Civil War: Uganda (1986-Present)

Michael Barutciski. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Uganda is situated in a region of Africa that has been directly affected by many recent and ongoing civil wars. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Central African Republic have all experienced internal armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War. Uganda is a particularly tragic case. Once regarded by British colonial authorities as the “pearl of Africa,” the country seems to have been caught in an endless cycle of internal violent struggles since its accession to independence in 1962. In the last forty years, governments in Kampala have been removed by military coups, by foreign invasion, and by armed rebellion.

Still, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) considers Uganda a positive model because its yearly economic growth rate rose to an average of 5 percent following monetary reform in 1987. Indeed, the website of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC News) presents Uganda as a country that “has rebounded from the abyss of civil war and economic catastrophe to become relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous” (BBC 2005). For many observers of economic development in Africa, Uganda represents something of a success story.

Country Background

The British connection with Uganda is an essential part of Uganda’s history and current international relations. Following decades of contact with foreign traders and missionaries, much of the territory known today as Uganda became a British protectorate in 1894. In the context of the decolonization movements following World War II, the British granted internal self-government to Uganda in 1961. Prime Minister Milton Obote led the country to formal independence on October 9, 1962.

Political life in Uganda during the following years was marked by a struggle between supporters of a centralized state and supporters of a loose federation that recognized various tribal kingdoms. Backed by his largely Langi and Acholi soldiers from the north of Uganda, Obote eventually took over all government powers in February 1966 and then proceeded to appoint himself president in a new republic that abolished the traditional kingdoms. Despite Obote’s attempts in the late 1960s to broaden his military-based rule by gaining popular support with the partial nationalization of major industries and banks, it was not long before his army commander, Idi Amin, staged a coup in January 1971 while Obote was attending a Commonwealth Conference in Singapore.

Over the next eight years, Idi Amin generally eliminated democratic institutions and ruled by decree. Many analysts consider that his reign of terror crippled the economy and forced “the state into little more than an instrument of plunder” (Brett 1995, 137). Economic decline, social disintegration, and massive human rights violations characterized the country during most of the 1970s (U.S. Department of State 2005a, 3). Although exiled activists threatened Amin throughout his reign, it was dissension within the army that ultimately led to his downfall. Having dealt with a mutiny in the late summer of 1978, Amin proceeded to send some units into northwest Tanzania. The Tanzanian army responded by expelling the invaders, joining up with Ugandan exiles, and then moving on to take Kampala in April 1979. Amin fled to Libya and later to Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile until his death in July 2003.

Following the ousting of Amin, attempts to establish an interim government in Kampala were unsuccessful. Elections were eventually held at the end of 1980, and Milton Obote returned to power amid allegations of electoral fraud. Massive human rights violations continued under Obote’s second term, and his security forces are accused of laying waste to much of the country in their campaign against the rebel National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni (U.S. Department of State 2005a, 3). The area north of Kampala known as the Luwero Triangle was the site of particularly brutal atrocities committed by Obote’s forces.

Obote’s rule finally came to an end when one of his army brigades, composed largely of Acholi fighters, took Kampala and established a military government. The leader of the new regime, General Tito Okello, promised to end the tribal rivalries and hold fair elections. However, human rights abuses continued as the Okello government ravaged the countryside in an attempt to destroy the NRA’s support (U.S. Department of State 2005a, 3).

Ignoring a cease-fire he had signed in December 1985, Museveni and his NRA proceeded to seize power by force in Kampala on January 26, 1986. The political grouping created by Museveni, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has controlled the government ever since. Museveni is credited with putting an end to the abuses of previous governments as well as initiating economic liberalization and reforms in accordance with the requests of the IMF, the World Bank, and donor governments. Most of Uganda’s industry is related to agricultural production, and almost of all the country’s foreign exchange earnings come from agricultural products. Coffee, of which Uganda is Africa’s leading producer, accounted for about 19 percent of the country’s exports in 2002, whereas fish accounted for 17 percent (U.S. Department of State 2005a, 3).

Although the government’s economic performance has been applauded internationally, the political situation has raised some concerns. Since taking power in 1986, Museveni has pledged to rid the country of dictatorship, mismanagement, and the cycle of violence that characterized its postindependence history (Bøås 2004, 296). Given the social makeup of the country, Museveni believes multiparty democracy will only create political polarization that will be based on ethnic affiliation. His view is that industrialization and the creation of socioeconomic classes will eventually provide a solid base for party politics (Bøås 2004, 297; Museveni 2000, 95-96). The government has therefore been based on a “movement” system that severely restricts the activities of political parties. The current constitution, which was adopted in 1995, provides for an elected executive president, along with a relatively independent parliament and judiciary. The constitution was recently amended to remove the provision that limited the president to two five-year terms. Although it has been viewed with considerable skepticism by international observers, this amendment allowed President Museveni to be a candidate in the presidential elections that were held in February 2006. Museveni was declared the winner in the election, but his leadership style has been generally characterized as corrupt and unethical.

