Uganda after 1986: Insurgencies in the north and east (Part One)

Tuesday December 11 2012

By Timothy Kalyegira

Of the tragedies to befall Uganda since its attainment of sovereign self-governance in 1962, few have been as great as the situation in the northern and northeastern parts of the country after the NRM came to power in 1986.

In the southeast, south-central and western parts of Uganda stretching from Bugisu to Busoga, Buganda and the west, the start of the NRM’s rule was for many a time of hope and revitalisation in the country.
For residents of north and northeast Uganda, it was the start of tremendous suffering and displacement on a large scale that would last the next 20 years.

The story of the war and various rebel uprisings in northern and northeastern Uganda requires a whole book by itself.

It is the story, first and foremost, of propaganda by the State; of a willingness by much of the Western world, which had by now thrown its support behind the NRM government, to turn a blind eye to the reports of what was going on in the north; it is also the story of how most of the southern Bantu-speaking tribes slipped into complacency and indifference towards the plight of the northern half of the country.

As it is with most of Uganda’s history since 1986, especially the history to do with the previous governments, the root cause and the details of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in the north remain frozen in stereotypes.

Northern tragedy
To the average person in Kampala or outside Uganda, what took place in the north was a rebel uprising started by an insane and sadistic leader called Joseph Kony, who driven by his insanity or (to Christians, demon possession), turned on his own people in an orgy of murder, cutting off of lips and ears, and all this, for no apparent reason.


Before Kony was his mentor, a strange, illiterate woman called Alice Lakwena, who was the first well-known anti-NRM rebel leader, and, who for a short while in 1986 and 1987, appeared about to march onto Kampala but eventually fizzled out.

In Teso, the Uganda People’s Army of a former Minister of State for Defence and in Acholi the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA), all took up arms against the Museveni government, along with various other groups.

That is the narrative that was put out to Ugandans and the international community by the NRM government and its affiliated media. The Museveni propaganda doctrine.

The cornerstone of Fronasa and later NRA doctrine advanced by Museveni since the 1970s was the smear campaign.

Museveni had been raised by a mother, Esteri Kokundeka, who in the 1940s embraced evangelical Christianity (the “born-again” movement). More than 90 per cent of Uganda’s population in the 1960s during Museveni’s formative years, was Christian. The country viewed itself as Christian.
But it was also a feudal and passive society.

The young Museveni, a student at Mbarara High School and Ntare School in Ankole, had by his mid teens become acutely conscious of his social status and the general political climate in Uganda.

He had realised that Ugandans would take any abuse of power, rigged election, the illegal amendment of a constitution, corruption, nepotism and lack of public services.
The only thing that could jolt them into action was the question of bloodshed.

The May 1966 Mengo crisis had come and gone and Baganda did not rise up to overthrow the Obote government. The kingdoms of Ankole, Toro, Buganda, Busoga and Bunyoro were abolished in 1967, but even this was not enough to ignite a civil war.

So after Museveni and a small circle of colleagues started the Fronasa guerrilla group in March 1971, in order to garner Ugandan public support the Amin government had to be portrayed as brutal. Later, the second Obote government in 1980 to 1985 and the brief Okello government of 1985 to 1986 all had to be portrayed as brutal. Then when a government led by Museveni finally came to power in 1986 and he, of course, could no longer refer to the government as brutal, the insurgent groups that formed to fight the Museveni government had to be portrayed as brutal and almost animal-like.

As was mentioned earlier in this series, in December 1985, the former president Milton Obote in a phone call from Lusaka, Zambia, to a senior UNLA officer, Brig. Lazarus Orwotho, warned the Gen. Tito-Okello government to do all it could to prevent Museveni from getting to power.

Obote’s warning
Obote warned that should the NRA rise to power, it would unleash a rampage of terror and destruction on northern and eastern Uganda.

The NRA’s initial counterinsurgency operations were led by the Deputy Army Commander, Fred Rwigyema, Chefe Ali, and Matayo Kyaligonza. These three commanders also led a major NRA land and air operation against rebels in northeastern Uganda starting in the first week of October 1987.

Rwigyema would return to Kampala from his duties in the north and settle before the TV set at his home along the KAR Drive in Kololo in Kampala. He would then put war film after war film in his video cassette player and spend all day doing little but watching these action films.

A friend watching this obsession with war and war films got concerned about Rwigyema. She asked if there was nothing else he could watch but war films. This was a man who had been fighting almost continuously since his days as a guerrilla in Museveni’s Fronasa in the mid 1970s.

The friend brought videos of the popular mid 1980s American television sitcom The Cosby Show in the hope that this might help Rwigyema not to lose his mind. Later, Rwigyema started to watch the Cosby Show a lot and even took to wearing sweaters like the main actor, Bill Cosby.

What Rwigyema and his fellow commanders were leading in Acholi and Teso was a sadistic campaign against the rebels and the civilian population that almost drove Rwigyema mad and to this day still haunts some commanders who took part in them.

Continues tomorrow