CIVIL SOCIETY AND PEACEBUILDING IN NORTHERN UGANDA

I just returned from my trip to northern Uganda where I participated in the Nexus Fund’s Civil Society Exchange program that Dr. Eleanor Gordon introduced to us, and I thought to share some lessons from the experience on this platform. I was paired with an NGO (Community Network for Social Justice, based in Gulu the capital of northern Uganda) that works on reintegrating former child soldiers rescued from the LRA. My objective was to have a deeper insight into the role of Civil Society in post-conflict peacebuilding.

During the three weeks the Exchange lasted, I met and interviewed many groups and individuals who played vital roles in the 20 year conflict that pitched the Ugandan government against the LRA rebels. I interacted with survivors of a massacre and drew much insight into the little-understood ground between civil society, the state and the international community in conflict resolution with regards to the northern Uganda conflict. I helped develop a strategic document on peace-building practice for the NGO that hosted me. And I hosted a workshop under the theme “Post-conflict peacebuilding: Global Perspectives.” The workshop had wide publicity and participation came from many CSOs, government representatives and the security services – police and military.

One fundamental lesson I drew from there is that civil society in northern Uganda and its involvement in the post-conflict reconstruction effort is much more structured, organized and innovative as compared to what we have in Côte d’Ivoire, where I am based. Gulu, the capital of northern Uganda, boasts a score of vibrant local NGOs running projects from livelihood support through advocacy to free legal aid for victims of ‘transitional injustice’ including displaced persons who upon return to their communities face encroachment on their property. In Côte d’Ivoire last year we found that NGOs were not so forthcoming when the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced a fund to support projects run by advocacy CSOs.

It may not be academic to say that this disparity is the pattern between Anglophone and francophone post-conflict African countries until one has confirmation from more settings, but the fact that civil society is similarly more advanced in post-conflict (Anglophone) Liberia than in (francophone) Cote d’Ivoire seems to make that a plausible hypothesis. A recent publication of the SSR Resource Centre indicates that civil society in Liberia is getting involved in SSR, making it seem even more advanced than in northern Uganda where I found a complete lack of awareness of SSR among civil society organisations. If anybody on this platform has experience from multiple locations it would be useful to have their views, especially if those views confirm the supposed franco-anglophone disparity and seek to offer some explanation for it, but also not less important if they contradict the existence of such disparity.

A second lesson I drew is the divergence of opinion between civil society and the state with regards to the preferred approach for resolving the conflict. My interaction with government officials in many districts within the region revealed that they consider bringing the LRA to justice (including ‘violent justice’ by the use of military force) as the ultimate solution to the conflict. Much to the contrary, the view of some prominent members of civil society who are deeply concerned in the search for a definite solution to the conflict demonstrates a strong preference for dialogue and negotiation. They include the heads of the many NGOs I met, but also a university professor who has authored a book on peacebuilding and previously consulted for the Northern Uganda Peace Initiative (NUPI), a government body set up years ago to define a road map for ending the war. During my interaction with him, the professor described as a missed opportunity to end the conflict the fact of the NUPI and its client the Ugandan government ignoring his calls to bring the LRA leadership to the negotiation table. According to him, the NUPI was a unique opportunity to bring an end to the war if they had heeded his call, because it had the trust of the rebels in a way that other initiatives did not have. But he was ‘disappointed’ to discover that the advice he gave to NUPI while he served as its consultant, concerning the need to bring LRA into negotiations, was not even carried in NUPI’s reports to the government.

Neither the professor nor the NGO authorities stand alone in their preference for dialogue. Even victims of atrocities perpetrated by the rebels share the opinion that dialogue is to be preferred over the use of force. Only government officials appear to favor the use of military force to capture and dismantle the rebel movement. It is difficult to attribute the last group’s penchant for the use of force to anything other than to the fact that they are in government, for most of them are indigenes of the region and share the same biological ties with the rebels as do the locals who head many of the civil society groups. Perhaps civil society’s aversion to the use of force against the rebels belies a certain level of mistrust in the government, because some members of the society do not exonerate the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Force, the government army) from responsibility for some of the major atrocities committed against the civilian population during the war. This divided opinion over responsibility for atrocities could account for the divergence of opinion on the use of force or dialogue in reigning in the rebellion. If this is the case, some independent enquiry is needed to clear the UPDF and establish its innocence before the capture (if ever) of Joseph Kony will bring lasting peace.

