REVIEW: Article

Sustaining Positive Momentum in Northern Uganda

Northern Uganda is beginning to emerge from one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts. Those of us fortunate enough to be serving in Uganda at this time are watching and participating in a dramatic transformation. One year ago, the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) began negotiations to end a 21-year old insurgency that saw the abduction of over 40,000 Ugandan children and the displacement of 1.8 million northerners. Today, 80 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are now accessing up to four acres of land near or in their home areas. The phenomenon of the “night commuters,” children who sought refuge in shelters to avoid abduction at night, has dwindled from 24,000 in 2005 to less than 2,700 in 2007. Those still seeking shelter do so for reasons other than fear of LRA abduction.

These trends are the result of the changed military situation on the ground. The Ugandan Peoples’ Defense Forces pushed the LRA out of northern Uganda and into Congo in 2005. Continued military pressure on the LRA persuaded its leadership to enter into negotiations with the Ugandan government beginning in July 2006. The Government of Southern Sudan is mediating the talks with assistance from the United Nations Special Envoy for LRA-Affected Areas, former Mozambican President Chissano, and a team of African observers. On August 26, 2006, the parties signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which has been renewed regularly since. Currently, the negotiators and the parties are working on a mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. Consultations with northern Ugandans are being conducted to bring them, as stakeholders, into the design of the justice, accountability and reconciliation processes that constitute the key to finalizing the process of peace.

Years of Conflict

Uganda has experienced conflict for most of its post-independence period. From the constitutional crisis of 1966 until the overthrow of the second Obote regime in 1985, northern-dominated regimes were seen as taking retribution against the southern parts of the country for the perceived imbalances of the colonial period. In the past two decades, Uganda has seen the emergence of over 20 armed movements. Every change of political regime in post-colonial Uganda has been accompanied by and accomplished through armed conflict, leaving deep scars of distrust and anger between different regional and ethnic groups and particularly between northern and southern/central parts of the country. This turbulent recent history as well as the fractured nature of society is brought to stark relief by the 20-year armed conflict with the LRA in northern Uganda. The LRA is derived from the anti-government movements that formed in the North after President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986 by overthrowing an Acholi-led military government. The roots of the conflict are political, social, economic and security-related. Since its inception, the Acholi spiritualist turned rebel Joseph Kony has been the leader of the LRA. Over time the LRA has become known worldwide for its shockingly brutal tactics and the perpetration of mass atrocities on civilians in the North more than for its political positions.

The northern conflict has centered on the ethnically Acholi districts of Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, with extension into some districts of the West Nile and the Lango and Teso tribal sub-regions. Between 1996 and 2006, an estimated 1.8 million northern Ugandans were uprooted by the war and forced into internally displaced persons camps. The war has caused significant setbacks in education, health care, food production, sanitation systems, infrastructure, local governance, democratic participation and other sectors fundamental to economic, political and social development. Insecurity in the region also has restricted access and capacity to provide basic protection for displaced and vulnerable populations. The North remains the poorest region in Uganda today, lagging behind on all socio-economic indicators. Given the historical North/South divide in the country, these consequences of war are particularly important to the ongoing dynamics of the conflict and the potential for peace in the region. Despite its geographic limits and the common myth that it is a ‘northern problem,’ the war in the North is not an Acholi war but rather a war that is, and has always been, connected with other dimensions of Ugandan politics and society. Moreover, the war has assumed important regional dimensions across the Sudanese and Congolese borders and beyond.

In October 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted the five top leaders of the LRA for war crimes and crimes against humanity. One has since died. Peace talks between the GOU and the LRA began in Juba, Sudan, in July 2006, and a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed one month later. Since then, there has been a steady improvement in security in northern Uganda as evidenced by a declining number of rebel attacks, abductions and “night commuters.” At the peak of the insurgency in 2003, the fear of abductions was so pervasive that nearly 40,000 child night commuters walked up to eight kilometers each evening to seek protection in the more secure town centers; by April 2007, that number had fallen to a few hundred. In the Lango and Teso tribal regions many IDPs have returned home while in Acholiland many have moved voluntarily from the camps to new intermediate sites closer to their places of origin.

Although there have been repeated episodes of both violence and hope over the years in northern Uganda, the current peace negotiations between the Government of Uganda and the LRA have inspired renewed hope that one of Africa’s longer and most brutal conflicts may finally end. However, if the talks in Juba fail, there will likely be a return to violence and the gains made over the past year in the North will be quickly reversed. Moreover, beyond a peace settlement between the GOU and the LRA, northern Uganda will still face many potential conflicts internal and external to the region. For that reason, the US government is taking comprehensive action now to address these vulnerabilities and to foster long-term stability in Uganda and the region.