Conflict Background

Uganda’s troubled postindependence history is intimately linked with continuous violence and conflict. Indeed, it is somewhat difficult to distinguish periods when rebel groups are active from periods when the insurgents are regrouping or reforming under different movements. Nevertheless, according to some conflict specialists, there have been three civil wars in Uganda up to the end of the Cold War: a one-month armed conflict in 1966 that resulted in 2,000 deaths, a twelvemonth conflict in 1978-1979 that resulted in a similar number of deaths, and a seventy-two-month conflict in 1980-1986 that resulted in 300,000 deaths and around 347,000 displaced persons (Doyle and Sambanis 2000). These statistics should be supplemented by a new post-1986 civil war involving several anti-Museveni movements. Despite the relatively positive economic developments in Uganda since Museveni took power, continuous fighting has unfortunately drained much of the national budget. The recent conflict areas have been concentrated primarily in northern Uganda and the region around the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the “vicious and cult-like” Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continues to “murder and kidnap civilians” in northern Uganda (U.S. Department of State 2005a, 4). The rebel movement is estimated as having roughly 1,500 lightly armed troops, although many are child soldiers (IISS 2004, 248). Some analysts believe the number of LRA fighters may be as high as 4,000 (SIPRI 2004, 112.) The LRA faces Museveni’s army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), a relatively modern force that includes roughly 40,000-45,000 troops (IISS 2004, 248). The conflict in the north has resulted in massive population displacement. At more than 1.3 million people (USCRI 2005, 11; most other sources provide higher numbers), the estimates for displaced persons far exceed the numbers relating to earlier conflict periods. The situation in northern Uganda is such that war has become an integral part of the politics of daily life; the local population and soldiers live by and suffer from the economy of war (Bøås 2004, 286). More than half the population of the Gulu and Kitgum districts are living in camps made for displaced persons (most estimates are considerably higher; see, for example, World Vision 2004, 4). The creation of these government-organized temporary settlements has paradoxically contributed to the further impoverishment of locals. Fields that were once relatively fertile are now lying empty, and locals have become dependent on other sources of food and income generation (Bøås 2004, 286).

Uganda’s northern neighbor, Sudan, has also been implicated in the LRA’s insurgency. Since around 1994, Sudan has allegedly been aiding the LRA and conducting a proxy war against Kampala, partly motivated by Khartoum’s perception that Museveni was aiding the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in their struggle against the Sudanese government (Prunier 2004, 365).

The spillover effect has not been limited to the northern borders of Uganda. Several rebel groups operating from the chaotic regions of eastern DRC have mounted attacks in the mountainous southwestern areas of Uganda. To the extent that these groups have benefited from foreign support, they have implicated the Kinshasa government and the possibility that it may have conducted a proxy war through Ugandan dissidents. This threat has motivated Kampala to send the UPDF across the border in controversial incursions into DRC. The engagement in the resource-rich eastern regions of DRC was slowly replaced by economic motivations.

Kigali has also recently been implicated in supporting these anti-Museveni armed groups based in eastern DRC, as the relations between Museveni and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame have soured. It should be remembered that Kagame, as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, launched his exiled rebel forces from Uganda and managed to take power in Rwanda by July 1994 as the country spiraled out of control with genocidal mass killings. Although the forces of the new Kigali regime pursued the soldiers of the old regime in the eastern regions of ex-Zaire (DRC), the UPDF took advantage of the situation and attacked the anti-Museveni movements based on the border regions of ex-Zaire (Prunier 2004, 374). The September 1996 Rwandan military operation against the refugee camps in the South Kivu region eventually expanded such that the Rwandans found themselves operating with Ugandan troops against an alliance of rebel and governmental troops from the region. According to some analysts, the multistate attack on ex-Zaire turned the regional proxy conflicts into a continental problem (Prunier 2004, 374). By late 1998, the UPDF, along with Congolese rebels was even threatening to advance to Kinshasa before the air forces of Namibia, Angola, and Sudan began airlifting soldiers and bombing operations to help President Kabila’s regime (Prunier 2004, 380). A peace agreement was signed in Sirte (Libya) between Museveni and Kabila on April 17, 1999. Yet tensions have now risen between Kampala and Kigali following years of military cooperation and presence in the chaotic and resource-rich regions of DRC.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Marshall and Jaggers 2002; SIPRI 2004, 112; USCRI 2005, 11; U.S. Department of State, 2005a.
War: Various insurgent groups vs. government
Dates: July 1986-present
Casualties: more than 7,000
Regime type prior to war: -7 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy]); movement system that prohibits opposition political parties
Regime type after war: Not applicable
GDP per capita year war began: US $465 (estimated)
GDP per capita year after war: US $465 (estimated)
Insurgents: Lord’s Resistance Army, Allied Democratic Forces, and others
Issue: Alienation of northern Acholi, Islamic revolution
Rebel funding: Diaspora, Sudan
Role of geography: Rebels hide in bush and rough terrain.
Role of resources: Not significant
Immediate outcome: Not applicable
Outcome after 5 years: Not applicable
Role of UN: Humanitarian relief aid
Role of regional organization: No direct role
Refugees: 703,500 (excluding 1,330,000 internally displaced persons)
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Uganda

The Insurgents

The Rebel Groups

There have been numerous Ugandan rebel groups over the last decades, and it would be of limited use to describe all of them here. As the most prominent of the rebel movements that are currently active, the LRA is described in some detail following. The Holy Spirit Movement Force (HSMF) is also described because some observers claim that the LRA is related to or inspired by this earlier, sect-like, armed movement that was created in the wake of Museveni’s seizure of power. Several other rebel groups are also covered to provide a fuller picture of the current difficulties in establishing a central government in Kampala that accommodates the various ethnic or religious aspirations in modern-day Uganda.

