Beginnings in Uganda

Jump to: Idi Amin and Post-Colonial Uganda | President Museveni | Early Years of the LRA | Operation Iron Fist

LRA Soldiers

Idi Amin and Post-Colonial Uganda

Uganda gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. The country experienced five years of multi-party democracy under President Milton Obote before his regime began a slide toward violent dictatorship. Obote was ousted in 1971 by a non-commissioned army officer, Idi Amin Dada, whose coup was initially welcomed with widespread enthusiasm.

However, Amin quickly dissolved parliament and altered the constitution, granting himself absolute power and eliminating all opposition. His eight-year rule was epic in its violence. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people were killed during his regime. Amin particularly targeted the Acholi people of northern Uganda, partly because of their support for his predecessor, but also because they traditionally composed the bulk of the army, and thus posed a potential threat to his rule. Amin's government devastated the country and its developing economy, in part by expelling all Asians from Uganda and essentially destroying a growing merchant class.

A victim of his own excesses, Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979 and forced to flee into exile by a Tanzanian-backed rebellion that included Yoweri Museveni, the current president of Uganda. Rigged elections in 1980 returned Milton Obote to power, prompting Museveni to launch a guerrilla war in 1981.

President Museveni's Ascendance

Obote's regime committed massive human rights abuses in an effort to crush Museveni's insurgency. As tensions escalated, Obote was overthrown in 1985 by a group of ethnic Acholis led by General Tito Okello. Exhausted by the war and internal divisions, the Okello government entered into negotiations with Museveni's rebel group, the National Resistance Movement/Army. The National Resistance Army, however, continued its push to Kampala, Uganda's capital city. The group seized the capital in 1986 and installed a "no-party democracy," which allowed individuals, but not political parties, to contest elections.

Museveni is credited with leading Uganda's emergence from the violent and abusive periods under Amin and Obote, and with laying the groundwork for the development of one of Africa's more successful economies.

But Uganda's security deteriorated in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Uganda joined Rwanda in intervening militarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 and 1998. During this period, a major war unfolded in Congo involving militaries from six African countries and a broad array of rebel groups. While much of the fighting was directly linked to the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, and the presence of Hutu militias seeking safe refuge in Congo, all of these military forces also sought to exploit the rich natural resources in eastern Congo for their own benefit. Through its support for various militia groups, the increasingly ill-disciplined Ugandan army was actively involved in widespread human rights abuses in Congo's gold-producing district of Ituri.

Early Years of the LRA

In addition to its problems in Congo, Uganda also faced challenges at home. Beginning in 1986, several rebel movements sprung up in Uganda's economically and politically marginalized north. The most well-known of these is the LRA, an exceedingly violent movement led by Joseph Kony. While claiming to defend the rights of the Acholi people, the LRA practiced extreme brutality against fellow Acholis in northern Uganda including murder,  mutilation, rape, widespread abductions of children and adults, and sexual slavery. The civilian population of the north was caught in the crossfire between the government and the LRA and increasingly became alienated from both.

Over the years, the LRA has had few genuine political objectives and has relied on the Sudanese government for military support. The Sudanese government has viewed the LRA as a useful force in its efforts to keep southern Sudan and northern Uganda destabilized, and as a means to punish Uganda for its support of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, in southern Sudan.

Since 1987, the LRA has abducted as many as 70,000 children and youth, forcing them to serve as soldiers, porters, or sex slaves. In an effort to prevent looting and abductions, the Ugandan government created "protected villages" for citizens to escape LRA fighters. These camps for internally displaced persons in northern Uganda quickly became over-crowded, unsanitary, and dangerous. Most occupants of the camps were forced into them against their will by the Ugandan government. At the height of the conflict, nearly 2 million northern Ugandans were living in displacement camps.

Operation Iron Fist

In 2002, Uganda launched Operation Iron Fist in an attempt to definitively defeat the insurgency, but the operation sparked more intense and violent attacks by the LRA and instigated the LRA’s return from southern Sudan to northern Uganda. The failed operation dramatically increased the number of internally displaced people, and failed to end the war.

In late 2005 and early 2006, the LRA shifted their base of operations into northeastern Congo. Around the same time, in July 2005, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, issued arrest warrants for five senior LRA leaders, including Kony. The ICC investigation began after the Ugandan government referred the LRA situation to the Court in late 2003. The ICC's actions, coupled with pressure on the battlefield, pushed the LRA to agree to peace talks with the Ugandan government, and these negotiations began in July 2006 in Juba, at the time part of southern Sudan. While many Ugandans, activists, and diplomats were hopeful that a deal might be struck, talks fell apart in 2008, when Kony repeatedly refused to sign the final peace agreement.

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