Uganda and the LRA: An Introduction

06/03/2015 15:05

Stephanie Fenkart


As this is the case for most African countries the colonial period in Uganda laid the root causes for conflicts and wars in this newly created 'nation state'. During colonialism (1890-1962) Uganda was mainly divided into the politically and economically favoured Bantu-speaking peoples in the South[1] and the Nilotic-speaking peoples from the North[2], who were mainly supplying national manual labour and who comprised the majority of the military. Even after independence in 1962 and during the authoritarian presidencies of Milton Obote (1962–1971, 1980–1985) and Idi Amin (1971–1979) this partition was to be continued. After a coup in 1985 of General Tito Okello, Uganda – politically and militarily - was for the first time ruled by an Acholi, noting that Obote and Amin have also been Northerners. Despite this long leadership by men of Northern-Uganda this region stayed economically marginalized and suffered from high rates of poverty. However, already half a year later General Okello was overthrown by Yoweri Museveni from the south and his National Resistance Army (NRA), who stay in power ever since January 1986. Now the Acholi have been for the first time completely divorced from state power. The NRA immediately began to commit revenge attacks and massacres[3]  which caused many Acholi to flee to Sudan and which facilitated the formation of rebel groups to fight the government forces. It was in this context that Joseph Kony created his Lord’s Resistance Army in 1987 following Alice Auma Lakwenas Holy Spirit Movement, which was crucially defeated by the NRA in 1986.


In the following years, Joseph Kony who regards himself as the new Messiah who wants to rule Uganda in accordance to his interpretation of the Ten Commandments, created a terror group composed mainly of formerly abducted children between 8-16 years who soon have been forced to attack civilian villages and to commit unimaginable atrocities against their own relatives, friends and people in order to break their will, to cut them off from normal behaviour and to make their escape back to their communities impossible[4]. Those children were supposed to serve as blank sheets of paper that may be filled with Kony’s commandments (vlg. Doom /Vlassenroot 1999: 25). The girls were given to the commanders to serve as wives, which meant that they have been forced into sex-slavery.


This war lasted for more than 20 years and was mainly carried out on the back of children[5] and on the back of the civil population in Northern-Uganda, South Sudan as well as in Eastern Congo (DRC) and in the Central African Republic. The total unpredictability of the attacks turned the people in those areas into perpetual passive victims, which had a paralysing effect on society and made them more vulnerable, which in turn has been reinforcing the position of the LRA (vgl. Doom / Vlassenroot 1999:27).

During this war up to 90% of the population of Northern-Uganda had to live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) which resulted in a very high prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder, the deconstruction of traditional forms of community life as well as the erosion of traditional forms of cultivating and farming land and of cattle-rising. Besides, the NRA has not been able to protect the people in the camps appropriately from rebel attacks and eventually is also accused of committing crimes like rape and looting in the IDP camps.


Although the peace talks in Juba in 2006 and in 2008 eventually failed, the UDPF[6] (the NRA’s new name under the 1995 constitution) - supported by the loss of backing of the Northerners as a consequence of their devastating living standard in the camps and the experienced atrocities, as well as through the international awareness due to the first ever arrest warrants of the newly created International Criminal Court (ICC) against five leaders of the LRA in 2005 - was able to push the LRA back into realms in South-Sudan[7], Central African Republic or into the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo which marked peace in Uganda for the first time in over 20 years.


The recovery of a war torn country and even more important of its people who have been affected severely by this war for more than 20 years is unlikely to happen rapidly. There rise many questions concerning traditional but also transitional justice, compensation, accountability, institutional reforms, land rights as well as rehabilitation of the formerly abducted children but also about the rehabilitation and empowerment of the war victims and principal truth seeking. All those questions need to be addressed to gain lasting peace in Uganda. Without focusing on these issues peace tends to be fragile. And maybe there also exists the possibility for other countries to learn from Uganda by not making the same mistakes or by evaluating its efforts in dealing with the aftermath of such a violent war.


