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Update on the Border Crisis with Uganda

Publisher WRITENET
Author Gérard Prunier
Publication Date 1 April 1996
Cite as WRITENET, Update on the Border Crisis with Uganda, 1 April 1996, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


For the Sudan the problem of course stems from the civil war in the South of the country. In the aftermath of successful government offensives of 1992 and 1993 this problem has become more acute, as can be seen from the growth of the Sudanese refugee flow to Uganda:[2]

•                November 1993 70,000

•                August 1994 116,000

•                January 1995 166,000

•                December 1995 350,000

The 1992 and 1993 offensives brought the regular Sudanese Army in direct contact with the Uganda border, which had previously been controlled by the rebel Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA).[3] The presence of the Sudanese regular troops then aggravated a specifically Ugandan problem on the other side of the border.

In Uganda, the border situation had been rather tense ever since former guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni had seized power in Kampala at the end of a five year long civil war.[4] Remnants of the former regime's army had retreated northwards and eventually taken refuge in the Sudan. Fearing that the new Ugandan regime would support the SPLA in its fight against Khartoum, the Sudanese Government then decided to give help to these armed refugees, who formed a small guerrilla group known as the Uganda Peoples Democratic Movement (UPDM).[5] This group began operating against the new Ugandan Government as early as March 1986.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that the North had always been the problem region of Uganda. Poor and underpopulated, it had been a great reservoir of soldiers for the British Army during the colonial years. After independence, directly or through civilian proxies, Northern military men had ruled Uganda between 1966 and 1985. The loss of power to a mostly southern-supported rebellion once again reduced the Northerners to economic and social marginality, a fact which tended to fuel political violence.[6]

UPDM operated for some time against the former guerrilla army (the National Resistance Army or NRA), now turned government army since its taking of power. Military operations were rough on the local Acholi civilian population,[7] which in response appears to have developed a collective, desperate and mystical feeling of doom. By late 1986 a prophetess appeared, Alice Auma, nicknamed "Lakwena" ("Messenger of God"), who preached a curious syncretic mixture of prophetic Christianity, spirit cults and readapted traditional religion. She promised her followers that Museveni would be overthrown through her magic powers, and that they did not need weapons since her charms and "special oil" would protect them from bullets. Under her leadership the whole North rose, in the process absorbing the small "regular guerrilla" of UPDM into what was called the Holy Spirit Mobile Force. The millenaristic rebels swept south all the way to Busoga with enormous loss of life (1986-1987), ending in final defeat in November 1987 near Jinja.[8]

Alice Lakwena survived and took refuge in Kenya. But a relative of hers,[9] Joseph Kony, a former catechist, regrouped the survivors of her movement and created a new group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is often mistakenly described as a "Christian fundamentalist" group because it has declared that Uganda should have no constitution but should be governed according to the Ten Commandments. In fact Kony adheres to the same confused blend of Christianity, spirit cults and disconnected elements of traditional religion which went into the making of the Holy Spirit Movement. In a recent declaration he said that if he were to take power he would kill "old men, people who ride bicycles and schoolteachers", three categories of people he seems to abhor. This bizarre blend does not seem to coincide with any sort of Christian fundamentalism, any more than does another of his stated objectives, namely to transfer the Central Bank of Uganda to Gulu, in Northern Uganda, so that "the people will become rich".[10] Due to the extreme violence of his movement, Kony's guerrilla did not have much popular support,[11] and by late 1992 his movement had dwindled to a few dozen fighters. He had also run out of ammunition and often resorted to kidnapping young men and women to press-gang them into carrying the group's equipment through the bush.

The Sudanese Army's presence on the border gave a new release to the LRA. Kony's men had long used the Sudan as a rear base, but it had not been a safe base, because of frequent clashes with the SPLA guerrillas. The 1992 Government of the Sudan offensive, by destabilizing the SPLA, enabled the LRA to regroup in the Acholi area just north of the border,[12] where the Sudanese Army rearmed and re-outfitted its forces.[13]

The result was a dual phenomenon. On the one hand increased fighting, both between the SPLA and regular Sudanese troops and between the SPLA and its groups of dissidents,[14] caused thousands of Sudanese civilians to cross the border southwards into Uganda. On the other hand increased LRA activity caused smaller numbers of Ugandan civilians to move towards the larger towns, especially Gulu, in search of protection by the Ugandan Army. The UPDF[15] was increasingly likely to chase LRA rebels in hot pursuit back into the Sudan and to enter into local agreements with SPLA units on the basis of the maxim that "my enemy's enemy is my friend". By late 1994 to early 1995 fighting had spread to both sides of the border and the two governments in Khartoum and Kampala were edging towards open confrontation.[16]


