Why northern Uganda’s post-conflict recovery process is limping

Finances. Northern Uganda Social Action Fund III beneficiaries in Nadunget Sub-county, Moroto District, display some of their saving boxes during a meeting with the World Bank in March. PHOTO BY LEONARD MUKOOLI

What you need to know:

  • Start. Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord’s Resistance Army, launched the insurgency in 1987, claiming lives of more than 10,000 people and displacing nearly two million people.
  • Progress: Whereas government has put in place different projects to spur transformation, local leaders say there has been misguided priorities as far as addressing the issue is concerned, writes Tobbias Jolly Owiny.

The sweetness of the smooth but glittering tarmac welcomes you to almost all parts of Gulu Town, home to approximately 245,000 residents.

From the town centre, the new tarmac roads stretch through the poverty-stricken and grass-thatched suburbs, and the most dormant and empty end of the town.
On a busy morning at Olayilong Trading Centre in Layibi Division, women sit by a heap of garbage on the road frying cassava chips, while others are seated on sewing machines to mend customers’ clothes.

Until 2004, Olayilong housed thousands of internally displaced persons who fled their homes from different parts of Acholi Sub-region after they were forced out by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.
Olayilong Village, south of Gulu Town, is a busy suburb filled with majority destitute and idlers due to the presence of affordable food and accommodation facilities.

Local authorities say many former returnees are currently residing here. Different groups of children and youth, majority of whom are children sired from captivity, as well as those sired and brought up from camps, have sprung up across the town.

Disowned
There is also a large number of single mothers who were disowned by their families and relatives upon return from captivity as they possessed children sired from captivity, including women who have tried in vain to resettle in families but would be divorced by their husbands once they realised their children were produced from the bush.

For an area that was once ravaged by the LRA insurgence led by Joseph Kony, the social and economic potentials of the people in the sub-region is yet to be rebuilt.
Mr Christopher Olum, the chairperson of former rebels in northern Uganda, says only a small fraction have settled back to their former homesteads.

“There were intensive efforts to reintegrate us but many have been denied land because they were abducted at childhood and returned as adults who could not define boundaries. They were bullied. Others opt to instead hire land to do farming,” Mr Olum says.

He adds that several organisations trained ex-rebels with hand skills but ignored their psychological rehabilitation and that others even abandoned or sold off tools they were given after the trainings because they felt they could not fit in the community.

Besides killings, maiming and injuries were inflicted by the rebels on the population, thousands of women were raped and underage girls defiled as the war swept through the sub-region during the two-decade insurgence, a vice that saw many children sired from captivity.

Different projects
To ensure economic and social recovery of the sub-region, government has since 2003 come up with more than seven different projects worth billions of shillings albeit with limited fruits.

Prof Ogenga Otunnu, an associate professor of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies at DePaul University in Chicago in USA, says the sub-region has failed to pick its recovery pace because government did not put in place particular coherent plans to address the crisis associated with the protracted conflict.

“Beyond the silent guns lay hotter crises which have to do with issues of property rights in the post-conflict situation. There are wrangles over property ownership in communities everywhere. This means they cannot prosper despite all these efforts,” Prof Ogenga says.

“Government was unable to anticipate or prepare to face a hostile post-conflict environment. In the pre-conflict and conflict environments, others grabbed land and to date, this is one factor that has made it very difficult for peace to prevail because there are a lot of conflicts in the grassroots over land,” he adds.
On the other hand, Mr Christopher Omona, a social worker in Gulu Town, says among the children on streets today, there is a lot of vulnerability with not even a dose of resilience or creativity to stay alive.

“Once not solved, such vulnerability could create space for grievances that explodes into radicalisation. Government should act quicker because this can offer very fertile grounds for internal instability right here just like in the past, for example the B13 groups you see now,” Mr Omona says.

Survival for the fittest
He says for such children, survival is a do-or-die affair on a daily basis.

“They raid places, steal and kill to survive since a community that would help them does not. They congregate in their own corners and figure out how to survive,” he says.

He adds that during the insurgency, family life was raptured so much that children started raising themselves on their own when they lost their parents.
He says parents could not also protect their children from forceful abduction.

A latest Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa research titled ‘Politics of Return’ which explores the return and reintegration of ex-rebels, unveiled in Gulu Town two months ago, indicates that poverty and denied access to land for returnees have hampered their reintegration and recovery.

