Northern Uganda: Concise History of a Conflicted Land

9 August 2016

Wracked by a troubled past, Uganda continues to endure severe structural inequalities of wealth, gender, and accessibility to basic public services. Northern Uganda, a central operating area for the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has suffered acutely from decades of social and political conflict. While Uganda has enjoyed impressive progress in nationwide poverty alleviation, and further embedded its human rights commitments under President Yoweri Museveni, the difficult situation in the North reveals that historical scars still lurk beneath the surface of recovery.

Northern Uganda continues to struggle with the profound devastation left behind by the LRA-era conflict (International Affairs Review)
Northern Uganda continues to struggle with the profound devastation left behind by the LRA-era conflict (International Affairs Review)

As with many former colonies, the modern nation-state of Uganda began as a patchwork of administrative coalitions between various societies; constructed largely at the behest of the British Empire. Ongoing conflict and welfare disparity between the ‘marginalised North’ and prosperous South can be partially traced to their respective treatment at the hands of the British. The Acholi people, primarily concentrated in the North, are said to ‘hold the view that the colonisers exploited them for the uniformed services and for unskilled labour’, which has subsequently left them at the margins of economic development. Interestingly, even post-independence figures suggest that the Ugandan military still recruits the bulk of its personnel from the Acholi.

In contrast, Buganda in the South had largely been the beneficiary of economic development through the 20th Century, due in no small part to its favourable view among the British given their readiness for cooperation and compromise. The British thus turned to the Kingdom of Buganda as a lever through which they could control the rest of the nation; its prominent position symbolically confirmed by use of the name ‘Uganda’ to refer to the new territory, which derives from the Swahili word for Buganda. Inequalities and conflicts between the regions, naturally occurring from the linguistic divide between the Bantu speaking North and Niolitic speaking South, were provocatively exacerbated by British influence over the succeeding decades.

Although a viral hit, Kony 2012 did not result in Kony's capture (NPR)
Although a viral hit, Kony 2012 did not result in Kony’s capture (NPR)

Out of these social cleavages arose a sharply polarised party system as Uganda emerged from independence in 1962. A series of military coups across the latter decades of the 20th Century brought further dysfunction and deprivation to the North, with Idi Amin purging the Ugandan army of its Acholi elements in fear of their historical stranglehold over the increasingly powerful military. Under Amin’s premiership, many Acholi believe they were subsequently deprived of a generation of Acholi leaders through both exile and execution.

In the context of economic destitution and a vacuum of political leadership, the LRA under Joseph Kony found considerable traction in the North during the late 1980s; their ideology embedded in a vision for Acholi nationalism. An anti-insurgency campaign named ‘Operation North’, launched by Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), set forth a spiralling conflict characterised by significant human rights violations by the LRA. As the latter’s support base began to dwindle during the early years of the 1990s, they resorted to increasingly brutal methods of control; from mutilations, abductions, and the forced military recruitment of children.

Though the LRA’s power has gradually withered since, they remain somewhat active in a reduced capacity; with growing concerns that they may be on the rise again. What is clear, however, is that the recent history of Northern Uganda has been marred by unequal treatment and severe socio-political instability; the symptoms of which, including high poverty and HIV levels, continue to blight the region today.



Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.


Click here to read more about HART’s partner in Uganda.

Back to News

Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities