Govt sowing seeds of unrest in north

This opinion piece by JRP Community Doumentation Team Leader Lino Owor Ogora appeared in the Sunday Monitor on 20 January 2013.

Sunday, January 20  2013

By Lino Owor Ogora

It is more than four years now since relative peace returned to northern Uganda, and close to two years since the last internally displaced persons’ camp was demolished. The people have now permanently returned to their homesteads, and are engaged in agriculture and other means of improving their livelihoods.

Villages that were once ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army war are beginning to take shape again. Gulu, the gateway to South Sudan, is booming with business.
On the surface of it all, northern Uganda seems to have recovered. However, a closer observation will reveal several hurdles that will slow the socio-economic transformation of the region for years to come.

Recovery programmes have not achieved their intended impact. An example is the Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), which was described as “a strategy to eradicate poverty and improve the welfare of the populace in northern Uganda”. Much as the PRDP was well intended, a lot of emphasis was put on consolidation of State security, and construction of infrastructure such as roads. Other significant areas such as reconciliation and peace building were completely ignored.

Weak PRDP structures
In addition, structures for handling PRDP funds were weak and therefore prone to vices such as corruption. As an example of this, the media is currently awash with corruption stories surrounding PRDP funds. People in northern Uganda have learnt for the first time that their funds were entrusted to personalities like Geoffrey Kazinda and Pius Bigirimana with the result that more than Shs50 billion ended up getting lost under their watch.

What would this money have done for northern Uganda if well used? Shs50 billion would have gone a long way in helping the victims to recover their livelihoods. It would have been enough to construct a monument in every village in northern Uganda in memory of victims who lost their lives. 
The Shs50 billion would have constructed several classroom blocks for children who are currently forced to study under trees due to lack of classrooms.

What hurts is that most of the top suspects are not from northern Uganda and were not affected in any way by the conflict. They therefore did not feel the pain of what people in northern Uganda went through. Perhaps, it hurts even more that some of the people implicated in the scam are from northern Uganda.

For northern Uganda to genuinely recover, the government needs to go back to the drawing board and either overhaul the current recovery programmes or formulate new ones. Secondly, there has been no genuine pursuit of economic revitalisation. During the conflict, victims in northern Uganda lost most, if not all of their livelihoods, and are still struggling to recover. It is only realistic therefore that the government should have pursued a deliberate and aggressive policy aimed at restoring livelihoods. In this regard, attention should have been paid to agriculture as a priority area. Acholi region has some of the most fertile lands in Uganda. The government should have created a programme for boosting agriculture in the region.

Among other things, there should have been a programme for mechanising agriculture and generally improvement of farming methods. What do we see instead? A few tractors sent to northern Uganda under the NUSAF and PRDP have ended up on private farms owned by ‘big men’.

The government should have channelled its efforts towards reviving cooperatives to enable farmers in the region to better access agricultural inputs and market their commodities. What do we see instead? Cooperatives in northern Uganda are dead and buried. Elsewhere, the last surviving cooperatives in Uganda such as Bugisu Cooperative Union, are being torn apart through political interference. So local people in northern Uganda are forced to rely on government programmes such as NAADs which have also proved inefficient.

For people in northern Uganda to benefit from agriculture as an economic activity, land laws are needed to protect their right and access to land as a key factor of development. But what do we see instead? We see big individuals and ‘investors’, sometimes with active backing from the government, being allocated large chunks of land that should have been used by the local people themselves.

In 2012, the media was awash with stories of local people being evicted from their land under the pretext that the areas they are occupying are game reserves. Matters are not helped by rumours that the tracts of land in question bear large deposits of crude oil and other minerals. So local people are evicted on the pretext of land being given to investors or that they are in game reserves. How are the local people supposed to recover if the very means of their livelihood (land) is taken away from them?

Return cattle to owners
And finally, it must not be forgotten that many tribes in northern Uganda were ardent cattle keepers. The Acholi, for example, measured their wealth in cattle. During the conflict, however, cattle stocks were greatly reduced in northern Uganda. It is only natural therefore that the government should have pursued a deliberate policy of re-stocking. What do we see instead? Victims’ claimants groups such as Acholi War Debts Claimants Association are yet to be fully compensated, and no re-stocking project is envisioned for northern Uganda in the future. The resultant effect is that communities in northern Uganda will remain poor.

Thirdly, education levels in northern Uganda continue to be the lowest countrywide. A pupil in northern Uganda cannot compete at the same level of education with one from central Uganda or western Uganda. Educational infrastructure such as classrooms is still grossly lacking. The quality of education itself is still very poor. Many people in northern Uganda who can afford it have to spend heavily to send their children to good schools in Kampala. The resultant effect is that the next generation of northern Uganda youth will grow up semi-literate, disoriented, and discontented – perfect seeds for divisionism and rebellion.

Fourthly, the economic infrastructure in the region also continues to be appallingly poor. In 2009 I travelled to western Uganda and one of the things that mesmerised me was the many kilometres of tarmac roads that grace the region, and the level of commerce that was flourishing. This painfully reminded me of the appalling state of roads in northern Uganda. Other social infrastructure such as health centres and hospitals are also in an appalling state. The few that exist lack qualified personnel and are often short of drugs.

Finally, and most significantly, there seems to be no deliberate effort being made by the government to heal the north-south divide that continues to come up in debates regarding northern Uganda.

Many people believe old wounds between northern and southern Uganda created as a result of Uganda’s colonial and post-colonial history have not been adequately dealt with. For example, to this day many people in Luweero District continue to harbour grudges against northerners for atrocities committed during the NRA liberation war.

In a similar light, many civilians in northern Uganda remember the bitter and inhumane treatment they were subjected to by NRA soldiers from southern and western Uganda. The government, however, seems uninterested in resolving many of these issues that are necessary for both the social and economic recovery of northern Uganda. This creates the (mis)perception among many people here that there could be a deliberate policy aimed at sidelining the region, and that the political will is lacking for the genuine pursuit of recovery programmes.

The key question here is: for how long can this marginalisation continue?

The author is a researcher with the Justice and Reconciliation Project based in Gulu.