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Swapping a Kalaschnikov for a cassava mill

by Tillmann Elliesen
Ruins of a house in Yumbe / Ruine in Jumbe

Ruins of a house in Yumbe / Ruine in Jumbe

Rebels fought in the West Nile province of north-western Uganda for more than twenty years. There has been peace since December 2002, and the region’s people hope for increased prosperity. But not all ex-combatants can cope with civilian life, and the government is not investing enough in the region’s infrastructure. That the neighbouring countries of Congo and Sudan are struggling with crises of their own does not make peaceful development any easier. [ By Tillmann Elliesen ]

Acikule Noeh has used weapons for most of his life. In the 1970s, he was a soldier in Idi Amin’s army. When the Ugandan dictator was toppled in 1979, Noeh retreated to the bush with 15,000 like-minded individuals and fought as a rebel against the new rulers. Today, Noeh is president of a savings and credit cooperative, which helps the former combatants reintegrate into civilian life.

In the village of Yumbe, the ruins of buildings are lasting evidence of the war. A dirt track lined with small shops in the settlement of 15,000 residents brings to mind a desolate Wild West town. There is no electricity, no piped water, and the nearest paved road finishes 60 kilometers to the south. Sudan lies to the north, Congo to the west. To the east, the Nile pushes the region to the fringes. Since time immemorial, the governments in the capital of Kampala paid scant attention to this region.

The area around Yumbe is one of the poorest in Uganda. The people live from what the land produces, and that is not much. The annual per-capita income is the equivalent of less than € 100. The cigarette manufacturer BAT cultivates tobacco in the region, but that does not help farmers much. People were hoping for an economic upturn when the rebellion ended, but their hopes remain in vain.

The West Nile region is like a pressure-cooker, which concentrates the effects of the civil wars in Sudan and Uganda over the last thirty years. Idi Amin and his henchmen came from this region. When his dictatorship was overthrown, the new rulers took revenge for his bloody deeds in his home province. Many fled from the violence to Sudan. Former Amin soldiers like Acikule Noeh formed the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) and fought against the new government. People did not dare to return until Kampala was conquered in 1986 by president Yoweri Museveni, who is still in office today.

However, the West Nile rebels continued to fight. “Museveni had our leaders arrested,” says Noeh. “We felt as though we had been deceived and formed a new group.” The UNRF II no longer saw itself just as a movement of Amin-soldiers who had been chased out. The rebels now wanted to draw Kampala’s attention to their neglected homeland. Only after another 16 years of war did the parties involved in the conflict come to an agreement. The UNRF fighters were exhausted and signed a formal ceasefire agreement with the government.

Rebels to farmers

Samir Bange Zubeir stands in a cloud of fine white dust, stuffing small chunks of cassava root into a metal funnel. The noise from the mill’s diesel motor is deafening. The mill belongs to the Drajini farmers’ cooperative. On ten hectares outside Yumbe, it cultivates mainly cassava, but also peanuts, rice and some vegetables. The farmers sell the flour at the market. The cooperative is supported by the agency German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), which is carrying out a food-security and conflict-prevention project in the West Nile region.

Zubair turns off the mill. The shy man says quietly that he joined the UNRF II in 1997, when he was 20 years old. He bought two cows with the money the government gave former rebels to help them return to civilian life. Today he has six cows. “I don’t want to have anything more to do with my rebel past,” he says, looking downwards. Some cooperative members initially had concerns about accepting former rebels. But the village elders appealed in their favour.

The West Nile insurgence enjoyed popular support until the end. Nonetheless, resentment lingers on. The more desperate the conflict became, the greater the suffering of the region’s inhabitants. Anyone who did not support the rebels was punished for being a government collaborator; and anyone who did not collaborate with the government, was targeted by the army. “The rebels, who came out of their retreats in Sudan, passed through our village,” says Ahmed Fala, pointing in the direction of some green hills, beyond which lies the Sudanese border.

Fala’s home, the village of Midigo, is made up of a small centre and some settlements scattered through the bush, each with four or five mud huts. “I was so afraid of the rebels that, for two years, I didn’t sleep in my home. Instead, every night, I slept somewhere else in the bush,” says the sturdy man with a voice, which contains much suppressed anger. “Men were killed, maimed or kidnapped. Our cattle were stolen. Our children couldn’t go to school. After the war, the combatants received compensation. But what about us, the victims ? The government wants us to forgive the rebels. But I can’t do that. I accept them today, but I do not forgive them.”

Challenges of reintegration

Many former combatants find it difficult to re-integrate into civilian life. Many never learned anything else than how to use weapons. Not all of them exchanged a gun for a plough as easily as Samir Bange Zubair from the Drajini cooperative. Of the 84 former rebels who joined the farming cooperative after the war, only four remain.

The government in Kampala paid a total of 4.2 billion Ugandan shillings (€ 1.7 million) in initial assistance to just under 3000 UNRF-II fighters. Agotri Zubeira estimates that only 20 to 30 % of this amount was “invested sensibly”. Most of it was simply squandered. “A dependency syndrome developed among the rebels as a result of the years spent in exile. The people need to take an active role again,” says the managing director of Bidibidi’s savings and credit cooperative, which is run by former rebels. He says that West Nile certainly has economic potential. “Lorries drive through Yumbe every day, full of goods for South Sudan. They are even transporting cassava. Why aren’t we selling anything?”

The peace accord agreed in early 2005 certainly did open up a new market in South Sudan. In the South Sudan capital of Juba, there is next to nothing, but everything is in demand. Juba has become an El Dorado for traders from the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. In September 2007, the United Nations appealed to the leaders in West Nile to promote agriculture. They would like to make purchases from the region’s farmers, to supply food to South Sudan.

For the first time after decades of war and conflict, the province in north-western Uganda has a prospect of lasting stability and growing prosperity. Success, however, depends on the fragile peace in South Sudan, as well as on the Ugandan government investing in the region’s infrastructure and economic development – which is what it promised in the accord with the UNRF rebels.

That, however, has not happened yet, and frustration is growing. In autumn last year, there were rumours of new rebel activity in Yumbe. There are still many weapons in the region. A buy-up programme was discontinued after dealers smuggled weapons from Sudan and Congo and sold them to the government at a profit. But no one really believes that renewed fighting will break out. Most are exhausted from war. “There are a few dissatisfied people, who want to make trouble. But we won’t allow it,” says veteran rebel Acikule Noeh.