The Holy Spirit Movement Force (HSMF)

This millenarian guerrilla movement was active during the period 1986-1987 as it fought the Museveni regime, mainly in northern Uganda. It was allegedly created on August 6, 1986, when the spirit Lakwena ordered a mystical young prophetess, Alice Auma, to stop healing the sick and to start raising an army for an antigovernment crusade (Bøås 2004, 289; Van Acker 2004, 346). Alice capitalized on powerful feelings of guilt, collective despair, and the need for spiritual cleansing to create a movement that contained elements of both a cult and a military organization (Brett 1995, 146). As members had to undergo ritual purification to be cleansed of past sins, the HSMF offered redemption to Acholi who believed they were being punished for atrocities committed by Acholi soldiers under Obote and Okello (Westbrook 2000, 3).

Operations guided by the Holy Spirit Tactics often disregarded basic military principles because soldiers were taught they had become invincible through the power of spiritual redemption (Van Acker 2004, 347). At a more practical level, the HSMF received arms in November 1986 from another rebel group, the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA; see section following) but later broke away with many of its soldiers (Brett 1995, 146). The bitter and disoriented Acholi soldiers of the HSMF eventually made their way south almost to Jinja in October 1987 before being stopped by the Uganda People’s Defense Force (Prunier 2004, 366; Westbrook 2000, 2). Following this defeat some 80 kilometers east of Kampala, the wounded Alice took refuge in Kenya, and the movement has apparently ceased to exist.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)

Some observers believe that the LRA is a new incarnation of the HSMF (Bøås 2004, 289; Prunier 2004, 366), whereas others see it as a distinct organization with both differences and similarities (Westbrook 2000, 4). The LRA is sometimes perceived as having vacillated between following Lakwena’s beliefs, adopting Christian fundamentalist ideas, and incorporating Muslim rituals (Westbrook 2000, 4). This bizarre movement was created by Alice’s cousin (or nephew), Joseph Kony, who claimed to have similar spiritual visions as he began to lead a small guerrilla war in almost impenetrable terrain in north Acholi near the Sudanese border (Prunier 2004, 366).

In its early years, the LRA seems to have used a version of the Holy Spirit Tactics, although it was less clearly articulated and its political vision was apparently more ambiguous (Van Acker 2004, 348). When the leadership of the UPDA signed a peace accord with the UPDF in 1988, several dissenting commanders left the UPDA and decided to join the LRA insurrection. In due course, they persuaded Kony to adopt guerrilla (or terror) tactics over Holy Spirit Tactics (Van Acker 2004, 348).

After the failure of talks with Minister Betty Bigombe in 1994, Kony was invited to Juba in south Sudan, where he allegedly obtained significant military aid from the Sudanese government following a symbolic acceptance of Islam by some of his fighters (e.g., name changes and some religious conversions). Sudan rapidly turned the motley group of rebels into a “coherent, well-supplied military enterprise” (Van Acker 2004, 338) that included more than 2,000 well-equipped troops (Prunier 2004, 366-67) that could contribute to its fight against the SPLA. However, the Sudanese army has occasionally been frustrated in its attempts to bolster the LRA; instead of pinning down the UPDF in key sectors or wearing it down with effective ambushes, the rebels have preferred to terrorize villages and murder civilians in Acholi (Van Acker 2004, 376).

It is therefore far from clear that much of the Acholi people support the LRA (Van Acker 2004, 352). Observers suspect that its support comes mainly from the diaspora Acholi (Bøås 2004, 290; Westbrook 2000, 5). More recently, the LRA’s insurrection has shown signs of slowing down, as the rebels are becoming more officer heavy due to casualties, capture, and defections, as well as a lessened capacity to regenerate (ICG 2005, 2). This is partly the result of the protocol signed between Uganda and Sudan in 2002 that allows the UPDF to pursue the LRA into southern Sudan up to an agreed “red line” (Van Acker 2004, 352). As a result, the LRA no longer maintains a fixed headquarters in southern Sudan, even though command and control remains intact (ICG 2005, 3). In August 2006 it signed a truce with the government that will hopefully bring an end to one of Africa’s most tragic conflicts.

The Ugandan National Liberation Army (UNLA)

This group consists of Okello’s primarily Acholi soldiers who withdrew to Sudan following the NRA’s victory in January 1986 (Westbrook 2000, 3).

The Uganda People’s Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A)

Once the NRM took control of the entire country in April 1986, a relative peace was established until the UPDA (formed by Acholi exiles) launched an attack from Sudan in July 1986 (Westbrook 2000, 3). The UPDA was based in the refugee camps of southern Sudan, whereas the political leadership was entrenched in London; it apparently did not enjoy widespread support in Acholi. Yet former UNLA soldiers joined it after the fall of Gulu and Kitgum to the NRA; consequently, they greatly expanded the existing brigades (Van Acker 2004, 342).

The UPDA eventually came out of the bush following a peace agreement on June 3, 1988 (Brett 1995, 147). However, a large contingent of disenfranchised members stayed in the bush after the accord. Joseph Kony apparently joined the UPDA in early 1987 as a young “spiritual mobilizer” (Van Acker 2004, 347) before going on to form the LRA.

