Risking Peace

How Religious Leaders Ended Uganda’s Civil War
(David A. Hoekema)

The reign of terror imposed on the people of northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from 1987 to 2006 was one of the most brutal of the past century. Joseph Kony’s militia abducted more than sixty thousand children to serve as child soldiers and sexual partners. Villagers who tried to stop them were mutilated or killed. The Ugandan national army, using funds and weapons provided by Western allies (including the United States), launched campaign after campaign to destroy the movement. But they accomplished very little, except to drive LRA forces deeper into hiding and to compound the suffering of the people.

That story is widely known around the world, thanks in part to Western aid agencies’ reports and a widely viewed video, “Kony 2012,” made by an American NGO. Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.

Joseph Kony created his rebel army in the late 1980s, after government forces had crushed another Acholi uprising led by a prophetess. He claimed to be in regular communication with a number of different spirits, who conveyed commands from God and directed his military campaigns. LRA soldiers were required to follow the Ten Commandments and to observe both Muslim and Christian holy days every Friday and Sunday. Smoking and drinking were prohibited, as was unauthorized sexual contact. Weekly prayer meetings were mandatory: sometimes Kony himself would lead them, standing all day, praying and speaking with his spirits. Young boys who had been captured in village raids were indoctrinated in LRA ideology and trained to do whatever their commanders asked, no matter how cruel.

The entire Acholi region lived in fear for two decades. Each time the Ugandan government launched another campaign, it assured international allies that success was imminent. But attacks and counterattacks continued, and the army committed the same acts of arbitrary killing and rape that it was supposedly suppressing.

When the LRA claimed at first to be an advocate for the Acholi people, some in Uganda and abroad were sympathetic. Support vanished as its raids became more and more brutal. Paul Rubangakene, director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic diocese in Gulu, told me that in a rehabilitation camp for former LRA soldiers a commander responded to Paul’s request for information about an abducted boy: “Yes, I knew him—he was a very clever boy. So I beat him to death.” The boy was Paul’s nephew. His parents know that he died in an LRA camp, but Paul had not shared the horrific details.

“You see, I keep a bullet-proof vest here in my office,” said Paul. “But it has been many years since I felt any need to wear it while traveling to villages in the region.” In the late 1990s, when he began working with residents of rural villages frequently attacked by LRA forces, the situation was very different. “At that time the government had control of the towns and trading centers,” he said, “but the LRA did whatever it wanted in the countryside and in isolated villages.”

On one trip to a village north of Gulu, Paul encountered an LRA ambush along the main road. Abandoning his vehicle, he fled into the bush and remained in hiding for two weeks until he could return home safely. Today a roadside monument honors fifty-nine victims of another incident at the same site, and memorial services are held there each year. These victims were fortunate simply to be shot dead and left behind, said Paul. In another raid nearby, LRA soldiers cooked the bodies of their victims and forced new abductees to eat them.

LRA violence peaked, Paul told me, from 1996 to 1998, when LRA troops were in frequent battle with government forces, and then again from 2001 to 2003, when LRA forces returning from training camps in Sudan stepped up their campaigns of looting and abduction. For two years Paul and his family were “night commuters,” fleeing nighttime raids on their village by rebel soldiers: together with thousands of others they walked several miles to Gulu each night to sleep on the grounds of the Catholic cathedral. During this period, Catholic Relief Services provided bedding, food, and other aid to all who needed it, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim. 

 

We sustained the community with the one important weapon of forgiveness. And we preached forgiveness from both the Bible and the Qur’an.

Few Ugandans took Kony’s claims to speak for God seriously—not one person I interviewed regarded him as a genuine religious leader—and yet many feared that he could invoke malignant spiritual forces. This did not deter a small group of religious leaders from coming together in the late 1990s to create the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI). Representing the Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim communities, they set out with three goals: to assist those suffering from LRA kidnapping and raids; to bring the situation to the attention of national and international observers; and to facilitate negotiations that would bring an end to the conflict. Their efforts helped achieve what decades of military action could not: LRA withdrawal and an end to civil war.

But first the founders of ARLPI had to win the trust of their own congregations. Members of Protestant congregations, especially the “born-agains,” as Ugandans categorize Pentecostals and other Evangelicals, hesitated to collaborate with Catholics or Muslims. Muslims in turn saw the Christian majority in Uganda as unsympathetic, if not openly hostile.

Even more difficult was gaining the trust of opposing sides in the conflict. In the eyes of the Ugandan government, ARLPI proposals amounted to an admission of failure and a blanket pardon for decades of savagery. Kony’s followers, on the other hand, suspected that ARLPI’s call for negotiations was a pretext for passing information to the government. On several occasions small groups of Catholic bishops, Protestant pastors, and Muslim imams were taken deep into the bush, blindfolded, to meet LRA commanders. Rebel leaders insisted that such secrecy was necessary to avoid giving away the location of their camps, but the negotiators wondered each time whether they would return alive. Meanwhile, their participation in these meetings fueled government suspicions that the religious leaders were really rebel sympathizers.

