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Essay II
Last Updated: 07/03/2013
Uganda’s Unresolved Conflict
Mathew Ituma

This paper outlines the history of conflict in Uganda as well as various attempts at negotiating a peace settlement among the conflicting parties. The central argument is that a combination of factors – including deeply entrenched socio-political divisions, a long history of impunity and antagonism, and the presence of the ICC – have all contributed to sustaining conflict and frustrating attempts at negotiation.


Following President Yoweri Museveni’s rise to power in 1986, a tiny disgruntled rebel group within Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) calling itself the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) broke away to form what is now called the Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA). Currently led by Joseph Kony, this originally minuscule rebel outfit has become known for using extreme violence as their means of communication and a strategy for getting government and civilian attention.

While LRA’s demands still remain contested, its core issues anchor on the historical marginalization of the Acholi tribe and the entire region of Northern Uganda by Southern Uganda. In this paper, I retrace the trajectory of this contracted conflict in an attempt to illustrate its dynamics and possibly project its horizons as it slowly scatters into the neighboring countries to become a regional threat. I argue that due to a history of violent rebellions dating back to pre-colonial times, Uganda has a legacy of violent tradition that has continued despite its attainment of independence in 1962. I further contend that due to ideological, economic and sociopolitical wedges between the North and South, sharp and irreconcilable cleavages have emerged and continue to grow between the two regions. Sustained by political patronage and cronyism after independence, these divisions have resulted in more marginalization of the North by the South. The third and possibly final angle to this conflict involves the International Criminal Court (ICC). Together with a culture of impunity and a complicated history of ethnic violence, this conflict has become one of the most complex and difficult to resolve in the region.

Uganda’s history of militarized politics

Before the missionaries arrived in Uganda, tribes, chiefdoms and kingdoms raided each other for political power and control of natural resources. The onset of missionaries and eventual colonization reified this tradition to the extent that, at the time of Uganda’s independence, tribal and regional warfare was a common phenomenon. The entry of Uganda into the world of independent countries escalated the already existing tribal and ethnic rivalries between kingdoms into more powerful and revengeful outfits as they became more complex in terms of their emerging political, ideological, sociopolitical and cultural demands to the new and sovereign nation of Uganda.

A close look at Uganda’s historical past reveals that the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, for instance, was one of the most powerful entities within the East African region in the 19th century until and beyond Uganda’s independence of 1962. Between 1894, when Great Britain declared Uganda as their protectorate, and 1967, when Bunyoro Kitara was outlawed by the then president Milton Obote, there were uncountable bloody revolts both within itself and other neighboring kingdoms; and between itself and the new independent government of Uganda.

The Busoga, Buganda, Toro and Ankole Kingdoms had the same history and followed the same trajectory of warfare and rebellion. Using these linkages to expose the relationships between independent militarized Ugandan outfits and the government, provides a framework to conceptualize how five traditional kingdoms with violent ethnic paramilitary battalions fighting for control of political power and regional balance have become a threat to peace in Uganda; and why violence has been used as a communication tool either between rival communities or between communities and government to articulate their demands. This seems to be true to the current Ugandan conflict in which LRA uses terror in the hope that it will force the government and the Ugandan people to listen to its demands.

Sociopolitical, economic and ideological wedges between North and South Uganda

Following Idi Amin’s accession to power in 1971, Yoweri Museveni, a fresh graduate of political science from the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania became disgruntled and organized sympathizers from the Lango and Acholi people into a paramilitary group that he named the National Salvation. This rebel group later became instrumental in overthrowing Idi Amin from power eight years later in 1979.

Following this debacle, Yusuf Lule rose to the echelons of Ugandan political power and rewarded the youthful Museveni with a ministerial position to become the Minister of State for Defense in the new but short lived Lule administration. Museveni used this diminutive position to quickly consolidate his political power and remained relevant in Ugandan politics until 1985 to contest the arguably rigged 1985 elections that drove wedges between him and his main opponent, Titto Okello as well as some of his team leaders, including Joseph Kony. Even though he allegedly lost the election, Museveni declared himself the Ugandan president and subsequently took over power in January 1986. He later used this position as Uganda’s chief executive to transform his position from that of military to a civilian president, rewarded his cronies, and allegedly continues to favor his tribesmen at the exclusion of other ethnic groups, including the Acholi people of Northern Uganda.

But even as Museveni made leaps and bounds in his relatively young political career, tensions related to older, unresolved issues simmered. Even before he had a chance to sit at the presidents’ desk in 1986, an attempt had been made by the then Kenyan president Daniel Moi to settle scores between him and his rival Tito Okello who had lost the 1985 presidential election, and his runway general, Joseph Kony, went underground, later to resurface with rage and frustration.

As Museveni fought his political battles, his old friends now turned enemies, such the LRA leader, were still alive but inconsequential until 1988 when the temporal peace accord between Museveni’s National Resistant Movement (NRM) and the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) collapsed. It is after the demise of this peace arrangement that Joseph Kony, LRA leader resurfaced with greater force and vengeance both against the government and the Acholi people of Northern Uganda for seemingly accepting and supporting Museveni as the new president.

Ideologically, Kony claimed that he wanted to replace Museveni's dictatorial government with one that uses the Biblical Ten Commandments as the rubric for just and fair governance, even as he sought to take over power by the gun. Already exiled in Sudan and due to frustrations arising from the poor reception and little public support for the ambiguous Biblical manifesto, the little known Joseph Kony and LRA started to unleash violence on the local people, who by geographical metrics and proximity to its precincts of operation, happened to be the Acholi people of Northern Uganda.

With sympathizers and fiscal support from Sudan, LRA became unbeatable by the neophyte government of President Yoweri Museveni and still remains an ulcer on Uganda’s peace and tranquility. It has been known, for instance, to use human body mutilations such as severing of body extremities including lips, nose, and ears in order compel the civilians to comply with or support them out of fear and to possibly push the government out of power.

By using extreme and random violence as a strategy to destabilize the government, LRA hopes to dismantle the structures of the existing government power through widespread insecurity, erroneously trusting that civilians and some of Museveni’s inner security forces will become disgruntled as a result of the nation’s insecurity and possibly join them to fight the government. While this civil and military disconnect has not gathered any momentum, the Ugandan government has expressed some collaboration and made several attempts to reunite the rebel members of LRA into the mainstream Ugandan administration. At the very least, the government has been trying to resolve the outstanding issues with Kony and LRA. These efforts resulted in the 1985 Nairobi Peace Accord, the Juba Peace Process of 2006 and the 2008 Nairobi Peace Process.

In order to understand how this conflict got us where we are today in Uganda and where we are headed, I now turn cautiously to a cursory review of the peace initiatives in this region with a caveat that, some of the ideas expressed in this section may have been mentioned earlier in this paper but I find it critical to reinforce such ideas to make sure that I break this complex Ugandan conflict into bits and pieces for the purposes of clarity and easy understanding of its dynamics in the process of trying to make the case that violent history, marginalization and to some extent, ICC are the centerpieces of this conflict.

Peace initiatives

Sometime shortly before President Yoweri Museveni took over power in January 1986, the then Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi mediated a peace agreement between the Ugandan Military Junta of General Tito Okello and the government security arm, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). A few days into this peace building effort, the negotiations took a downward spiral and became potent with resentments and insults between parties. The disgruntled Tito Okello’s military Junta was perceived by Museveni’s NRM as irrational, primitive, uncivilized and terribly backward. On the flip side, Tito Okello’s military junta suspiciously viewed President Museveni as Idi Amin’s ally who could not be trusted because of a leaked secret military agreement signed between Gadhafi of Libya and Uganda.

The escalating tension that bedeviled this novice peace effort chaired by Mr. Moi led to the collapse of the dialogue and Museveni’s NRM, and pushed Tito Okello’s military junta into exile on his accession to office in January 1986. Two years later in 1988, Museveni found himself on another peace negation session between his NRM and the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) headed by Lt. Col. Angelo Okello. Even though this process also broke down, a few milestones were achieved. First, UPDA was integrated into Museveni’s NRM, second, there was the unconditional release of political prisoners held by Museveni, and third; violence deescalated. However, this peace accord was temporal in nature. Its demise created an opportunity for Lt. Col. Angelo Okello’s UPDA to increase its BATNA by teaming up with the LRA against Museveni’s LRM and the Ugandan government. The merger of LRA and UPDA built synergies that gave a lot of impetus to LRA and Kony in particular. Lewicki et al (2007) refers to this as the radical reframing of power relations during this negotiation.

The re-entry of LRA into the Ugandan conflict marked the new beginning for the struggle between Kony’s LRA and Museveni’s NRM, culminating in the Nairobi Peace process that also collapsed when LRA realized that NRM had military backup from Libya. This realization ignited a contracted battle between Kony and Museveni as individuals, and LRA and NRM as organizations. It therefore became difficult to separate personalities from positions from the onset of this conflict, which further complicates the conflict, but did not stop further attempts for a peaceful resolution.

Such efforts include the 2008 Juba peace process between the Ugandan government and Kony’s LRA, which culminated in a peace agreement that witnessed a reduction in casualties. This accord was a milestone in that it held some promise for Uganda’s lasting peace, until Kony backtracked and refused to sign the final peace agreement scheduled for March 2008 on account of his unknown fate. It later emerged that Kony felt insecure; leading us to think that the question of trust during the 2008 Juba peace negotiation in with Museveni was not fully addressed.

The entry of the International Criminal Court (ICC), with its appetite for Joseph Kony’s “blood,” introduced a new dimension to the Ugandan conflict. In a way, it contributed to the failure of the 2008 peace efforts because it has created an opportunity for Kony to be charged with crimes against humanity. Fearing an indictment, and the possibility that a peace agreement would make him and the LRA irrelevant, he dodged the latest peace effort of 2008 and kept shifting the dates for signing the agreement, finally fading away into the bush in fear that Museveni may surrender him over for prosecution to ICC once he gave up his position in the name of a peace accord. The issue of Kony’s freedom, among others remains contested. The tension between LRA and NRM remains high as the Ugandan conflict frustratingly spills into the fourth decade.


The complexity and long history of this conflict make a simple analysis impossible, however, two sources stand out as ongoing drivers, and a third one is emerging: first, a history and culture of militarized Uganda that is ripe with impunity; second, a history of marginalization of the northern region; and third, the potential trial of Kony by the ICC.

As the Ugandan conflict continues to simmer, and attract the involvement of more parties, I am reminded of Brodow’s (2006) argument that in any negotiation process, there is a direct correlation between the number of parties and the expected outcome of the negotiation process, as well as the time necessary to reach an agreement. Thus, with the ongoing ICC investigation, we don’t expect any more Nairobi, Kampala, Khartoum or Juba peace talks in the near future.

As a student of conflict resolution, what worries me most is the spillover of this conflict into other parts in this region. Typical of an insurgent group, LRA seems to have found havens across borders into other countries such as Sudan, DRC, some parts of western Kenya and even the Central African Republic. Seemingly out of control, we have no idea where else it is headed, and without a clear future, this conflict presents a great challenge for conflict analysts and for the region, not to mention the parties involved and the expected outcomes.


Brodow, Ed. (2006). Negotiation Boot Camp. New York. Doubleday.

Breslin, J.W., and Rubin, J.Z (1991) Negotiation Theory and Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation.

Lewicki, R.J., Saunders, D.M., Minton, J.W., and Barry, B. (5th Edition.)Essentials of Negotiation. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Ury, W. (Revised second edition 1993). Getting Past No: Negotiating your way from confrontation to cooperation, Bantam.

Ury, W., Roger Fisher and Bruce Patton, (Revised 2nd Ed. 1992) Getting to Yes: Negotiating agreement without Giving in, Houghton Mifflin.

Mathew Ituma is a graduate student at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities (SHSS) at Nova Southeastern University and may be reached at