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A chronological History of Northern Uganda and the War between the LRA and the UPDF

These are the questions I get asked the most, “How did the war begin? What madness drove Kony and his Lords Resistance Army to such extremes? What is it Kony hopes to achieve through his actions?” These are not easy questions to answer. Like most conflicts, it’s part of a long cycle of violence and retaliation. The following is a very reductive explanation of how Northern Uganda became a war zone for over two decades and left as many as 60 to 70% of the population with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

British Colonialists in Uganda

British Colonialists in Uganda

To fully understand, we’ll have to start way back during colonization. British explorers, searching for the source of the Nile, arrived in the aggregate kingdoms now known as Uganda in the 1860’s. True to Western form, they proceeded to conquer, but not with the gun – that would come later – first they conquered with the bible. Protestant missionaries arrived in 1877, Catholics in 1879. Thus began the complex interweaving of Christianity and traditional faith that is such a huge feature of the LRA mindset. (As a side note: the presence of Islamic faith in the region is a holdover from the arrival of Swahili slave traders in the 1830’s).

So, in 1893, through political maneuvering and military force, the Kingdom of Buganda in the south was placed under British protectorateship. Inside of a year, British military expansionism swallowed the kingdoms of Banyoro, Lango and Acholi. By the end of the 1900’s the “Uganda Protectorate” included four separate kingdoms and a myriad of clan cultures. The British deposed kings and leaders and installed their own governors from Buganda. The British encouraged political/economic development in the south, while the Acholi and other northern groups had their development virtually stopped. The northern groups quickly became the manual labor and military of the new collage-nation, creating a military ethnocracy and installing a systemic tendency for militant aggression in the North. By 1900 the British had created “Uganda” – a country divided against itself – and set the stage for constant struggle between northern ethnic groups and the dominant kingdom of Buganda to the South.

Subdivisions under the Ugandan Protectorate (1926 borders). The areas in red and blue hues had centralized kingdoms prior to British arrival, while the colonialists introduced centralized rule on the Baganda model to areas in yellow. Areas in khaki never had centralized kingdoms.

Subdivisions under the Ugandan Protectorate (1926 borders). The areas in red and blue hues had centralized kingdoms prior to British arrival, while the colonialists introduced centralized rule on the Baganda model to areas in yellow. Areas in khaki never had centralized kingdoms.

Some 70 years later, in October of 1962 Uganda claimed its independence. The nation had fragmented along religious and ethnic lines to the point of chaos and the British had retreated. What followed was a series of power and identity battles for the nation’s soul. Among the first leaders was a man named Apolo Milton Obote, a Lango, from the north, and a Protestant. He was deposed by Idi Amin Dada in 1971, also a northerner, but a Muslim. Then, in 1979 a group of exiled Ugandans with the help of Tanzanian forces, overthrew Amin in the Uganda-Tanzania War and Obote came back to power in what many viewed as a rigged election.

The perception of unfair electoral behavior led to ethnic civil war. From this tumult arose several guerrilla rebellions. One led by a man named Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (the current President of Uganda) in 1981. Approximately 100,000 people died as a result of fighting between Obote’s Army and the guerrilla factions during “The War in the Bush”.

In 1986, Museveni, a born-again Christian from the extreme southwest, took the capital. By March his forces had occupied Acholiland in the north. Now, former government soldiers from Acholiland who had sought sanctuary in southern Sudan moved to get Museveni’s troops out of the north and began fighting for Acholi rights in the essentially Buganda governed nation. This resistance to the southern leader, Museveni, spread and several rebel groups appeared. From 1986 until 2006, war became a constant of Acholi existence. Among these groups came Alice Auma and her HOLLY SPIRIT MOVEMENT (HSM). Alice was an Acholi spirit-medium who claimed to channel a dead Italian army officer called “Lakwena” (messenger) which the Acholi believed to be a manifestation of the Christian Holy Spirit. This started a trend of Mystic-Christian military leaders in Acholiland, which would culminate, just one year later, in Christian extremist Joseph Kony.

Alice Auma, mother of the Holy Spirit Movement

Alice Auma, mother of the Holy Spirit Movement

In 1987 Alice Auma’s group was disbanded after an unsuccessful attempt to march on the Ugandan Capital. The remnants of the HSM fell into banditry as members drifted away or were defeated by government forces and other rebels. But from the ashes of the HSM came Kony, a 26 year-old Acholi who claimed he was the spokesperson of God and a medium of the Christian Holy Spirit. Superstition was at the heart of his rhetoric and he had his followers use tree-oil to ward-off bullets and evil.

Joseph Kony and his men in the Bush

His group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operated as a guerrilla organization attempting to establish a theocratic government based on the Christian Bible and the Ten Commandments in Uganda. The LRA, reached an astounding level of brutality under Kony’s command, participating in sadistic murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement, and forcing children to operate as soldiers. As of 1987 they have abducted an estimated 60,000 people.



Recap, simplified (I know this stuff can be pretty dense reading)… in Jan. of 1986, the rebel-who-would-be-president, Yoweri Museveni overthrew the Acholi-led government that came to power after Idi Amin. The key here is that Museveni (still president of Uganda to this day) is from the south, yet he deposed northern leadership. Ethnic conflicts run deep, so by August a predictable insurgency against Museveni bloomed throughout the Acholi areas of northern Uganda.

Exactly one year after Museveni took power, in Jan. of ’87, 26 year-old Joseph Kony appeared on the scene. He was a product of the Holy Spirit Movement. A Christian mystic soldier. He claimed to be possessed by spirits and called his rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their goal was to overthrow Museveni’s government and establish a theocracy based on Kony’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments. They raided Acholi villages (they’re own people) in an effort to show that Museveni was unable, or unwilling, to protect the populace. It is not certain when Kony began abducting children for indoctrination into military service, but it’s most likely after he began to loose support amongst the Acholi themselves.

Between 1987 and 1991 the LRA remained active, but President Museveni seemed barely interested. The most cynical say that the war was to his political advantage. It destabilized the north where he had little support to begin with, so the Acholi were less and less able to participate in the political process. There was also some speculation that Museveni was receiving aid to fight the rebels from the African Union and other nations. Aid that he was funneling into development of the South and even, possibly, his own pockets.

Throughout the 90’s the United States began the Front Line States Initiative, in which Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea were identified as linchpins in containing Sudan. Uganda was suddenly provided “defensive, non-lethal military assistance” against Sudan-backed insurgencies. In March of 1991 President Museveni, ever subservient to Western powers, launched “Operation North” in the hopes of stabilizing the LRA activity along the Sudan border. “Operation North” armed local Acholi villages, whose opinion had now turned firmly against the LRA (but not in favor of Museveni). This flooded even more weapons into the region. In retaliation Kony began to systemically massacre and mutilate. He, descending into paranoia like Amin before him, suspected everyone around him of secretly being a government supporter. The suffering of the Acholi population was taken to the next level.

From ‘91 to ‘94 the LRA became more and more violent. Kony himself vacillated between mad, religious ravings and making actual, reasonable demands on behalf of the Acholi people. But his organization reflected his true nature: cruel, ambitious and unreasonable. By 1994 the Acholi had begun to flee their villages, moving in masses into Sudan or central Uganda. There began to be talk amongst the conspiratorial –minded that Museveni was selling off the abandoned land. This is never proven.

In 1993 a member of Uganda’s parliament, an Acholi woman named Betty Bigombe, did the extraordinary, she went out into the bush and initiated peace talks with Kony on her own. For this she was named Uganda’s “Woman of the Year.”

Betty Bigombe with Lords Resistance Army negotiators.

Betty Bigombe with LRA negotiators.

In Feb. 1994, however, Bigombe’s Peace talks failed. Many reported the talks were sabotaged due to jealousy by Museveni’s army. This prompted further the belief amongst the Acholi that Museveni was profiting both politically and financially from their misery. After the peace-talk failure, Kony began to establish bases in Southern Sudan. In April,Uganda broke off diplomatic ties with Sudan for aiding the LRA.

October 1996, 10 years into the conflict. 200 LRA rebels raided St. Mary’s College in Aboke, abducting 139 girls. Many were given to LRA commanders as “wives”. Others died in captivity. This single incident was the first from the conflict to be reported in the global media. The Ugandan Government began forcibly moving virtually the entire Acholi population onto IDP camps “for their protection”. But the camps were overcrowded, disease infested and totally susceptible to LRA attacks. Suspicion that this was really about further Acholi disenfranchisement as well as a land grab by Museveni ran rampant.

UPDF at Labuje IDP camp c. 2002

UPDF guards an IDP camp

The situation at this point was not designed for an easy solution.



Again, a recap, simplified… by 1997 the Acholi had been forced off their land and onto some 200 Internally Displaced Persons camps across the north of Uganda. Despite the need for troops to stabilize this region, most of the Ugandan army was sent to Zaire to take part in a conflict that would change the name of that country to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda was interested in deposing the CIA/Belgium propped up leader Mobutu who had proved immensely unstable.

A year later Ugandan troops again intervened in the newly named DRC, but this time on the side of rebels seeking to overthrow the leader they helped install. Why would they do this? Well, in 2005 The Hague Criminal Court charged Uganda’s President Museveni with stealing natural resources from DRC during this war. So it seems Museveni was sending valuable troops on a military adventure to plunder resources instead of fighting the LRA at home.

Unyama IDP camp

But by 1999 Oil in Sudan began to change the game. China suddenly moved into Southern Sudan with Petrochina’s in-production, oil pipeline. There were rumors, which still persist to this day, of massive amounts of Chinese troops sent in to protect China’s interest. Now the Sudan/Ugandan border, a border the LRA rebels freely moved across, needed to be stabilized more than ever. Museveni offered amnesty to the LRA’s estimated 4,000 fighters.

By 2000 this had caused the LRA to split into two factions: one willing to negotiate with the government, and one determined to fight on. New cooperation between Uganda and Sudan began to put even greater strain on the LRA. And it seemed the end of the war was near.