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)

Some observers believe this rebel group was created as a result of the proxy war between Sudan and Uganda; it is a coalition formed from a variety of anti-Museveni movements aided by Sudan (and DRC) and active on Uganda’s western border with DRC (Hovil and Werker 2005, 13). Its roots are apparently found in a group of Islamic activists from the Tabliq movement who went underground after their release from prison in the 1990s (Bøås 2004, 293). They reappeared in February 1995 in the western district of Bunyoro, conducting military training with Sudanese help, but they escaped after an intervention by the UPDF. (Their peak period was in 2000, when they had an estimated 1,000 fighters who asserted their presence in areas such as Bundibugyo near the Rwenzori Mountains [Bøås 2004, 293].) The ADF was greatly weakened in 2002 (Prunier 2004, 381). Recent estimates place their strength at roughly 200 lightly armed fighters (IISS 2004, 377).

The Allied Democratic Movement (ADM)

This is a Baganda guerrilla movement created in London in January 1995 in the tradition of the Kabaka Yekka (a monarchist party of the 1960s) to fight Museveni’s regime and restore the Baganda king (Prunier 2004, 361). It recruited primarily among the majority of Baganda who are Christians (Prunier 2004, 371).

The National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU)

Created in 1988, this guerrilla movement follows in the tradition of the Rwenzururu movement created by the Bakonjo, who fought the British colonial authorities for autonomy from Bunyoro (western Uganda). The Rwenzururu leaders signed an armistice with the Obote regime in August 1982. Yet, one of the leaders, Amon Bazira, obtained help from Presidents Mobutu and Moi to start a revival of the movement after Museveni’s rise to power in 1986. The new movement apparently never had the popular appeal of Rwenzururu, but it had enough financing to pose a threat to Museveni. It disappeared after Bazira was shot dead in Nairobi in 1992; many of its members allegedly joined the ADF.

The Ugandan Muslim Liberation Army (UMLA)

This Islamic anti-Museveni guerrilla group declared war on the Museveni regime in January 1995. It was apparently supported by the Baganda Muslims, who during the 1981-1986 bush war had provided key support to the NRA (Prunier 2004, 370). By recruiting among the minority of Baganda who were Muslim, along with non-Baganda Muslims throughout Uganda, the UMLA complemented the ADM and its Anglo-Protestant leaders in the overall Baganda struggle against Museveni (Prunier 2004, 371). Its first military operations were defeated near Lake Albert in February 1995, and the survivors fled near Bunia in ex-Zaire. In Bunia, they apparently made contact with Sudanese army officials supplying the Rwandan Interahamwe and the West Nile Bank Liberation Front (WBNLF; see following); the Sudanese allegedly began helping the UMLA and fusing it with the ADM (Prunier 2004, 372-73).

The West Nile Bank Liberation Front (WNBLF)

This anti-Museveni guerrilla movement was created in November 1994 in Faradje (in the former Zaire) by Juma Oris (a former commander under Idi Amin), following a secret deal between Khartoum and Kinshasa that allowed the Sudanese army to reorganize former Kakwa and Aringa soldiers on the Zairian side of the West Nile region (Prunier 2004, 367).

The rebels surrendered en masse to the UPDF during the 1997 fighting in northeast Zaire. Remnants were ambushed by the SPLA as they tried to join up with Sudanese forces in Yei (southern Sudan) in March 1997, while survivors of the ambush fled to the Sudanese army garrison in Juba (Prunier 2004, 376-77). The WNBLF faded away following the 1999 Sirte agreement, and their current strength is estimated at more than 1,000 soldiers (IISS 2004, 377).

The People’s Redemption Army (PRA)/

The NRM alleges that the PRA is a new Rwandan-backed rebel movement consisting of former ADF fighters, supporters of the opposition candidate in the 2001 presidential elections (Kizza Besigye), and dissatisfied soldiers (Bøås 2004, 294; Van Acker 2004, 353). This rebel group is allegedly led by Colonel Samson Mande and Colonel Anthony Kyakable, who are receiving Rwandan support to train forces in Ituri together with the ADF (Bøås 2004, 294).


Uganda is endowed with ample fertile land, regular rainfall, and mineral deposits. This is one of the main reasons it appeared destined for rapid economic growth following the colonial period. Unfortunately, this potential has not been realized, and the rich and varied landscape that was once admired by locals and foreigners alike has now ironically facilitated the activities of insurgents.

With Lake Victoria and the Victoria Nile River, which flows through the country, Uganda has plenty of water sources. The country enjoys a tropical climate that is tempered by an average altitude of 1,000 meters. Mountain ranges are found in the extreme west and east of the country. At 5,109 meters, Mount Stanley in the Rwenzori Mountains is the country’s highest peak. In between the mountain ranges are lush and fertile fields on the shores of Lake Victoria. The land varies considerably in the northeast, where it becomes semidesert.

The Acholi region of northern Uganda does not hold any known reserves of key strategic resources, but this may change as the oil wealth of southern Sudan is unlocked following the 2004 peace agreement between Khartoum and the SPLA. To date, all three of the Acholi-inhabited districts (Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader) have been marginalized from mainstream development (Van Acker 2004, 336).

