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Uganda violence

Updated: Sat, 1 Jan 2011

At A GlanceBack to top

Northern Uganda was the centre of a brutal, two-decade insurgency by a cult-like rebel group that saw 2 million people uprooted from their homes and tens of thousands kidnapped, mutilated or killed.

  • More than 20,000 children abducted
  • Over 70,000 people still in camps
  • Violence and disease killed 1,000 a week at height of conflict

Led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is notorious for massacring civilians, slicing off the lips of survivors and kidnapping children for use as soldiers, porters and sex slaves.

The long conflict threatened to destabilise the volatile central African region with Kony's rebels seeking shelter in neighbouring countries and violence spilling across borders.

A landmark truce brokered in August 2006 by neighbouring south Sudan brought relative stability to war-weary northern Uganda.

But Kony has repeatedly failed to sign a final peace deal, demanding guarantees that he will not be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, which wants to try him for war crimes.

His rebels are now active in Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic where they continue to kill and abduct civilians.

Violence plagues Uganda's northeastern Karamoja region, where an influx of small arms has exacerbated banditry and cattle raiding. Karamoja often suffers from drought and food shortages, with more than a million people needing aid in 2009.

In DetailBack to top

For two decades in northern Uganda, a cult-like rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) waged war against the government and local Acholi people, launching horrific attacks on villages, towns and camps for the internally displaced.

At the height of the conflict, the United Nations called northern Uganda one of the world's most neglected humanitarian crises. Some 2 million people - about 90 percent of Acholiland - were uprooted from their homes and tens of thousands were killed or mutilated.

The LRA kidnapped thousands of children for use as fighters, porters and "wives". Many were forced to perform terrible atrocities - including killing their families and other children. The rebels were also notorious for slicing off people's lips, ears and noses or padlocking people's lips shut.

A Sudanese-brokered ceasefire in August 2006 brought relative peace to northern Uganda. But rebel leader Joseph Kony has repeatedly refused to sign a final peace deal, demanding guarantees that he will not be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which wants to try him for war crimes.

Kony's rebels camped out in remote regions of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR) when the peace process started. LRA attacks on towns and villages in these three countries displaced about 700,000 people between 2008 and July 2010 according to the United Nations. The attacks continue today.

During the worst of the conflict in northern Uganda many people fled their homes to live in camps. Others were herded into the camps by the Ugandan army during counter-insurgency operations. The makeshift settlements lacked food and clean water and were vulnerable to rebel attacks.

At one time, almost 1,000 people were dying every week from disease, poor living conditions and violence, according to a 2005 survey of internally displaced in Acholiland by Uganda's health ministry, New York-based aid agency International Rescue Committee and several U.N. agencies.

Improved security since peace talks has allowed nearly all of the displaced to return to their villages and just 73,000 remain in camps, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre said in May 2011. But many people, including the elderly, disabled and orphaned, are still stuck in the camps.

Despite relative peace, the problems in the north continue to undermine the country's gains since the bloodshed and economic chaos of the Idi Amin and Milton Obote years.

Northerners ruled Uganda from independence in 1962 until Yoweri Museveni, a rebel leader from the southwest, seized power in 1986. Some critics accused him of prolonging the conflict to subdue political opposition in the north - an allegation he denies.

Who are the LRA?Back to top

Museveni's seizure of power prompted a number of popular uprisings in the north. The LRA emerged in 1992, comprising northern rebel groups and former Obote troops. At its helm was Kony, a former altar boy and self-proclaimed prophet.

Kony, an Acholi himself, turned resentment towards Museveni into an apocalyptic spiritual crusade that has sustained one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.

Analysts say that aside from rabid opposition to Museveni, the rebels have showed no clear political goals during their insurgency.

Kony has said he is fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although his group has also articulated a range of northern grievances, from the looting of cattle by Museveni's troops to demands for a greater share of political power.

A report by World Vision International says Kony's spiritualism blends elements of Christianity, Islam and traditional Acholi beliefs to psychologically enslave abducted children and instil fear in local villagers.

In 1994, Sudan began backing the LRA with weapons and training and let it set up camps on Sudanese soil. Sudan was getting back at Uganda for supporting its own southern rebels during its 20-year civil war. It also used the LRA as a proxy to fight against the rebels. Sudan's civil war came to an end in 2005 with a fragile peace deal. Khartoum says it has ended all support to the LRA.

