he said. “It could serve to generate sympathy for their cause in the north and so drive many more willing recruits their way — but only if northerners feel alienated by the government.”

One insurgent group, the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), last month killed 115 Sudanese refugees in the Achol Pii refugee camp, home to an estimated 160,000 people who have fled the war in Sudan. The LRA blamed these attacks on Colonel John Garang de Moiba’s Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), an armed group fighting for self-determination in ‘Arab’-Islamist ruled Sudan.

They claim the SPLA organises raids on refugee camps to ‘punish deserters’, and that Ugandan civilians get caught up in the ‘punishment killings’.

Not so, said human rights watchers. “Our information indicates that the LRA’s denial of responsibility is just not credible”, says Andrew Mawson, of Amnesty International. “These killings were by the LRA and were deliberate. They follow the pattern of extreme and arbitrary violence used by the LRA against unarmed civilians for several years”

According to relief organisations in the area, the ferocity and frequency of LRA attacks force thousands of people from the surrounding villages to seek nightly refuge in Gulu.

Ever since 1986 when President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement took power after toppling the military regime of General Tito Okello, his government — perceived by many in the north as being dominated by southerners — has had to contend with one northern-based armed group or another.

For much of 1995, however, there was a lull in rebel activity and the government came to believe that the shadowy LRA and the smaller, little-known West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) — also accused of attacking civilians — had been effectively neutralised and no more would be heard of them.

While the remaining members of the WNBF have been readily turning themselves in, complaining of lack of support from Sudan, the LRA has proven far more tougher.

Kampala particularly underestimated the resilience of the memory of the mysterious LRA leader, Joseph Kony, a former Catholic church worker often reported but never confirmed killed in action. LRA deserters say he believes that a holy spirit speaks to him and that he wants to impose a Christian theocracy on Uganda based on the biblical Ten Commandments.

The LRA inner circle appear to be made up of remnants of Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, who wrongly believed that the bullets of ‘unbelievers’ could not harm them and were wiped out by government troops in late 1986. Kony is a cousin of hers.

Kony’s hit and run attacks against civilians has frustrated the government Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), which according to some sources, have only managed to engage the LRA 10 times in months of trying. Though Operation Clean — led by Museveni’s half- brother, General Salim Saleh — has notched up initial successes, including the destruction of four rebel forward bases in the north, the elusiveness of the rebels remains a major problem.

Ever wider sweeps and interrogations of suspected rebel ‘supporters’ in a bid to nail down the LRA could complicate matters, should the Acholi people of the north then begin to perceive the offensive as a war on the north by the southerners.

“The government must tread carefully, for fear of going against northern sensibilities,” said Willetts. “The best case scenario would have some northern politicians appointed to senior government positions, and even have a northerner appointed as internal affair minister, to lead the push against the rebels.”

Museveni’s new cabinet of 21, formed last month following ‘no- party’ elections won by the president’s faction, contains only four northerners. This, says some observers, is being interpreted by the Acholi and other northerners as punishment for their support for the opposition. Many in the north want a political situation to the conflict and are becoming wary of Operation Clean.

Adollo Odango, a London based analyst who hails from Gulu, says Museveni must do more to get northerners to support the anti-rebel push — and that includes political concessions to the north.

But he is not confident. “All leaders who want to prolong their stay in power tend to marginalise those areas where they lost and consolidate those where they have support.” he says.

“I am afraid that it is not politically opportune for Museveni to do anything about it.”

Museveni’s line will be strengthened by his new alliance with the United States, which has signed a military cooperation agreement with Uganda and other countries in the region aimed at countering what Washington calls Sudan’s policy of destabilisation against its neighbours.

Official Ugandan sources deny the government has marginalised the north. They say there can be no negotiations with ‘bandits’ terrorising innocent and defenceless civilians. “These bandits have no support in the country.” says Donald Nyakairu, first secretary at the Ugandan embassy in London.

“Their only support comes from Sudan, where they are based. Anyone who doesn’t believe this should ask us to show them the weapons we have captured from these bandits. They bear unmistakable Sudanese Arab writing.”

Not unexpectedly, Sudanese officials reject any allegation of involvement in the internal affairs of a neighbouring state. The press counsellor at their London Embassy claims that Museveni believes “in taking power by force” and is himself meddling in Sudanese politics by supporting Garang’s SPLA.

“It is irrelevant to me whether these rebels are getting foreign support,” says Willetts. “What the (Ugandan) government has to do is ensure that it rules justly. When that happens, then it would not matter what kind of support rebels get. They would have no fertile ground on which to grow.”

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