NOVEMBER 29, 2010: Northern Uganda asks tough questions

Northern Uganda asks tough questions

SOURCE: The Monitor

By Lino Owor Ogora

The time has come round again when the entire country is caught up in the election frenzy; campaign convoys paint the streets in all the colours of the rainbow depending on what party one belongs to; when accusations are traded left and right and all candidates believe they are the best for the job and make all sorts of promises.

Most candidates are promising the usual things that appeal to the ears of the common man; economic revitalisation and an end to poverty; modernisation of agriculture and loans to the rural poor; infrastructural development and good roads; support to the health sector; free education for all and creation of jobs for the youth.

The sad fact with most of the election manifestos that have been unveiled thus far is that they offer a ‘one size fits all’ solution for all regions in Uganda regardless of the current context on the ground.

Northern Uganda, for example, is just emerging from conflict after over 22 years of civil war, which started in 1986, and has had disastrous impacts on the population. Between 28,000 and 38,000 children are believed to have been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to serve as child soldiers, sex slaves and porters. It is estimated that over 1.8 million people were displaced and forced to live in squalid conditions of the IDP camps.

With the launch of Operation Lightning Thunder in November 2008 by the UPDF, however, the LRA were forced to relocate to the Central African Republic and Southern Sudan. Many people were therefore able to leave the IDP camps, many of which have been officially declared closed.

On June 22, local government officials in Gulu held a ceremony to close Cwero IDP Camp, which was one of the last remaining camps in the district. People finally have access to their farmlands after several years of conflict. Children are able to go to school. The infrastructure, much of which was destroyed, is slowly being refurbished. Economic activity has also picked up again, with northern Uganda acting as the gateway to the booming trade between Uganda and Southern Sudan.

The above is an indicator that Northern Uganda has entered that crucial stage of post conflict recovery. A lot remains to be done before the region can fully recover, with the timing being right for the implementation of post conflict transitional justice interventions. Election candidates need to be mindful of this fact.

The guns may be silent, but a lot remains to be done to ensure that there is a steady level of post conflict recovery in the coming years. The post conflict period calls for the implementation of a variety of programmes aimed at mitigating the negative impacts of the conflict. And yet few, if not none, of the election manifestos that have been unveiled thus far are showing any promise of holistically attaining this.

There is need to consolidate security. The LRA are still a potential threat and are currently reported to be continuing with atrocities in Southern Sudan and the Central Africa Republic. For example one article published on the BBC website reported that “not a week goes by without reports of the LRA, notorious for its brutality, attacking a village and that more than 25,000 people have been forced from their homes in South Sudan by the LRA since January.”

The LRA is also reported to have kidnapped almost 700 people, a third of them children, during attacks in the DR Congo and the CAR since February 2009, according to a report published in mid-August by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Consolidation of state security is a must if lasting peace is to prevail in northern Uganda. Otherwise many people will run back to the IDP camps at the first sign of news that the LRA has re-entered Ugandan territory.

This will jeopardise plans for rehabilitation of the region which are already underway. The revitalisation of the economy in northern Uganda is also another factor that requires attention.

To the outsider who visits Gulu for example, the situation may look good on the surface. Judging by the many banks that have opened shop here recently, and the large number of trucks laden with merchandise on their way to Southern Sudan, it looks deceptively good. However, after several years of encampment with many relying on food handouts from humanitarian agencies, the situation for many war survivors is far from desirable.

While programmes like the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund have been launched by the government to help, they have done little to solve the micro-economic needs of the people, and have been riddled with massive corruption scandals.

Others such as NUREP and the PRDP have focused on infrastructural development such as roads, health centres and schools, and done little to address individual needs of survivors of the conflict.

And yet there are several categories of people with special needs that require urgent and special remedies due to the unique experiences they underwent. Take the case of formerly abducted children and children born in captivity. While several initiatives have been put in place to provide them with psycho-social support and income generating activities, many have simply been unable to cope with life after captivity.

Many girls who were abducted are currently shouldering the burden of not only having to single-handedly take care of their children, but are also being re-victimised by their communities. Many are not able to sustain marriages because of their abduction experiences. Many formerly abducted youth cannot be engaged in formal employment because they missed out on education.

And as many of the people leave the IDP camps for good, it is not uncommon to find the elderly stranded in IDP camps because they lack the means to build themselves new homes. All these categories of people need to be helped to resume life in the post-conflict phase. This cannot be attained within the existing government programmes.

The social services sector requires massive investment, especially in education and health. In 2009, it was not surprising that northern Uganda performed worst in the primary leaving examinations held that year. Northern Uganda also currently has the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids prevalence and is home to a host of other diseases and health conditions. Incidence of mental illness here is highest in the country.

While most election manifestos are promising better education and health services, they are not considerate of the fact that northern Uganda has lagged behind. They need to go the extra mile in addressing this gap in education and health.

Meanwhile, many people in northern Uganda are looking forward to post-conflict peace building, reconciliation and accountability mechanisms. This will be the ultimate determinant to whether northern Uganda experiences lasting peace or not.

In terms of reparations, people still hope for the implementation of both collective and individual reparations. Many people have not forgotten the losses they suffered during the conflict, especially in f cattle and other valuable property. As a manifestation of this, many victims groups in northern Uganda are engaged in struggles to receive compensation from the government.

In West Nile, a group called the West Nile Kony Rebel War Victims’ Association, composed exclusively of survivors of the Karuma-Pakwach ambush by the LRA on March 8, 1996, is engaged in seeking compensation amounting to Shs60 billion.

In Teso there is the Mukura Massacre Survivors’ Association which advocated for compensation for several years, and only succeeded recently when President Museveni delivered Shs200 million in cash on October 12, 2010.
In Gulu there is the War Debts Claimants Association and other groups seeking compensation for lost cattle.

Other reparations mechanisms need to be pursued with the aim of achieving accountability and reconciliation. Several massacres were committed in places such as Atiak, Barlonyo, Mucwini, Lukodi, Omot, Bucoro, and Dziapi. People in northern Uganda therefore want perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations to be brought to book.

There is also need for the construction of proper memorials and monuments in areas where massacres occurred, to honour memories of people who died. At the moment, most of the memorials which exist are either dilapidated or vague concrete and wood structures that do not resonate with the magnitude of crimes committed in those areas. In many places where massacres occurred, memorials simply do not exist.

Furthermore, many people still want to understand the root causes of the conflict, and they believe that one of the best ways in which this can be attained is by establishing a national truth seeking process. Truth seeking among the war affected populations would also help in fostering reconciliation between victims and perpetrators.

Presently, many children who were abducted and forced to commit atrocities within the LRA ranks have returned and are living in the very communities in which they committed atrocities. This situation cannot be allowed to remain as it is.

In moving forward, national development programmes need to be specific in addressing regional imbalances and other specific needs created as a result of conflict. If we are talking about economic revitalisation and poverty eradication for example, would we address it in northern Uganda the same way we would address it in central Uganda? Would we pursue implementation of education programmes in Karamoja in the same way we would do it in Kampala? Would we make equal budgetary allocations for the construction of roads and other infrastructure for all the regions?

After several decades of conflict and instability, the different regions are at different levels of development and therefore require different remedies using different strategies. What do the different political parties intend to do in this regard if elected?

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