Hoping he would be facing a weakened and split rebel force, Museveni initiated “Operation Iron Fist” in March of 2002, a massive military offensive that swept across northern Uganda and into South Sudan. But it did not end the LRA. In fact, the rebels launched a bloody counteroffensive. Areas untouched by the conflict were now absorbed in war and further displacement of human beings occurred. The fight was now at its absolute bloodiest. This is when our comic book takes place.

November 2003. Despite global interest in the months-old Iraq War, the UN’s top humanitarian official said, “I cannot find any other part of the world that is having an emergency on the scale of Uganda.” Museveni asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Kony and other LRA leaders for war crimes. In May, Uganda pulled the last of its troops from eastern DRC and they were immediately stationed in Acholiland. Regular attacks against IDP camps ending in unfathomable amounts of civilian bloodshed began to occur more and more frequently. Northern Uganda became hell on earth.

In October of 2005 the ICC issued arrest warrants – the first since its 2002 founding. Kony and 4 of his top lieutenants were cited for murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and enlistment of children as combatants. With the Iraq war becoming old news, global reportage slowly began to turn towards Acholiland.

In July 2006, peace talks began between the recognized Ugandan government and the LRA in Juba, Southern Sudan. The LRA was weakened by endless war. Kony, who had been in the bush for 20 years, was tired and at talks he appears saner than ever. By August both sides agreed to a temporary ceasefire. The Ugandan government established “satellite camps” – smaller IDP camps with access to farmland – as it was difficult to send the Acholi back to their villages and farms now that the entire region was heavily land-mined. However peace talks continued to be marred by regular walkouts.


Kony meets with UNHCR Field Rep during the 2006 peace talks in Sudan

In October of 2007, with the peace process moving forward in fits and starts, it was revealed that Kony had murdered his own Deputy-Leader (one of the 5 wanted by the ICC). The man’s name was Vincent Otti and Kony claimed that Otti was given money to assassinate him by international interests. Kony was showing his old signs of paranoia and his obstruction of the peace process was becoming a sore spot for the Ugandan government.

For the next year the peace talks were static, then, on December 13, 2008, two months after we began publishing our humble comic book, a massive military attack was made against Kony by armies of the Ugandan, DRC and Southern Sudanese governments.



Ssemusota guli mu ntamu. Bw’ogutta tolya, bw’oguleka tolya.

(A snake in the cooking pot is a dilemma. Hit it and you break the pot. Leave it and you starve.) – Ugandan saying

Recap… On December 13, 2008 - after two years of convoluted peace talks with no definitive plan materializing – Operation “Lightning Thunder” was carried out by Ugandan air force and artillery and backed up by the Congolese and Sudan Peoples Liberation forces. AFRICOM provided satellite phones, intelligence and fuel. US advisors – authorized by George W. Bush – lent expertise. They attacked LRA camps in Garamba National Park, DRC, with helicopter gun-ships and MiG23 jets. A ground force then moved in. And that should’ve been the end of it. Game over. But due to poor planning and basic botchy-ness, Kony and survivors escaped deeper into DRC and towards the Central African Republic (CAR), away from the Ugandan border… and they’ve been acting like monsters ever since.

Following the attack, in January of 2009 alone, LRA soldiers were fingered for the deaths in DRC and South Sudan of more than 900 people, the displacement of 130,000 refugees and the kidnapping of hundreds of children. Take a moment. Think about those figures. That’s one month. Northern Uganda, the source from which all this hardship had sprung, remained essentially untouched (and still does as of this writing) but Kony, reactivated, had cut a swath of death across DRC.

It was a tough political move, President Museveni attacks a currently peaceful Kony and everything suddenly goes batshit crazy again. Complaints in the Ugandan government ranged from concerns regarding the moral complications of a war fought against children (the perennial argument), to the impatience of the Ugandan Government with the peace process, to the idea that a successful peace negotiation had more of a chance of healing social wounds than a combat victory did. Supporters of the strike, however, believe this was Uganda’s opportunity to ensure Kony’s utter destruction and achieve permanent peace.

The LRA claimed that this was a power play by President Museveni. That he hoped to push into Congo and steal resources as he had before. That it was Museveni’s troops who were responsible for the atrocities. They were using the 2005 International Court Of Justice ruling which found Uganda liable for war crimes during the Congo War as evidence of what Museveni was capable of.

Now, undeniably Museveni has marginalized this conflict and stalled its peace processes repeatedly. He’s compromised his ability to protect the Acholi and acted in a questionable manor towards his neighboring nations. But the LRA simply couldn’t be trusted. They had made a modus operandi out of kidnapping children, slaughtering innocents and terrorizing populations. And now they were bogged down in a Jungle swamp.

By February of 2009, Kony and about 250 rebels, reportedly the last of the hardcore, found themselves cornered in a swamp in the Garamba jungle in northeastern DRC. Their only hope, if we were to believe the reports, was surrender.

The rest? Well, this post is a history lesson, and what follows next is current events. There are plenty of posts following Kony’s current activities on this site, I don’t need to echo them here.

I hope this has answered some very difficult questions as to why this war started and why it’s managed to continue for so long. Thanks for reading,

-       Joshua Dysart

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