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

Troubled Border Zone Awash With Arms

The sheer number of guns around contributes to continuing instability in the area where Uganda, Sudan and Congo meet.
By David Rupiny
The triangle of wild territory where the borders of Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo meet is officially at peace for the first time in more than two decades.

Three civil wars – between 1983 and 2005 in southern Sudan, in northern Uganda from 1986 until 2006, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, from 1997 to 2003 – have made this one of the most unstable regions in the world.

But the peace deals – whether permanent or interim arrangements - reached in all three countries are all fragile, and conditions on the ground can best be described as “violent peace” because of the vast numbers of small arms in circulation.

Arms have flooded into the region over the many years of conflict. Insurgent movements in Sudan, Uganda and DRC have often been supported by a neighbouring government, with arms sourced from suppliers in places as diverse as Albania, Israel, South Africa, Ukraine, Britain, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

No one knows how many small arms are illegally held by the various guerrilla groups, as well as by criminal gangs and ordinary civilians. Kalashnikov rifles can be easily picked up at markets in South Sudan for between 12 and 20 US dollars, or even exchanged for a chicken.

The Justice and Peace Commission run by the Roman Catholic diocese of Arua in the north-west of Uganda has launched a campaign against the proliferation of small arms and trafficking across the common borders of Uganda, DRC and Sudan.

“We know the dangers of guns, and there is no Ugandan, Sudanese nor Congolese who has not lost somebody to the gun,” said David Okello, who works for the Justice and Peace Commission in Arua. “The threat is real, although most people take it for granted. It’s like HIV/AIDS.”

In fact, according to United Nations statistics, small arms are the second-largest killer in Africa, causing more deaths than rampant tuberculosis - more than anything in fact, other than HIV/AIDS. They have been referred to as Africa’s own weapon of mass destruction because they are so cheap and so readily available.

“Many people underestimate the threats posed by illegal arms until they are directly affected,” said Okello. “Crime statistic for northwestern Uganda show that aggravated murders and robberies are common, and we are talking about recorded cases only. Many cases pass unrecorded.”

Arua, a town with a population of 30,000, is the main administrative centre of Uganda’s West Nile region. Its location in the far northwest corner of the country up, adjoining Sudan and DRC, has made West Nile home to a large refugee population from both those countries.

The West Nile region has seen dozens of crimes involving illegal small arms this year. There have been a series of incursions by criminal gangs from DRC, and two Ugandan soldiers were killed by unknown gunmen close to the border with Sudan.

But perhaps the most disturbing development was the discovery on September 21 of a large cache of light weapons and ammunition near Yumbe, in the far north of West Nile not far from the precise spot where the Uganda’s frontiers with DRC and Sudan converge.

Lieutenant Robert Kamara, regional spokesman for the Ugandan army, said the cache was found on the property of a former guerrilla from a rebel group that is supposed to be defunct, the Uganda National Rescue Front 2, UNRF 2.

The find included anti-tank missiles, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, machine guns, boots and uniforms. Most of the equipment had inscriptions in Arabic.

Lieutenant Kamara said the weapons were freshly cleaned, suggesting they were being prepared for action.

There have been many rumours that UNRF 2 and disgruntled former Ugandan army soldiers from West Nile are planning a new insurgency against the government in Kampala.

The Uganda National Rescue Front was originally formed to oppose Milton Obote during his second presidency in 1980-85, and consisted of supporters of his predecessor Idi Amin, who hailed from West Nile.

After Obote was toppled in July 1986, more than 1,000 UNRF fighters pledged loyalty to the new government of President Yoweri Museveni. The UNRF 2 was formed out of a dissident faction that did not make peace, and operated out of bases in southern Sudan, with support from Khartoum. In December 2002, UNRF 2 signed a formal ceasefire with the government in Yumbe.

Many former UNRF 2 members, most of them Muslims loyal to Amin, were reportedly angry because they felt Museveni’s government failed to honour pledges made as part of the ceasefire, including the payment of individual gratuities.

Since these boundaries between the three countries were drawn by colonial rulers, they cut across areas that have a lot in common. People of the Alur, Lendu, Lugbara and Kebu ethnic groups inhabit northeastern DRC as well as northwest Uganda, while the Aringa, Madi and Acholi live in both southern Sudan and Uganda, and there are Kakwa in all three regions. As well as these ethnic and cultural ties, the minimal border controls in this wild terrain make it easy to pursue a brisk trade in weapons from one country to the other.

Over the border from West Nile, the peace in South Sudan is equally tenuous, with many ambushes reported. While some of these incidents have been blamed on the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, for whose leaders the International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued arrest warrants on 33 charges of crimes against humanity, the devolved government of South Sudan believes other attacks are the work of criminal gangs taking advantage of the precarious political situation and the accessibility of weapons.

The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of guerrillas from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, has been painstakingly slow since the 2005 peace treaty ended the 22-year war of independence against the Arab-dominated central government in Khartoum and led to the formal recognition of southern Sudanese autonomy, with the SPLA’s political wing forming the regional government.

David Lokanga, district commissioner of South Sudan’s Yei River district, just across the border from West Nile, told IWPR of the struggle involved in repairing the fabric of a society damaged by war.

“We’ve embarked on a programme of civic education to try to help people with various backgrounds and cultures, some who have returned from the diaspora, on how to live in harmony.We are having to teach them how to relate and behave. For example, we have to explain to them how a government official, a soldier or a policeman is supposed to behave,” he said.

Because of the scale of suffering, the conflict in Congo has been widely described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. “Unlike that war, however, the primary tools of violent death in the DRC have been small arms and light weapons,” the aid group Oxfam said in a report entitled “Under Fire: The Human Cost of Small Arms in North-East Democratic Republic of Congo”.

The report said 50 or 60 per cent of the weapons used in DRC are Kalashnikovs manufactured in Russia or elsewhere, often taken from surplus stocks in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

“With the end of the Cold War, former Soviet republics, notably Ukraine, sold off their excess small and heavy weaponry for hard currency. Such deals were usually facilitated by arms dealers, with their complex networks of companies operating out of different countries,” said the Oxfam report.

Other rifles are believed to have come from Germany, France, Britain, South Africa and other countries, with Uzi submachine guns made in Israel or copied by other manufacturers adding to the mix.

In much of northern Uganda and northwestern DRC, the long process of disarming paramilitary groups and reintegrating their members into civilian life has yet to begin.

When the process begins in Uganda, said Okello, “there will be a need to focus on small arms that have affected everyone and on communities, particularly children and women who have been the most vulnerable to violence”.

The peace process in northern Uganda, which began in July 2006 with a ceasefire between the LRA and the government, is currently stalled. With a number of unresolved disputes at the negotiations in Juba, the South Sudan capital, there are still fears of a return to war.

If and when a final peace settlement does come, Okello said, there will still be huge issues to be tackled, one of them the proliferation of small arms.

David Rupiny is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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