Slowly, ARLPI’s patient and persistent work began to bear fruit. First, small concessions were made. Trust was established. Sheik Musa Khalil, the khadhi of the Muslim community in Gulu, told me:

We sustained the community with the one important weapon of forgiveness. We preached this seriously from subcounty to subcounty, from community to community. And we preached forgiveness from both the Bible and the Qur’an. We started working with the cultural institutions and the local leaders, and members of Parliament became involved. We organized seminars that included all stakeholders, including the international community. What we have done is a lesson to the whole world in peaceful coexistence. We are trying our level best as religious leaders to show the world that we can live together, and this we would like to consolidate and continue.

A civil war that had raged for more than two decades, disrupting the lives and livelihood of the people of northern Uganda, at last came to an end as a result of negotiations that ARLPI helped put into motion. Talks were held in South Sudan, facilitated by the Sudanese government and by members of the Catholic lay community of Sant’Egidio, which had recently helped end a bloody civil war in Mozambique. Having helped bring the two parties together, ARLPI retreated into the background. 

In 2006 the LRA ceased attacking villages, permitted both abductees and voluntary recruits to return to their families, and withdrew from Uganda. By 2008 the region was at last at peace. Fearing extradition to the International Criminal Court, which issued indictments in 2005, Kony and his senior advisors refused to come out of hiding to sign the agreement. Still, both sides honored its terms. LRA soldiers and camp residents returned home, apart from a small band who followed their leader into hiding in neighboring countries, where they remain today. The militia that terrorized northern Uganda now numbers no more than a hundred.

ARLPI continues to work across the region to promote post-conflict recovery, address land-ownership issues, and advocate for women’s empowerment. It is also trying to form interfaith peace committees in every village. Too many of its activities during the LRA conflict, leaders told me, were planned and initiated by pastors and imams. Lasting and effective change, they said, must begin within local communities.

 

Many in the West believe that only their expertise—and their monetary assistance—can resolve Africa’s most urgent problems. The story of ARLPI shows that local resources and local wisdom can be far more effective.

The success of ARLPI efforts in Uganda reveals something important about the complex relationship between political, religious, and cultural authority in situations of crisis. Traditional religious responses to extreme suffering—providing comfort, praying for relief, and offering assurance of God’s presence—lack credibility without accompanying practical measures. Throughout the civil war the religious leaders continued to lead public worship, comfort broken families, and offer words of hope to the war’s victims. But they also undertook, at great personal risk, to bring the Ugandan military and the LRA to the negotiating table. Each side in the conflict viewed ARLPI’s efforts with great suspicion, but the group pressed on all the same. And as it did so it was able to earn a degree of credibility and authority that the national government had lost through the brutality of its anti-LRA tactics.

Many in the West believe that only their expertise—and their monetary assistance—can resolve Africa’s most urgent problems. The story of ARLPI shows that local resources and local wisdom can be far more effective. The guns provided to Ugandan forces by Western allies failed to defeat the LRA army, and many of them ended up in rebel hands. NGOs and international development agencies provided lifesaving relief aid to displaced-persons camps, but they did little to dispel the cloud of poverty and recurrent violence under which the residents of those camps lived. When religious leaders undertook not only to provide emergency relief but also to work toward a resolution of the conflict, a path to peace at last became visible.

It is important, too, that ARLPI’s work of reconciliation and healing has drawn from several traditions without denying their differences. The theology of the Qur’an is undeniably very different from the theology of the New Testament, but ARLPI believes the two traditions can speak with one voice on the question of how to forge a path from conflict to reconciliation. Sheik Musa Khalil emphasized how important it was that all the religious communities join together after the LRA withdrawal and support each other in proclaiming the same central message: it is time now to forgive. To the representatives of government, foreign NGO staff, and members of their own communities, the leaders of ARLPI insisted, “We must forgive ninety times, or is it one hundred times...” Are you thinking of the saying of Jesus, I asked, that we should forgive seventy times seven? “Yes! That is it! In the Qur’an it is ninety times, and in the Bible it is seventy times seven.” Listening to a Muslim leader try to remember whether he was quoting from the New Testament or the Qur’an reminded me how remarkable and unlikely this experiment in interreligious peacemaking has been.

Published in the January 25, 2019 issue: 

David A. Hoekema, professor of philosophy emeritus at Calvin College, is the author of the new book We Are the Voice of the Grass: Interfaith Peace Activism in Northern Uganda (Oxford University Press), from which this article has been adapted. In 2014 and 2016 he interviewed ARLPI leaders and survivors of the LRA conflict in Uganda with the assistance of Sr. Lucy Dora Akello, Senior Lecturer in Education at Uganda Martyrs University, and with the support of the Nagel Institute for Global Christianity and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.

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