The current armed conflict has been taking place primarily in the districts of Kitgum and Gulu, with several recent attacks in the neighboring Pader and Lira districts. As the largest district in Uganda (16,136 square kilometers), Kitgum shares a long border with Sudan. Its seasons are basically divided into rainy and dry periods. During the rainy periods, tall, green grasses and thick brush characterize the landscape. The population, essentially rural, is estimated at close to half a million people. Gulu district is situated to the southwest of Kitgum, and it shares a small border with Sudan. The elevations of the land range from 351 to 1,341 meters. Its population is almost as large as the one in Kitgum (Westbrook 2000, 2).

The operational capacity of the insurgents in the north has clearly been helped by the proximity of Sudan, a large country with its own internal conflicts and somewhat uncontrolled border regions. To the extent that the northern parts of Uganda are relatively far from the capital, which is situated in traditional Baganda territory, the geographic distances have helped the rebels maintain a prolonged insurrection. Another striking feature of the Acholi-inhabited northern region is that it appears “empty,” owing to the existence of protected camps where villagers are assembled by force and supposedly provided with government protection (Van Acker 2004, 343). Like many governments in similar situations, Kampala has pursued this policy to make it more difficult for the insurgents to hide among the civilians.

The civil war in Uganda has also recently affected areas outside the underdeveloped north and particularly the southwestern regions near the Rwenzori Mountains. It is clear that the ADF chose western Uganda as a base of operations partly because of the mountainous terrain (Bøås 2004, 293) and lush forests. The proximity of DRC’s chaotic provinces is clearly a factor that facilitates the activities of insurgent groups.


Over the years, the LRA has become notorious for the mutilation and summary execution of civilians, as well as the abduction of children for use as foot soldiers (Van Acker 2004, 335). The LRA remains committed to terror tactics, and it is not concerned about controlling territory. Indeed, the suffering of Acholi civilians at the hands of the LRA is characterized by attacks on villages and looting, along with mutilation and mass abductions (ICG 2005, 2). An estimated 20,000 children have been violently abducted to serve in its ranks (World Vision 2004, 4). Movement of LRA commanders between Uganda and Sudan has been common in order to evade capture and to reorganize (ICG 2005, 5).

The LRA allegedly began wholesale kidnapping after the failed 1994 talks with Bigombe (Van Acker 2004, 337). Given that the LRA is essentially an Acholi resistance movement, it may seem strange that Acholi civilians are its main victims. This is part of the difficulty in understanding the political objectives of the rebel group. Most analysts agree that Kony and his commanders have not been particularly clear in their political objectives. It appears that the LRA is simply trying to wreak havoc with brutal attacks that portray the government as incapable of protecting the internally displaced persons (ICG 2005, 1). To achieve these ends, LRA attacks are generally carried out by small groups using machetes and light arms. The rebel group sustains itself by stealing food, punishing collaboration with the government, prolonging a de facto state of emergency, and maintaining visibility with spectacular actions (ICG 2005, 2).

In dealing with this unusual and senselessly violent insurgency, the government has alternated between applying military pressure on the rebels, thinning out their ranks with amnesty offers, and reviving the political process through negotiations (Van Acker 2004, 337). In terms of protecting civilians, the government has assembled people into camps that are protected by local home guards (Van Acker 2004, 343). To many observers, the camps indicate the existence of a de facto state of emergency. Yet many Acholi perceive them to be a method of earmarking the north as a labor reserve for sugar cane and tea plantations. Indeed, Acholi often express fears of hidden government intentions relating to land ownership (Van Acker 2004, 343).

Although the government has established protected camps for the villagers, it also encourages former fighters to turn themselves in at a regional reception center (ICG 2005, 3). In the past, it has been reported that rebels who did not receive external assistance had to live off the local population and eventually turned into gangs that rob civilians (Brett 1995, 149). This is one of the important issues that must be addressed in order to resolve the current conflict in the north.

In the western parts of Uganda, the ADF leadership and membership have remained relatively obscure over the years, thereby helping to keep their internal and external contacts safe from intelligence agents. The obscurity also adds a mythological dimension to the ADF (Bøås 2004, 292). By operating in non-Acholi territory that is considered the heartland of the NRM, the ADF’s strongest asset is that it raises questions about the legitimacy of Museveni’s new Uganda (Bøås 2004, 293).

Faced with insurrections in the north and to the west, Kampala has sought to modernize its military with the purchase of new equipment. For example, the UPDF can now count on main battle tanks (152 T-54/55), fighter jets (six MiG-21, five MiG-23) and helicopter gunships (six Mi-24) acquired in recent years (IISS 2004, 248). Although these purchases are intended ostensibly to make the army more effective in general combat operations, at least two complications should be noted. At slightly over 2 percent of GDP, the amount of military spending has risen over the last few years to levels that have attracted some concern from key Western donors (Bøås 2004, 343). The spending has also been linked to military corruption, which has had a negative impact on the UPDF’s ability to put down the insurrections. Indeed, many examples of military procurement have not resulted in the increased combat advantage sought by the UPDF. Top defense officials, including Museveni’s half-brother Major General Salim Saleh, have been implicated in the associated corruption scandals (Tangri and Mwenda 2003, 540-43).

Causes of the War

The almost constant internal armed conflicts that have plagued Uganda since independence are undoubtedly caused by a variety of factors. Yet several recurring themes can be pointed out. Although many civil wars on the African continent have been the result of secessionist movements and ideological or religious differences, Uganda’s civil wars are best characterized as the result of ethnic differences and their connected political and economic tensions. A succession of repressive regimes since the British pulled out in 1962 has only added to the country’s inability to build a national cohesive bond that unites the competing ethnic groups.

The fact that the country does not have a common language understood by the majority of its inhabitants is a reflection of the divisions between the numerous ethnic groups. Swahili has been promoted at various periods as a unifying African language, yet it has not developed as Uganda’s national language (Ofcansky 1996, 72-73). The country’s official language is English, and it is used essentially in urban circles related to government, media, commerce, and academia. The majority of inhabitants, however, do not speak English: Instead, they communicate in more than thirty distinct languages and dialects (Kasozi 1994, 227-34). Without a common language, it is clearly difficult for political leaders to communicate directly to the entire population and for the country to develop a sense of shared history and political aspirations that can lead to national integration. The traditional ethnic allegiances are consequently easier to exploit by opportunistic elites.

Deep cultural cleavages exist between the Bantu central and southwest parts of the country and the Nilotic northern parts (Bøås 2004, 285). For example, northern Ugandans, who served as a reservoir for cheap labor and British colonial soldiers, resent the perceived preferential treatment accorded to the southern Baganda population (Van Acker 2004, 341). Some argue that the Acholi were relatively marginal to early British colonial rule and that they were largely viewed as a tribe of inferior order (Bøås 2004, 287). These types of dynamics are present throughout the country with the various ethnic groups. The overall result is a national political culture in which there is a perception that an ethnic group’s best survival strategy is to displace the ruling ethnic group and seize power.

Indeed, for much of its history since independence, military force in Uganda has not been subject to genuine control by civilian authorities (Brett 1995, 129). Furthermore, frequent changes in the composition of the military have resulted in the regular rotation of low-skilled persons from specific ethnic groups in and out of civilian life (Van Acker 2004, 338-39). Some commentators point to Idi Amin’s 1972 order for Acholi and Langi soldiers to return to barracks, only to be massacred, as the event that “firmly introduced competitive retaliation on an ethnic basis” (Van Acker 2004, 340).

In terms of the current civil war, it is necessary to set the violence in the context of the NRA’s victory after a six-year bush war. Acholi soldiers were disproportionately represented in President Obote’s armies in the 1960s and 1980s. Many Ugandans consequently blamed the Acholi for the atrocities committed in the Luwero Triangle northwest of Kampala during Museveni’s bush war against Obote. Given their prominence in Obote’s armies, as well as their active participation in the battles against the NRA when it was taking control of the country, the Acholi were in a difficult situation following Museveni’s victory in 1986. After taking power, Museveni immediately ordered all Acholi to hand in their weapons; memories of the retributive actions of Idi Amin in the early 1970s resulted in many young Acholi preferring to keep their weapons and to take to the bush (Bøås 2004, 287-88). Over the ensuing months, members of the formerly well-disciplined NRA avenged themselves upon their former enemies by plundering, murdering, and raping the civilian population in Acholi (Bøås 2004, 287-88). It is against this background that the HSMF was created. The human rights abuses by the NRA in northern Uganda had undoubtedly driven many people into the bush during the initial stages (Brett 1995, 147).

For all the progressive official statements on national harmony, elements within the NRM have tended to blame the Acholi community for the unrest that followed Museveni’s 1986 victory, claiming that they never fully accepted his authority because they were deprived of the ability to loot other Ugandans. From this perspective, the causes of the war are largely resource based, with tribal opportunism playing a key role in access to wealth (Westbrook 2000, 6).

It is difficult to apportion blame in a context that involves interethnic tensions within a country. Yet some factors are relatively clear. To the extent that the current armed conflict involves mainly the Acholi people, it should be noted that the economies of the two Acholi districts of Kitgum and Gulu are severely underdeveloped, even by Ugandan standards (Westbrook 2000, 2). Acholi has become a chronic conflict zone partly because of the Acholi’s perception that they are excluded from the Ugandan polity (Bøås 2004, 284). From the mass killings by the NRA in 1986 to the characterization of the war as an “Acholi problem,” and more recently the use of the displaced persons’ camps and the widespread problem of stolen cattle (Westbrook 2000, 7), the collective grievances of the Acholi reflect considerable mistrust between the north and Kampala. For example, Museveni received less than 20 percent of the people’s vote in Acholi during the 1996 presidential elections, even though he won with a large majority throughout Uganda (Westbrook 2000, 4).

Alleged discrimination in terms of the benefits from economic development has aggravated the Acholi sense of exclusion. Some observers argue that the product of economic growth following the monetary reform of 1987 has been distributed in an uneven manner (Oloka-Onyango 2000, 34-35), with most going to NRM officials and cronies while other Ugandans have been left with comparatively little (Bøås 2004, 284; Prunier 2004, 372). This uneven distribution of wealth following a period of relative prosperity adds to the ethnic marginalization that has plagued the country since independence.

Even in terms of humanitarian assistance, the perception of discriminatory treatment is still present. The government has often been accused of not meeting the basic needs of the displaced persons in the protected camps of the north; poor sanitation, limited clean water, congestion, and rampant disease have all attracted international attention (ICG 2005, 11). Acholi complain that the effects of the war have also hit them in another disproportionate manner: The Karamojong in northeast Uganda have conducted frequent armed cattle raids against their Acholi neighbors (Knighton 2003, 427). Indeed, the violent conflicts involving pastoralists in the region are believed to be aggravated by cattle rustling and small arms proliferation through cross-border smuggling (Knighton 2003, 429).

