The rise of Gulu, and strange fruits of conflict in Uganda (Part II)

Wednesday June 12 2019


Last week in “The rise of Gulu, and strange fruits of conflict in Uganda,” we looked at how Acholiland, and specifically Gulu, had recovered from a long and brutal conflict quicker than many parts of Africa – and indeed Uganda - ever did. It did at a time when it is still a society in great pain, and battling with the deeper social and cultural damage of the war between the NRM government/army and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Last week, we noted that “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…”

One of the things that made the northern Uganda conflict unusual was that both the government and the LRA saw the society as the enemy – with the LRA, which otherwise should have seen it as an ally being from the area, brutalising it more than the Kampala regime, which confronted the insurgency there shortly after it took, with the idea that it was a continuation of the war against “northern rule”.
During the NRM/NRA Bush War in Luweero in the early 1980s, whatever the excesses of the insurgents, the foundation of the struggle was that the Museveni rebels were with and for the people. It is extremely rare in world history to find a situation where the north was, where neither the rebels nor the State have your back.

The second unusual thing is that though the people in the region are culturally related to the ones across the border, departing from all previous conflicts in the broader north (during Idi Amin’s and Milton Obote II rule), they could not escape to Sudan (now South Sudan) for safety. First, because the LRA that was tormenting them in Uganda was using parts of it as its rear base. Secondly, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which was battling the Khartoum regime, controlled most of the rest of the areas where they could have fled for safety.

The SPLA was a bosom ally of the NRM government, and had helped Kampala attack and dismantle the refugee camps hosting people from West Nile - who had fled there after Amin’s fall in the face of the persecutions that followed - in order to force them to return home.
That meant that local northern talent (school teachers, small traders, jua kali artisans, catechists, and small progressive farmers) didn’t have the “easier” and safer option of fleeing to refugeedom into Sudan.

They moved to the peaceful south, and were gifted by the fact that parts of neighbouring Bunyoro (since the British trashed it in the war against the great Omukama Kabalega) were sparsely populated. They settled there, and also moved further into Buganda as cheap labour, or took to farming and petty trade on the main roads. The rest of those who were not killed by the LRA or the UPDF, were shepherded into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. At their high point, there were nearly two million people in IDP camps in northern Uganda.
The people of Acholi were the first to suffer those two types of displacements post-independence at the same time in those high numbers.
If you are not dispassionate or coldly scientific, you should not read beyond this point, it might offend you.

For all the horrors, these both unique and horrific displacements, had two “benefits”. They had the effect of a quick and dramatic “de-peasantisation” of Acholi society. Perhaps no society in Uganda moved from eking out a pitiful existence on the land, to struggling in the peri-urban economy and semi-commercial gardening, like the Acholi were forced by war.

There were people, who were both sensible and afraid to say it loudly, who were of the view that the IDP camps should not have been dismantled. Although the life there was undignified, they held that the camps had more advanced modes of production and more cosmopolitan social engagement, than remote villages.
The IDP camps, they believed, should have been converted into small towns with infrastructure investment, and people given title to their huts, which they would have upgraded into modest modern housing.

With its local talent trapped at home; the unusual social upward movement; the return of peace; the injection of NGO and government money (with Museveni seeking to expand his support to the north as Kizza Besigye and FDC stole part of his southwestern base); and a market opening up for its produce with the South Sudan peace and, later independence; Gulu was poised for take off.
You could say Gulu is travelling to a mini-heaven, but the road it took passes through hell.

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