US forces are now engaged on yet another front, this time an unexpected one against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. This brings to seven the number of publically disclosed theatres where US forces wage war, six of which are against insurgents of various shapes. One hundred Special Forces troops, possibly the first of several waves, now serve as "trainers" in the central African nation. In this first article of a series on the topic, I review the historic context for the Uganda incursion.
Uganda is a landlocked and impoverished nation. However by African standards, it does relatively well. Due to its colonial heritage its army is one of the most structured and professional in Africa, though that isn’t saying much. However, military efficacy is not the only thing that a colonial heritage handed down to Uganda. Created by lines drawn across a map somewhere in Europe, Uganda suffers from having no common national heritage. Rather, it is home to a plurality of tribes which do not get along. The British amplified this problem by grooming bureaucrats and business elites from the South, and soldiers and workers from the north. Hence under London’s hand the South became rich, while the army became Northern.
Once Britain stepped out of Africa, Ugandans were left to their own devices, and it was not long before a perpetual cycle of civil war wrecked the country. The South would take power, only to face Northern guerrillas. Once they took power, Southern guerrillas would take to the bush. Idi Amin was a product of this equation, and a vicious example of how war is waged by Northerners. The current “president”, Museveni, has been in power since 1986, the latest guerrilla-come-head-of-state. He is from the South, and so a Northern guerrilla movement soon materialized. However this revolution failed to gain traction and changed leadership several times, only to fall in the current leader’s hands, one Joseph Kony.
As the Northern tribe (the Acholi) lost hope and faith in this new movement, now called the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony was forced to reinvent insurgency theory. While most movements count on the population for supplies, shelter and recruits, Kony took what he needed by force. The Lord’s Resistance Army became a self-sustaining bush army, only coming out of the jungle to ransack villages for goods and recruits. Kony will pillage everything in his path, leaving behind nothing but cinders and scars. He takes with him children of all ages, to train most boys as “soldiers” and most girls as “wives”. Those not worthy either end up as workers or worse – as fatal tests of the other children’s loyalty.
The government of Uganda is little better, utilizing this security threat as a pretext to tighten its grip on the afflicted north (see this site for one Acholi perspective). Civilians have been herded into “refugee camps” by the Ugandan forces, so as to “better protect them”. However, these civilians have not been given the choice, and now they are forced to abandon their ancestral lands, and all their worldly belongings, to go live in impoverished – and guarded – camps. There they exist (in contrast to living) at the mercy of South Ugandan and Western aid, and suffer massive abuses at the hands of Ugandan soldiers. All the while, their “unsafe” lands are being auctioned off by the government, perpetuating the crisis beyond this generation.
The world has looked on all the while, without giving much more than lip service to the Acholi's cause. They have stood on the sidelines for many reasons, chief of which is the absence of direct national interest for any would-be helpers. There are no ressources to secure in Uganda. There is no port of interest. There is absolutely nothing in this landlocked country which could have warranted a costly intervention. Hence pressure has been limited to the pearly halls of international justice, from where condemnation is throw at Joseph Kony in the form of an international warrant for his arrest. Ironically this only harms the peace process, as Kony now knows that he can forget about any peace deal involving amnesty for him and his top commanders.
For over twenty years this difficult conflict has raged as much in the souls of Ugandans as on their lands. Anyone under 30 in Uganda has known nothing but horror for as long as they can remember. It is in this context that President Obama has ordered forth the firm hand of US benevolence, as decades of diplomacy and legal pressure have yielded nothing but time for Kony’s bush army to perfect its craft.