Two major international events relating to the northern Uganda conflict occurred during my time there. One was President Barak Obama’s decision to deploy 150 additional troops and four Ospreys (special jungle planes) to hunt down Joseph Kony (leader of the LRA and principal architect of the conflict) and his lieutenants. Similar manhunts for Kony have been conducted in the past without success. Last year, a 5000-member joint UN, AU and UPDF force was forced to retreat without achieving its objectives when the Seleka staged a coup d’état in April 2013 that overthrew former CAR president François Buzizé and started the current CAR crisis. There can be no proof that Obama’s Osprey drive will result in Kony’s capture until it does so. If it did, it is not certain that it would end the conflict. Conflict analysts assert that wars that end in decisive victories tend to bring longer lasting peace than those that are brought to end through negotiation. To follow this theory is to believe that the military endeavor to dismantle the LRA is the answer to peace in northern Uganda. But it is worth asking whether the kind of peace brought about by decisive victory is ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ peace. According to a dichotomy by Norwegian conflict analyst Johan Galtung, positive peace is created when the root causes of conflict are addressed; while negative peace only silences the guns but leaves the conditions of instability to fester. Moreover in the northern Uganda case, history has previously proved an exception to the advantages of decisive victory: the defeat of first rebel leader Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Movement did nothing to bring peace to northern Uganda; rather it gave place to another rebellion more vicious than the first, which is Kony and the LRA. Certainly the dilemmas of peacebuilding are numerous!

The second international event that happened while I was there was the visit of former ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who was visiting the region to fraternize with victims of the conflict. Ocampo had indicted Joseph Kony with war crimes while he was still ICC prosecutor. In his address to survivors of a massacre in one community during the visit, Ocampo offered to be their lawyer who could help in piling up more charges on Kony’s head, in order to galvanise the international community in intensifying efforts at his capture. While Louis Moreno Ocampo was visiting that group of massacre survivors, I and my team were visiting another. Of course we did not promise them to become their lawyer against Kony – we have never been ICC prosecutors, though my host was himself once abducted by the LRA in Atiak, a town where 300 people were massacred one day by the rebels. It lies 70km north of Gulu. It was those who survived that attack that formed the Atiak Massacre Survivors Association, which is the group we went visiting at the same time that Ocampo was visiting a different group of survivors of an attack where a similar number of people had been killed – the Barlonyo massacre. But our gift to the group was quite different from Ocampo’s.

In line with the modus operandi of my host organisation (Community Network for Social Justice) we first asked the group what they needed. It was based on their response that we came up with three projects that will help them in the process of healing and reconciliation:

1) support them source funds for the construction of a Peace Centre that will contain an office, a library, a small museum and training rooms where they can receive trauma counseling and alphabetization, as well as a memorial to display the names of victims of the massacre;
2) Write a book on peacebuilding that will use the accounts of the survivors to highlight the possible factors that led to the massacre, in order to reduce the chances of a recurrence. Sales from the book will go to the massacre survivors’ fund to help them in small-scale income-generating activities; and
3) Institute a scholarship scheme to enable orphans left behind by those who fell in the massacre to obtain a good education.

If anyone on this platform has a project idea that could be added to this list, it is very welcome. Otherwise I would end it here for time and space limitation. I can give more information of my exchange experience concerning the northern Uganda conflict if anyone requests me. But just one last point, the leader of a women’s group, which I visited towards the end of my exchange, had these words for me: “When you go back to Côte d’Ivoire and to the United Nations, tell them we the women of Uganda are solidly behind our president in his fight against homosexuality.’ (I thought this was worth putting on record?)

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