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Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

Back stabbing. Character assassinations. Plots to undermine fellow elected politicians or fellow civil servants. And, crucially, thinking 20 steps ahead. These are the ingredients of Apac Politics. This district in Uganda, where 0.2 per cent of the households have access to electricity and 0.1 per cent of the adult population holds a diploma or a degree, provides ample study for a contemporary Macchiavelli, while Kasparov could learn a thing or two from those at the epicentre of the eternal conflicts.

The district council is comprised of councillors from (the governing) NRM party and, overwhelmingly, (the opposition party) UPC. (Some say this explains the total lack of interest in the district by the central government.) The executive committee is headed by District Chairman, Hon. Nicholas Opio Bunga, a retired teacher. He selected his fellow resident of Inomo sub-division as his Vice-Chairman. His council includes two councillors who have stood out in the past year: Apac’s very own ‘Jack the Zipper’, Hon. Malakwang, who attacked two women with a scissor for wearing trousers (see previous blog posts), and the councillor for Ibuje, who smashed the glass front of the district notice board because his private construction firm failed to secure a public contract. Neither culprit was disciplined by the Hon. Chairman, ‘father of the district’. These are the least of the council’s antics.

A month ago, staff at Apac Hospital went on strike. Peaceful collective action in Uganda is rarer than Hummers on the streets of Kampala, so eyebrows were raised. Doctors, nurses and assistants protested the ‘disappearance’ of their 30 per cent salary top-up, paid by the WHO, and designed to combat the rampant desertion of essential health workers from northern Uganda. According to the council executive, the money had appeared on an account, but nobody had ‘remembered’ what the money was for, and so had been ‘disappeared’. (The district receives 27 billion shillings annually from the central government, and so should be used to keeping track of bank statements…). It is widely believed – and not disproved – that the money was ‘eaten’, ‘privatised’. Neither the Chief Finance Officer, nor the Secretary for Finance or the Chairman offered to explain the matter. Nobody offered to pay back. In the end, the top-ups were partly paid.

Who checks the checkers? The powers and excesses of the district civil service are, in theory, checked by the council. But what happens when councillors have an interest in not checking key civil servants? The answer, according to the democracy school, is for the population to register their dismay through the ballot or by revoking the powers of their representatives. Both are provided for in the Ugandan constitution. But before the population can act, they need to know about the abuses of power. In this sense, knowledge is power. The police and the inspectorate of government can of course investigate on the basis of suspicion, but rarely do; the radio can broadcast any events and discoveries, but is owned by a sub-county politician; and the civil society can demand for accountability. All these actors are either under-capacitated or compromised, and often both.

The Chief Finance Officer answers to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), the head of the district civil service. But in a coincidence of perfect timing, Apac has been without a CAO for the past months. The Deputy CAO – upon the refusal by the CAO of another district (Kotido district) to accept his transfer to Apac! – was appointed as Acting CAO by the Ministry of Local Government. But the executive committee of the council wrote to the Ministry to oppose this appointment and the Ministry has hesitated to identify the head of the civil service, the implementing arm of the local government.

In Uganda, every district has a Resident District Commissioner, whose responsibility is to monitor the implementation of central and local government services. In Apac, the RDC had to step in to sort out the hospital crisis. As he reports directly to the President of the country, and in the absence of an angry electorate, he was one of the only people with sufficient powers to put pressure on the council and the civil service to find the missing resources so the hospital could call off the strike.

In this patriarchal and old-fashioned society, the scapegoat of the hospital strike has been a young doctor, one of only two doctors (the hospital is nominated to have seven). Since the collective action took place, he has been at the receiving end of intimidation and character assassination. Perhaps the voters will register their disappointment with the district leaders. Until then, old men in positions of power and authority have a great time doing entirely as they please.

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Apparently – and this is difficult to understand – the warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel movement which is killing thousands of civillians in the DR Congo and South Sudan and have turned his war against President Museveni into a regional conflict, has a son… called George Bush! Perhaps Kony named his offspring in honour of a fellow strongman whose name he heard all the time on his satellite radio in Garamba Forest. Or, he felt inspired by the fact that his rebel army was listed on the list of terrorist movements globally, which George W. Bush initiated. Or, he shares the Acholi love for grand history-making names, as described below. Or? You tell me.

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The Juba Peace Talks look unmistakenly failed. The past 20 days the government has renewed its military offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army, together – it claims – with the Congolese and South Sudanese military. According to the government, the attacks were aimed at forcing Kony back to the negotiating table, after having failed to sign the peace agreement five times. Well, Operation Lightening Thunder did not compel Kony back to the Peace Talks; I am not sure anyone believed they ever would.

The UPDF, the national army, have hit various LRA camps in the heavily forested Garamba National Park in north eastern DR Congo, but somehow Joseph Kony and his fellow insurgents seem to leave these camps in good time. Rather than divine intervention, it is, of course, likely that the LRA is assisted by a source of insider information about any forthcoming attacks. The UPDF says today that they have killed 13 insurgents in total. The media has not been allowed access to the sites, so there has been no independent verification of events.