In 2002, Museveni launched a military campaign, "Iron Fist", aimed at wiping out the LRA for good. Kony's rebels responded by abducting more children and attacking more civilians. Some 10,000 children were seized in about a year. The number of displaced people shot up.

It was then that the phenomenon of "night commuting" emerged. Every evening tens of thousands of children trudged into towns like Gulu to sleep on the streets, rather than risk being kidnapped from their beds by the rebels.

No one knows how many children have been abducted overall but the figure is widely believed to exceed 20,000.

In October 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Kony and other top LRA leaders, accusing them of multiple war crimes. Sudan agreed to let Ugandan troops pursue the rebels into its territory.

Within months, the LRA leaders sought refuge in neighbouring Congo, rekindling historic tension between Kampala and Kinshasa.

The rebel group now attacks villages and towns in northeastern Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic, killing and abducting civilians.

Hopes for peaceBack to top

South Sudan's vice president, Riek Machar, himself a former rebel in Sudan's north-south war, began mediating between the LRA and Museveni after meeting Kony in the bush near the Congolese border in May 2006.

The LRA declared a unilateral ceasefire in early August and by the end of the month there was a truce in place. Rebels agreed to gather in two assembly points in southern Sudan while negotiations continued. However, most rebels drifted away from the assembly points and both sides accused each other of breaking their word.

A key obstacle in the negotiations is the fact the ICC global war crimes court wants senior rebels handed over for trial. The LRA has vowed never to sign a final peace deal unless Kampala persuades the ICC to drop the case - something analysts say is unlikely.

Talks between the rebels and the government have frequently stalled since 2006.

In January 2008, it was confirmed that the LRA's deputy commander Vincent Otti was dead following rumours he had been killed in late 2007. Numerous LRA deserters have said Kony shot his number two after accusing him of spying for the government.

The news raised fears of a wobble in the peace process because Otti, regarded as the brains behind the group in contrast to the volatile Kony, had been a prime mover behind the LRA joining peace talks.

A possible breakthrough came in February 2008, when the Ugandan government and LRA signed a deal stipulating that Kampala would set up special war crimes courts to handle the gravest crimes, while traditional justice known as mato oput would be used for others. This homegrown solution has the support of the Acholis, who have borne the brunt of the conflict.

But Kony has repeatedly failed to show up to sign a final peace deal.

With patience wearing thin, Uganda, Congo and southern Sudan began a major offensive against LRA camps in Congo's Garamba National Park in December 2008. A U.S. official said Washington had provided equipment and helped plan the operation. Southern Sudan said its troops wouldn't cross into Congo, but it would block any fleeing LRA rebels.

The LRA responded by looting local villages, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands. Ugandan troops withdrew in March 2009, and the LRA continue to terrorise parts of CAR, Congo and southern Sudan.

Community peace initiatives

At the height of the conflict in Uganda, local community leaders and journalists with support from the Ugandan government and army, successfully used radio programmes to persuade many fighters to abandon the LRA.

Mega FM radio station, based in Gulu town, northern Uganda, broadcast "Come back home" programmes featuring former LRA fighters, relatives of still-active fighters, local government officials and senior community leaders. They explained where fighters could go to find help reconnecting with their community, and to reassure them that a government amnesty was in place and they would not face jail.

The amnesty law was passed in Uganda in 2000 after pressure from civil society organisations and the international community.

The radio messages "helped them to know the world doesn't begin and end with life in the bush, that there is a world beyond", Kennedy Tumutegyereize, a peace-building expert working in the region with a non-governmental organisation Conciliation Resources, said.

Now, community leaders in CAR, South Sudan and Congo are using radio and other means to communicate with LRA fighters.

Guns and drought plague KaramojaBack to top

Karamoja, a semi-arid region in Uganda's northeast along the border with Kenya, has been affected by banditry and inter-clan warfare for decades. But the drought-prone area experienced escalating levels of violence in recent years due to an influx of arms and competition over resources.

The Karamojong people are a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe who depend on cattle for their livelihood. Their way of life has been disrupted by disputes over shrinking water supplies and a flood of cheap semi-automatic weapons trafficked from conflicts in the Horn of Africa. The influx of guns made frequent cattle raids more deadly.

