Shadowy Renditions: Reflections on the Conflict in Northern Uganda

Denis Junior Okello

March, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

I have an ugly scar on my left elbow. It is a memento from a fall I took while riding a bicycle in Gulu town one weekend. A heavy downpour earlier that day had left the ground wet and slippery, but I needed to get quickly to a soccer practice after work. The staff of Mega FM, the community radio station that I worked for, were scheduled to compete against a team from the Uganda Red Cross in a few days. My eagerness and hastiness resulted in a bruised knee and a swollen lip, in addition to the gash on my elbow. It was a month before I could walk or eat properly again.

It dawned on me, then, that in Gulu town one is more likely to die from a health complication than from a rebel's bullet. Thanks to the war, the town is home to twice the number of people it was designed to host. Cholera, dysentery and other communicable diseases often hit with grave consequences. But if they don't kill you, the errant or love-forlorn government soldier's bullet might. For all the talk about the Uganda People's Defense Forces being a disciplined and rapidly professionalizing outfit, incidents of the latter kind still occur, and not a little infrequently, in northern Uganda.

The point, however, is that you are less likely to die at the hands of the infamous Lord's Resistance Army in Gulu town and several other places in the district than popular opinion would have you believe. Not many people are aware of this because the North has been made out to be one vast war theatre in which the LRA enacts its gruesome role with gusto and impunity.

Before I went to work there in 2003 the only image of northern Uganda that I had was of a region bedeviled with a deadly, protracted conflict. The insurgency began in 1986 and the region has not known peace and stability since. Rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army have killed and maimed thousands of civilians in a war that they insist is intended to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni. They have abducted tens of thousands of people, mostly children, to turn into killing machines or sex slaves. Three quarters of the population have been displaced into poorly planned camps, leaving the vast fertile lands of the countryside eerily deserted.

In the course of my work, I often wondered why the media couldn't go about reporting the conflict without giving the impression that the entire region was a hopeless, no-go area. This is a question that not only speaks to perceptions of the conflict and the region, but to people's responses as well. Vehicles blown up by rebel landmines on the roads, villagers attacked with machetes and left without ears, lips or limbs (if they are lucky to survive death) and teenage children abducted and forced to walk thousands of miles to rebel bases in Sudan — this image is authentic. But, because it is the only image, and is often painted with sensational strokes by the media, it plays into the hands of those who argue about the intractability of the conflict. Who, after all, can do anything about it given such wanton violence? How can you pursue a peace process with such animals?

The result, as is evident in the rest of the country, is widespread apathy about the situation in the North. In addition, because the media approach is sensational rather than analytical, there is little insightful knowledge of the LRA and the conflict. It is not surprising, then, that "shadowy" is the most common adjective applied to the rebels in media reports.

It is a description that leaves me bemused. When a group has operated in an area for decades and wrought such destruction and violence as the LRA has done in the north, it is a little ridiculous to refer to it as "shadowy". Shadowy is the word you use when you want to avoid a deeper engagement with the conflict. It is boilerplate for lack of initiative and a sense of responsibility to probe beyond the surface for context. It amounts, in essence, to telling the people of northern Uganda that their experience of great suffering over the course of the last two decades is the result of nothing but the apparent insanity of one man, Joseph Kony, the LRA leader. Like Neil Whitehead notes of the common response to the events of September 11 in the United States, "[i]f...we choose to picture the sick, twisted, marginal and mad, then we may have reassured ourselves, but we have not faced up to the substantive political and cultural influence that such acts and individuals possess."[1]

To look beyond the macabre manifestations of violence is not to dismiss the violence and its attendant effects on people, nor condone it. Rather, it is an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, to locate its real roots and, therefore, a framework around which effective resolution and peacebuilding can grow. As John Paul Lederach writes of his conflict transformational approach, it is about developing "a capacity to see the immediate situation without being captivated" by it[2]; without being too fixated with it to appreciate that it must stem from a deeper source.

So, what are the real roots of the conflict? Despite my experience in the region, I cannot claim to know the true answer to this question. So little is really known, beyond the violence and abductions. But it is a complex conflict that surely requires more than the simplistic references to religious fundamentalism or mental instability of the rebels. To look beyond the disturbing eruptions of violence is to acknowledge that they haven't broken out from a vacuum or at random; that there is a historical, perhaps even socio-cultural, frame within which the conflict might be located and explained. A media outlet, like Mega FM, might begin to contribute to the enlightenment process by providing a creative forum for intellectual and moral engagement. And if, like it happened in late 2002, the rebel leader Kony and his deputy Otti, can call in to respond to the public's questions and frustrations, the discourse might then begin to move away from the shadows.

Alas, the media's complacency — or laziness — in regard to the conflict in the North now has legal sanction. In 2004, the government promulgated a law that forbids radio stations from giving airtime to terrorists, which is how the LRA has now been officially designated. This so-called anti-terrorism law has been interpreted as the government's attempt to scuttle whatever was left of a floundering peace process so that it can pursue its beloved military solution.

