19 September 2006

Uganda: Nation in Crisis Thanks to Divisive Regime

guest column

The government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have agreed to end two decades of hostilities in the northern part of the country. This is good news. But, only serious international pressure can ensure that the Juba talks progress into a definite peace.

The regime of Youweri Museveni has invested massively in a campaign of deception and disinformation, aimed at concealing a methodical and comprehensive genocide in northern Uganda, conceived and conducted by the government. A carefully scripted narrative is being promoted, according to which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and will end with their demise.

This rewriting of history does not stand the tests of examination and evidence. Yet the relentless repetition of these myths over two decades, by the regime and its international sponsors, has invested them with the aura of truth. What are the facts?

In its duration, magnitude, and impact, the situation in northern Uganda exceeds the abominations of Darfur in Sudan. The population of northern Uganda has been rendered totally vulnerable, trapped between the brutality of the LRA and the genocide being committed by the government.

The LRA has been responsible for atrocities, including massacres, maiming and the abduction of some 25,000 children, for which its leadership must be held fully accountable. However, the LRA factor has been cynically manipulated to divert attention from and conceal the unfolding genocide.

According to the 1948 Convention, genocide is aimed at "destroying in whole or in part" the life and viability of a targeted community. This stage-by-stage multi-dimensional assault can span years of preparation and execution.

This is precisely what has been going on in northern Uganda, marked by a conspiracy of silence and cover-up. As the Ugandan writer, P. K. Mwanje, observed, "Ugandans south of the River Nile and their friends [the international community] do not know of the genocide taking place in northern Uganda".

Over the last 20 years, a population of almost 2 million, from Acoli, Lango and Teso regions, have been forced by the government into concentration camps, defined by disease and death, humiliation and despair, overcrowding and malnutrition, and appalling sanitation. It must be stressed that the majority did not flee their homes to seek refuge in government 'safe havens'.

These populations were uprooted from their homes and lands by the government, in operations marked by systematic bombing, burning, and killing. Today 95% of the Acoli population is in these camps.

After visiting the camps, reporter Elias Biryabarema wrote in Uganda's Monitor newspaper last November: "Not a single explanation on earth can justify the degradation, desolation and the horrors killing off generation after generation. Frankly, it's not entirely imprecise to describe what I saw as a slow extinction - shocking cruelty and death stalking a people by the minute, by the hour, by the day. Museveni owes these children, these women an answer: they deserved it yesterday, they do today and will tomorrow."

Consider this. According to the Ugandan army spokesman, the LRA killed 46 people over the six months ending March 2006. Meanwhile 1500 people - a thousand of them children - are dying weekly in the camps.

The camps are massively congested, with 50-70,000 people occupying one square kilometer. Women wait in line for more than 12 hours to fill a jerrycan of water; more than 4,000 people share one public latrine; approximately 50% of children have been seriously stunted from malnutrition. Access to health care is non-existent.

According to Human Rights Watch, "Women in a number of camps told how they had been raped by soldiers from the Ugandan army.  It is exceptionally difficult for women to find protection from sexual abuse by government soldiers."

Not only have the people been uprooted from their lands, but the entire mass of livestock from Acoli, Lango and Teso was forcibly confiscated by the government in 1986/87. Today there is a serious land-grab in Acoli by senior government and military officials.

This is the face of genocide. Like erstwhile regimes in Rwanda or the Balkans, the Museveni regime has stoked ethnic racism to gain and retain power, with such declarations by close associates as: "Those people' are not human beings; 'they' are biological substances...who should be eliminated"; "We shall make 'them' become like the ensenene insects; you know what happens when you trap them in a bottle and close the lid"; and "Let them go and eat grass, mangoes, and lizards."

In the 1970s, the Acoli were especially targeted by the Idi Amin regime. Amin decimated the Acoli leadership, intelligentsia, businessmen, and military officers. It was therefore unimaginable for the Acoli that they would ever experience a worse nightmare. Alas, the Museveni regime has turned out to be many times more devastating and deadly for the community.

Since September 11, 2001, Museveni has presented the LRA as part of the network of international terrorism, the better to ensure western political, financial and military support. The 'war' has provided a pretext and cover for the genocide being conducted in the concentration camps. As part of his divide-and-rule strategy, Museveni has exploited the LRA factor to rally political support in southern Uganda.

The war also has served as a political alibi to defer addressing pressing national demands on issues such as multi-party democracy, corruption, nepotism, development imbalance, poverty and social and military expenditures. In 2003, the country's donors complained of "large scale corruption and embezzlement at the top, which is carried out with impunity." The money poured into the country over the past 15 years has been largely expropriated to enrich the politico- military clan. A senior judge recently declared that corruption has become a "malignant cancer".

Since the NRM seized power in 1986, Uganda has been beset with war, non-stop. This is the longest-running war in Africa. And last November, the International Court of Justice ruled that Uganda had committed aggression, crimes against humanity and plunder of natural resources, in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, for which it must pay reparations.

For 20 years, Uganda was a one-party, one-man dictatorship, with political parties banned. Elections have been organized by the party machine, marked by massive fraud and intimidation. And now, the presidential term limit has been removed. Ugandans deserve genuine multi-party democracy, not the current sham.

The rule of law is under assault, as never before. Judges have been publicly threatened by government officials; court rulings are routinely ignored; court sessions have been placed under military siege; and defendants have been released on bail only to be kidnapped by the army. A long list of prominent Ugandans have died or been killed in highly suspicious circumstances.

Whereas brutalities of the LRA have been widely reported, massacres by the government have been concealed; they bear place names like Namukora, Akilok, Oryang, Labongo, Pajule, Corner Kilak,  Mukura, Lacekocot, Bucoro, Komyoke, Atanga, Lamogi, Kiburara.

From 1981 to 1985, the Luwero Triangle was the theatre of insurgency and grave human rights violations. Atrocities were committed by both Museveni's NRA and the then national army. Twenty years on, there has been no independent truth- seeking process or accountability.

Uganda remains one of the countries worst affected by HIV/Aids. The claims of spectacular success should be subjected to more rigorous scientific and empirical assessment, free from political hype. The rate of HIV infection in the north has exploded, and anti-retroviral drugs have been denied to camp populations.

Under Universal Primary Education, a system of quality education has been destroyed, replaced by unplanned, overcrowded, under-staffed, under-resourced and neglected schools. Ninety-six percent of rural children are neither numerate nor literate.

Uganda today is a country in the throes of a deep national crisis. The truth is that the country has been hijacked by a politico-military clan (not to be confused with an ethnic clan), led by Museveni, with a deeply entrenched culture of impunity and arrogance.

Ugandans long to take back their country, to repudiate the deeply corrosive and divisive legacy of the Museveni regime, and to embark on rebuilding the national project under a genuine patriotic leadership.

Olara Otunnu is a former foreign minister of Uganda, former UN Under-Secretary General and Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict and president of the LBL Foundation for Children. He wrote this commentary in response to current developments in Uganda, including the Juba peace negotiations between the government and Lord's Resistance Army insurgents.

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