The government has attempted to tackle the widespread possession of small arms through a series of disarmament programmes. In 2006, after persistent raids, revenge killings and warrior ambushes, it began using a more aggressive approach, in which the army surrounds villages and forcibly searches for weapons.

Thousands of illegal weapons have been seized and destroyed, and security in the region has improved.

But dozens of civilians have been killed, and some have reported cases of torture during the forced disarmament campaign. Houses have been burned down and hundreds of civilians have fled the violence. Traditional nomadic movement patterns have also been disrupted. Reports of violations continue.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) says the government's disarmament approach does not offer a sustainable solution to Karamoja's insecurity because of the region's economic and political marginalisation and limited ways to make a living.

Karamoja is one of Uganda's most impoverished regions, and lacks government services and institutions, including civilian policing. The neglect can be traced back to colonial times, when British administrators largely left Uganda's northern tribes out of the process of modernisation.

Adding to the woes of poverty and violence, the population has been badly affected by successive years of drought. The region suffered a severe famine in the early 1980s, and still has the highest malnutrition rates in the country. Its livestock has been decimated by disease since 2007.

According to World Health Organisation figures, the region has very high child and maternal mortality rates compared with the national average.

LinksBack to top

The BBC has a country profile on Uganda.

Allafrica.com has the news from an African perspective.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has background and information about those who fled or were forced into camps during the violence.

Conciliation Resources has information on the peace process, and reports on why LRA fighters have chosen to leave the rebel group, based on interviews with former LRA fighters.

A web special by U.N. news agency IRIN on life in northern Uganda, When The Sun Sets We Start To Worry, gives good multimedia coverage of the plight of civilians caught up in the violence.

Belgian-based think thank International Crisis Group, provides a comprehensive overview of the conflict and has useful reports on the peace process.

In 2007, former Reuters journalist Matthew Green published a book about the conflict called "Wizard of the Nile: The Hunt for Africa's Most Wanted". AlertNet has an interview with Green about his search for LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting produced a special report from Karamoja in April 2011.

Human Rights Watch has reports and statements on rights issues in Karamoja in its Uganda section.

TimelineBack to top

1962 - Uganda granted independence from Britain. Milton Obote becomes prime minister. Obote adopts shaky alliance with king of central Buganda region, which enjoys considerable autonomy under new government

1966 - Obote abolishes federal powers of kingdoms, notably Buganda's special status, and consolidates presidential powers in prime minister's office

1967 - Obote abolishes all Uganda's traditional kingdoms. Buganda is carved into four districts and ruled through martial law

1969 - Obote bans all groups opposed to his Uganda People's Congress (UPC) party

1971 - Obote overthrown by his military protege Idi Amin. Hundreds of thousands killed during Amin's eight-year rule. He's especially ruthless with northern Acholi and Langi ethnic groups

1972 - Amin expels all non-Ugandan citizens, including some 60,000 Asians

1976 - Amin declares himself "president for life"

1978 - Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles topple Amin. The Uganda National Liberation Front forms interim government, with Yusuf Lule as president

1979 - Lule is replaced by Godfrey Binaisa, a former attorney general

1980 - Milton Obote returns to power at elections

1986 - After a five-year guerrilla war against Obote, Museveni seizes power

1992 - Northern rebel groups and former Obote troops form Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)

1996 - Museveni wins presidential election with 75 percent of the vote

1997 - Ugandan troops back Laurent Kabila and help overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in Democratic Republic of Congo

1998 - Uganda invades Congo again, this time in an attempt to overthrow Kabila. It is accused of plunderting natural resources in Congo

2001 - Museveni returned to office for another term

2002 - Museveni launches military campaign "Operation Iron Fist" aimed at wiping out LRA for good. Rebels abduct more children and attack more civilians

2003 - Uganda pulls troops out of Congo

2004

Feb - LRA kill more than 200 people at a refugee camp in north

Nov - Betty Bigombe, a former government minister living in U.S., returns to Uganda to mediate

2005

Jan - Sudanese government and rebels in Southern Sudan sign peace deal and both pledge to help Uganda defeat LRA

Feb - 18-day amnesty truce declared to let LRA soldiers surrender. LRA spokesman Brig. Sam Kolo becomes highest-ranking to turn himself in