As early as mid-1995, war between Sudan and Uganda became a distinct possibility.[17] Not only were the Ugandan authorities claiming that Khartoum forces kept supporting the LRA,[18] but they also protested against direct attacks, such as massive cross-border shelling during an offensive which caused 5,000 civilians to flee under fire.[19] When during August 1995 renewed attacks by the LRA in northern Uganda appeared directly coordinated with Sudanese Army operations on the other side of the border,[20] President Museveni felt compelled to promise "decisive action" against the LRA rebels.[21]

This situation should be understood within a global political perspective. The Sudanese regime was not deluded enough to believe that the LRA commandoes were capable of overthrowing President Museveni. The role they were to play in the eyes of the Sudanese government was quite different. First of all, after years of civil strife, Uganda was finally beginning to recover, both economically and politically.[22] In order for this positive transformation of the country to continue and be successful, foreign confidence was required and the fighting tended to erode it. At the same time Uganda, which had not had a working constitution since 1966, was going through the long and difficult process of creating one.[23] The new constitution had to be proclaimed in the midst of the northern fighting, which did not make for an auspicious start.[24] And then the fighting forced Uganda to expand its military budget from US$ 75 million in 1994 to US$ 114 million in 1995, something which was felt very concretely in the short term. This was a tragic increase when at precisely the same time the World Bank and the IMF were asking Uganda to cut down on public expenditure, especially on the Army budget, as a prerequisite for credit facilities needed for development.[25] In addition, the fighting prevented implementation of the Northern Action Programme which the Government had planned in order to try to win over a population traditionally hostile to the South since decolonization.[26] And finally, of course, the tension-ridden focus on northern Uganda prevented the SPLA from using the area as a supply route.

Thus, even if the LRA was poor in purely military terms, it served the Sudanese Government's war aims of weakening Uganda in various ways. Of course this was an exercise in brinkmanship and the Ugandan Government threatened the Sudan in very clear terms.[27] This was to no avail and LRA attacks went on unabated during September and October 1995.[28] By late October, the SPLA went on the offensive, accompanied, according to many observers, by UPDF units. The SPLA denied receiving any help from Uganda[29] even before such accusations were levelled by the Sudan.[30] The Ugandan Government, in spite of denying having ever entered Sudanese territory, declared that it had "secured" the border with Sudan.[31] Soon after the SPLA captured several LRA bases on Sudanese territory, freeing in the process over 100 of the civilians who had been abducted several weeks before in Uganda.[32] Soon after, in his New Year's Address to the nation, President Museveni boasted, a bit too quickly, that "northern rebels have lost the war".[33]

By mid February he had been proved wrong. LRA commandoes, about 800 strong, crossed back into Uganda from rear bases in the Sudan and struck deep into the country, killing fifty-two civilians in three different attacks.[34] The operations were designed to strike maximum fear into the population,[35] a result which was achieved as all road traffic became paralyzed and markets were deserted. What had happened was that the LRA rebels had withdrawn deeper into the Sudan to avoid SPLA/UPDF attacks. Then they had regrouped and crossed back into Uganda through the mountainous Kilak area to escape detection. The UPDF, lulled into a false sense of security by its October-November 1995 victories, had not seen the blow coming.[36]


Fighting is still going on sporadically in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. The Sudanese refugee flow to the South has abated somewhat but could increase again anytime the fighting intensifies. LRA rebels are now entrenched in the mountainous area just south of the border, whence they threaten the whole of Acholi district.[37] The Ugandan Government cannot of course tolerate their presence there and will undertake further military action to dislodge them. President Museveni has threatened extreme action in case the Sudan Army tries to support them, going as far as announcing that he will shoot down any Sudanese aircraft entering Ugandan airspace.[38]

Thus renewed violence in the area is extremely likely, probably leading to further refugee cross-border movements and to internal displacements, both inside Sudan and inside Uganda.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[2] Source: UNHCR

[3] For details of military operations in the Southern Sudan in recent years see Gérard Prunier, "The SPLA Crisis (1991-1996)", Northeast African Studies, fc.