Other, more controversial factors should be considered in an assessment of the causes of civil war in Uganda. Arms proliferation in the region, particularly as a result of the wars in Sudan and DRC, has contributed to the problems of violence in Uganda (Van Acker 2004, 345). Moreover, Sudan’s support for the LRA is an important factor, although it has apparently been reduced (ICG 2005, 4), and latest reports suggest it is coming to an end (New Vision 2005a). At a more individual level, a number of officials, both military and civilian, have clearly benefited from supplying the war effort (Westbrook 2000, 7) and may not be interested in encouraging a cessation of hostilities.

The most controversial aspect of national politics in Uganda has arguably been the twenty-year ban on multiparty elections. Museveni consistently argued that the manipulation of ethnic identities by party politics had contributed to the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s (Bøås 2004, 297). In associating a multiparty system with violence, the NRM suggested it was the sole guarantor of the social revolution needed to end the cycle of violence that dominated the country’s history since independence. This image of chaos and violence as the alternative to Museveni’s Uganda is regularly used to link political opposition to rebel movements (Bøås 2004, 298). For example, following the defeat of Kizza Besigye, the opposition candidate in the 2001 presidential elections, the NRM attempted to associate his supporters with the insurgency (Bøås 2004, 294). After two decades in power, Museveni’s movement appears to be uneasy in addressing political dissent in a manner consistent with international human rights standards. This problem arguably reflects one of the key causes of Uganda’s current civil war.


Conflict Status

The current civil war in Uganda has been going on for twenty years. A few comments on the outcome of some of the political violence in the mid-1960s are useful in understanding why it has been difficult to bring peace to the country. Although it was put down with the help of the British military, the 1964 mutiny indicated that a northern group (the soldiers came predominantly from Acholi, Teso, Lango, and West Nile) could exert considerable influence on national politics (Brett 1995, 135). Idi Amin became deputy commander of the army following the reinstatement of those involved in the uprising. A year later, he was made army commander as Obote responded to accusations that both men were involved in gold and ivory smuggling from Zaire (Brett 1995, 135). Obote then proceeded to abrogate Buganda’s autonomy, repealed the constitution, and sent army units to attack the kabaka’s palace, forcing the Baganda king into exile. Obote proclaimed himself president as elections were cancelled. A lesson learned for many observers was that force had paid off in the short term. In terms of the country’s political future, the army high command had been drawn into partisan politics, thereby damaging any faith in the country’s nascent democracy (Brett 1995, 136). The stage was set for the violent political developments of the following decades: A few years later, Idi Amin turned the state into an instrument of extortion and sectional domination. In other words, Ugandan society was decaying as brute force was used for private benefit (Brett 1995, 152).

After twenty years of insurrection in the northern regions of Uganda, the unhealthy political problem just described has contributed to a grave humanitarian crisis. Uganda presently holds the fourth-largest internally displaced population of the world (USCRI 2005, 11). The humanitarian plight of civilians is characterized by a phenomenon known as “night commuters”: children who flee their villages every night to sleep in the cities to avoid abduction (World Vision 2004, 5). Their numbers are estimated to be around 32,000-52,000 (U.S. Department of State 2005b, 2). The problem of population displacement is such that United Nations officials consider the crisis to be one of the worst in the world today.

Duration Tactics

Because the LRA does not have the means to overthrow the government in Kampala, it is fighting what may be termed a protracted war. It seeks to wear down the UPDF and gain strength over time. To the extent that Sudan has tried to undermine the government in Kampala, it has been accused of encouraging prolonged insurrections within the borders of its southern neighbor.

There is another dimension that has probably contributed to the prolongation of the armed conflict. Many sources have alleged that military corruption results in considerable financial gain for army officers and government officials (e.g., Tangri and Mwenda 2003, 539). The implication is that this dynamic of corruption within the UPDF and the NRM is a significant factor in the duration of the civil war.

External Military Intervention

Over the last decade, Sudan, DRC, and Chad have all sent troops on combat operations in the border regions where Ugandan rebel groups have been present. To the extent that Sudan and DRC have led proxy wars against Uganda by assisting anti-Museveni rebel movements, the country’s most recent civil war is clearly affected by external military intervention. The extent of Sudan’s support for the LRA can be debated, yet there is little doubt that it has contributed in prolonging an insurrection that many thought would have dissipated years ago.

In terms of a foreign military presence that may play a constructive role in the future, the African Union and the United Nations need to consider how observers might be deployed to assembly points pursuant to a cease-fire (ICG 2005, 12). Similarly, it has been suggested that, as the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) deploys 10,000 peacekeepers to Uganda’s northern neighbor, the Security Council could ask it to observe LRA movements and report LRA locations (ICG 2005, 12).

Conflict Management Efforts

There have been significant conflict management efforts by national and local leaders since armed opposition groups began challenging Museveni’s government in 1986. These efforts have resulted in deals whereby some rebel groups have abandoned their struggles and integrated with national political and military structures. The efforts to negotiate with the LRA have also recently been assisted by key Western states, resulting in a truce that was signed in August 2006.

