The massive spotlight the Kony 2012 campaign shines on LRA atrocities leaves indications of the Ugandan army’s crimes in the shadow. Some locals are asking a logical question. If Kony goes to the International Criminal Court, what about President Museveni?
By Arne Doornebal, Kampala
Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are ultimately a pawn in the game of power between Uganda’s northerners and southerners. The Kony 2012 film portrays the LRA as it is widely known: slicing off the ears of people who don’t listen, swiping away the lips of those who can’t keep quiet. Director Jason Russell tells his five-year-old son in the documentary – and, through him, the over one hundred million viewers who have so far watched it – “Can I tell you the bad guy’s name? This is the guy: Joseph Kony.”
But many in northern Uganda hold a different view. Various researchers believe the warring parties have both committed crimes.
History of the conflict
“This conflict is too complex to describe it as a ‘good guy’-versus-‘bad guy’ story,” says Chris Dolan, who wrote his PhD dissertation on Northern Uganda and now heads the Refugee Law Project, a research institute at Makerere University.
Kony originates from the Acholi, the largest tribe in northern Uganda. During colonial rule, the British considered them and other Nilotes great warriors, worthy of being brought into the army in large numbers.
After Uganda gained independence, 50 years ago, power shifted back and forth between northerners and southerners. Each transition brought bloodshed. Certain periods saw the Acholi flourish. Others, like the 1970s under Idi Amin, resulted in their murder. In 1986, following a five-year war against an Acholi-dominated national army, a young Yoweri Museveni and his rebel National Resistance Army (NRA) fought their way to rule.
Forced into camps
Visitors to Uganda in the early 2000s would find large camps in the north of the country. These were places for IDPS, internally displaced persons, who were running from Kony. “But in fact it was the Ugandan army forcing the people into those camps,” says Dolan.
After Museveni’s takeover, several rebel movements sprang up in the north. One of them became Kony’s LRA.
In 1996, the war intensified. Forced displacement began. “People were often given a 24-hour notice to leave their homes. When they were not quick enough, they were shelled,” says Dolan. “People were literally bombed into the camps. Sometimes the army started bombing before their own deadline had expired.”
“They even used the air force,” says Acholi journalist Sam Lawino about the displacement in his home region of northern Uganda. “The Ugandan President should face international justice for those crimes.”
Though the government ordered people to enter for their own protection, “the camps were poorly protected,” Dolan points out. “The army was based in the middle. Several times the rebels attacked the outer rings of the camps, killed and abducted people and got away with it.”
IDP camps were overcrowded, unhealthy. “These were in fact concentration camps,” wrote Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda in ‘The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality’, the 2010 book in which various journalists and scholars analyze the LRA. World Health Organization research from 2005 shows over a thousand people died every week in the camps due to poor living conditions. Yet, according to Mwenda: “The rebels did not have the capacity, let alone the will, to kill 1,000 people per week.”
Profiting from war
How could the conflict go on for so long?
“The war has continuously presented opportunities which Museveni and his military have exploited to their advantage,” Mwenda wrote in the aforementioned book.
Like many people in Uganda, Dolan is convinced Uganda lacks the determination to capture Kony. “An American military advisor told me in the late ’90s that they had offered to take out Kony. But Uganda refused.”
A planned genocide?
Acholi politicians have often argued that it isn’t right for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Kony and his top commanders, while letting the Ugandan army walk free. One of them is Olara Otunnu, who actually gave a dossier about the conflict in the north to ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo when he visited Uganda in 2010. Otunnu claims a genocide was planned by the government against the people of northern Uganda, something strongly denied by the state.
“The majority of the crimes committed by the Ugandan army happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” explains Dolan.
The Refugee Law Project found witnesses of crimes willing to speak on camera. “We found that gang rapes of Acholi men have been committed by the Ugandan army. Those were not individual acts. The victims said they were allocated to certain men, meaning it was planned. The men who refused to be raped were shot.”
According to Lawino: “If Kony goes to the ICC, then also Museveni should go.”