And yet there is a view that a military approach will not bring about an effective resolution of the conflict. Killing Joseph Kony (or arresting him and whisking him off to the ICC) might end the war but not the conflict.[3] The feeling among northerners that they have been politically and economically marginalized by the government of President Museveni is, according to this view, central to understanding the problem. And so, somebody else is bound to rise in the place of a dead or imprisoned Kony. To people who take this view, Kony is the symbol of a fundamental conflict between the people of Acholi and the government. To prove their point, proponents of this view point to election results in the Acholi region which have over the years consistently indicated overwhelming disapproval of the government or, more precisely, President Museveni.

But this view is problematic, because it conflates the LRA and the Acholi. The actions of the LRA become the actions of the Acholi. Consequently, when the rebels step up their attacks on communities neighboring the Acholi — as they did in 2003 and 2004 — the Acholi people become the object of anger and hatred. When, in February 2004, the LRA massacred some 200 civilians at Barlonyo internally displaced people's camp, the apparent tribal tensions exploded into violence.

In Lira district, where the camp is situated, huge street protests against the rebels and the government (for failing to protect its citizens) took place. Most significantly, according to most news reports, "smaller groups broke away from the protest and began burning and looting about 50 homes belonging to the Acholi, the northern tribe from which the rebels draw most of their fighters."[4] As news of this development reached the Acholi districts, particularly Gulu, gangs of youths organized themselves to carry out revenge attacks against the Langi.[5]

At the radio station we responded by quickly producing and running hourly spots and programs featuring political, religious and cultural leaders, as well ordinary residents, appealing for calm and restraint. We also drew attention to the mutual suffering of the people of both tribes at the hands of the LRA. The tensions finally eased, but the fundamental question that the riots raised remain to this day. Can the Acholi people be held responsible for the actions of the LRA? It is true that the Acholi constitute the bulk of the rebel group. But it is also true that the majority of the rebel fighters did not join voluntarily. A World Vision report points out that "[b]ecause the LRA ranks are estimated to be 80 per cent abducted child soldiers, the terrorists are themselves hostages."[6]

I try to imagine what it must be like to be the parent of an abducted child who now fights for the LRA. It must be an excruciating dilemma. To support a military solution (the government's favored approach to the conflict) would be to bless the killing of thousands of children, including your own, who had no choice in their actions. But to favor no action against the LRA would seem like an endorsement of its atrocities. This painful dilemma that many Acholi people find themselves in is not acknowledged by either the government or those who accuse them of collaborating with the rebels.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of religious and civil society leaders from the North, a law that grants blanket amnesty and provides resettlement assistance to rebels who turn themselves in, exists. Mega FM has proved to be a great propagator of the amnesty law, regularly hosting officials from the Amnesty Commission, and asking its presenters to publicize it as much as possible during their programs. It is aware that the rebels listen to the radio, as many former fighters have confirmed.

At the end of 2003, the station began running a program that hosts returning rebels. Dwog Paco, or "Come Back Home" runs a couple of times a week and involves former LRA fighters narrating their experiences of returning home, receiving amnesty, and being reintegrated into the community. The hope is that those rebels who are still out in the bushes will be encouraged to return home too. For, it appears that many of them, while they are willing to do so, are afraid that they might be prosecuted by the government, or persecuted by the community for the atrocities they have committed. Their leaders tell them that the amnesty law is nothing but government propaganda. Dwog Paco is to prove to them that their fears are unfounded.

While it is hard to measure the real influence of such programs (and the radio itself) on the rebels, it is gratifying to read some of the statements of former rebel fighters like Francis Owot:

"It was in the night when I was at the sick bay, when I heard people talking and laughing, a group of fellow soldiers [rebels]. I decided to go and find out what was happening. They were listening to the radio, and I heard the voice of Steven [a rebel returnee] in the radio. When I heard him talking, I went back and slept, knowing there was no problem anymore."[7]

"[T]hrough Radio Mega, I learned to differentiate good and bad. I learned that killing was nothing good."[8]

Owot's comments are contained in a report produced by Ben Mergelsberg, a young German researcher. In conducting his research on rebel returnees, Megelsberg spent two months living in one of the IDP camps in Gulu. Now, there's a man who would never use that "shadowy" word.

[1] Neil Whitehead (Ed), Violence (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2004), 75.

[2] John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003), 48.

[3] The International Criminal Court issued indictments for 5 leaders of the LRA, including Kony, in October, 2005.

[4] From, m/2004/WORLD/africa/02/25/uganda.massacre.rebels.ap

[5] The Lango tribe (the people are called Langi) from Lira district are ethnic cousins of the Acholi. They both belong to the Luo ethnic group.

[6] See "Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda" (2004), online at /media/PawnsOfPolitics.pdf

[7] Ben Mergelsberg, Crossing Boundaries: Experience of Returning "Child Soldiers" (Draft Report, December 2005), 24-29.