Global Policy Forum

Forgotten Crisis or Global Cover-Up?


By Genevieve Butler

October 26, 2004

Political interests at home and abroad are helping to keep northern Uganda's 18-year conflict out of the global spotlight despite the fact that more people have been displaced there than in Sudan's Darfur region, NGOs say. Some aid agencies argue that Uganda's special relationship with donors -- which provide 50 percent of the country's annual budget -- and the country's reputation as a development success story sometimes distract from what the United Nations has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Almost two million people have been displaced in northern Uganda, compared with just over a million in Darfur, yet the crisis rarely makes international headlines or sparks outcry from world leaders. For Ugandan President Yoweri Musuveni, that may be just as well, NGOs say.

"The permanence of a crisis helps the government to get more money from the outside," a programme officer for an NGO working in the region said. "The government has not had a great interest to find a solution to the conflict." The officer, like several others contacted by AlertNet, declined to be identified for fear his organisation's operations would be compromised if he criticised the government.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group and religious sect, has been terrorising northern Uganda for years, uprooting almost the entire population of Acholiland, kidnapping children to camps in southern Sudan and forcing them to become fighters and sex slaves.

The Ugandan government denies it is encouraging the insurgency, and Museveni claims he could act more effectively against the LRA if donors lifted spending curbs on defence. But some NGOs say the insurgency has allowed Museveni to consolidate his grip on power. "President Museveni pursues a military solution in part to justify the unreformed army that is a key pillar of his regime," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report issued in April.

"Indeed, the war helps him justify and maintain the status quo in Ugandan politics, denying his opposition a power base and offering numerous opportunities for curtailing freedom of expression and association in the name of ‘the war against terrorism." ICG's Africa director, Suliman Baldo, said many factors were prolonging the crisis, including traditional historical neglect of the impoverished north, the ineffectiveness of the Ugandan army and a complex relationship with neighbouring Sudan, which has backed the LRA because it accuses Uganda of supporting insurgents in southern Sudan.

"Put these factors together and you begin to get the picture," Baldo said. The government has not invested in the north, he said, echoing the ICG report, which found that as long as the situation in the north was dominated by security matters, the monopolisation of power and wealth by southerners would not be questioned. Baldo also said the nature of the war exacerbated the difficulties in resolving it.

The LRA insurgency, led by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, lacks any clear and negotiable political objectives. "One of the difficulties in Uganda is understanding what the rebel cause is all about," said James Allen, programme officer for the International Rescue Committee UK.

"Who is the LRA? What are they fighting for? When it's an enemy you don't know, how do you defeat it?" Initially Kony said he was fighting to free his northern Acholi tribe from what he said was oppression by the southern-based government. Later, feeling that his own people had failed to support him, he unleashed a campaign of massacres, mutilations and abductions designed to "cleanse" the Acholi of "sinners".

Donor Interests

For their part, donors would rather focus on Uganda's successes, rather than its failures, NGOs say. "Uganda is presented as a champion of development and as a champion in the fight against terrorism," said a representative of an international NGO. "Saying the contrary would be a problem for donors who have invested big money." But money doesn't always end up where it's supposed to go, NGOs say.

Another programme officer said funding earmarked for health and education was flowing back into the central government's coffers because the villages in the targeted region were deserted. The best way to monitor the use of aid funding is to work directly in the camps with the cooperation of the local government, he added.

"We have a lot of people on the spot to check how the money is being spent, even if there is a problem of security." Another aid official said national authorities needed to show a greater commitment to ensuring the security and protection of their own population and relief workers, given the dangers of working in LRA territory. "We see the army is requesting people to be in camps and is failing to protect them," he said, adding that displaced people were often sitting ducks for LRA raids.

"One day the World Food Programme distributes food and the next day the LRA comes and takes the food, kidnaps people to carry the food, and kidnaps children to be child soldiers."

Another Darfur?

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland compared the situation to the well-publicised problems in Sudan's Darfur region. "If they go out (of camps), they are killed as much, or raped as much or worse as in Darfur, by the Lord's Resistance Army and others," Egeland said in a recent statement.

Museveni has rejected the comparison, but that hasn't stopped aid workers continuing to make it. "One hundred percent of the population is affected by this kind of crisis -- it's huge," Gael Griette, an expert covering Uganda for the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), told AlertNet.

Griette said that the entire rural population of Acholiland was in displacement camps. "People have been cut off from their livelihoods, cut off from everything. They are in camps with nothing, and insecurity is very high," he said.

"In terms of magnitude and acuteness we can compare what is going on in Northern Uganda to Darfur. "What is very different between the two crises is the way it is addressed in terms of funding, humanitarian agencies being present in the field, and on top of all it is very different in the way it is being covered in the media." Griette said one of the reasons northern Uganda did not get much media coverage was because the LRA had been terrorising the local population for so long that the crisis was seen as old news.

"But this is short-sighted because the crisis has tripled in terms of the number of people affected and multiplied by five or six in terms of acuteness in the past two years -- more or less the same time as the Darfur crisis," he said.

No Protection

The jury is still out on whether the government is committed to or capable of ending the crisis. Here's how Emmanuel Lutukumoi, a programme director for United Youth Action, a community group based in Northern Uganda, put it in a recent article for New Vision, a Ugandan newspaper: "To date, it is still hard for the Acholi to distinguish who is their worst enemy. They see no difference between Kony and the state that has failed to give them protection and failed to address the root causes of the conflict."

But according to Ugandan officials, Kony is now on the run. The Ugandan army said in September it had forced him to flee bases in southern Sudan and return to Uganda for the first time in years, and it has recently claimed significant victories against the LRA.

In the past decade, Kony is believed to have orchestrated his violent campaign from hideouts in neighbouring Sudan. Since 1994, Sudan has backed the LRA with weapons and training. Following international pressure, Sudan allowed Ugandan forces to raid LRA bases in its territory under a 2002 accord. But the situation remains precarious, according to the ICG's Baldo.

"Reports from the south show that the current phase of collaboration between Uganda and Sudan appears to be affecting the fighting capacity of the LRA," he said. "There are indications that somehow the Sudanese government continues to support the LRA. Therefore they have been playing a dual game here," he said.




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.