Two reports from a war sustained by Western donors


Uganda wages war on its people with Western support. In return, it provides armed forces in East Africa, and a pseudo-success story. Meanwhile, the world’s weirdest warlord is at large, unhindered by the #KONY2012 campaign. I met the architects of that while researching this story and film. Their work got more attention, but a book by my friend in the film explains the conflict in more depth.


Peace versus justice in Uganda

By Daniel Simpson

"When two elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled."
-- African proverb

This experimental film was produced while researching The Wizard of the Nile, subtitled "The Hunt For Africa's Most Wanted."

GULU, Uganda - What can atone for mutilated children who've learned to smile without lips, to clasp pens with stumpy limbs and to flirt with forgiveness? For the militia of abducted villagers and teenage gunmen terrorising northern Uganda, the first step towards justice crushes an egg. 

On a knoll outside Gulu, a bustling town on the frontier of Africa's most neglected war zone, 60 former rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) line up to repent of their crimes at a traditional cleansing ceremony. All have recently surrendered to the government, or been captured in skirmishes with Ugandan troops. Their right feet are bare. On their left, some sport battered flip-flops; others the footwear of choice for guerrillas across the continent: green wellington boots. 

Wailing ululations from local tribeswomen crescendo above a bassline beat out by a drummer in a "50 Cent" T-shirt as the procession of LRA commanders, footsoldiers and their child brides hobbles towards a solitary egg, propped up in the dust by a forked stick. The first foot cracks its shell, smearing the branch with a slimy coating for the others to tread on before shaking hands with a tribal chief clad in white robes and a pinstriped jacket. Reconciliation is officially under way. 

"This is just a peace-building measure to build confidence, to let them come back, let us have peace and then people are going to talk," explained Rwot David Onen Acana II, who was crowned paramount chief of the Acholi tribe in January after studying conflict resolution strategies at Birmingham University. "An egg symbolises purity and innocence and yet there is life in it, so we do this as a means of purification and indicating the innocence of these people because they were taken against their will." 

The LRA doesn't accept recruits; it kidnaps them. Tens of thousands of abducted Acholis, a substantial proportion of them children, have kept the northern insurgency alive for 19 years. Their obedience is secured at gunpoint, sometimes accompanied by orders to commit atrocities as grotesque as murdering their own families and eating the boiled corpses.

Those not cowed by guilt or fear are brainwashed with a concoction of apocalyptic Christianity and tribal spiritualism cooked up by the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony, who claims to be a prophet. The rebels have issued no demands except to say they're purifying the north to govern in accordance with the Ten Commandments, most of which they ignore.

The tide could be turning, however.

Government offers of amnesty, plots of land and a stipend from the state have enticed thousands of LRA fighters out of the bush over the past year, including a wave of high-profile defections. Mr Kony's charismatic spokesman and his dreadlocked director of operations were both lined up in penance before Mr Acana, but the warlord holding northern Uganda to ransom remains at large, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) prepares to indict him for crimes against humanity. 

Opposed from the outset by the United States, which has undermined its attempts to hold war criminals to account in Burundi and Sudan, the new court has much to prove. When the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, asked the ICC to intervene last year, prosecutors seized on their first major case, but the implications are stark for an ongoing conflict that can only be resolved peacefully by making rebels an offer they can't refuse. The struggle to end the war is now at odds with efforts to put international outlaws on trial. 

Humanitarian relief organisations are as upset as the Ugandan mediators who accompanied Mr Acana to The Hague in March to plead for a delay in proceedings. The ICC might be a good thing in principle, argues Oxfam, but if four people out of five in northern Uganda have been driven from their land, alleviating their suffering ought to trump what other critics dub "international law fundamentalism". Having previously announced that indictments were imminent, the court now says it has no timetable for prosecuting Mr Kony and his top lieutenants. In Gulu, confusion reigns. 

"There are definitely institutionalised tensions between the ICC, the amnesty process and conventional approaches to peace-building, which are by and large geared to rewarding the most violent to stop them being violent," said Dr Tim Allen, a specialist on East African conflicts at the London School of Economics. "But the aid agencies complaining about this come across as daft: they're now campaigning against the court they helped to set up." 

Aid workers and tribal elders also lobbied President Museveni to pass an amnesty law underpinned by traditional justice rites that hark back to days when warriors bent spears to cement a truce. Sceptics, both Acholi and Western, have questioned the utility of these ceremonies in confronting cannibalism, sex slavery and mass mutilation, but Mr Acana is a keen advocate. 

"This process is not yet conclusive," said the soft-spoken chief after overseeing the cleansing. Public truth-telling rituals would follow, he continued, with the local community deciding whether to demand redress, as happens at the open-air village courts which cross-examine Rwandan genocide suspects. "Those who will be singled out will have to go through this traditional process until we reach a point of compensation and reconciliation and that is where forgiveness comes in." 

Surprisingly few speak openly of revenge. Geofrey Obita was 16 when rebels hacked off his lips, ears and fingers and stuffed them into his pocket, together with a letter warning all Acholis to expect the same treatment if they collaborated with the government. Hunched on a Gulu veranda over a bottle of soda, which he sips through clenched teeth via a straw, Geofrey insists he bears no grudge against the younger boys who ambushed him two years ago. 

