First published in the Boston Globe, Saturday 19, November 2011
UGANDANS GREETED President Obama’s decision last month to deploy 100 US military advisers to central Africa to assist in the manhunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony with mixed feelings. Immediately, social media outlets were abuzz with the fear that the United States was only interested in Uganda’s nascent oil sector.
In addition, Obama’s announcement could not have come at a worse time in Uganda’s political history. The country has been rocked by corruption scandals in the oil sector, with parliament calling for the country’s ministers to resign while it investigated charges that they took bribes from a British oil company. The scandal also exposed the deepening rift within the ruling National Resistance Movement government, which has been in power for over 26 years, as well as the public’s dissatisfaction at the corruption-marred “liberation government.’’
Many people questioned why America was giving support now, when it could have intervened much earlier in the fight against Kony’s guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, which is accused of widespread atrocities. President Yoweri Museveni called a press conference in the wake of the announcement to dismiss claims that American troops would fight in the war, saying he would never allow foreign troops to fight a war for him.
The US Embassy in Kampala also called a press conference to dispute the criticisms that the US assistance was sparked by its interest in Uganda’s oil. The New Vision, the state-owned newspaper, quoted Virginia Blaser of the US Embassy: “The United States is deeply committed to supporting Uganda’s effort to eliminate the threat of LRA and providing humanitarian assistance to LRA-affected regions. Since 2008, the LRA has been responsible for at least 2,400 attacks and over 3,400 abductions. According to the United Nations, there have been approximately 250 attacks attributed to the LRA this year.’’
Peace activists on the ground are skeptical of a move that seems to champion military approaches over finding peaceful resolutions to the conflicts. Stephen Oola, a Kampala-based human rights lawyer and interim coordinator of the Advisory Consortium on Conflict Sensitivity, said, “it is unfortunate that President Obama’s first tangible action under the LRA Disarmament Act is to send military advisers instead of a credible peace delegation. It is a typical Washington solution.’’
Since 2008, the US government has invested more than $40 million to help hunt down Kony, who remains on the run and continues to commit atrocities in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Oola credits the current peace in Northern Uganda as a direct result of the peace talks held in 2006, and sees peace processes as a more viable option to military efforts.
Ugandans remember other unsuccessful military campaigns – backed with US money – that the Ugandan army has embarked upon in trying to take out Kony. They question how effective this new strategy will be.
In terms of the impact of the US deployment of troops, Oola asks, “What message is the American government sending to Ugandans disgruntled by the regime’s performance? I have no doubt in my mind that for many Ugandans, if there is a need for America’s help, it would be to get rid of corrupt government officials siphoning billions of shillings in oil contracts to their foreign bank accounts, [not] for advisers to hunt Joseph Kony and his abductees.’’
The Obama administration’s use of military action ignores, undermines, and unravels the work of local players seeking to end the conflict through the resumption of peace talks. Previous military interventions have always resulted in retaliatory attacks on the communities where the rebels have operated. What will this intervention do differently to ensure that there are limited civilian casualties?
Jackee Budesta Batanda is the 2011-2012 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at the Center for International Studies at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @jackeebatanda.