Monograph 99: Behind the Violence. The War in Northern Uganda, Zachary Lomo and Lucy Hovil


The war in northern Uganda is now entering its eighteenth year. Initially rooted in a popular rebellion against President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, the conflict has since been transformed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) into a brutally violent war in which civilians are the main victims. More than 1,4 million people have been displaced, and tens of thousands more have been killed, raped or abducted. At first glance, the persistence of the LRA over such a long period is incomprehensible: the majority of the force is made up of kidnapped children held against their will, the LRA is extremely unpopular among civilians because of its brutality and apparent lack of an overarching political agenda, and it operates in an environment without significant natural resources to sell for arms. Indeed, the conflict has not only continued for nearly 18 years, but in 2003 spread significantly east into the Teso and Lango regions.

Based on extensive interviews in Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Soroti, with additional consultations in Kampala, Luwero, London and Washington, this monograph examines the structural causes that underpin the war, its current dynamics, the implications of the conflict spreading further east, and ideas for resolution. Our findings show that while people living in the north have deep-rooted grievances against the current government, Kony’s LRA is a poor expression of these and enjoys no popular support amongst the civilian population. The war is thus two conflicts in one: a multi-faceted northern rebellion against the NRM government whose root causes have never been fully resolved, and a war with an LRA that does not fit conventional models of political insurgency and is motivated, in part, by an Old Testament-style apocalyptic spiritualism.

In addition, the protracted nature of the war has created new conflict dynamics, with many of the war’s horrific consequences – such as mass displacement, a perceived war economy, and a military response that often fails to protect communities – having turned into reasons for its continuation. With the population blaming the conflicting parties for such suffering, the ensuing lack of trust has led to intense three-way tensions between the LRA, the civilian population and the government that has both compromised intelligence gathering, and turned the rebels against civilians. The recent spread of the war has also raised several new issues. The government-sponsored Arrow and Rhino militias in Soroti and Lira, while appearing successful in protecting the populations in their regions in the short-term, are of long-term concern: the arming of over 20,000 civilians may potentially threaten the security of the country.

This monograph begins with an overview of the conflict in northern Uganda, followed by a discussion of the root causes of the war, which highlights crucial causes that must still be addressed today. Chapter 3 presents an in-depth analysis of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Chapter 4 highlights how the devastating consequences of the war have transformed into continuing causes of conflict. Chapter 5 considers the recent developments that have taken place since the LRA spread its attacks further east and the implications for the resolution of the conflict, while Chapter 6 analyses the attempts made to date to resolve the conflict. The monograph concludes with general recommendations for the way forward, addressing the three main strands of the conflict: root causes that continue to feed grievances in northern Uganda, the LRA conflict itself, and the consequences of the war that are interpreted as ongoing causes of the war.

Accordingly, the main recommendations of the authors are as follows:

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