Archive for the ‘Politics’ 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.

Read Full Post »

Ugandans have an affinity for grand names, whether of the famous or the infamous kind. High-profile members of the public are Livingstone Okello Okello, a Member of Parliament (Chua County/Kitgum District), Chairman Mao, the chairperson of Gulu District, Ethan Musolini, a motivational speaker and CEO of Success Africa, and Ronald Reagan Ukumo, also Member of Parliament (Aswa County/Gulu District). Imagine that Mao has a meeting with Reagan and Livingstone in Parliament, it must happen quite often as they are all three Acholi political leaders, Mao at the district level and Reagan and Livingstone at the national levels. Or that Musolini gives business tips to Mao…!

We are sure to see a lot of Barack and Michelle coming up soon. The other day I met a man, who had just become a father for the first time. His daughter was to be Sasha, after Obama’s second-born.

Other things are already named Obama. Across the country there are numerous Obama Supermarkets and Obama Hotels. And Apac has its own Obama Mudslide on the daily Apac-Kampala bus:

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

Read Full Post »

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…

Read Full Post »

In Apac and with few exceptions, male surnames begin with O and those of females begin with A. The names are Luo. The word, Lwo, has entered the vocabulary of many non-Africans in 2008. The year began with ‘ethnic riots’ between the Luo and the Kikuyu of Kenya, and ended with a certain Barack Obama, partly of Lwo lineage, winning the US elections.

In the immigrant country of the USA, it is virtually impossible to judging a person based on her surname. Is a Rice white or black, poor or rich? But in Uganda, the ethnic make-up of somebody is instantly determined on the basis of his surname: Anyone with an O-name is from a northern tribe, those with K-names are likely to be Baganda, and those with M, N, T-names are probably from western Uganda. The political history of colonial and post-colonial Uganda has contributed to the charged nature of surnames beginning with O, Luo names.

The British recruited Luos and other northern tribes into the army, and favoured the southern tribes with the education system and the civil service. The country’s first president (1966-70), Milton Obote, was a Langi from Apac, whose politics alienated many non-Luo people, particularly the Baganda. When Idi Amin took control of the state (1971-79), he eliminated many Luos in the army, to prevent a come-back for Obote. Obote did come back (1980-85), but was toppled by Tito Okello, who lost (or ceded, depending on your persuasion) power to Yoweri Museveni who remains president to this day. His rule has been challenged twice in insurgencies by Luo militants, led by Alice ‘Lakwena’ Auma and Joseph Kony. The willingness of Luos of different tribes to mobilise behind Obote, Okello, Auma and Kony has given rise to the perception that these tribes are inherently militaristic, easy to mobilise, fearless, strong and – dangerous…

The New Vision newspaper reported today that Ugandan MPs had celebrated the election of Obama: “Conspicuously, names of most MPs in attendance, started with the letter O. From opposition leader Ogenga Latigo, [to] Odonga Otto, Okupa Alijah, Otafiire Kahinda, they were all there. Others adopted the letter O, to suit the occasion. Deputy speaker Rebecca Kadaga became ‘O’daga, Igeme Nabeeta became ‘O’beta.”

It appears that there is such thing as the ‘Lwo factor’ in Ugandan politics; and in the political sphere, perceptions matter. Here in Apac, many feel that the national army could have eliminated the Lords’ Resistance Army if it had wanted to; and furthermore that it served the government to keep the Luo in check by its ‘own’ insurgency. (The counter-claim is that the LRA received financial support from Luo abroad.) Exiled Lwo Olara Otunno claimed in 2006 that the IDP camps in northern Uganda were so badly protected and serviced, that they aimed to eliminate the 1.5 million camp dwellers. President Museveni was among the first three heads of state to congratulate Mwai Kibaki upon winning the (disputed) Kenyan elections, defeating the Lwo opponent, Raila Odinga. And when the media earlier this year focused on the regional distribution of high-level state jobs, it emerged that ‘northerners’ occupy seven per cent of positions of power in the state despite constituting 19 per cent of the population of Uganda.

This narrative of deliberate marginalisation or silent persecution is alive today, in the north. Such feelings are often felt most strongly, and articulated most frequently, by those in the diaspora. Yesterday, a letter from Canada to the editor of New Vision, thus argued that “Over the years if you were of Luo background in Uganda and Kenya you were likely to face this silent hatred, cynicism and even ridicule because of your Luoness. After the overthrow of Obote I, some people had to change their Luo names to make them look non-Luo. For example from Okobel the name was changed to Kobel to remove the ‘O’ to protect such a person from easy identification… In East Africa, the election of Barack Obama brings home a revolution to not only all citizens, but particularly to those who are Luo who had felt despised for no apparent reason, except that they are Luo. Barack Obama’s election should be significant and therapeutic to all, especially the Luo in Uganda and Kenya who had been suffering from the trauma of being invisible and isolated.”

Obama’s ascendancy brings hope, to some, of a Luo revival. While the election of Obama was made possible by a sense of nationhood in the US, in East Africa the event is interpreted through the lens of ethnic or tribal differences.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

The big question right now here in northern Uganda is whether Vicent Otti, the second-in-command of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is dead or alive. Nobody has heard from him for about a month and there is speculation, based on an interview with recent LRA deserter and former top commander, Opio Makasi, that Otti was ‘arrested’ by Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel army. It is likely, people find, that he is dead.

In an interview with the government-backed New Vision newspaper, Makasi tells the story of how he was tipped off that Kony wanted to arrest him, Otti and another commander, after which Makasi fled and walked through the Congolese jungle for five days. The government would however have an interest in giving the impression that the LRA is split; it strengthens its own position in the peace talks and depicts the LRA as weakened.

