Northern Uganda: Is There Any Hope?
IDP camp in northeastern Uganda.

Northern Uganda: Is There Any Hope?

...all this is good talk and many have talked for years. But the war continues.

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: March 21, 2006

After the announcement that President Yoweri Museveni had won the February 23 polls, a Ugandan living in Gulu district told the BBC that he had hoped for change. "I thought we were going to have a change in government so that we can get out of this (war and camp) situation," he told a BBC reporter.

As the polls indicated, the people affected by war wanted anyone who would dislodge President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Indeed, most areas that have experienced conflict (including Kasese district in the South) voted against the NRM, painting a new political map of Uganda in which the peaceful south voted for the ruling government and the north for the opposition.

When President Museveni said that his victory reminded him of the 1986 victory, the opposition politicians especially from northern Uganda said that the president meant the defeat of the northerners.

Background of the war:
Since 1986, the year Tito Okello was ousted from the presidency by the current president; the region has been engulfed in a civil war. Ever since that time, a secular guerrilla movement in the north initially resisted Musevenis takeover of the government, but accepted a peace deal in 1988.

War continued, however, as a handful of spiritual leaders continued the fight, albeit without any clear political goals. In particular, in the late 1980s Joseph Kony organized the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) to lead the Acholi people in a spiritual and material war against Museveni and the Ugandan army, the UPDF. The fight continues to this day.

With the Acholi people against the LRA and in support of the UPDF efforts to combat the group, the murder and disfigurement of civilian population became a common LRA tactic for retribution. Girls have always been abducted to serve as sexual slaves to soldiers and commanders, as well as to serve as porters and combatants. Many thousands of Acholi civilians have been killed or disfigured, and at least 20,000 children and youth are believed to have been abducted at one time or another. According to CAN, an international campaign working to help end the war in northern Uganda, the periods of abduction range from a day to ten years.

To better protect the civilian populace from the rebels (as well as a calculated move to eliminate the source of abductees and food for the LRA) the government encouraged and in some cases pushed the population of the north into internal displacement camps. Over a million people are living in what has been termed as the Internally Displaced Peoples camps (IDPs).

Normal life in northern Uganda is still a dream:
An end to the war and resettlement of the populace is hoped for in the coming years, although the wars end has been promised and expected many times in the past.

President Yoweri Museveni has been saying that Kony has been defeated and that people can now return to their homes. However, some people have no homes to return to as many were born in the camps and have all their lives been in camps. Some international organizations including the United Nations have reported that the situation in northern Uganda is still terrible and that it is risky for the people there to be returned to their homes.

The head of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Dennis McNamara said that after visiting the camps in northern Uganda last week, the story he got was an inconsistent story from what has been portrayed by government that the war was over.

McNamara said that people in the Internally Displaced Peoples camps live in unacceptable conditions and are not getting adequate basic services in addition to inadequate protection but added that people living in the camps should only return to their homes voluntarily. McNamara says, "We can only support that return if it is voluntary, if it is safe, and if it is viable. If it is not, we will not be able to support it."

Fear of being neglected:
There is fear that the people in northern Uganda could continue being neglected especially after voting against the ruling regime. According to the last elections, only one minister from northern Uganda was returned to Parliament while other NRM Members of Parliament were also shown exit.

Prof. Gingyera Pinychwa, the Dean of Social Sciences and Law at Kampala International University says lack of peace forced the people of northern Uganda to vote against the ruling government. He said that because the people in northern Uganda voted for the opposition parties, the government regards them as enemies.

Although the government denies the claims that it is neglecting the region, some politicians from the opposition have continued to point a finger at the government for the problems of the region, including the failure to end the war.

Pinchwa said that unless there is change in the imbalance in terms of access of basic resources, it will take more years than one could imagine for northern Uganda to gain the hope of ever becoming a progressive part of Uganda.

The newly elected Member of Parliament for Ndorwa County West in Kabale district, David Bahati said on Monday that the Eighth parliament should prioritize the 20 year-old-war in northern Uganda. He said that the war should no longer be an issue to only members of parliament who represent the northern and northeastern side of the country but a cause that needs to be tackled nationally. Bahati said that the conflict that has created a rift between the north and other parts of the country, will see more than 1.6 million people continue to starve if it is not addressed soon.

He said that there is need for special new initiatives aimed at creating dialogue, awareness and understanding of the northern Uganda issue to see that the war ends and that the new parliament can play a crucial role in influencing policies and measures that will guide the successful end to the war.

All this is good talk and many have talked for years. But the war continues. This is prompting one to ask if there is any hope for the people in northern Uganda and an end to the widening rift between the north and the south?

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: March 21, 2006
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Gideon Munaabi is a journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. He has been and continues writing widely for different publication locally and internationally. He is a founding member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and is currently the chairman of the organisation.