Apology to the Acholi is welcome, but we need to exorcise Uganda’s ghosts

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • "There are many bodies buried in the ground in northern Uganda, and elsewhere, and it is tempting to simply let them lie”

At a recent meeting with religious leaders in Gulu, President Museveni issued a general apology to the people of Acholi for what he described as “mistakes” made in and towards the sub-region.
“As the top leader of the Movement, I am here to take full responsibility for all the mistakes which were made at various levels in this sub-region,” he said. “Forgive our failures and mistakes made by the leaders we entrusted with various responsibilities to develop this sub-region, which has resulted in so much poverty and unnecessary suffering to the people of Acholi.”

First, we must commend Mr Museveni for the courage and humility to apologise. Although he did not use it, “sorry” is the hardest word to use. Then we need to ask a few questions in an effort to put it all in context.
It is easy for older Ugandans to take it for granted that many, the majority, or simply enough people understand even our recent history. But one in two Ugandans alive today was born after the end of the decades-long Lord’s Resistance Army’s rebellion in northern Uganda. Many would not know that, as a result of that rebellion, that of Alice Lakwena, and others before, a physical and mental barrier split Uganda into two at the Karuma Falls on the River Nile.

Even fewer will have accurate information about the triggers of those rebellions, the savagery of the LRA rebels on the people of the north, or the thinly documented accounts of the brute force and sometimes indiscriminate violence of the counter-insurgency operations. As important as it is, this is not the first presidential apology in this regard. In December 2002, President Museveni apologised to the people of the Acholi sub-region for the suffering inflicted on them by the LRA. Many of the inhumane acts of the rebels are well documented and need no repeating; those of the NRA and UPDF less so.

The President’s latest apology is too broad and vague. For instance, what are some of the “mistakes” that were made, and by which leaders? Were these elected political leaders, or military commanders?
Were these mistakes of execution, as in leaders doing the right thing incorrectly, or of strategy, such that officials did the wrong thing well? The reference to the poverty of the people of northern Uganda presupposes that some of these mistakes might be by bureaucrats and in service delivery programmes.

Yet the “suffering” is multi-faceted and includes human rights violations during the armed conflict, as well as the displacement of millions of locals in internally displaced peoples’ camps, whose effects continue to be felt today, including in widespread grabbing of communally owned land. It would be good to know, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the creation of IDP camps, for instance, was the least-worst option to save civilians from the marauding rebels, or a mistake that caused long-term suffering.

If the mistakes were limited to socio-economic policies, it would be good to have an honest conversation about the impact of the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the region under the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund since 2007, and what else taxpayer’s money has been paying for. Apologies might then be in order for other parts of the country that are similarly wallowing in poverty and suffering.

These are difficult discussions, but they are necessary for us to find closure, understanding and mutual forgiveness. To find the answers to these and other questions, we must be willing to ask the right questions about who has done what to whom, why, and what we need to build a country that belongs and works for us all. The recent political rapprochement between the NRM and the northern Uganda political elite has created the ideal conditions for a truth and reconciliation process. 

It would be a shame and a wasted opportunity if the chance to find answers and healing were to be lost in the fog of political ambition and electoral mathematical exigencies. There are many bodies buried in the ground in northern Uganda, and elsewhere, and it is tempting to simply let them lie. But to exorcise the ghosts that haunt us, we will have to find the courage to dig up the past, account and apologise to each other, in order to finally bury the hatchet.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki