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Uganda: Children, War, and Peace

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 30, 2004 (040930)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Optimism about prospects for peace in northern Uganda is growing. Recent news reports cite increased desertions from the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and some reduction in the number of displaced people. Nevertheless, making peace is no simple task. The population is traumatized by continuing violence, and HIV/AIDS rates in the conflict areas are almost double the national average.

A new report from World Vision Uganda highlights the continuing obstacles to peace and the enormous damage done to children and to society at large from this 18-year war that has received very little attention from the international community.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the foreword, executive summary, and key recommendations of the World Vision report, entitled "Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda."

For the full text of the 59-page illustrated World Vision report see (1M)

Additional links to more reports on the war in northern Uganda: (2004) (2003) (2003) (2002) (2000)


Many thanks to those of you who have already sent in your voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you have not yet made such a payment and would like to do so, please visit for details.

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Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict and Peace in Northern Uganda

Report Authors: Rory E. Anderson, Fortunate Sewankambo, and Kathy Vandergrift

World Vision


The faces and stories of children in northern Uganda are etched on our memories. The children and their suffering are unforgettable, but the armed conflict in which they are caught is almost forgotten by most of the world. Hopefully this report will help to change that.

For more than a decade World Vision has worked with the communities in northern Uganda to help them cope with the impacts of war. At our Centre for Children of War in Gulu, children who escape from captivity under the Lord's Resistance Army are helped to return home and rebuild their lives, through psychosocial counselling, healthcare, education and vocational training. In the camps for displaced persons, food, water, and shelter only begin to address the needs of millions of families forced from their homes.

We can give blankets to night commuters, but we also need to end the fear that drives them to leave home. The insecurity and costs of this war for everyone over the years is a price that is too high to pay. With each visit and each contribution, we ask ourselves what more we could do to help resolve this conflict and restore peace in northern Uganda. We are convinced lasting peace is winnable, but it needs a concerted effort from the local to the international level. This report is a result of our desire to contribute to finding the way forward.

It is our hope and prayer that this report will not only be read, but also acted upon by people of goodwill and people with the power and responsibility to end this conflict. It is a plea for a united effort to make a difference for the children and communities in northern Uganda and for global peace and security.

Robby Muhumuza, National Director, World Vision Uganda
Dean R. Hirsch, President, World Vision International

Executive Summary

The armed conflict in northern Uganda has been overlooked and misunderstood for the past 18 years. It is a tragic struggle for power involving children, who are used as pawns for military and political purposes. They are abused; they are manipulated; and by most, they are pitied, then ignored. In spite of good intentions and laws against child abuse, these children have no protection for their security and basic rights.

The misunderstanding has resulted in a tendency to simplify the conflict to merely "getting the bad guy," while ignoring the complexities that continue to fuel the conflict. For the past 18 years, war between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda (GoU) has continued because of historical grievances, a legacy of militarised politics, external interference, and national and international indifference.

Uganda's post-colonial history has been one of violent coups, numerous armed rebellions, and regional and ethnic divisions. This has created a militarised political system with a legacy of accessing state power through violence. The LRA insurgency was initially a political response to the current government's coup and ensuing cattle theft by various government soldiers. When the LRA resorted to the violent abduction of children to serve in its ranks, political grievance turned into humanitarian crisis.

The nature and duration of the conflict have created tremendous humanitarian, social, and economic costs for all of Uganda, particularly for children. The protection of children has not been a priority for governments, despite national and international laws guaranteeing their basic rights. As a result, a situation of mass hostage-taking has occurred, where over 20,000 children have been violently abducted. Children are the primary targets of the LRA, shrewdly forced to perpetuate their own misery whether they are abducted, or live a life of "night commuting" to avoid abduction.

Another tactic sustaining the conflict is the use of spiritual rituals by the LRA. Spiritual weapons are used to psychologically enslave both abducted children and the targeted population with fear. History provides an important context for understanding the spiritualised politics and the politicised spiritual rituals underlying the conflict. Because of this history, it is not strange to also spiritualise military activity. The result is a cultic manipulation of religion by the LRA in lieu of a political platform. The religious dimension has become an excuse for lack of action by authorities with mandates for child protection and conflict resolution. It would be more effective to recognise the religious element of this conflict as tactical, and respond by supporting and encouraging inter-faith peace efforts as part of a comprehensive counteroffensive.

