The Armies of Uganda and Human Rights - A Personal Observation


Few Americans know much about Uganda. Most perceive Uganda's history as having ended with Idi Amin. Almost all find it hard to believe that under his successor, A. Milton Obote, Uganda produced more refugees, displaced persons and civilian deaths than under Amin. But it is true.

Obote's instrument of havoc was the Ugandan National Liberation Army (UNLA), the presumed defender of Uganda's borders and its people. Today Obote is gone from Uganda; a new government is in power; and the country has a new army, the National Resistance Army (NRA). On many counts, the NRA is qualitatively different from the UNLA, to the great benefit of most Ugandans.

The UNLA Record

It is hard to conceive of a society more divided than that of Uganda. Hostile ethnic divisions compounded by serious religious, geographic, political and other kinds of fractures - to a large degree fostered and manipulated by British colonialists and subsequent neocolonialists - have produced a population within Uganda's national borders that many view ungovernable as a single nation. The army typifies the problem.

Ethnic and regional divisions within Uganda's armies date to before independence. After independence in 1962, Obote exploited those divisions. First as prime minister and later as president, he attempted to preserve his power by eliminating legal restrictions on his tenure, and by recruiting many loyal Western Nilotic Acholi and Langi fellow tribesmen into the army. By 1971, opposition to Obote had coalesced around his deputy army commander, Idi Amin Dada, who in turn larded the army with his own fellow West Nilers and with Sudanese mercenaries, to the point where a coup against Obote was successfully staged.

Over the next eight years, Amin made a spectacle of himself and the country, while effectively butchering many of his enemies, including soldiers recruited by Obote. To divert domestic critics, Amin created a series of foreign crises, finally ordering his army to attack Tanzania. Within months, Tanzania counterattacked, swept into Uganda and shortly thereafter secured the country. The Tanzanian forces were accompanied by a small force of Ugandan exiles called the Ugandan National Liberation Army. In April 1979 a provisional government was formed, headed first by Yusufu Lule and then Godfrey Binaisa. In rapid succession, each was removed by coup. Power was then assumed by a military commission strongly loyal to Obote. In December 1980, parliamentary elections were held and, in results widely viewed as fraudulent, Obote regained power.

Within months, Obote built the ragtag, underpaid, poorly trained and undisciplined UNLA - composed primarily of ethnic Northerners - and the youth wing of his Uganda People's Congress (UPC) into instruments of repression. Harassment and brutalization of the populations in West Nile and Karamoja were common. In October 1982, the UPC youth wing, supplemented by special forces soldiers from Kampala, uprooted and drove more than 80,000 Banyarwanda, Bahima and others from their homes in southwestern Uganda.

On a January 1983 visit to the southwest, I saw the UNLA up close. The destroyed homes of the Banyarwanda told the tragic story of that group's scapegoating. Fear of the soldiers was palpable. Driving from Mbarara to Kampala required clearing 18 roadblocks, paying at each one and putting up with drunken soldiers arrogantly waving automatic weapons at civilian travelers. Upon arrival in Kampala I could see extortion on the street by soldiers and other security personnel. By five PM the streets were deserted; by that time the soldiers were so drunk that one took great risks to confront them. Gunfire echoed throughout the night. The UNLA had clearly become the worst enemy of the bulk of the civilian population.

But the worst of it all was Luwero. Northwest of Kampala in the so-called "Luwero Triangle," the armed opposition to Obote and his UNLA - Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army - took root. With largely southern ethnic roots, the NRA conducted hit-and-run raids against the better equipped - and British-assisted - UNLA. It is obvious that at some point Obote and his army commanders effectively gave the green light to the UNLA to clear the Luwero Triangle of every living thing. They proceeded to do so with a vengeance. In August 1984, reacting to the litany of UNLA violence and abuse, the US condemned human rights abuses in Uganda as among the worst in the world; the British government demurred, though at least one honest voice in the British media cried out that "butchery cannot pass unmentioned just because the butcher happens, for the moment, to be ours." Perhaps a quarter-of-a-million civilians died as a result of direct violence by the UNLA or of enforced starvation. To the end, ethnic hostility was paramount. Banyarwanda, who made up not more than 10 percent of the population, constituted as many as 40 percent of the victims. The true numbers will never be known. But to this day, the destroyed buildings of Luwero are streaked with graffiti proclaiming, "You will never forget that the boys from Gulu were here!"

On 27 July 1985, Milton Obote was driven from power, not because of his great misdeeds, but because of friction between Acholi and Langi within the UNLA. Obote, a Langi, was ousted by insurgents led by Brig. Gen. Basilio Okello, an Acholi. In truth, however, the style of the military council that governed Uganda for the next six months can best be characterized as "Obote's government without Obote." Although there were limited attempts to improve the human rights situation, the UNLA careened out of control. Debauchery of civilians was rampant, even becoming a primary stumbling block to negotiations between the military council and the NRA.

In the end, the UNLA's violence against civilians became the trigger for an NRA drive on Kampala. In late January 1986, Kampala fell. The UNLA withdrew east and north, robbing, raping and killing as it went. Given Uganda's history, civilians awaited the arrival of the NRA with justified concern.

The NRA Record

I arrived in Uganda two weeks later and, within minutes, knew the nation had changed. Not only had the UNLA been driven out, but the NRA was proving to be disciplined and incorrupt by comparison. Roadblocks were comparatively few and operated in a relaxed fashion. Drunken soldiers were seldom seen. There was little shooting in Kampala at night, people stayed out partying and drums could be heard until the wee hours of the morning. The NRA announced - and carried out - its intentions to punish severely any of its soldiers who abused civilians.

Only then did I get to see Luwero. Perhaps those who have seen Pol Pot's Cambodia will understand, but what I saw no person should have to see. At Kaaya Farm, Kiwoko, Nakaseke, Kapeka and at dozens of other crossroads villages, thousands of human skulls and bones could be seen, tossed away never buried. I saw the skeletons of babies; others with hands still tied behind their backs. One could drive for dozens of miles and never see a person, a habitable building, a crop, a dog or a chicken - a completely dead part of Uganda. And the graffiti read "UNLA" and "You will never forget...".

Most observers felt that the acid test for the NRA would be how it dealt with civilians as it consolidated its control of the north; there was concern that it would act like an army of hostile ethnic southerners occupying the north. In fact, the NRA moved gingerly, negotiating where possible and generally keeping its reputation for discipline intact. There were exceptions, but generally they were dealt with in accordance with the NRA's strict Code of Conduct.

By the end of March, the NRA was in control of the country and, for some months, peace prevailed. Then, UNLA remnants that had fled to the Sudan attacked Ugandan refugees there. In August, some of these remnants returned to Uganda. Since then, instability has reigned in the central north, particularly around Gulu and Lira. By spring 1987, reports, largely emanating from Nairobi, quoted opponents of the National Resistance Movement government as claiming that the NRA was disintegrating in the north and that genocide was in progress.

I traveled to the north in June 1987 to see for myself. I asked permission to go to Gulu, Lira and Kitgum and to have a free hand in reviewing the human rights situation there. I received the government's cooperation, both in terms of facilitation and noninterference.

This is what I saw: The north and its people are hurting, and many civilians have been displaced from their homes. There is substantial violence. During its metamorphosis from a bush guerrilla force to the nation's army, the NRA has absorbed ex-Amin soldiers and other armed elements. Their poorer discipline record has created serious problems that NRA officers are attempting to resolve. Even so, it is not primarily the NRA that is perpetrating violence against civilians. NRA infractions do happen, however, as the NRA itself is quick to acknowledge, but not as a matter of policy or tactic. Violators are punished when possible, the NRA asserts. I interviewed dozens of civilians, many privately. All asserted that the rebels, remnants of the UNLA, were the offenders. I interviewed prisoners of war, expatriates, missionaries and others. I met a surprising number of NRA officers and men who were Acholi and Langi, as well as Banyankole, Banyarwanda and Baganda. The percentage of northerners in the NRA is growing. The NRA policies of enforcing discipline and non-sectarianism, although not implemented well in every instance, seem to be paying off. The number of rebels "reporting in" is growing as a result of a formal amnesty declared in June.

I am not so naive as to assert that the NRA is composed of human rights advocates. Bush warfare in Uganda does not yield that result. I did not, of course, interview all civilians in every location, and obviously not any of those who may have left the area. In some locations, for safety purposes, I could not go far into the countryside. And most anyone I met would have assumed I was present with the NRA's approval.

From what I saw, however, I am convinced that the NRA's treatment of civilians who are traditional ethnic antagonists is better than that of the UNLA. Yet, the NRM government can be faulted on many important human rights criteria. For example, the NRA has imprisoned some political opponents without trial, and it has limited access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to some prisoners. The NRA is not without its faults, but clearly its general pattern of discipline and relations with civilians is a welcome change from the UNLA's performance in the first half of this decade.

Why? I do not know for sure, but perhaps because the core of the NRA is a cadre of highly ideological, well-educated men and women who are strong nationalists. They have rejected the divisions of the past and have concluded that a unified nation must be achieved if the cycle of vicious violence in Uganda is to be broken. Their motivations, I believe, after hundreds of hours of discussion with many of them, are primarily political, not ethnic. I do not suggest ethnic drives are absent, but they are subordinate to political ones. The NRA has a thorough political education system and places political indoctrination high on the agenda for soldiers and new recruits. Nonsectarianism within society and detribalization of the army, now that the NRM is in power, are major tenets of the political agenda. Enforcement of discipline within the NRA is a cardinal operating principle. The NRA seeks to build a popular, highly politicized army that earns its way rather than lives off the people.


I have no idea if this agenda can be delivered over time. I do not dispute those in the diplomatic community who assert NRA discipline has weakened as it incorporated into itself former UNLA and other armed militias after the NRM came to power. Perhaps the evils of tribalism and the other elements that divide Ugandans will triumph in the end, particularly during the transition from a military to a democratic government, or if the devastated economy fails to restart.

On June 1, I visited Palabek, a trading center northwest of Kitgum and just south of the Sudan border. The NRA had entered Palabek for the first time three days earlier. It was deserted. Both civilians and rebels had run away, believing the NRA would kill them. In a sweep of the area, two of the rebels had been captured, disarmed and then released. They were instructed to go to the bush and tell civilians and rebels alike to come back to Palabek, as the NRA would not hurt them. By the time I arrived, about 300 had responded. I have no doubt that ultimately, as is now the case in Gulu and Lira, the number of local civilians in Palabek running to the NRA for protection will far exceed those that flee it.

I remarked to the deputy army commander who was in Palabek that these Acholi civilians, by returning to Palabek, had essentially thrown in with the NRA in the eyes of the rebels. I reminded him that, as the nation's army, no longer a bush-fighting force, the NRA has an obligation to do whatever is necessary to protect those civilians.

I believe that they are trying.

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