With trillions sunk in to no effect, it’s time to tackle the northern Uganda question

A beneficiary of the Nusaf III project in Ayat Village, Anwangi Parish, Nambieso Sub-county in Apac District milks a cow in 2018. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Northern Uganda has since 2002 received stimulus interventions amounting to about Shs3.920 trillion. What trail is there to account for such vast investment? Where has this money gone?

By 2005 when the conflict between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) peaked, about 100,000 lives had been lost. Nearly 1.8 million displaced people lived in 251 ‘protected camps’ across 11 districts in northern Uganda.

In the north-eastern Karamoja, cattle raiding compounded by gun violence, land scarcity and nomadic trans-border movement amplified the case for intervention.

In 2003, Jan Egeland, the UN-OCHA head, drew the attention of the international community to the bloodshed in northern Uganda, describing it as the “worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth”. His clarion call soared relief towards the north from $34 million in 2002 to its 2008 peak of $238 million in what was dubbed, “the CNN effect”. Basking in this glamour, northern Uganda, in the words of an informant, suffered from NGO obesity, creating an aid-based economy.

However, government’s recovery plan for the socio-economic disruption occasioned by the civil strife was a $95.7 million (Shs354 billion) Northern Uganda Reconstruction Project from 1992 to 1997 to uplift 10 districts deemed to have been “disadvantaged from the beginning”.

Subsequent interventions unfolded as Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), including $100 million (Shs370 billion) for NUSAF 1 from 2003 to 2006 in 40 districts. An additional $135 million (Shs500 billion) financed NUSAF 2 (2009-2012) in 56 districts and $130 million (Shs482 billion) for NUSAF 3 (2015-2020) in 67 districts.

Further support for 20 districts of €20 million (Shs87 billion) came through Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Programme (NUREP) from 2007 to 2009. Between 2010 and 2014, a joint Agricultural Livelihoods Recovery Programme and Karamoja Livelihoods Programme (ALREP/KALIP) supported interventions worth €35 million (Shs152 billion) in 15 districts.

With hostilities ceased, government launched the Northern Uganda Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) in 2007 to brighten the region’s socio-economic standing. The Shs360 billion PRDP 1 (2009/10-2011/12) focused on relief, resettlement and the construction of infrastructure in education, water, health sectors in 55 districts.

In PRDP 2 (2012/13-2014/15), worth Shs360 billion, attention moved to the usage of physical infrastructure in the 55 districts. The Shs600 billion third phase (2015-2020) boosted household livelihoods in 67 districts. A €150 million (Shs655 billion) Development Initiative for Northern Uganda (DINU) scheduled to close in 2023 since 2019 is currently active in 37 districts.

Northern Uganda has since 2002 received stimulus interventions amounting to about Shs3.920 trillion. What trail is there to account for such vast investment? Where has this money gone? Why is poverty still visible in this region? It may be sad, but rather not too late. Diverse possibilities stand out for northern Uganda to sustain growth. Examining the region’s peculiar opportunities enriches our understanding of how we can build upon the local conditions for northern Uganda to flourish. First, those entrusted with the call to develop the region should not steal from the region.

In Acholi, straddling Nwoya District is the ever alluring 4,000 square kilometre Murchison Falls National Park stretching from the shores of Lake Albert around the Victoria Nile to the breath-taking Karuma Falls. The area’s potential for local economic development through tourism is unimaginable. Although Gulu’s economy relies on food crops, including millet, cassava, cow peas, potatoes, beans, crops like cotton, sugar cane, sunflower and sim sim are now a cash cow.

As part of the $150 million Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development, 62 roads in Gulu City have been constructed in the last five years. These roads have not only improved the network but also paved Gulu as a gateway to South Sudan, expanding prospects of improving livelihoods through food growing and trade.

Lango, famed for cotton and cassava growing while it was home to the defunct Lira Spinning Mills and starch factories, still attracts agro-processing after recovery. A leading producer of sunflower, Lira hosts AK Oils and Fats, a subsidiary of Mukwano, Mt Meru Millers also dealing in oil seed and processing of edible oils and Ngetta Tropical Holdings producing Virgin Oil.

Besides, efforts of Uganda Coffee Development Authority to introduce coffee farming have attracted more than 16,000 farmers scattered over 5,000 hectares in Apac, Lira and Kole districts. Through Lira’s Local Economic Development model, a proactive approach in empowering households, government assists beekeepers to promote integrated rural development to combat poverty.

In Teso, the soils which are polite to citrus fruits have rendered Soroti the country’s inexhaustible basket of oranges, mangoes and pineapples. Accordingly, Soroti Fruit Factory affords local incentive to empower fruit growers by building their capacity for better citrus production through improved water management techniques.

Similar opportunities exist for a big external market for apiary products. Under the “Teso Natural Honey” brand, Teso Honey Refinery buys, processes and markets honey and trains beekeepers in honey harvesting. Besides fruits, value addition to millet, groundnuts and sim sim and rice growing in the water-logged areas promises lucrative returns for households. In Kumi, the Nyero rock paintings and the Mukongoro rock heritage sites for Stone Age man, birding on Lake Bisina offer tourism potential which is not yet fully tapped.

With about 80 percent of households rearing livestock in Karamoja, value-addition to products including ghee, meat, skins, milk and slaughter/cull stock is an unlocked money-spinning venture. Besides, the variety and distribution of Karamoja’s touristic appeal including wildlife, forestry, landscape, paleontological and cultural endowments, unseen elsewhere, the gainful prospect for stimulating local development is unmatched.

In West Nile, the high demand for food in Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan gives Arua District an edge in producing and distributing commodities across borders. Founded on reliable supply, Bee Natural Honey grew from 2007 to become the largest honey company and with its modern factory, occupies more than 1,200 beekeepers spread across Arua, Nebbi, Yumbe, Moyo, Koboko and Adjumani.

Eyeing export markets in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic, the 12 hectare Arua Special Economic Zone has the potential to drive international value chain exports from West Nile.

Notwithstanding the decades of State support, the situation in northern Uganda still evokes unsettling questions which ought to exercise policy and practice minds. How can we make the endowments of the region revving engines of transformation? How do we lid the yawning gap between food security and commercial agriculture in this part of the country? What capacities do we need to mobilise in order to transform northern Uganda through enhanced agricultural productivity? How much are the natives intimately involved in charting the region’s pathway to prosperity?

With peace pervading the region, the time to steer socio-economic development is now. By posing the right questions, we will reach a diagnosis which marks the onset, not the end, of a process of rethinking a cross-sectoral strategy for the north. Our next level of combined action is to invest our capabilities in tackling the pinpointed challenges.

Mr Kaheru is a commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC)