Uganda: ICC Issues Arrest Warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army

One of the most troubling aspects of the Sudanese north-south civil war (1983-2005) was its spill over into Uganda-Sudan relations.  Each state accused the other of supporting its enemies.  Uganda was accused of providing sanctuary to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and of allowing arms to reach the SPLA troops – if not providing the arms.  Uganda accused the Sudanese government of supporting rebel military forces in the north of Uganda, in particular the LRA. To make matters more complex, both the Ugandan government and the SPLA received military and political support from the USA, in part to curtail the influence of the Islamic government in Khartoum.  Another factor prolonging the conflict in northern Uganda is that the war has become a lucrative source for clandestine income for high-ranking military officials and other profiteers.

The violence of the LRA needs to be seen in the context both of Sudan’s civil war and the violence from the start of Uganda’s independence in 1962. First, Uganda was the scene of a political conflict between the Prime Minister, Milton Obote, leader of the pre-independence Uganda People’s Congress and the President, who was also the King of the Buganda people, Kabaka Mutesa II.  By 1967, the Kabaka was forced into exile, and the country became a republic with Obote as President.  Having no ethnic base to his power, Obote relied on arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions. 

In 1971, the chief of the army, Idi Amin Dada took power in a bloody coup and began eight years of misrule which destroyed the economy by expelling the Asians, destroying the educational system and executing people accused of plotting against his government.

In 1979, Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles forced Amin Dada into exile, and Obote returned from Tanzania as President.  However, almost immediately, there was an armed revolt against his legitimacy.  From 1979 to 1986, there was a struggle for power among armed groups which left many dead and the economy in an ever deeper hole.  In 1986, Yoweri Museveni, a leader of one of the armed factions, won out and became President – a post which he still holds today.  His final term of office is set to expire in 2006.  Since 1986, there has been calm in the south of the country which is the economic heartland.  Thus, there has been a relative upturn of the economy.

In 1986, Obote again went into exile, this time to Zambia where he kept some influence among his followers in what had been the Uganda People’s Congress.  Museveni has banned political parties, creating what he calls "partyless politics" and has used the image of Obote’s possible influence as a reason not to have political parties.  On October 10, 2005, Obote died in a hospital in South Africa where he had gone for advanced medical treatment.

In 1986, as Yoweri Museveni was consolidating his control in the south, in the economically poorer north, inhabited in large part by Acholi people, fighting continued and is still going on.

In 1986, the Holy Spirit Mobile Force was created around Alice Auma Lakwena, a woman healer who combined Christian Pentecostal elements, particularly the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, with more traditional African beliefs in charms that can prevent injuries.  In November 1987, Alice Lakwena left Uganda for Kenya, but the movement reformed itself under a cousin of Lakwena, Joseph Kony, and was renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Kony also believes that he is in direct contact with the Holy Spirit and considers himself a medium. Kony explained, "God can confirm that I am an embodiment and the personification of the Holy Spirit." As the insurgency is "God-guided", it is difficult to find compromises on the human level.  He sees himself as the agent of divine retribution for the past transgressions the government has committed against northerners.

Kony is often in south Sudan protected by the government of Sudan, but, it seems, that the SPLA also keeps its eyes shut on his movements.  Increasingly, the Lord’s Resistance Army has been losing its support among the Acholi people and has resorted to the abduction of children which they form into soldiers who are often 11-12 years old.  The children are encouraged, or forced, to commit crimes and often their hands and feet are cut off to prevent them from returning to their home villages.  The Lord’s Resistance Army has become a ‘Children’s Crusade’ of lost children.

The government has named a woman confidante of Museveni, Betty Bigombe, Minister of State whose role is to try to contact Kony and work for the possibility of a ceasefire or a more permanent solution to the violence.  Many, both among the military and among the Acholi, are skeptical about the effort, and some of the higher military have done all they could to have the contacts fail.  There has been no direct contact with Kony, but there have been meetings with tribal elders and religious leaders. Prayers and traditional rituals have been carried out as confidence-building measures.

Some in the Ugandan government hope that Kony can be separated from his military officers who would accept integration into society with an amnesty in exchange for leaving the Lord’s Resistance Army.  Already some 6,000 LRA have been given amnesty and the possibility to integrate to their home villages.  A few of the higher officers have been given well-paying jobs or financial opportunities.

Others hope for a "one-bullet solution," believing that if Kony is killed the movement will fall apart.  In the meantime, the areas influenced by the LRA live in terror both of Kony’s forces and of the regular army.  Villages have been uprooted and some 1.6 million people have moved, many to poorly serviced refugee camps.  The lives of countless young people have been seriously disturbed.

It is too early to know if an ICC trial will be held, but it is likely that the ICC investigation will provide a fuller picture.  North Uganda merits close watching both by those concerned with innovative world law such as that being set up by the ICC and by those interested in the settlement of conflicts in Africa.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo provided by

More information on this topic:

Sudan: The Shadow of a Death, by Rene Wadlow, 8/11/05, Toward Freedom

Human Rights Watch Report: Uganda: Army and Rebels Commit Atrocities in the North