The protracted nature of this conflict has created a humanitarian crisis that is among the world's worst. Over 1.6 million people are homeless. Eighty per cent of the northern region's population lives in displacement camps that are squalid and cramped. For the displaced, the inadequate response to this crisis has meant a drastic decline in quality of life indicators. Malnutrition rates among displaced children range from 7 21 per cent, and anywhere from 1,052 15,000 people share a single water source. A further indication of the severity of this crisis is the upswing in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. National prevalence rates for Uganda are estimated at 6.2 per cent and declining, but rates in waraffected areas are almost double that of the national average, at 11.9 per cent.

The economic costs of the war have been enormous for the entire country. It is morally and academically challenging to quantify the value of a human life and the social costs of war, but attempting to do so paints a picture of the costly damages of this prolonged conflict. For the analyzed period, the costs of the conflict in northern Uganda can conservatively be quantified at over US$1.3 billion, and costing more than US$100 million per year. This is more than Uganda's total national budget for health care. Paying for the conflict comes at the expense of other important national programs; therefore, the LRA conflict directly impacts the immediate well-being of all Ugandans.

Initially a Ugandan civil war, the LRA conflict spilled over the border and became linked to the civil war in southern Sudan. As part of the fight against terrorism, the Government of Sudan (GoS) opened select parts of southern Sudan for Uganda to fight a military offensive against the LRA. Intended as a resolution to the conflict, striking at the LRA as terrorists has, in fact, worsened the humanitarian crisis. Because the LRA ranks are estimated to be 80 per cent abducted child soldiers, the terrorists are themselves hostages. Under attack in Sudan, the LRA resorted to new abductions in northern Uganda, which exponentially increased displacement and created a new phenomenon called "night commuters," children who flee home every night and sleep in public places to avoid abduction. Relying on a military offensive created more of a humanitarian crisis. To date, global indifference allows the abuses to continue; the international dimensions and human suffering, however, make ending the conflict a responsibility for all of humanity.

Ending the war goes beyond capturing Joseph Kony. Full resolution of the LRA conflict will happen only when all of the following occur: (1) When Joseph Kony surrenders, is captured, or agrees to some sort of political settlement; (2) hidden LRA weapons caches are found; (3) LRA commanders are resettled and reintegrated; and (4) IDPs are able to safely leave camps and resettle. Although neutralising Kony is a large part of ending the conflict and the humanitarian crisis, any senior LRA commander with access to these weapons could inherit the cause and take his place.

This is a winnable peace. Given all of the challenges, resolution is possible if a sustained, high-level, multi-pronged approach is used by a variety of actors. Among these, the Government of Uganda should give priority to the protection of children and civilians and undertake the necessary reforms to combat corruption within the military.

The international community, including key western governments like the U.S., the E.U. and others, will need to pressure Sudan to put an end to LRA activities within its borders and galvanize international institutions to better respond to this crisis. If national and international actions are coordinated, Kony's veil of dark spiritism is likely to evaporate, as will the reign of terror by the LRA.

Summary of Recommendations

General Recommendations

  • Peace in northern Uganda is attainable. A multidimensional approach from the local to the international level is recommended. Considering the human, social and economic costs of this conflict, investment in a concerted peace initiative would benefit all of Uganda, Africa and international security.
  • The spiritual aspects of this conflict need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive response; they can neither be ignored nor used as an excuse for inaction by authorities with responsibility for protecting civilians. Non-military conflict resolution strategies should include someone with sensitivity to the spiritual dimensions of Kony's hold on people and an ability to appeal to spiritual alternatives to overcome fear and manipulation of religious beliefs.
  • Protection of civilians, with a special focus on children, should be a top priority for national and international action.
  • Appropriate HIV/AIDS control activities should be added to all interventions undertaken by government, NGOs and UN agencies, tailored for the different aspects of the conflict: e.g., emergency response, IDPs, abducted children, "night commuters," and post-conflict reconstruction.