Making Northern Uganda Safer, Freer and Better

The overall goal of US policy in Uganda is peace and stability in the country and the region. We seek to create a safer, freer and better living environment for millions of Ugandans through the development of partnerships in core areas of shared interest. Our peace and security agenda includes support for the negotiations and to the Ugandan security forces to keep northerners safe as they return near or to their homes and to deter a re-ignition of the war. Our development agenda centers on the provision of assistance to the victims of the conflict as their circumstances change from reliance on humanitarian aid to the need for economic recovery and development assistance. Our democracy and governance agenda is aimed at protecting human rights, reintegration of former combatants and abductees, re-establishing rule of law and a civilian judicial system, and providing capacity-building for local governments. All US government elements at the US Mission in Uganda are participating in one way or another to advance these agendas. The recent co-location of the US Agency for International Development onto the Chancery compound which houses the State Department and Defense Department contingents in Uganda has strengthened the Mission’s ability to implement US policy in a cohesive and effective manner that is responsive to realities on the ground. We have embraced the 3D concept—diplomacy, defense and development—with enthusiasm.

From Conflict to Peace Negotiations. We seek to ensure that changed circumstances on the ground in northern Uganda and the ongoing peace talks in Juba will continue to make it increasingly difficult for the parties to return to war. There have been many attempts to broker peace before. However, we believe that northern Uganda has become a safer place because there have been no LRA attacks in northern Uganda since August 2006 and no other peace process has reached the point of discussing accountability and reconciliation mechanisms. We are carefully watching for signs that the LRA leader-ship has decided what it wants for its future, which will be the key to finalizing a deal. We will continue, through regular contacts with the key players, financial and technical support for the consultation process, and continued assistance to the victims of the conflict, to facilitate a peaceful resolution that does not allow impunity and provides for accountability and reconciliation. 

From War Zone to Civilian Administration. Our military assistance has played an important role in creating an improved security situation and a freer environment for northern Ugandans. However, progress on this front exposed badly needed work on another: the repair of the social fabric of the north and re-establishment of a functioning judicial system to protect the rights of northern residents. The United States has been one of the largest supporters of reception and rehabilitation centers for ex-combatants and former abductees, including the promotion of reconciliation and reintegration of ex-combatants and abductees back into society. Other priorities include the strengthening of local governments and the re-establishment of a functioning judicial system to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, adjudicate land tenure issues, and foster confidence in local administrative structures. We are facilitating the deployment of trained civilian police to replace the military, which has been providing security in the north.

From Humanitarian Relief to Economic Recovery. USAID and the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Migration and Refugees are assisting returnees as they make the transition from camp life to life in or near their home areas. The most recent estimates from May 2007 indicate that in the Acholi sub-region 24 percent of the IDPs have left camps for sites closer to their land. Eighty percent of the IDPs are accessing up to four acres of land. Seventy-five percent of the IDPs in Lango have returned to their areas of origin. For many years, the United States has been the largest single contributor of humanitarian assistance in northern Uganda. In 2008, the US government will contribute over $100 million in food aid, water and sanitation projects, health care, education and agricultural and economic development programs for northern Uganda.

USAID opened an office in Gulu to better manage our assistance during the unfolding transition from relief to development. The US military, through our Defense Attaché’s Office and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, is working with its colleagues in the Ugandan military on construction projects, to improve roads, drill wells, and repair schools and outfit clinics. The generosity of the American people also is evident in northern Uganda through the high level of private contributions they give to support the work of countless nongovernmental organizations.

Challenges Ahead

We are constantly assessing factors that may alter the current dynamic, positively or negatively, and adjusting the implementation of our policies accordingly. On the positive side, we must be cognizant of the strong impact that good rains and bumper harvests could have in northern Uganda this fall, which will almost certainly encourage those IDPs that have not moved out of camps to do so for the next growing season. Increased returns could stretch thin government and donor resources and test our ability to provide basic services, including health care, clean water, sanitation, schools, and security to returnees. An associated problem is potential donor fatigue as humanitarian organizations struggle to continue services for the weak and vulnerable left behind in camps while meeting the needs of the returnees in their home areas.

Potential negative factors that we need to manage include setbacks at the talks and interference by external forces. To date, the Government of Southern Sudan mediator Reik Machar, UN Special Envoy Chissano, and the African observers from Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Mozambique have overcome obstacles such as per diem, venue, and other operational issues. We must continue to be available to assist them in keeping the talks moving toward a durable resolution. We need to be careful, however, that too much US involvement does not encourage negative behavior on the part of other regional actors that could scuttle the talks altogether.

A major uncertainty is how northerners will resettle given key changes in population demographics. Fifty-six percent of the camp population is under 15 and seventy percent of the population is under 25 years of age. Many northerners moved out of the north completely and settled in other districts rather than live in IDP camps. Local officials and land experts tell us that perhaps as many as one-third of the camp residents prefer town living and will choose to remain near town centers rather than return to rural, isolated farms. Yet another challenge will be positively supporting this accelerated process of urbanization though building viable communities.


The US government remains committed to supporting the current positive trends on the ground in northern Uganda and at the peace talks in Juba. This requires flexibility, constant analysis of ongoing events and a willingness to take action to keep the momentum going in a positive direction. If current trends continue, we expect northern Uganda to be a different place one year from now, one in which Americans can take pride because of our contributions to the peace process and improvement in the lives of returnees.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Uganda