African Arguments by Michael Deibert

Recently, a new video produced by the American NGO Invisible Children focusing on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been making the rounds. Having just returnedfrom the Acholi region of Northern  Uganda myself, where the LRA was born, I thought I might share some of my thoughts on the subject, for what they’re worth.

I think it is easy for Invisible Children and other self-aggrandizing foreigners to make the entire story of the last 30 years of Northern Uganda about Joseph Kony, but there is a history of the relationship between the Acholi people from whom the LRA emerged and the central government in Kampala that is a little more complicated than that.

Kony is a grotesque war criminal, to be sure, but the Ugandan government currently in power also came to power through the use of kadogo (child soldiers) and fought alongside militias employing child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, something that Invisible Children seem wilfully ignorant of.

The conflict in Acholi — the ancestral homeland of the ethnic group who stretch across northern Uganda and southern Sudan – has its roots in Uganda’s history of dictatorship and political turmoil. A large number of soldiers serving in the government of dictator Milton Obote (who ruled Uganda from April 1965-January 1971 and then again from December 1980-July 1985) came from across northern Uganda, with the Acholis being particularly well represented, even though Obote himself hailed from the Lango ethnic group. When Obote was overthrown by his own military commanders, an ethnic Acholi, General Tito Okello, became president for six chaotic months until Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army took over. Museveni became president, and has since remained so, via elections — some legitimate, some deeply flawed.

Upon taking power, the Museveni government launched a brutal search and destroy mission against former government soldiers throughout the north, which swept up many ordinary Acholi in its wake. Some Acholi began mobilizing to defend themselves, first under the banner of the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (largely made up of former soldiers) and then the Holy Spirit Movement.

This movement, directed by Alice Auma, an Acholi who claimed to be acting on guidance from the spirit Lakwena, brought a mystical belief in their own invincibility that the soldiers of the Kampala-based government at first found terrifying: Holy Spirit Movement devotees walked headlong into blazing gunfire singing songs and holding stones they believed would turn into grenades. The movement succeeded in reaching Jinja, just 80km from the capital Kampala, before being decimated by Museveni’s forces.

Out of this slaughter was born the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, a distant relative of Alice Auma. Kony added an additional element of targeting civilian Acholi to his schismatic blend of Christianity, frequently kidnapping children and adolescents to serve in his rebel movement. The Museveni government responded by viewing all Acholi as potential collaborators, rounding them up into camps euphemistically called “protected villages”, where they were vulnerable to disease and social ills, and had few ways to carry on their traditional farming.  Read more…