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

Uganda Rejects Blame for Atrocities in LRA War

Minister condemns allegations that government troops as well as rebels are culpable for violence in northern Uganda’s bitter conflict.
By Samuel Okiror
The Ugandan government has strongly criticised a United Nations report that quotes civilians in the north of the country as blaming the army as well as rebel forces for causing casualties in the long-running conflict that has devastated their homeland.

The UN report issued on August 14, which gathered the views of 1,725 northerners, showed that many felt that not just Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, leader Joseph Kony, but also President Yoweri Museveni, were responsible for the war. Many of those interviewed said atrocities were committed by both rebels and army troops.

"I can't waste my time commenting on such an empty report. The report is empty and baseless," Ruth Nankabirwa, Uganda's state minister for defence, told IWPR in a phone interview.

"My government has not committed any crimes in the north. How then can that report compare atrocities committed by LRA to my government? It's the LRA who are responsible for atrocities in the region."

The conflict between the Ugandan government and the LRA, which began in 1986, has devastated the country's north, leaving over 1.7 million people displaced, an estimated 100,000 dead and 75,000 others abducted by rebels.

In July 2005, the Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, issued arrests warrants for Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and top commanders, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Lukwiya has since been killed. The remaining four face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, pillaging and enlisting of children.

No arrest warrants have been released against Ugandan army troops thus far.

The UN study - called “Making Peace Our Own: Victims' Perceptions of Accountability, Reconciliation and Transitional Justice in Northern Uganda” – is based on a survey conducted between January and June in the Acholi, Lango and Teso areas in order to canvass northerners’ views of the conflict.

Investigators spoke to relatives of people killed and injured in the conflict, to victims of the LRA practice of abducting civilians, and to refugees, community leaders and members of victim-support and community-based organisations.

An "overwhelming number" of respondents in the 74-page study from the UN Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, blamed both Kony and Museveni for the conflict, and many said they believed that government troops as well as rebel guerrillas were responsible for atrocities committed against the local population.

"There are two bad people in the war, Museveni and Kony. These two people are responsible for the harms and sufferings of the people in northern Uganda," said one relative of a murder victim in Gulu district.

The report said that while there was no universal "northern Ugandan view" of who was to blame for harm done to victims, certain trends were apparent.

"Most notably, this research study shows that the population broadly believes that both the LRA and the [Ugandan] Government – and specifically their leaders – should be held accountable for the harms they have caused during the conflict," it said.

One relative of victims from Amuru district in the Acholi region, said that both Kony and Museveni were to blame, albeit in different ways, "For instance, Kony was himself physically involved in causing harm, but Museveni causes harm through his soldiers."

Victims interviewed for the report said that they had suffered at the hands of both rebels and government troops.

"Because of the rebels, we have suffered killings, abduction and looting, but the UPDF [Uganda Peoples Defence Force; the army] has also done the same," said one grassroots leader in Amuru district.

"It is hard to differentiate since all of them put on uniforms – both the LRA and the UPDF. I think all of them commit atrocities," said another victim from Gulu district.

Some singled out Museveni for particular blame, as they feel he failed to stop the war.

According to a relative of another person killed in Gulu, "There is no way you can say that only Kony is accountable for the different harms and crimes committed here. Both Kony and Museveni are accountable. Museveni as the president of Uganda failed to stop the LRA war. He has failed to come into an agreement with Kony."

An Acholi victim of the conflict also criticised Museveni, saying, "He has turned the LRA war into a business where he uses it as a tool for lobbying and advocacy for continued funding from the outside world."

But many others interviewed said Kony and the LRA were much more to blame for the violence and disruption caused during the conflict.

"Kony should be held most accountable, because he entered the bush and abducted children, killed and maimed people, looted people's property, brought poverty and famine and confined people in camps," said a member of a community-based organisation in the Teso region's Amuria district.

One woman from a community group in the Pader district in the Acholi region said, "For me, what makes Kony more accountable than others is his resistance to the peace talks and reconciliation despite the efforts by different people and institutions."

In addition to the LRA and the Ugandan army, many people held national politicians and the international community responsible for atrocities committed for having remained silent over the conflict for so long.

Some victims also blamed people from the Acholi ethnic group living abroad for fuelling the rebellion by giving assistance to LRA rebels.

"They are keeping the war going by helping Kony and his groups. This is the reason why the war is not ending," said a community leader in Amuru in the Acholi region.

James Otto, the director of Human Rights Focus, which has been documenting human rights abuses in the Acholi region, said: "the truth is both UPDF and LRA committed atrocities in the north. However, the LRA committed more."

"The UPDF has also featured in various reports like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Uganda Human Rights Commission as being involved in various human rights abuses and atrocities in the region," he told IWPR.

Some Acholi members of parliament are currently documenting alleged atrocities committed by both LRA and government troops. Acholi parliamentary group vice chairman Reagan Okumu told IWPR that the group was finalising a list of atrocities.

"We have been compiling a list of all atrocities committed by both LRA rebels and government soldiers in the Acholi region since 1986 to date. We had two parallel groups. One was compiling and documenting all the atrocities committed by the LRA. The other was compiling atrocities committed by UPDF," Okumu told IWPR.

"The atrocities included individual [and] mass killings, abduction, bombings, rape and many others."

Ugandan army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye was angered that people interviewed for the report said the army and rebels were both responsible for harm done to victims.

"It's not only unfair for anyone to equate the atrocities committed by LRA to UPDF…. It's erroneous as it borders on criminality,” he said. “Anybody who wants to put us in the same boat with the atrocities committed by LRA is an apologist of Kony and LRA rebels."

Kulayigye said the Ugandan government and the army had a clear mechanism of accountability to deal with soldiers who committed crimes.

"Anybody who broke the law appeared before a military court martial where they were tried and faced justice. It's on record that we have publicly executed some of our commanders and officers who committed atrocities in the region. Some of them are still in jail serving their sentence," he said.

Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda currently reporting on international justice issues in The Hague.