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The Lord's Resistance Army: Myth and Reality

The Lord's Resistance Army: Myth and Reality

by Adam Branch, Andrew Mwenda, Kristof Titeca, Sverker Finnström, Mareike Schomerus

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The Lord's Resistance Army is Africa’s most persistent and notorious 'terrorist' group. Led by the mysterious Joseph Kony, it has committed a series of horrific human rights abuses, including massacres and mutilations. Since the mid 1980s, it has abducted tens of thousands of people, including large numbers of children forced to train as fighters. The IC in 2005


The Lord's Resistance Army is Africa’s most persistent and notorious 'terrorist' group. Led by the mysterious Joseph Kony, it has committed a series of horrific human rights abuses, including massacres and mutilations. Since the mid 1980s, it has abducted tens of thousands of people, including large numbers of children forced to train as fighters. The IC in 2005 issued warrants for Kony and his top commanders, and the United States is backing a military campaign against the group. But the LRA survives, continuing to inspire both fascination and fear. Authoritative but provocative, The Lord’s Resistance Army provides the most comprehensive analysis of the group available. From the roots of the violence to the oppressive responses of the Ugandan government and the failures of the international community, this collection looks at this most brutal of conflicts in fascinating depth, and includes a remarkable first-hand interview with Kony himself.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Essential reading for anyone interested in the conflict in Uganda and in 'terror' more generally." -- David Keen, Professor of Complex Emergencies, LSE
"[A] fascinating and revealing collection of articles... provides ample and comprehensive insights into the tragic and unending saga that is the LRA." —Harry Johnstone, The Times Literary Supplement

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The Lord's Resistance Army

Myth and Reality

By Tim Allen, Koen Vlassenroot

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-903-9


Exploring the roots of LRA violence: political crisis and ethnic politics in Acholiland



Recent academic work has made important progress in rendering LRA violence comprehensible, despite the moral and political opprobrium such efforts tend to attract. The existence of a political agenda on the part of the LRA and the strategic rationality informing its anti-civilian violence have been well covered (e.g. Dolan 2009; Finnström 2008b; Branch 2005), but less attention has been given to how LRA violence became, at least in the eyes of some, morally and politically justified. To this end, this chapter shows how the LRA insurgency and its use of violence are embedded within two political crises that afflict Acholi society, and how these crises are themselves embedded in the political history of Uganda, specifically the history of ethnic politics.

The argument is as follows. After the NRA takeover in 1986, Acholi society was rent by two simultaneous, and related, political crises: an internal crisis stemming from the breakdown of authority within Acholi society, authority that had been legitimized through a discourse of Acholi ethnicity; and a national crisis brought about by the destruction of the political links that had tied the Acholi in the district to the national state. Each post-1986 rebel movement in Acholiland – the Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA), the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) and the LRA – were responding to both crises at once, as each attempted to impose internal order upon Acholi society by building a constituency against the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) based on a particular conception of Acholi political identity. In short, each rebel group endeavoured to resolve the internal crisis through the violent resolution of the national crisis, to create internal order through military struggle against a common enemy, all cast in ethnic terms. The chapter concludes by considering how these crises might be resolved today through the development of an inclusive internal political order and a genuinely representative national leadership as an alternative to the experimental, violent attempts to resolve the crises that have predominated up to now.

Background to crisis

This section explores the historical origins of these two crises. The internal crisis of the Acholi had its roots in the destruction of the dominant internal social-political order, an order that had been anchored, on the one hand, by male Acholi elders and other lineage-based authorities and, on the other, by an Acholi political middle class, both of which justified their authority through a discourse of Acholi ethnicity. Although the destabilization of that order began under Idi Amin, crisis did not erupt until 1986 with the return home of thousands of Acholi troops following their defeat by the NRA, causing a disruption unmanageable by the weakened internal authority structure. The national political crisis similarly had its roots in the destruction under Amin of the national Acholi political middle class and elite, the group that had provided a link between the Acholi peasantry and the central state. This crisis, similarly, did not erupt until the NRA seized power in 1986, proceeded to exclude Acholi political leaders from the new government, and launched a vicious counter-insurgency in Acholiland, leaving the Acholi without effective national leadership or representation in the face of extreme state violence.

