Northern Uganda


In the early 1990s the government of the East African nation of Uganda, under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni, launched what is now widely recognized as one of the most far-reaching and successful AIDS prevention programs in Africa where the AIDS epidemic has reached disastrous proportions. First World leaders and development organizations in the early 1990s were desperate for examples of what was being done to stop the epidemic’s spread. In Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, Western leaders and development organizations felt they had found not only an example of how AIDS could be contained, but a relatively “democratic” and secular African leader advocating neoliberal economic policies. In addition, as a strategic ally, Museveni provided Western governments with a hedge against the rise of Islamic fundamentalist regimes in the critical horn of Africa. Uganda’s AIDS prevention program came to be seen by development experts as stemming the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa. This, along with Museveni’s whole-hearted commitment to the Washington Consensus on trade and development, even in implementing the IMF’s notorious Structural Adjustment Program, made him a powerful and useful example of the new gospel of international development and how it could be achieved if only African leaders would follow the agenda set forward by the international powers. For their part, international powers showed their gratitude with an influx of military and “development” aid. 

At the end of the Clinton era, the view of Museveni as an exemplary African leader was passed intact from the Clinton to the Bush administration. This vision of Uganda’s leader as the Western model for leadership in Africa had gained such credence that it not only crossed political party lines in the U.S., but was also borne out by development agencies and the major media in the United States and elsewhere. A 2005 New York Times article, “By Fits and Starts, Africa’s Brand of Democracy Emerges,” painted a picture of Museveni as a leader who, though he had flaws, represented a far more responsible and democratic way of governing than those dictators and tyrants from the recent African past. 

Taken out of context and viewed in a vacuum, this vision makes perfect sense. In his meetings with Museveni, President Bush has, until recently, made little mention of the civil conflict in the northern regions of Uganda. Nor has Bush made much of Museveni’s alleged diversion of U.S. military aid to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), fueling one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. In his 2003 visit to Uganda, President Bush said of Museveni’s AIDS program, “You have worldwide influence here because you’ve provided a model of care for Uganda.”  

Yoweri Museveni first came to power as head of the National Resistance Army (NRA). In 1986 the NRA, with Museveni at the helm, overthrew a regime that was one in a long series of unstable governments that Uganda had experienced since independence. As Museveni and the NRA came to power, rebel forces fled to the northern parts of Uganda. 

Though the rebel forces were never able to fully threaten Museveni’s grip on power, they were also never fully eradicated. Often splintering and changing names, the rebel forces have existed in one form or another to this day. Initially Museveni pursued the rebel forces in the north, where the rebels still maintained enough of a force to make such an effort costly to his regime without any tangible benefit. 

"Night commuter" children from Northern Uganda sleep in safety in early 2000s—photo from flikr.com/lifeinafrica

As the fighting dragged on without solution or hope of victory, Museveni used the existence of the rebels to justify harsh measures against anyone in the north who dared speak out. The people of the north were now caught between two pernicious forces, neither of which represented their interests. On the one hand, there was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which resorted to harsher and harsher tactics to keep the people in the north from supporting Museveni’s NRA forces. On the other hand, northern Ugandans could expect little more than talk from Museveni about protection from these atrocities. The LRA, under the leadership of the notorious Joseph Kony, engaged in acts of brutal intimidation such as cutting off the ears, lips, and hands of villagers suspected of aiding Museveni’s forces. The LRA also became notorious for its abduction of child soldiers to fight in its ranks, leaving northern Ugandans in a state of constant fear that their children would be abducted. 

But even though the atrocities of the LRA were reaching horrendous proportions, Museveni did very little to negotiate with them so that the people might live in peace. 

In 1996 Museveni’s troops began forcing the northern Acholi people into concentration camps. Though some entered the camps voluntarily for their own security, the majority were forced there by Museveni’s troops, who bombed and burned Acholi villages. In 2004 there were still more than 1.5 million people living in these camps. All of this was done in the name of “protecting” the Acholi people from LRA rebels. The camps were guarded by security forces who served more to violently repress criticism than to protect the people. Museveni even began withdrawing his forces, making it clear that he had no intention of seeing the war in the north to its conclusion. LRA rebels, starved for supplies, frequently raided the poorly protected camps. 

Despite the atrocious treatment, neglect, and repression of the Acholi, Museveni has remained a stalwart ally of the United States. In the wake of September 11, 2001, this relationship strengthened as Museveni cast the measures used against the Acholi as necessary to fight “terror.” Museveni provided support for the U.S. “peacekeeping” mission in Somalia as well as maintaining an alliance with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in south Sudan, a military force hostile to Sudan’s Arab nationalist government.  

In the early years of the Bush administration, organizations and activists were becoming more and more aware of the extent of the crisis in northern Uganda. The practice of “night-commuting,” where Ugandan children would walk for miles so that they could sleep safely in the protection of a larger town or city from being abducted by the LRA for use as child soldiers, was vividly portrayed in a 2003 documentary Invisible Children: Rough Cut. This documentary, and the movement that grew up around it, helped to bring attention to the issue, but largely divorced the suffering of the Acholi from the political circumstances in which it occurred. The complicity of the United States in the conflict, through their uncritical financial and military support of the Museveni government, was kept from view—as was the role that Museveni played in protracting the conflict. 

Recently, peace talks have been underway between the Museveni government and the LRA with the support of the Acholi. Despite this, the U.S. has been slow in supporting any sort of agreement with the LRA and  has left a military solution to the conflict visibly on the table, placing their commitment to the peace process in serious question. 

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TO HELP: Resolve Uganda, an organization that has done extensive research and advocacy on the crisis in Uganda, is sponsoring lobby days in Washington, DC on February 24-25. For more information, visit www.ugandalobbyday.com.



Bo Chamberlin is an independent human rights activist living in Columbus, Ohio.