Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

North Uganda Disarmament Scheme Draws Blank

Security services draw criticism for failing to properly inform public of firearms collection programme.
By Gillian Lamunu, Bill Oketch, Arthur Okot
  • A member of the Ugandan military operation to track the LRA: the rebel group as well as the government’s own forces are the source of weapons still circulating in northern Uganda. (Photo: USARAF/Flickr)
    A member of the Ugandan military operation to track the LRA: the rebel group as well as the government’s own forces are the source of weapons still circulating in northern Uganda. (Photo: USARAF/Flickr)

After a firearms amnesty in northern Uganda failed to recover any weapons at all, experts criticised the ongoing disarmament programme for failing to engage effectively with the local population.

The scheme is the latest to be launched in northern Uganda since a 20-year conflict with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA ended in 2006. The conflict led to the death of more than 100,000 people while nearly two million were forced into displacement camps. Thousands of small arms, many of them formally used by the rebels, remain unaccounted for.

The failure of the month-long amnesty for handing in firearms, which covered all the districts that form the Acholi sub-region and ended in April, has been put down to a lack of trust in the Ugandan security services which ran the campaign, and to the failure to engage key figures in local communities.

“For now, we have not found that level of credibility [for the disarmament programme], so I am not very sure how many people will come forward,” Daniel Komakech, a peace and conflict analyst at Gulu University in the northern Acholi region, said.

“We need the elders, we need the religious leaders, we need the traditional leaders and even academia. The process of disarmament and reintegration [of former LRA members] must involve less of the security agents and more of the civil society – that is where the trust is.”

Since the LRA left Uganda in 2006, hundreds of former rebels have come out of the bush and have gone through a process of reintegration into society. There are suspicions that many never handed their weapons over to the Ugandan authorities. Weapons which government forces handed out so that civilians could defend themselves during the conflict have never been reclaimed, either.

The high rate of illicit possession means that guns are often used in armed robberies and other crimes, and when land disputes turn violent.

Martin Amoru, who is regional police commander for northern Uganda and is in charge of the disarmament programme, told IWPR why it continued to be needed.

“The region is coming out of rebellion, the kind of rebellion where guns were used and there was a lot of [arms] infiltration from different sources,” he said. “We found it necessary that there should be a mop-up.”

Lawyers in the north say that because the amnesty on firearms was initiated locally and not mandated by central government or parliament, it lacked credibility in the eyes of the public. Many people feared that if they handed in their weapons, there was no guarantee of immunity.

“There must be some assurance from the government [and] from the army that these people who surrender their firearms will not be prosecuted,” lawyer Paul Manzi said, adding that such schemes would not be effective “unless the government comes up with a general amnesty and says, ‘look guys, if you have firearms, a grenade or any other military ordinance, bring it forward and you will not be prosecuted.’”

People living in the Acholi sub-region have largely welcomed the disarmament programme as it could help cut the high rate of violent crime.

“When somebody has a gun illegally, he would be tempted to use it for robbing people,” said Fredrick Okecha, who lives in the village of Pabit East in the Nwoya district. “So it is really necessary that all these illegal guns should be taken back to the government.”

At the same time, Okecha criticised police who “don’t move into parishes and villages” to ensure that everyone was aware of the disarmament scheme and what it involved. Without more effective engagement, he doubts people will come to understand that possessing a firearm is illegal.

Manzi agreed, saying that people were likely to keep weapons concealed, and the authorities should “assure the general population that it is in their interest to bring out this illegal military equipment”.

Other commentators say that recovering lethal weapons is complicated by the wider challenges of poverty and underdevelopment affecting the north after years of war.

Kenneth Oketta, who heads the Acholi cultural institution Ker Kwaro Acholi, said many people had turned to crime as a major income source. Northern Uganda has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, and international aid agencies have departed since the majority of those displaced by the war returned to their homes.

“There is a big challenge. People have seen the gain they get from having a gun – though those gains are not legitimate,” he said.

In an unstable environment, few are likely to come forward with information about weapons held by others.

“It is a challenge for those community members to disclose that so-and-so has a gun – they also fear revenge,” Oketta said.

If disarmament is to be successful, experts argue that the process needs to start with building trust between communities, the security services and local leaders. Only then will strategies like offering amnesties work.

“It’s good to put pressure in terms of deadlines so as to yield results, but that alone is counterproductive [if] the trust is not yet built,” Aloysius Malagala, head of the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at Gulu University, said. “I think that is exemplified by [the amnesty], so that indicates that they need to have another approach.”

Malagala argues that the authorities should target people who used who feel they have no option but to hold and use guns, and try to offer them active employment and other alternatives.

“It’s not now only the role of the army and the police; it’s now the role of the government and the local leaders to make sure that people can be helped and [to] uplift the standard of living,” he said.

Although the amnesty is over, disarmament efforts are continuing. The Ugandan security agencies say they are now using their networks and local leaderships to identify those who possess illegal arms, and continuing to run public information campaigns about the dangers of doing so.

Police chief Amoru admitted that the disarmament plan could have been communicated to the Acholi people more effectively, but insisted it was making progress, with the support of community groups like local leaderships and religious groups.

“A system we are in now is a system in which we are actually building a lot of trust between the people and the police,” he said.

Gillian Lamunu, Bill Oketch and Arthur Okot are IWPR reporters in Gulu. They report for IWPR’s Facing Justice radio programme, which is broadcast across the region in partnership with the Northern Uganda Media Club. Moses Odokonyero, head of the Northern Uganda Media Club, and IWPR’s Africa Editor Simon Jennings also contributed to this report.