[4] A detailed book-length study of Uganda's civil war remains to be written. On the subject one can refer to Yoweri Museveni, Selected Articles on the Uganda Resistance War (Kampala: NRM Publications, 1985) and to Gérard Prunier, "La recherche de la normalisation (1979-1994)" in G. Prunier and B. Calas (eds), L'Ouganda contemporain (Paris: Karthala, 1994), pp. 131-158

[5] See Peter Woodward: "Uganda and Southern Sudan (1986-1989): New Regimes and Peripheral Politics" in Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle (eds), Changing Uganda (London: James Currey, 1991), pp. 178-186

[6] See A.G.G. Gingyera-Pinyewa, Northern Uganda in National Politics (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1992)

[7] See Amnesty International, Human Rights Violations by the National Resistance Army (London, December 1991)

[8] On the Holy Spirit Movement, see Heike Behrend, Alice und die Geister: Krieg im Norden Ugandas (Munich: Trickster Verlag, 1993) and Gérard Prunier, "Le mouvement d'Alice Lakwena, un prophétisme politique en Ouganda" in J.P. Chrétien (ed), L'invention religieuse en Afrique au sud du Sahara, (Paris: Karthala, 1993), pp. 409-429

[9] He has been variously described as a brother, a nephew or a cousin

[10] Author's field notes, Uganda, January 1996

[11] The LRA has often brutally targeted civilians, killing peasants going to the market, burning public buses with the travellers inside, raping schoolgirls in rural boarding schools and mutilating them after the rapes. Author's field notes, Northern Uganda, July 1992

[12] The Acholi tribe is divided, with about 80 per cent in Uganda and 20 per cent in the Sudan. See Audrey Butt, The Nilotes of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Uganda (London: International African Institute, 1952)

[13] Agence France Presse [Kampala], 13 March 1993

[14] On this see Prunier, "The SPLA crisis (1991-1996)"

[15] Uganda Peoples Defence Force. This is the new name of the former National Resistance Army

[16] Diplomatic relations had been broken by Kampala in April 1994

[17] Africa Confidential, "Uganda/Sudan: Bordering on War", vol. 36, no. 15, 21 July 1995; Africa Analysis, "Uganda Braces Itself for War", 8 September 1995

[18] Agence France Presse [Kampala], 16 August 1995

[19] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 17 August 1995

[20] See Reuters [Kampala], 17 August 1995; Agence France Presse [Kampala], 22 August 1995; Le Monde, 24 August 1995

[21] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 24 August 1995. Forty-four people, mostly civilians, had been killed during the mid-August 1995 attacks

[22] For a detailed analysis of the process which brought Uganda back from its previous tragic state, see P. Langseth et al. (eds), Uganda: Landmarks in Rebuilding a Nation (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1995)

[23] On the constitutional question see Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle (eds), From Chaos to Order: The Politics of Constitution-making in Uganda (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, [1994]

[24] See Agence France Presse [Kampala], 26 August 1995 and Reuters [Kampala], 27 August 1995

[25] Charles Onyango-Obbo, "Solution to the Northern Problem Lies in Sudan", The East African, 28 August 1995

[26] See Africa Analysis, "Long-awaited Help for Uganda's North", 8 September 1995

[27] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 31 August 1995

[28] Two hundred civilians captured by rebels (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 2 September 1995); twelve killed by landmine (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 6 September 1995); 500 children kidnapped by the rebels (Agence France Presse [Kampala], 18 October 1995); renewed fighting between rebels and UPDF (Reuters [Kampala], 22 October 1995)

[29] Reuters [Nairobi], 30 October 1995

[30] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Khartoum, 31 October 1995

[31] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 1 November 1995

[32] Agence France Presse [Kampala], 7 November 1995

[33] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, quoting Radio Uganda, 31 December 1995

[34] See Agence France Presse [Kampala], 16, 19 and 28 February 1996

[35] On the road to the South, travellers were locked inside a bus which was then deliberately set on fire

[36] Author's interview with Brigadier Chefe Ali, Fourth UPDF Division Commander. Kampala, February 1996

[37] The East African, "LRA Rebels Resurface in the Gulu Area", 11-17 March 1996

[38] In an interview given to al-Hayat, 30 January 1996

[1] This paper is an update to Gérard Prunier, Identity Crisis and the Weak State: The Making of the Sudanese Civil War, WRITENET for CDR, January 1996

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