Independently verified has, however, been LRA’s retaliatory attacks on civilians. Which is probably the most worrying aspect of the renewed war between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The latter has attacked a number of villages in South Sudan, DR Congo and in the area bordering the Central African Republic; last week 45 people were massacred in a church 10 kms from the town of Doruma in DRC.

It is difficult to get a clear overview of the figures involved. Aid agencies estimate that over 400 civilians have been killed, Caritas quotes a figure of 486. The tabloid paper The Red Pepper reported that 65,000 people have been internally displaced since the attacks began almost three weeks ago.

On Friday morning they attacked trucks in Tori and Yei, South Sudan; and Friday night they were back in the forest, attacking the chief station of the Garamba park rangers. The Red Pepper claimed to know that they were heading south towards Uganda.

People in Apac remember the fact that the LRA, after the government’s Operation Iron Fist against its bases in Sudan in 2002, re-invaded parts of Northern Uganda and came as far south as Lira, Apac and Soroti! Their reach of these districts signalled their strength: Lira, Apac and Soroti are hundreds of kilometres from the Sudanese border; the most southers of these three districts, Apac is situated almost in the middle of Uganda!

If they could do that in 2002, the question remains, will they be able to again? Access to information – independently verified – seems as important as ever: In this region, where governments certainly appear to be unable to protect their own citizens, information is the most important means of protection.

The fact that part of the LRA consists of abductees makes the issue exceedingly complex. Over the past two decades, the Ugandan and South Sudanese governments failed to protect their villages and to prevent the abduction of children and young people; now these same governments want to kill the LRA insurgents, including the victims-turned-soldiers whose abduction they failed to prevent in the first place. But if they do not attack – and eradicate – the LRA, the government claims, there never will be peace in Northern Uganda.

Right now, people who happen to live at the intersection of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and north eastern DR Congo seem to be most at risk. It is a tragedy that these are three failed states. Although the prolonged existence of the LRA has always has regional aspects – funded by Sudan to destabilise Uganda – it now has become a regional destabilising force as it finds its victims at the margins of three – or four?- basket cases of African Governance.

Only the gods will know what 2009 has in store for this region…

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Close-up of ‘namueso’ board gameAs discussed below, deputy leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Vincent Otti is under house arrest by the leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony. Maybe he has been killed, maybe he is still alive. Few people know. Speculation is rife.

Both Kony and his deputy are responsible for the death, abduction, maiming, rape and/or displacement of thousands of Acholi, Langi and Iteso, in its war with the Ugandan government. It was therefore interesting to observe that the Ugandan president, Museveni, pleaded with Kony to spare Otti’s life.

What could be Museveni’s strategy for this surprising involvement? Could he be attempting to win over the sympathies of the northern populations, being under intense international pressure to end the war in the north, or did he want to score some brownie points from Commonwealth leaders for upholding the rule of law? Perhaps the plea was a ploy to exacerbate the rift between the Otti-camp and the Kony-camp within the LRA, weakening the movement in the peace negotiations, or, alternatively, Museveni could be trying to show that he is not the one trying to ruin the peace process. A different strand of reasoning suggests that Museveni could be trying to prevent a new source of instability in the north, a clan conflict caused by Otti’s people turning against Kony’s people.

Joining the president, two men of the Bible have recently pleaded for Otti’s freedom. Archbishop Paul Bakyenga of Mbarara Arch Diocese said that “Imprisoning someone who is working for peace is like imprisoning peace.” Puzzling words. Is Otti the Peace Bringer? Or perhaps the archbishop intends to use the metaphor of peace in an effort to continue the momentum of the peace talks, rather than excuse the strategist behind the attacks and massacres since he joined the LRA at 41 at its inception.

If so, Bekyenga’s plea was in line with that of his colleague, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu Archdiocese, who said: “I call upon Kony to reconcile with his deputy to make sure efforts of peace go ahead. Kony should give [him] a second chance. Every human problem can be solved. Let the two talk.” The clergy could be pursuing a strategy of peace or a display of Christian forgiveness.

Less forgiving and more morally driven, some public figures could not care less about the likelihood of Otti’s survical. Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in today’s Daily Monitor: “To allow ourselves to even regret the fact that Kony might have killed Otti in a power struggle, would be to allow him to also steal the compassion that morally belongs to the victims.”

But perhaps the president and the bishops know something that Onyango-Obbo does not. One theory behind the ‘arrest’ of Otti and three others (one of whom escaped) is that one of them leaked the secret that the food aid supplied to the LRA under the cessation of hostilities agreement (by an international relief agency) was sold to the government in Khartoum in exchange for arms. This means that the LRA is not intending to end the war. But if the peace talks are abandoned, the LRA will lose a considerable source of income. A current 26-day LRA consultation tour of the north – where the peace team seeks the views on justice and reconciliation – is for instance costing US$ 400,000. Earlier this year the LRA requested US$ 2,000,000 for various activities, including visits to South Africa, Sierra Leone and Argentina to learn about post-conflict justice and reconciliation; in the end they had to settle for less.

Unpacking the real meaning behind the different discourses on Otti’s fate begins to appear more like a mission for a military strategist than an anthropologist or political analyst.

Close-up of the ‘namueso’ board game

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