“The returnees face comparably difficult situations when they return to their original homes due to rejection, trauma and denial of access to family assets such as land,” it states.

The study focused on the daily experiences of those attempting to build or rebuild communities in Uganda, DR Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic to understand how internally displaced people and former combatants negotiate and experience return.
On one hand, Prof Otunu argues that the responsibility of underdevelopment, economic and social crises in northern Uganda today rests on the shoulders of those in leadership.

Prof Otunun says religion, which must have been a substantial tool to preach hard work and prosperity in the sub-region, has instead turned out to be “robbery” since the gospel does not challenge poverty but blesses those who give more to the church and prosperity.
“Churches have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, it is a marketplace now in the worst possible way we have seen with various Christian sects. Why should they continue preaching a gospel that instead causes poverty? The gospel we have now turns the population to be very submissive confortable subjects,” he adds.

Dialogue. The Lord’s Resistance Army returnees, disabled persons and HIV/Aids victims hold a consultative meeting in Gulu Town two months ago. PHOTO BY TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

Ms Evelyn Amony, the chairperson of Women Advocacy Network, says many female returnees have preferred to settle in urban centres where they can live and raise their children since they are denied land to settle and other family properties, besides being disowned for siring children whose fathers and clans are not known.
“There is a lot of stigma in society. These children and their mothers now face identity crisis in the community. This has traumatised them the more,” Ms Among says.

Misguided priorities
When guns went silent, approximately 13 years ago, there was involuntary repatriation when government asked the internally displaced persons to return to their homes since there was no justification to keep people in the camps because the war had ended.

However, it limited its definition of armed conflicts to the physical gun clashes and ignored the traditional non-violent situations where family life and economy in the sub-region were broken as people were abducted or forced into camps.

The rate at which Acholi Sub-region is recovering on its own is slow compared to other sub-regions of Lango, West Nile and Teso where the rebels caused atrocities.
The sight of youth drinking alcohol from morning to sunset, playing cards and sitting by the roadside is common in most urban centres in Acholi.

Mr Ambrose Olaa, the prime minister of Acholi Cultural Institution, says government has blundered by ignoring particular steps of recovery and has gone straight away to reconstruction.

“There is nothing specifically targeting the returnees as far as recovery is concerned in both Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (Nusaf). As leaders, we feel there should be a programme that should be ring-fenced to cater specifically for the needs of the LRA returnees,” he says.

Mr Jackson Omona, the chairperson of Kitgum District, who is also the chairman of Acholi District Leaders’ Forum, says the region is failing to pick up its pieces because both communities and government focus on wrong priorities.

“We are doing badly in recovery. Most people are stuck in sorry states of 10 or so years ago because they have failed to decide what is best to change their lives while government dictates projects that do not change the life of a local person at the end of the day,” Mr Omona says.

He says the biggest fight that they have as leaders is confrontation with the mindset among the people.
“Unless it changes, communities now adore poverty and they have given up in their own efforts to get out of it because they still believe in handouts like in the past,” he adds.

He says government declined to honour a 2009 resolution by Acholi leaders to have each household given a pair of oxen and an ox-plough to boost agricultural productivity, but instead took to collective approaches.

“Group approaches have failed and will not work because it ends up being mismanaged, unlike the individual approach we suggested. But even the farming communities have failed to choose the right enterprises and end up growing crops that are not competitive in the market,” Mr Omona says.

Government position

Mr Hillary Onek, the Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, says the region’s recovery has stagnated because the original concept by government to reconstruct northern Uganda was not well planned.

“Government has overtime injected a lot of funds to transform the region, but the resources are thinly spread, the money is spread so thin on the ground to let it cover a wide area such that at the end, very little impact is realised,” Mr Onek says.
He says areas such as Acholi and Lango sub-regions that lost most lives, properties and animals, have not benefited because a bigger fraction of the project funds end up developing areas that did not feel the impact of the war.

“I strongly suggest that government carries out a total review of northern Uganda reconstruction projects by zoning the region by how serious particular areas were affected by the war. Once it is handled that way, then we are going to see better results,” he says.
He adds that government needs to look at what generates growth.

“I mean projects that enable transformation but not just consumption because the way the funds are distributed, they are spread so thin to the ground to even areas that never suffered the war such as Busia, Pallisa or even Tororo,” he says.

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