What South Sudan’s war means for northern Uganda’s “relative peace”

Ten years after the guns of the three-decade-long Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency went silent, northern Uganda’s local leaders are concerned that the deadly war raging across the South Sudanese border could disturb the fragile region.

As Uganda’s poorest region, the north is hardly unused to conflict. Decades of economic and political marginalization dating back to the colonial era fueled the rise of the LRA in the 1980s, leading to a rebellion that left over 100,000 civilians dead and thousands more abducted and conscripted as child soldiers. Now, many northern Ugandans proclaim only “relative peace” in a region still beleaguered by food insecurity, unemployment, and trauma. As northern Uganda struggles to transform its post-conflict economy and society, the civil war in neighboring South Sudan has forced two million South Sudanese to flee to surrounding countries. The number of South Sudanese refugees who have crossed into Uganda exceeded an unprecedented one million this month, and the majority of these refugees are housed in eighteen settlements across the north, stretching the limits of the brittle region. Meanwhile, the world’s wealthiest countries are failing to step up to the plate.

Despite the immense challenges in service and resource provision that have accompanied this refugee influx, northern Uganda’s Gulu District Chairman Martin Ojara Mapenduzi has noticed mostly positive relationships between refugees and host communities. Ugandans and South Sudanese have sought refuge in each other’s countries for decades, an unfortunate side-effect of a conflict-prone region. Northern Ugandans know what it means to be refugees – and as a result, are remarkably welcoming to the enormous flows arriving daily from South Sudan. Uganda has even been deemed the “best place in the world” to be a refugee.

Additionally, host communities in Uganda see a clear benefit to welcoming newcomers. The country’s uncommonly progressive refugee policy requires that 30 percent of refugee aid go directly to local economic development, inspiring what local peace and governance expert Denis Otim calls a “symbiotic relationship” between refugees and host communities – both benefit from the other’s existence.

However, resources in northern Uganda are scarce – not nearly enough to sustain both an impoverished local community and a million newcomers without more international assistance.

Competition is fierce for food and water, healthcare, education, and business opportunity. When commodities in refugee settlements run dry, as they frequently do (the United Nations World Food Programme, for example, recently had to slash rations in half at the Pagirinya settlement), some refugees venture into local communities. There, they encounter resentment and discrimination from local Ugandans who, facing the threat of famine themselves, are frustrated by what seems like an endless flow of aid to refugee camps. Some locals have registered or disguised themselves as refugees to access supplies from organizations like the World Food Programme. Others have demonstrated against aid groups and even blocked access to supply trucks.

Aid experts say that such incidents are to be expected, and that Uganda is managing exceptionally well in the face of extreme circumstances. However, as resources rapidly deplete, social tension and the potential for insecurity grow. A recent United States Agency for International Development conflict assessment warned that “rising social tension between refugees and host communities has the potential to degenerate into secondary conflict.” The extreme situation in northern Uganda has ignited other tensions, as well. Some districts have seen the rise of local violence between aid workers of different tribes. In settlements themselves, the ethnic dimensions of the South Sudanese conflict sometimes manifest in confrontation between groups of refugees. Many experts say the only way to ease these tensions is urgent increased international funding for Uganda’s refugee response.

Even with these challenges, Mapenduzi says that his largest security concern is not refugee/host community relations but the risk of armed groups in South Sudan spilling into and recruiting from northern Uganda.

Recent incidents of violence on Uganda’s Moyo district border have sparked fear that South Sudanese gunmen will conduct cross-border raids and kidnappings, as they allegedly already do in Ethiopia. Residents in Gbari village in Moyo district reported cattle raids by men in South Sudanese military uniforms in June, and there was exchange of gunfire between South Sudanese government and rebel forces at Jale Barracks along the Moyo district border as recently as July 28.

Civil society leaders Lino Owor Ogora and Otim believe that Ugandan security forces are strong enough to protect Ugandan border communities, but Mapenduzi remains skeptical. “If the conflict in South Sudan is not managed well,” he says, “it could easily spill over into northern Uganda.”

Some Ugandans appear unintimidated by the conflict across the border. In June, Ugandan newspaper New Vision reported that Ugandan youth are joining South Sudanese rebels, allegations which the rebels deny. Mapenduzi thinks that recruitment among LRA returnees in particular – a group that is already marginalized – could be possible. For ex-LRA members who grew up as child soldiers, returning to an armed group may seem like a less painful alternative to the poorly-resourced and daunting local reintegration process, says Mapenduzi.

Oryem Nyeko of the Justice and Reconciliation Project agrees that the trauma and socioeconomic challenges faced by LRA returnees have not been properly addressed. Without redress, says Nyeko, frustration in northern Uganda could manifest in future bouts of violence in the region. “We have to address problems at home first,” he stresses.

Ogora believes that while most LRA returnees in northern Uganda are demoralized by the challenges of reintegration, few are so unhappy that they would turn to South Sudanese armed groups. The risk of refugees being recruited by South Sudanese armed groups is more worrying, he says. Ugandan local news sources have also rung alarm bells on this concern, reporting that South Sudanese rebels are recruiting youth in Bidi Bidi and other refugee settlements. The rebels allege that South Sudanese government forces are doing the same. In July, Ugandan and South Sudanese armies announced a joint investigation into the recruitment of refugees into armed groups in South Sudan. Evidence of refugee recruitment is thin, and refugees are often scapegoated as resources in host countries wane. But the suspicions themselves probably point to a deteriorating situation.

Northern Uganda’s local leaders are unsure how much longer the region, impoverished and still raw from conflict, can simultaneously maintain its hospitality and its security. With the international community’s eyes on South Sudan, it is more important than ever to channel attention toward productive solutions to the conflict – for the sake of both the country itself and its weary neighbors.

Many thanks to the local leaders in northern Uganda who provided insight for this article, including aid workers, civil society leaders, and Gulu District Chairman and Northern Region Vice-President of the Uganda Local Governments Association, Martin Ojara Mapenduzi.

Kyra Fox was an intern at the Africa Center. She spent four months in Gulu, Uganda in 2016, where she conducted research on northern Uganda’s post-conflict transformation and the complex victim/perpetrator status of former Lord’s Resistance Army members. 

Image: South Sudanese artists from the Ana Taban (“I am Tired”) group paint the streets of Yei town with murals promoting peace on June 14, 2017. The civil war in South Sudan has triggered United Nations warnings of potential genocide and forced over one million citizens to flee to neighboring Uganda, prompting urgent calls for peace from the international community. Photo credit: Denis Louro/UNMISS