The worrying fact is that Otti was involved in the peace process. It was Otti who, on behalf of his commander, declared a ceasefire with the Ugandan army in August 2006. Does his arrest mean that Kony is trying to stop the peace process? There is currently an LRA peace team in Kampala, negotiating with the government; but are they in direct contact with Kony who is currently thought to be in Congo’s Garamba Forest? According to them, they are. But according to Opio’s interview in the newspaper, the LRA peace team is “just a mouth piece” and Kony is not interested in peace.

Apparently Joseph Kony last week spoke to the district chairman of Gulu district, Norbert Mao, via satellite phone. Kony said that he had expelled five commanders, including Makasi, accusing them of plotting to kill him. He also told ‘Chairman Mao’ that Otti was under arrest.

Read Full Post »

Arriving early last week at the ferry port at Kungu, which takes people across the Nile and into the neighbouring Masindi district, you would have been met with an account of armed robbery. When your correspondent arrived at the ferry on Tuesday morning one week ago, she was told about a robbery which took place the previous night, around 6 pm. Ten men armed with pistols and AK-47 riffles staged an ambush on local traders, robbing them of cash, mobile phones and other personal belongings. In the hour between 6 and 7 pm, Apac experiences the magical shift from daylight to twilight, before the sun sets around 7.15 pm; the robbery thereby happened while it was still light. Armed robberies are not common in Apac, and the first thought that came to mind was whether the gunmen could have been former rebel soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Indeed they were. The former director of operations in the LRA, Onen Kamudulu, who surrendered in 2004 (some say 2005), was arrested together with his accomplishes, according to the police spokesman (New Vision, 26 October). Onen was arrested from his hideout in Maruzi farm, together with nine others, one of whom fled; the police found 180 rounds of ammunition, a pistol and four motorcycles. They are now awaiting their trials in court.

There are two interesting dimensions to this incident. Firstly, Onen was enrolled into an adult literacy education programme and was said to be in form five. This suggests that he either was abducted to join the LRA when he was still a young boy or that he was never sent to school and joined as an adult, with the former scenario most likely. The enrolment must have been a strategy, either by himself or by others, to reintegrate him into society; but reintegration is unlikely as he probably will be imprisoned following the robbery.

The second interesting feature, and one that illustrates the complexity of this conflict, is the fact that the police had provided Onen with a pistol “for self protection”. The former insurgent, who was a notorious killer when in the LRA, was given a gun by the state over fears that former victims of the LRA insurgency would launch revenge attacks on the surrendered commander. The idea of revenge attacks – or ‘mob justice’ – flies in the face of the definition of the modern state as that with a monopoly of violence. When citizens attack former LRA insurgents, and this has happened, they either do not believe in the impartiality or effectiveness of the police or they find the granting of amnesty to former rebels unjust.

Still on the nature of the Ugandan state, and here it becomes very complicated, it is most fascinating that Onen Kamudulu appeared as a ‘state witness’ in a court case against opposition leader, Kizza Besigye. Besigye and 22 others were last year accused of treason, allegedly conspiring with the LRA and other groups to topple President Museveni’s government. The case was seen as highly politically motivated as the opposition leader stood for the presidency against Museveni in last year’s presidential elections. The defence team objected so strongly to the witness statements of Onen that the deputy director of public prosecutions was thrown off-balance and applied for an adjournment. The trial was resumed in June this year. But to use Onen Kamdulu as a state witness might be one stretch too far, as the absence of a response from the prosecutor indicates.

The robbery, if indeed conducted by the former LRA soldier(s), illustrates the risk that the peace – if not managed and resourced properly – could lead to increased insecurity in northern Uganda. Support to former rebels and wider community development is important in order build a lasting peace.

Read Full Post »

Northern Uganda was for 21 years the scene of a bloody insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA fought the government but its victims were civilians in the Acholi, Langi and Teso regions.

Adults and children were massacred, abducted and trained as soldiers or given as wives to soldiers, forced to kill their relatives or be killed themselves, or had their lips or limps cut off. The national army failed to protect its citizens, it even failed the 1.5 million people who lived in camps for internally displaced people. Sometimes the national army directly committed atrocities. Mortality was extremely high due to the living conditions at the camps; outside the camps agriculture was too dangerous a pursuit.

Day of the African Child, June 2007After several half-hearted attempts, the government and the LRA initiated a new round of peace talks over a year ago. In June the two parties signed the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation. The aspects of accountability and reconciliation are the most critical issues pertaining to the rehabilitation of the entire region. They are also the most difficult as there are no easy dichotomies in this war: countless atrocities were committed by both the LRA and the Ugandan army, and abducted children (i.e. victims) became LRA soldiers (i.e. perpetrators) who targeted their own communities.

Complicating the prospects for peace enormously, however, was the sudden involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005. The ICC issued arrest warrants for five LRA top commanders to be tried for crimes against humanity and war crimes. But to the great surprise of the ICC and ‘the international community’ was the absence of a whole-hearted endorsement of the ICC by the communities which have suffered most in this conflict.

At the heart of this complex situation here in the north are questions of justice and healing: Is punishment the only form of justice? Will punishment bring healing to the communities? Is forgiveness a possible or realistic alternative to punishment? Are local notions of justice compatible with international law?

The Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation is currently subject to a consultation by the affected communities. Below are the (edited) viewpoints of 45 representatives of civil society organisations in Apac. (more…)

Read Full Post »