Originally this was intended to be a transcript of the discussion with a group of survivors from the genocide that took place in Northern Uganda. This changed when I realised I could not transcribe 2 hours of conversation into any workable format. Rather, I have written an account of the evening focussing on the key issues addressed. As a result, it will invariably be my msungu perspective on what took place. The role of international and regional politics has been omitted. Not because it is not important, but to focus on Uganda specifically. This is not an exhaustive article but as concise an overview as I could muster. I understand and accept that some will not be satisfied. I hope to return to the subject in greater detail in the future.
I do not know how I would react if I were to find myself the subject of a genocide. I do not particularly want to find out. The ability to empathise that it is horrific is not the same as knowing. I would imagine I would be angry, vengeful, grief stricken – even if I was acknowledged and supported. To be ignored, demonised and caricatured as savages must be a gumboot grinding on the wound. This is the experience of the survivors I met for a paradoxically pleasant evening in the bar of a boutique London hotel. They are from Northern Uganda and suffered the indignities of genocidal violence for three decades. No blue-helmeted soldiers came to the rescue for them. They are here with the documentary A Brilliant Genocide. They are here to be heard. There was no talk of revenge. They were measured and articulate in their calls for accountability. This is what they wanted to say.
Museveni, the current President of Uganda, took power in 1986 following the Bush War. There was mass bloodletting in Kampala as his forces looked for the remnants of his opponents. Many had fled before his arrival and so were not there as the National Resistance Army (NRA) moved house to house, burning people alive. Job done in the South, the NRA rolled north. Ostensibly, they came to pacify rebels. Thirty years of targeted genocide followed. The survivors, seated around me, have no doubt that there was clear intent and malice aforethought. Could it have been lack of discipline or incompetence on the part of the NRA? Absolutely not, comes the reply. They remember the songs the soldiers sang, whipping them into a frenzy to kill the Acholi. They remember when the soldiers came. Each has a personal memory of the violence meted out to their villages. The one that sticks most to me is that of the woman with an infant on her back. When they came, they opened fire through the child to kill her. The rebels were not there. Just like in the South, they had fled into what is now South Sudan. But when the soldiers filed their reports, each and every village was a rebel stronghold. To understand how the genocide unfolded it is necessary to take a step back and understand how Ugandan power structures became ethnicised.
“They are here to be heard. There was no talk of revenge”
It happened post-independence. Museveni is not the first to do it but he is one of the best practitioners. When it comes down to it, this is not a grand narrative of warring tribes playing out ancient struggles on a modern field, but a carefully constructed act of political empire building. Successive politicians have relied on regional and kin based support bases that entrench perceived difference to the point where it is no longer abstract. Museveni’s was centred on the Bantu peoples in the South. Meanwhile, the Nilotics (Northerners) held significant authority in the armed forces. The survivors make it perfectly clear that the genocide in the North was about cementing Museveni’s grip on control; he felt the need to remove the Acholi presence from the Ugandan apparatus of state. How to achieve this? By their systematic disenfranchisement and extermination. All this is explained to me with a poise I was not expecting. It cannot be easy going over the minutiae of your own destruction. They have no doubt they were caught up in the consequences of a policy of divide and rule, and political machinations taking place far from them. Museveni has perfected the balancing act of presenting the North as an existential threat to the security of the nation, whilst demonstrating his own strength to combat it. It is simultaneously appearing weak and strong. It goes down well in the South. The narrative is strictly controlled to engender the further ethnicisation and entrenchment of Museveni’s regime.
As the war progressed out of the 1980’s, so the internally displaced peoples centres developed, or concentration camps as the survivors would prefer they were called. During the 1990’s and early 2000’s a thousand people a week died from preventable causes. Disease and malnourishment took their toll. Sexual and indiscriminate violence was not uncommon. The survivors make it clear nobody was there by choice. They were either herded into them after their villages were razed, risked it in the bush, or took their chances across the border in Sudan. For some, this is the clearest indicator of the genocidal intent. There were no means for the government to sustain that amount of people in such conditions, and they knew it. The survivors are calling for investigations into the camps, the decision making process, the chain of command. At present, there is little chance of that happening. Few around the table were particularly optimistic about their prospects for accountability. They face a mountain to get the International Criminal Court to indict those involved. Even if they do they only have to look to President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to see how leaders can go about their business even after formal charges are brought. The survivors seem more focussed on just getting their story on record, at the moment; that getting their narrative out there is crucial.
So how could decades of violence go ignored? To be frank it has not. Museveni has stage managed the whole affair, secure in the isolated geography of the North, that he could tightly control the flow of information. Both the survivors present, and my colleagues in Kampala, are under no illusions that he is an arch political manipulator. Now, I want to make absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to the view that the rebels were strawmen or did not exist. They did exist and they committed atrocities. There were no armed groups in the North that did not have blood on their hands. To argue otherwise will do the survivors search for accountability irreparable damage. None of that changes the fact that the concentration camps existed and Ugandan forces engaged in discriminate, genocidal violence. However, Museveni does weave the narrative to suit his political aims. One of the survivors tells me, with some incredulity, of Madeline Albright’s visit in the 1990’s. She was fed the story of rebels boiling people in a pot and eating them. Some may notice that this is a story familiar to pulp novels and the stereotypical end of colonial missionaries. Still, she affirmed the United States’ support for the Ugandan government. The lie stands as a totem to his impressive manipulative ability. Museveni has in his time been a pan-Africanist, socialist, free market capitalist, and benevolent dictator. It is clear that he is a political pragmatist bending to circumstance to ensure his own imperious ambitions.
“The narrative is strictly controlled to engender the further ethnicisation and entrenchment of Museveni’s regime”
It is such propaganda that the survivors find themselves fighting, harassed even on the streets of London. To voice dissent is to be synonymous with the rebels and invite further repression. The main message the survivors want to get across is: that they suffered violence due to their status as Acholi; that it was intentional; that it is a genocide; that they want accountability. What do they see in the future of Uganda? Nobody was exactly positive, most were despairingly pessimistic. All agreed that Museveni has doubled down on his divide and rule policy. He is sowing further ethnic division in order to ensure that his powerbase is secure. Any chance of real accountability, let alone justice? Not much.
They fear for their country when he finally leaves the stage. They fear that the divisions may be insurmountable and an orgy of genocidal violence will be unleashed at his passing. As one survivor told me – they have a lot of trained killers in Uganda. Say the West does decide to turn on Museveni? Well he has spotted that possibility. His eastern pivot is in full effect. On my recent trip, there were banners celebrating the state visits of both the Turkish and South Korean Presidents. The Chinese money tap is in full flow and Russian influence is on the horizon. Nobody denies that he is an intelligent operator who knows exactly what he is doing. There is talk amongst some of the survivors of Uganda already being a failed state and to cut their losses and form an independent Acholiland. They point to the creation of Israel and the support the Jewish people received after their genocidal experience. I am not sure I see it happening.
I never expected to be taught a lesson in grace and bravery in the bar of a boutique hotel in London. The survivors spoke with a dignity that inspired support for their struggle. They suffered a genocide, they just want people to know about it. I do not know what difference we can really make. But I do know that by seeing A Brilliant Genocide, by being prepared to fully engage and listen to their experiences, we can at least give the survivors the respect they deserve.