Aug - Presidential term limits abolished, paving way for Museveni's third term

Oct - International Criminal Court issues arrest warrants for LRA leader Joseph Kony and four other senior rebels

Dec - International Court of Justice finds Uganda guilty of violating sovereignty of Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as looting, plundering and exploiting Congolese natural resources

2006

Feb - Museveni wins polls again, this time defeating former ally Kizza Besigye

Apr - Uganda's defence minister appeals to U.N. Security Council to let his troops enter Congo under U.N. supervision to hunt LRA

Apr - Uganda's amnesty law is amended to exclude top-level insurgents, namely Kony and those indicted by the ICC

May - Southern Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar meets Kony and offers to mediate with Museveni

Jun - LRA delegation arrives in Juba for further talks, which continue through July. Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti, refuse to attend for fear of being arrested under ICC warrants

Aug - LRA declares unilateral ceasefire. At end of month, truce is agreed, with provision for rebels to gather in two assembly sites in southern Sudan while talks continue. Kony and Otti continue to demand ICC warrants be scrapped before they'll give up arms

Oct - Rebels drift away from assembly camps, and both sides accuse each other of breaking word

2007

Feb 28 - LRA say it will not renew truce, raising fears of a new chapter of violence

Mar - LRA and government promise to keep the peace, despite expired truce. Most LRA commanders regroup with Kony in DRC

Apr - U.N.-brokered talks result in renewal of ceasefire to the end of June. LRA demands 12-month suspension of ICC arrest warrants

May - Calm prevails in northern Uganda but LRA rebels continue to attack civilians in South Sudan

Jun - Peace talks progress and Uganda agrees to seek a review of ICC arrest warrants. LRA rebels delay assembly on Sudan/DRC border as required by ceasefire agreement

Jul - Security improves in South Sudan after up to 1,000 LRA fighters move to base in Congo. U.N. Mission in the Congo (MONUC) plans to stop more rebels crossing border

2008

Jan - Otti confirmed dead. LRA deserters have previously said Kony shot Otti in October 2007 after accusing him of spying for government

Feb - LRA and Kampala sign deal allowing grave war crimes to be tried in special Ugandan courts with traditional mato oput justice used for lesser crimes

Apr - Kony dashes hopes for final peace deal by failing to turn up to signing ceremony on remote Sudan-Congo border

Apr - Kampala threatens fresh military campaign with U.S. support unless Kony agrees to return to peace talks

Nov - Mediators give rebels until end of month to sign deal

Dec - Uganda, DRC and southern Sudan launch joint military offensive against LRA rebels in northeast Congo

2009

Jan - LRA asks for ceasefire

Feb - Museveni's wife appointed minister for Karamoja

Mar - Ugandan troops withdraw from Congo. LRA attacks continue across region. Uganda rules out fresh talks with LRA unless Kony signs peace deal

Jun – United Nations launches a three-year peacebuilding and recovery programme

Jul – U.N. envoy Joaquim Chissano says need to continue both military action and negotiations with LRA

Nov – United States passes legislation recommending U.S. government develops a new strategy to confront the LRA

Dec – U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Pillay says 1,300 civilians were killed in "carefully synchronised" LRA killings between December 2008 and June 2009 in east Congo and southern Sudan

2010

Jan - The Ugandan army says it has killed senior LRA commander, Bok Abudema, in CAR

Mar – Enough Project says Kony is in Darfur with Khartoum's support, a claim denied by Khartoum

Apr - Karimojong Jie warriors clash with army during cattle raid

May – United States enacts The Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Act, to support the stabilisation of areas affected by LRA violence, the protection of civilians, humanitarian relief and reconstruction, reconciliation and transitional justice

Jun – Uganda tightens border security following reports of resurgence in Congo of Ugandan ADF-NALU rebels

Jul - Somali Islamist militia al Shabaab claims responsibility for 11 July bomb attacks in Kampala. Uganda forcefully repatriates hundreds of Rwandan Hutu refugees to Rwanda, claiming they have no refugee status

Oct – U.N. report implicates Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Angola in killing of Hutus in Congo between 1993 and 2003, which is says may constitute "crimes of genocide"

Nov – United States announces strategy to eliminate LRA threat and support recovery of northern Uganda

2011

Feb - Museveni wins presidential elections, amid claims of vote-rigging

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