Both crises, I argue, took shape in the context of ethnic politics, specifically the intertwining of two types of ethnic political identity. The literature on the current war often fails to account for the historical processes by which ethnic identities were constructed and politicized, instead naturalizing them and not questioning how they came to be bases for communal political identification and action. To help remedy this, I argue that ethnic political identities predominantly took two forms in post-colonial Uganda, which I will term 'tribal' and 'regional'. 'Tribal' ethnic identity arose out of the 'tribes' demarcated by the British during colonialism as the administrative units of indirect rule – that is, the five 'treaty kingdoms' of southern Uganda and the 'districts' of northern Uganda. As each 'tribe' changed from a category of colonial administration to a category of political identity and action, each came to have an internal aspect – for it was in the name of tribal custom that British-appointed chiefs claimed their power and that lineage-based authorities contested that power – and an external aspect, for it was in the name of each tribe that the political elite demanded a place in national politics. The second form of ethnic political identity, 'regional' identity, had a more recent origin. It derived not from the units of indirect rule, but from the north–south divide in Ugandan society and politics that was introduced during British colonialism, consolidated under the post-colonial regimes, in particular the first presidency of Milton Obote, and became a basis for collective political identification and action in parts of the south during the NRA rebellion. This regional divide between north and south from the beginning has had an ethnic dimension in the putative distinction between the 'Nilotic' groups living north of the Nile river and the 'Bantu' groups living to the south. This chapter does not investigate the specific history in Uganda of the categories 'Nilotic' and 'Bantu' as they came to pertain to north and south, an important subject in its own right given the very different way in which these categories have been constructed and deployed elsewhere in the Great Lakes region. Instead, I simply note that the regional divide between north and south in Uganda has at times been ethnicized as a distinction between Nilotic and Bantu in the service of certain political agendas and often continues to carry these ethnic connotations today.

The dominant internal political order within Acholi society had its origins in the 1950s, specifically in the political alliance between lineage-based authorities and the emerging petty bourgeoisie. The former, who had held significant, but highly counterbalanced, authority within a decentralized pre-colonial socio-political structure, had seen that authority challenged as the British colonizers proceeded to select and impose their own administrative chiefs. For its part, the Acholi petty bourgeoisie, given the lack of a large landholding class and a significant private sector, was based mostly upon state employment, and so was dependent upon state resources for its position. Both groups, resenting the discretionary power of the British-appointed chiefs and seeking economic and political concessions from the colonial government, posed a significant threat to the British administration.

The British introduced district councils to deal with just this threat (Gertzel 1974: 15–23). While this attempt at co-optation kept these groups within institutionalized politics, however, it also provided the lineage-based authorities and petty bourgeoisie a stage upon which to come together and articulate a common political position. This became increasingly important as political parties began organizing in Acholiland in the mid-1950s and found a ready-made vehicle for their activities in these councils (ibid.: 60–62; Leys 1967). The petty bourgeoisie became the key link between the Acholi peasantry and the national government, as the parties offered the national organization needed to effect local reform but proceeded by building a base at the local level first. The political parties catalysed a community of interest between the petty bourgeoisie, the lineage-based authorities and the rural Acholi, effecting a new political order within Acholiland and bringing the Acholi into national politics (Gertzel 1974: 66–7). It was also within this context – a petty bourgeoisie organized around the district council demanding consideration on the national stage, and the lineage-based authorities, also organized on an Acholi-wide basis in the council, demanding a moderation of the despotic powers of the appointed chiefs – that claims to Acholi identity became a mode of legitimizing political authority (Finnström 2003: 83; Sathyamurthy 1986: 344). The articulation of an Acholi political identity and the assertion of Acholi unity by the petty bourgeoisie in national politics had made ethnicity a viable discourse through which Acholi lineage-based authorities could assert the legitimacy of their own claim to internal authority over the Acholi as a group. Acholi ethnicity has remained the dominant discourse of internal authority until today, its precise content contested but not its basic legitimacy.

At independence, the political parties, especially the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), had presented members of the Acholi petty bourgeoisie with significant access to government positions at the national level, and personal ties and the political parties' dependence upon local political mobilization meant that the Acholi political stratum remained a coherent group (Leys 1967). Thus, the emerging politicized middle class, growing out of the petty bourgeoisie, had one foot in the national government, through elected positions in parliament, appointed positions in the civil service and officer positions in the military, and one foot in rural Acholiland, among those who formed their base of support. A dominant internal order was stabilized around the discourse of Acholi ethnic identity, as was the place of the Acholi within national politics.

During Obote's first period of power (referred to in Uganda as Obote I), this petty bourgeoisie expanded and its political role intensified, as Obote brought significant numbers of northerners into the central state, both through the civil service and the military, and created a patronage machine in northern Uganda (Kasfir 1976: 212). By the end of the 1960s, the stakes of government patronage had increased significantly, and an Acholi and Langi 'economic bureaucracy' appeared at the national level, increasingly differentiated from the local leadership, encompassing the local middle class, the lineage-based authorities and UPC-appointed administrative chiefs, which was incorporated through patronage (Mamdani 1976). In addition to the expansive UPC organization, Obote also depended heavily upon the security services. During the colonial period, those Acholi who were without the education needed to join the civil service, but did not want to farm, generally entered the security forces, so they were over-represented in the military and police both pre- and post-independence (Kasfir 1976: 183, 185). As Obote expanded the army in the 1960s, he also entrenched the northern dominance of the armed forces; the army grew from 700 troops at independence to 9,000 at the time of the Amin coup, of which over one third were Acholi (Omara-Otunnu 1987: 51, 81–5; see also Mudoola 1996: 97). The consequence of Obote's strategy was to introduce a new regional north–south cleavage into national politics. Although this cleavage would not provide the basis for a northern political identity, it would eventually provide an ideological basis for the southern political identity that proved to be central to the NRA rebellion.

In this sense, Idi Amin's coup demonstrated the continued importance of tribal ethnic political identity in Ugandan politics (Mudoola 1996: 103; Mutibwa 1992: 71–2; Omara-Otunnu 1987: 87–91). The 1970s saw the destabilization of the dominant internal Acholi political order and the destruction of the link between the Acholi and the national government. Amin declared an end to ethnic favouritism towards the Langi and Acholi and took steps to eradicate their hold on state power. He filled the army ranks with West Nile and Sudanese troops and purged it of Acholi and Langi (Omara-Otunnu 1987: 104, 133–6; Mamdani 1976; Sathyamurthy 1986: 615), and then used the military and other security forces to purge the national civil service of the Acholi and Langi political elite (Mutibwa 1992: 108; Sathyamurthy 1986: 613, 644–5 nn. 22, 23). At the district level, by 1973 local government had become an extension of the security services, as military and police officials displaced the appointed chiefs who had enjoyed significant power under Obote during the 1960s (Omara-Otunnu 1987: 104, 133–6). The local Acholi political leadership and lineage-based authorities suffered significant losses as Amin launched a series of violent political purges in Acholi and Lango districts, leading to tens of thousands of civilian deaths (Kasozi 1994: 121; Mutibwa 1992: 88). Many of the national and local Acholi elite, especially the middle class, who were not killed were driven into exile, giving birth to the large diaspora that persists today. The lineage-based authorities who remained in Acholiland generally withdrew from political life.

The Acholi middle class and political elite, lacking a base independent of the state, were easily eliminated by that state, and without these groups there was no independent economic foundation to build a new mediating class between the peasantry and the government. The order that had pertained inside Acholiland was destabilized, and the link between the Acholi in the district and the national state was destroyed. When Obote returned to power in the early 1980s, it did not ameliorate the situation: although certain prominent Acholi were incorporated into the new government, there was no return to the massive patronage machine of Obote I, and there was no wide-scale political rehabilitation of the Acholi middle class (Mutibwa 1992: 1 53). Instead, Acholi were brought into the state principally through the military, and the officer corps of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA, i.e. the new national army) again became heavily weighted towards the Acholi and Langi (Omara-Otunnu 1987: 149–51). Thus was the stage set for the internal and national political crises that would grip the Acholi in the wake of National Resistance Army (NRA) victory in 1986.

The NRA rebellion was the crucible in which the north–south divide was ethnicized and took a central place in national politics. A. G. G. Gingyera-Pinycwa has argued that a 'Northern Question' emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s among a group of southerners, many of whom were in exile, who saw it as necessary to remove northerners from national power in order to establish a new national equalization and end northern military dictatorship (Gingyera-Pinycwa 1989: 53). Anti-northern sentiment would perhaps have remained an elite bias, however, if it had not served a key role in building support for the NRA in Luwero. Museveni and most of his comrades were Banyankole, from Ankole in south-western Uganda, but many Banyarwanda refugees (i.e. mainly Tutsi refugees from Rwanda) were also part of the NRA, eventually comprising 3,000 of the 14,000 troops (Kuperman 2004: 66). The Luwero Triangle, however, had a heterogeneous population, among which the two most populous groups were Baganda peasants and Banyarwanda migrant workers. Therefore, the NRA's decision to base themselves in the densely populated Luwero Triangle region presented the incipient rebel movement with a problem: they were unable to appeal to tribal ethnic commonality in building the peasant support essential for their anticipated protracted struggle, both because of the heterogeneity of the Luwero population and because of their own lack of tribal ethnic commonality with those living there. In the face of this challenge, it appears that the NRA built support in Luwero, and then throughout the south of Uganda, in part by framing their revolution in regional terms, as a struggle to throw out the north in favour of the south, which carried with it the ethnic connotation of Nilotic and Bantu.

This designation of a northern ethnic enemy resonated with the experience of those living in Luwero and beyond, who suffered greatly under the UNLA's counter-insurgency. Because of the war, the peasantry experienced the power and violence of the central state directly without mediation by the local state. The Acholi ended up bearing the brunt of this anti-northern sentiment as a result of their disproportionately large presence in the armed forces, especially among the rank-and-file troops sent to fight in Luwero, and of the colonial stereotype of their being a 'martial tribe'. This was further reinforced with the Acholiled coup in 1985, and subsequently, in many parts of the south, the most common appellation for UNLA soldiers was simply 'Acholi' (Finnström 2003: 108).


Excerpted from The Lord's Resistance Army by Tim Allen, Koen Vlassenroot. Copyright © 2010 Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Tim Allen is Professor in Development Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His publications include the best selling textbook, Poverty and Development (2000), as well as books on ethnic conflict in Europe, media coverage of wars, links between culture and development issues, and mass forced displacement in Africa. In 2005 he directed a six month study on the experiences of people who have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. His latest books have been Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army (Zed 2006), and Complex emergencies and Humanitarian Responses (2009). In addition to academic work, he has worked as a consultant with numerous international organisations, including UNDP, UNICEF, UNRISD, MSF, LWF, Save the Children, World Vision and DFID. He is also a broadcaster and has presented or contributed to numerous radio programmes for the Open University and the BBC. Koen Vlassenroot is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Ghent, where he also coordinates the Conflict Research Group. He is also the Director of the Central Africa Programme of Egmont, the Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels.
Dr Tim Allen is a Reader at the London School of Economics and Programme Director of the post-graduate programme in Development Studies.

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