Government of Uganda

  • The Government of Uganda and its leader President Yoweri Museveni should actively support and participate in international conflict resolution and local peace initiatives, in order to put an end to the cost of this conflict and channel diverted resources into productive uses for the people and economy of Uganda.
  • The Amnesty Act should be extended for a period longer than three months at a time, for all except Kony, and accompanied with consistent public information to increase awareness and allow for effective implementation.
  • Consistent messages from political leaders about conflict resolution and the Amnesty Act would help to build community confidence and convey important signals to persons still in LRA captivity that they will be accepted if they escape and return home.
  • Public information campaigns about peace and amnesty in northern Uganda need to be targeted towards young people, to ensure that anyone who might be abducted by the LRA is well aware of his or her options and less liable to be swayed by false indoctrination during captivity. Information should be age-appropriate and in local languages covering all of the affected areas.
  • The Minister of State for Youth and Children Affairs, who is responsible for the Children's Statute, should give urgent attention to the need for child protection in northern Uganda, working with UNICEF, the Army, and local community structures to take the necessary steps to ensure that children at risk are protected under the existing laws of Uganda.
  • The Ugandan government should speedily implement the recently passed IDP Policy and its provisions with high priority given to the protection of civilians, including children.
  • The Ugandan Army should clarify roles, responsibilities and accountability of the various local defence units in military strategies for civilian protection.
  • The Government of Uganda needs to conduct a full-scale audit of the military, and implement measures to combat the serious problems of corruption, which is debilitating the military.
  • Without waiting for the conflict to end, the Government of Uganda and local community leaders in the North should begin a process of national reconciliation through constructive dialogue, including participation by youth and women.

Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)

  • Leaders of the LRA should demonstrate a serious commitment to peace by:
    • clearly outlining achievable political objectives and cooperating with mediators attempting conflict resolution;
    • negotiating and implementing a ceasefire with independent, international monitoring of all parties;
    • ending the practice of abduction, with the release of all children and adults still in captivity; and
    • agreeing to human rights monitoring of all parties to ensure everyone complies with international humanitarian laws.
  • For the medium term, the LRA and its supporters should direct their energy into non-violent political dialogue and organisations to address root causes of the conflict and work toward the development of political structures in Uganda that respect diversity, treat all peoples equitably, and foster development in the north.
  • The LRA should use its spiritual influence to spread a message of peace rather than revenge and punishment, in keeping with the core teachings of the various religions to which the LRA has appealed for legitimacy in the past.

Government of Sudan

  • Consistent actions in support of peace are imperative from the Government of Sudan, including active measures to end all LRA activities within its borders.


  • UNICEF should increase its presence and engagement in northern Uganda, with a focus on child protection issues.


  • The ICRC should focus more attention on its unique mandate for child protection under the provisions of the Geneva Convention, including protection of the rights of children taken hostage by the LRA across international borders.

United Nations

  • The UN Security Council should take specific, progressive measures to ensure implementation of Resolution 1539 in northern Uganda and Sudan, including increased monitoring with consequences for failure to comply with its provisions for the security of children.
  • The UN Secretary General should appoint a Special Envoy to co-ordinate all UN efforts in the direction of peace, with a particular focus on protection of civilians and accountability for compliance with international law. This would include independent human rights monitors to deter abuses by all parties and engagement with all parties on compliance with international laws. The

International Community

  • Consistent, coordinated, high-level diplomacy is needed by all international actors, including the withdrawal of military support that enables the conflict to continue. Doing this will force combatants to engage in serious efforts to resolve the conflict.
  • The new African Union Peace and Security Council should give high priority to the situation in northern Uganda and provide African leadership within international efforts for non-violent conflict resolution.
  • Local efforts like the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) and others should be supported, as part of a larger peace initiative involving the Government of Uganda, the LRA, and the Government of Sudan.
  • Increased humanitarian assistance should be provided by international donor agencies to meet the requirements outlined in the 2004 UN Consolidated Appeal for northern Uganda, with particular attention to prevent predicted food shortages, to reduce malnutrition, to support education for IDP children, and to include protection and peace-building components in a more co-ordinated strategy for northern Uganda.
  • International security agencies should recognise that this is international hostage taking, and therefore apply all tools available for freeing hostages.

Religious Community

  • Interfaith efforts like the ARLPI, which has bridged the divide among religious groups for the sake of peace, should be welcomed as legitimate peacebuilding interventions. Specific faith-based initiatives, including prayer, discussion and dialogue about the religious elements of the conflict, are effective tools to break the hold of fear and spiritual oppression on people.
  • Because of the social and religious make-up of Uganda, Christian churches have a special role in peacebuilding through prayers for peace, positive leadership, and advocacy, in order to offset those who use violence in the name of religion.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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