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Uganda: War-Era Guns Linked to Recent Murders

With many weapons from 20-year civil war still in circulation, police fear wave of killings could continue.
By Bill Oketch
  • Vincent Otti, the late deputy leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose weapons continue to circulate in northern Uganda, posing a threat to the local population. (Photo: Euan Denholm/IRIN)
    Vincent Otti, the late deputy leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose weapons continue to circulate in northern Uganda, posing a threat to the local population. (Photo: Euan Denholm/IRIN)

A spate of gun crime in Lira district has been blamed by police on the wide availability of weaponry left over from Uganda’s civil war.

At the beginning of October, a 60-year-old woman was gunned down over a land dispute in Alito sub-county in Kole district, near the town of Lira. A week earlier, a woman was shot and killed in Barr sub-county, to the east of Lira, also because of a disagreement about land.

At around the same time, two people were shot and killed in Chawente in the neighbouring district of Apac. The police blamed a gang that has been looting and terrorising residents in the area.

Richard Aruk Maruk, Lira’s district police chief, told IWPR that the presence of illegal guns, many a legacy of the conflict, is fuelling the violence.

The regional police spokesman, Henry Alyanga, said that in all the recent murder cases the suspects had been arrested and remanded in custody, but warned the prevalence of unlicenced firearms in the region means that more killings are likely.

From 1986 to 2006, northern Uganda endured a bloody insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, in which an estimated 100,000 people were killed and nearly two million displaced.

Alyanga claimed that during the conflict, local leaders and those willing to join government forces – most notably paramilitaries such as the Amuka of northern Uganda and the so-called Arrow Boys of north-eastern Uganda – were given arms to protect civilians against LRA raids.

After the war, however, many failed to hand their weapons back, he said.

“People were screened before they got the arms, but some who managed to get through the screening included troublemakers who simply disappeared with the weapons,” Alyanga explained. “They now use the guns in their possession to commit murder. Even those who returned the guns still know where to get such firearms if they want to.”

Musa Ecwero, the minister for disaster preparedness and refugees, accepts that some of those who received weapons have retained them, but says new disarmament efforts are under way.

Christopher Ameny, a cleric in the Aboke archdiocese in Apac district, says former LRA soldiers also provide a source of illegal weapons.

In 2005, Ameny was appointed by the Uganda Joint Christian Council, UJCC, to educate communities about the misuse of firearms.

“During the implementation of the project, we discovered that there are still lots of illegal arms in the region,” Ameny said. “Many of these were in the hands of former LRA fighters. As former fighters returned home, many buried their guns in case they needed them again. [They] even used coffins so that the arms are well-protected from rusting.”

The spate of killings has alarmed people in the region, whose memories of the LRA insurgency are still fresh.

“They have imitated the LRA style of operation against innocent civilians,” said Alfred Opong, a resident at Ojwii camp, outside Lira. “We pray every day to protect ourselves from these bad people who continue to haunt us.”

Some in northern Uganda are now calling for tighter gun controls. Under current laws, ordinary Ugandans can own small handguns only if they have a licence.

However, Charles Odur Kami, a bishop from Lango diocese, argued that there should be stricter rules over who was eligible to hold a licence. “If this was done, firearms would not be entrusted to wrongdoers,” he said.

Not everyone, though, agrees that tougher gun laws would be effective.

“Thugs have got their own tactics for acquiring arms, and it is very difficult to curtail this,” said Godfrey Aluma, resident district commissioner for Lira, adding that it was unlikely that many of the recent murders could have been prevented by tougher gun laws.

Police spokesman Alyanga says that the cause of most of the recent killings was conflict between family members, often over land or allegations of witchcraft.

“When the clan fails to resolve a problem, people take the law into their own hands and kill those that they believe to be behind the mess,” he said. “Of course, they use illegal arms in their possession.”

Alyanga added that, besides stepping up efforts to catch those suspected of possessing illegal weapons, regional police forces have also embarked on a programme to raise awareness among local communities of their rights and Ugandan law.

Lango bishop Kami also said that government policy must go beyond simply arresting and jailing gunmen, and actually try to address the root causes of the recent shootings. Otherwise, he said, “the killings of our people will not stop”.

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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