The rise of Gulu, and strange fruits of conflict in Uganda

Wednesday June 5 2019


By CHARLES Onyango-Obbo

In the last one year, from time to time, some remarkable photographs and stories have been shared on social media, of the dramatic “recovery” and beauty of once-war-ravaged areas in Acholiland, especially Gulu. They are usually of the, admittedly, impressive roads (thanks to Uganda National Roads Authority, Unra), and houses and establishments (thanks to the resilient people of Acholi).
Last week, President Museveni joined the party, when he commissioned 13 roads in Gulu Municipality, clearly in keeping with the pattern of his long “wealth creation/mobilisation” tours he holds ahead of every election – hello 2021. Because of the long war by and against Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA), and the unusual atrocities visited on the people of that region, post-war Acholi has been the most internationally studied Ugandan society in recent years.
Not surprisingly, the stories of the progress in the Acholi region don’t focus much on the people. That is because, for them, the nightmare is not over. Many are still deeply traumatised. The statistics of the women raped in Acholi, and having to still deal with the pain and stigma are heartbreaking. The breakdown of the society from the conflict is still manifest in the widespread level of violence against women and children.
Yet, despite all the horrors, what has happened in Acholi – like other parts of Uganda ravaged by war over the years – is still worth writing home about. Though the war in Acholi ended properly only in 2006, and the dismantling of the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps with the more than two million people who lived in them started in earnest then, considering it is an upcountry town, Gulu today looks more crisp in several respects than the Sierra Leone capital Freetown, where the civil war ended in 2002; and the Liberian capital Monrovia, where the civil war ended in 2003.
There are some things about conflict in Uganda – and its neighbour Rwanda with which it is beefing currently – that has a creative seed, and I will say that because I am not going to stand for an election ever. Uganda was the first African country after 1988 to pull off a post-war reconstruction, in tandem with free market reforms and economic liberalisation.
As we have noted before, war can be “good” because it scatters old reactionary forces and vested commercial interests that would otherwise oppose reforms. If you have an entrenched traders organisation and industrial lobby, they can oppose opening up the economy even to a regional economic bloc, as the Uganda Manufacturer’s Association (UMA) sought to do with EAC free trade. However, it was not too entrenched, and that happened at a time when it was led by the mild-mannered and sensible late James Mulwana, who didn’t protest too much, in the end.
Real estate cartels can interfere with approvals of new housing permits, in order to keep rents high. Old well-established school lobbies could have prevented the radical opening to private schools and universities. And a very rich organised land-owning class, that buys politicians, would have prevented the kind of reforms that happened with the 1998 Land Act.
Rwanda is a classic example where the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) found nothing, not even a shell. In the early period, the RPA rebels newly in government, even grew most of the country’s food. It largely remade the country in its vision, unhindered by forces discredited by their role in the genocide.
In Uganda, this phase of the reconstruction of Acholiland, means that it is only a few parts of the country that, from 1972 with the failed attack by Ugandan rebels from Tanzania, through to the 1979 war that ousted Amin, and subsequent blood baths, the areas that have not seen war to an extended degree are few – that stretch between Mbale, Sebei, Tororo, and Jinja, and to the far west Kabale and Kisoro areas. Until about 15 years ago, these areas (or at least the towns there) were slightly more backward than the ones that had seen war like Masaka and Mbarara.
So what “war dividend” is Gulu enjoying? Generally, conflict weakens the authority of some of the reactionary traditional forces, allowing new liberated thinking, and younger leaders, to emerge.
The intensity of war, usually leads to a large exodus of locals into exile, with many becoming fairly successful in the Diaspora. The largest Ugandan Diaspora is from Buganda, followed by those from the north. In peace time, these diasporas, functioning from economically more advanced countries, have been able to send substantial remittances to their people, with some of the money making impact on the local economies.
But northern Uganda, especially Acholiland, was different in how both the LRA and the Uganda government, sought to break the back of the societies there. And in there, lies a rather unlikely seed of its comeback, as we shall see next week.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.visualiser and explainer site. Twitter@cobbo3