In Nigeria Boko Haram is still running its insurgency which started in 2009 and even attacks villages outside of Nigeria in Cameroon and Chad transforming a national conflict into an international one which might be able to destabilize the whole region, as it was the case with the LRA in Uganda, South Sudan, CAR and DRC. Boko Haram also uses children - as fighters or to carry out attacks. In January 2015 they sent a small girl strapped with a bomb into a crowded market in Maiduguri North-East-Nigeria, killing at least 19 persons; probably the girl did not even know what was going to happen. On Saturday the 7th of March 2015 Boko Haram officially stated its allegiance to the IS, which can be considered either as an attempt to gain more support from international islamist extremists or as a propaganda instrument with regard of a recent string of defeats against Boko Haram. However, the Nigerian government and the international community should be determined to protect the citizens in the regions concerned at best through ending this insurgency in a - if needed - jointly operation. In contrary to Uganda and Sudan during the LRA war, Nigeria nowadays has better options to operate commonly with its neighbouring countries in order to prevent further instabilities or a threatening war. The African Union is already supporting the government with troops in order to end the incredible violence against civilians in North-East Nigeria.


Al Shabaab is not only fighting against its own government in Somalia but is carrying out terrorist attacks in its neighbouring countries as well. Similar things are happening in Mali, DRC or in Sudan (South Kordofan).


As Albert Einstein once put it: ”Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” So it might be necessary to rethink peace and to express global and collective concerns where the people are put into the centre of all considerations.



Stephanie Fenkart, 6th of March 2015

International Institute for Peace, Vienna





Apuuli, Philip Kasaija (2006) The ICC Arrest Warrants for the Lord’s Resistance Army Leaders and Peace Prospects for Northern Uganda. In: Journal of International Justice, N° 4, Oxford Journals, S 179-187

Clark, Janine Natalya (2010) The ICC, Uganda and the LRA. Re-Framing the Debate, in: African Studies, N°69, Routledge, York, S 141-161

Doom, Ruddy / Vlassenroot, Koen (1999) Kony’s Message: A New KOINE? The Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, in: African Studies, N°98, Oxford University Press, S 5-36

Galtung, Johan (1967) Theories of Peace. A Synthetic Approach to Peace Thinking. International Peace Research Institute, Oslo





[1] Mainly the Baganda people from the kingdom of Buganda. The British reserved the introduction of industry and cash crop production to the south.

[2] Mainly the Acholi people, Lango people and Teso people. The Acholi people being the largest group in Northern Uganda.

[3] As the military (Ugandan National Liberation Army UNLA)  under Obote made no progress in the Luwero Triangle because there has been great support of Musevenis NRA in this area, he launched Operation Bonanza which led to more than 300 000 deaths. The Acholi were and still are widely held responsible for this murderous military expedition. As Doom an Vlassenroot put it :”Luwero is the ghost that haunts the Acholi”, (Doom /Vlassenroot 1999: 9).

[4] In their key paper about the LRA Ruddy Doom and Koen Vlassenroot state that:” Kony’s actions, however, seem to be based on blind terror”. Later on they resume :”Kony is no longer interested in winning a conflict, but that violence has become both a tool and an end in itself.(…) Violence also serves as a warning to those who stand in the way of the LRA”, (Doom/Vlassenroot 1999: S 5, 6 + 26).

[5] It is estimated that they constitute over eighty-five per cent of the LRA’s forces (Ssenyonjo 2005:411 zitiert nach Clark 2010: 142)

[6] Uganda People’s Defence Force

[7] Please note that South-Sudan gained independence only in 2011. Especially since 1994 (to a smaller extent even before) the government of Sudan supported the LRA in order to let them fight a proxy war against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLN) in South Sudan. The SPLN and one of its main leaders John Garang, who is an old friend of Museveni, have been supported by Musevenis government which adds the international context into the war in Northern Uganda as an important fact.