"I have forgiven them, because even if I catch them, my ears and my fingers are not going to grow back," he said. "There is an amnesty, so I can do nothing to them." 

Others are less charitably inclined. Fearing reprisals were they to return to their old homes, senior rebel defectors live in Gulu barracks. Resentment festers in the surrounding region, where the government has herded 1.5 million people into fenceless concentration camps patrolled by Ugandan soldiers and kept alive on food handouts from the United Nations, which describes the conditions as "sub-human". Swollen stomachs and glazed eyes betray the prevalence of disease and malnutrition; alcoholism and prostitution are rife. Demobilised LRA commanders, meanwhile, get armed guards, mobile phones and monthly allowances of up to £200. 

"In the bush, these people show no mercy," a local relief worker protested. "I think they should expect the same after all they've done to us."

Tempting as it may be to have faith in cults of collective healing, it is unclear what power they possess. From the perspective of the penitents waiting under a mango tree for their absolution, it's largely a question of going through the motions of a ritual more commonly performed to welcome back relatives who've been away from home. 

"It has been done since time immemorial by our ancestors and elders and the paramount chiefs are obliged to carry out their duty," explained Joaquim Opoka, a 54-year-old former headmaster who served 10 years in the LRA as secretary, general dogsbody and occasional infantryman. "That is why they have summoned us." 

The message of redemption is broadcast widely. Three nights a week, repentant rebels take to the airwaves of Mega FM to beg their former cohorts to join them in laying down arms. "Kony come home," warbles the chorus of a song in heavy rotation on Gulu's most popular radio station. Everyone should be eligible for amnesty, believes Mr Acana, no matter how serious their crimes. 

"Kony can return and lead a normal life here," he said. "It might only be his own feelings of guilt that can drive him away."

Wary of rushing to judgment, some anthropologists argue that Western conceptions of punitive justice are just as alien to Acholi beliefs as tribal rituals might seem to supporters of the ICC. 

"We have to really understand how they've come to define and practise justice before we dismiss it," cautioned Dr Erin Baines, a Canadian academic who came to Gulu to study traditional healing rites. "I remember a woman once said to me: 'First the whites came as missionaries and they brought for us religion. Then the colonialists came and they brought for us the state and boundaries. And now the ICC is here to bring us justice. We know what justice is'." 

Injustice has prevailed in the north since President Museveni fought his way to power in 1986 and took revenge on Acholis for their involvement in earlier massacres of southerners. The vicious rivalry between north and south is rooted in imperial policies of divide and rule: when the British colonised Uganda, they told Acholis they were born warriors and sent them to join the King's African Rifles; southern tribesmen staffed the administration. 

Since Uganda gained independence in 1962, the balance of power has swung by coup and countercoup, from the tyrannies of Idi Amin and Milton Obote to President Museveni's civil war. Aid workers and Acholis alike accuse the president of exploiting the LRA rebellion to subjugate the north while the rest of the country enjoys relative stability and prosperity. The war also allows him to maintain a semi-militarised state, despite calls for cuts in defence spending from the international donors who supply half of his government budget. 

"Is it chaos or conspiracy? In the end it's probably a bit of both," said Jim Terrie, senior East Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. "Museveni's scared of talks because they open a Pandora's box of northern grievances. He's only really interested in a resolution on his terms." 

Foreign powers have largely left him to it. The war festered for 17 years before the United Nations spoke of moral outrage; until then, Western governments were more interested in touting Uganda as an African success story. President Museveni's economic reforms have earned him plaudits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, while President George W. Bush has hailed his efforts to combat AIDS and added the LRA to the State Department list of terrorist organisations. 

Earlier this year, Washington presented President Museveni with a fleet of trucks worth $800,000 as part of an ongoing programme of military aid. Having urged the ICC to investigate allegations of torture, rape and other abuses by the Ugandan army, human rights activists also want America to rein in its ally. 

"The Bush administration must ensure that Mr. Museveni does not interpret continuing U.S. support, including military assistance, as a blank cheque to violate civil and political rights and avoid his responsibility to protect civilians," Human Rights Watch said in January.

Military success for the government generally gives Acholis fresh reason to mourn. The most brutal phase of the war followed Operation Iron Fist, the biggest Ugandan offensive to date, which pushed the rebels back over the border from their southern Sudanese hideout in 2002. Supply lines from Khartoum were cut, so the LRA took to looting northern Uganda. Estimates of the death toll vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. 

The search for a peaceful outcome hobbles on. Government mediator Betty Bigombe telephoned Mr Kony last month to renew truce talks, which collapsed in February after the LRA's chief negotiator, Sam Kolo, negotiated his own surrender. 

Ms Bigombe, a World Bank consultant who has dealt with the rebels since 1994, describes Mr Kony as a man with multiple personality disorder. The cult leader seems friendly, others report, until the spirits begin to talk through him. 

"On good days, he talks to God and on other days he thinks he is God," the State Department's Donald Yamamoto told U.S. lawmakers earlier this month when a Congressional committee questioned whether Mr Kony was a rational actor. Either way, President Museveni has yet to come up with a coherent peace offer. 

Nobody seems to know what the rebels want. Not even Mr Kolo, their former spokesman. 

"I'm no longer in the LRA," he replied when confronted in a bar after the cleansing ceremony. "Please go and ask Joseph Kony."

Further Reading