For more than a decade, Museveni has authorized one of his northern ministers, Betty Bigombe, to pursue direct talks with Kony. Although she had not met directly with him, she visited southern Sudan in 2004. In April 2005, via cellular phones, Kony and Bigombe held the “most comprehensive set of discussions” dealing with cease-fire modalities, aspects of an overall peace deal, and concerns about obstacles to progress; yet fighting continued in Kitgum, Gulu and Pader, despite the contacts between Kony and Bigombe (ICG 2005, 4). (There was concern that Museveni needed to make his offers public and halt military actions in order to give the process a chance to succeed [ICG 2005, 4]. Along with the recent truce, there have been some other positive results: On May 13, 2005, the Amnesty Commission began to run a national disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program aimed at helping former rebels to return to civilian life (ICG 2005, 8). This project is funded largely by the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program that is managed by the World Bank.

In terms of more direct international involvement, a “quartet of interested countries” has been formed, with the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Norway joined since 2005 by the United States. They are trying to promote the peace process. Yet the most prominent example of international involvement has been the recent indictments filed by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) against five LRA leaders, including Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti (ICC 2005, 1). Local Acholis and diplomats in Kampala are divided on this issue; some feel that justice must be done and that LRA leaders should be prosecuted, whereas others believe that prosecutions will ruin peace efforts and lead to new atrocities (ICG 2005, 9). Although it is likely that the threat of warrants has contributed in applying pressure on the LRA to negotiate and on Sudan to reduce overt support, the effect is unclear now that the indictments have been issued and made public.


The LRA insurgency in the north of Uganda was largely a product of Acholi alienation since 1986. To varying degrees, there is potential for this kind of antagonistic relationship to develop between Kampala and other ethnic groups in various parts of the country. This is one reason why it is important to make sure that the twenty-year-old rebellion in the north has actually ended following the recent truce agreement between the LRA and the government.

A comprehensive settlement strategy concerning the northern insurgency should include integration packages for destitute LRA members so that they can be reintegrate into society, better governance initiatives that promote the well-being of locals, a stronger humanitarian safety net for the displaced persons, and, more generally, a planning process that normalizes the region and gives northerners more say in government (ICG 2005, 5). Some of these elements may be complicated by the government’s international commitments relating to the ICC’s decision to prosecute key LRA members. Just as the future of the ICC depends partly on the success of its first prosecution attempts, it also needs to show sensitivity to the peace process. It can play a positive role, for example, by helping to identify who exactly is assisting the LRA and providing it with sanctuary and supplies in southern Sudan (ICG 2005, 9).

From a military viewpoint, the UPDF needs to improve its counterinsurgency operations by operating in smaller units and using more sophisticated communications and night vision equipment, along with improving its mobility (ICG 2005, 6). Effective counterinsurgency tactics need to be buttressed by efforts to improve relations with locals, whom the UPDF often accuses of aiding the rebels. As in any peace-support operation, the government has to realize that the “territory” to be captured is “the hearts and minds” of the locals and that this task requires considerable human resources (IISS 2004, 5). Although enhancing the capacity of the local defense units that protect the displaced persons’ camps will improve the situation of civilians (ICG 2005, 6), the larger strategy should consider that an agropastoralist society cannot function if the population is confined to protected camps (Van Acker 2004, 357). This is the dilemma facing Museveni as he tries to increase his political legitimacy in the north part of Uganda.

Indeed, Uganda’s recent history suggests that Kampala’s legitimacy to govern the alienated north will depend on its ability to maintain a respectable human rights record. As documented in numerous reports by international NGOs, abusive procedures during arrests and detention have contributed to an absence of trust among locals (Van Acker 2004, 356).

Yet respect for human rights standards alone will not necessarily solve the problems that have repeatedly led to civil war in Uganda. The treatment of civilians should be placed in a wider perspective that considers the regional political complexities. Uganda is located in a part of the world where the viability of states is complicated by the porous nature of national borders. The DRC, for example, is perhaps an extreme example of a state that exerts limited control over its geographic frontiers. The problem is accentuated because ethnic solidarities across the borders are sometimes stronger than formal citizenship affiliations. This transnational factor can be used to mobilize ethnic solidarity networks by emphasizing feelings of political neglect (Prunier 2004, 383). It is in this way that some of the unstable states in the region, including Uganda, have seen their local problems transformed into regional problems.

From this standpoint, the spread of Islam is one of the factors that have guided Khartoum’s support for anti-Museveni movements. Even though some Ugandans have been pushed to Islamic groups because of social and economic marginalization rather than any desire to adopt the shari’a system (Prunier 2004, 382), the effects of militant Islam in Uganda should not be ignored.

In order to ensure that the insurgency in the north has finally ended, pressure is needed on Sudan to make sure that Kony has no option but to negotiate and bring his long rebellion to a definite close (ICG 2005, 2). The recent signing of a protocol providing for the Sudanese armed forces and the SPLA to join in the hunt for the LRA is an indication that Sudan decided to cooperate more fully with international efforts to bring an end to the LRAs insurgency (New Vision 2005a). With such positive developments, the LRAs days are numbered. Indeed, the truce it has accepted appears to have put an end to the country’s civil war and will allow all of Uganda to develop so that it can perhaps one day fulfill its potential to be a “pearl of Africa.”