Over the decades of international development aid, the discourse has changed from the omnipotent slogans of early days to the pitiful expression of today´s disillusioned ambition, to ´do no harm´. Yoweri Museveni, right, though, still speaks big. In his case, however, it is not to express a genuine ambition to make a real difference, but to hide other plans, sometimes to do very little, at other times to do something completely different from what he says. Whichever way, some think he does a lot of harm.
Niels Jacob Harbitz, Project Manager for Africa at HRHF, reflects on the situation in Northern Uganda. (January 1, 2007)
It sounded brutal and was meant to be: President Museveni´s master plan of a few years back for Northern Uganda was called Operation Iron Fist. The operation´s expressed ambition very much lived up to it´s name. It was, quite simply, to bring the war in Northern Uganda to an end, once and for all, by way of exterminating the enemy. The Lord´s Resistance Army was to be brought to its knees, to surrender, and then cease to exist. Then there would be peace, of course.
The greatest military flop in modern times? Or never a genuine attempt?
The rest is history. And it ought not to be forgotten. Rather than bringing down the LRA, Operation Iron Fist provoked a terrible escalation of the conflict, with radical increases of attacks and abductions on behalf of the LRA, leading to an equally radical strengthening of the rebel army, and in every way a seriously deteriorated situation for just about every native of Northern Uganda. While Operation Iron Fist fizzled out, the LRA walked on, braver than ever, victoriously, on a bloodier war path than ever. In a terrible, but also very telling twist of irony, the operation that was said to come to the rescue of the people of the north, after so many years of suffering, instead lead to even further suffering, and an even greater number of lives lost. Museveni´s response was silence. And then further condemnations of the LRA. An admission, though, that his own operation had failed abysmally, an apology and then an invitation to the people affected to come and discuss with him how one could perhaps think of other ways to go about bring back the peace to the north, never came. Instead, a few years down the line, came another initiative, spookily similar, in name at least, to its predecessor.
- As if telling it would make it real
Last year, as patience was beginning to run out with the peace talks - significantly, signs of this set in almost as soon as the talks began - came the idea of shifting the focus at least in part to ways of speeding up the return process. Never mind the fact that peace or a minimum of guaranteed security had not been reached, that the belligerents could very well fall back on the confrontation line any time, and that even if one had had a thin crust of reliable pece and security, the timing wouldn´t have been right in view of how this rushed return would fit in with the planting and harvesting seasons. Never mind that an unknown, but no doubt great number of land rights issues had and still has yet to be resolved. Here was a situation in which the creation of a sense of enthusiasm within the international community was clearly considered far more important than the livelihood and very lives of the people of the north. Sometimes, when the story you want to tell is lacking in substance, it feels even more pressing to tell it, as if telling it would make it real.
- Yes, of course, is of course the answer
Museveni´s experience with the international community is exactly this: Tell them that your economy is improving (even if it isn´t, really. In fact, you´re just fidgeting with the numbers, made very flexible from the grand scale looting of the DRC that´s going on), and you get further support to make this alleged positive trend continue. Such is the wish of the international community for a showcase that it actually does good to do good, that double-checking the reality of the matter becomes a very low priority. Now, go on to tell them that your strategy to bring down the HIV / Aids rates actually works (even if it doesn´t, and the money you have received for the cause has disappeared in private pockets), and you get a lot more, once again as a result of your clever utilisation of the international community´s now near desperate wish for its attempt to make a difference to actually do. Now, when the big corruption scam of all that surfaced, tell that very same international community that you need all the help you can get for a grand scheme to help the people of the north. After years, for many people decades, in the IDP camps, it goes without saying that they are desperate to return home. And to build a home, all they need is thirty-something ironsheets pr. household. Now, since we´re talking about close to two million people here, we´re also talking about quite a few households. Now, can we have your help in financing this? Yes, of course, is of course the answer.
- Let him talk the talk. He´ll never walk the walk anyway
But should it be? Or are we being fooled into committing lots of money, yet once again, to something the people does not want, and Museveni isn´t going to implement wholeheartedly anyway? It remains to be seen. But I, for one, will not be surprised if he isn´t, if this whole initiative will prove to be nothing but another big fundraising scheme, once again with a hidden, and completely different agenda from the one presented to the international donor-diplomacy community. What one ought to be aware of in this case, though, is that the damage can be lasting, and very well bear in it the seeds, not for peace and prosperity, bot for another phase in the conflict, no less violent than the once the people of Northern Uganda have already lived through. From analysts in Northern Uganda, I learnt on my most recent visit that the critical responses to the entire ironsheet initiative fall into two categories. One just dismisses it. Let him talk the talk, people say. He´ll never walk the walk anyway, meaning that these sheets will never come in anywhere near large enough numbers to actually serve as an incitement to people to go home.
- Not to help people help each other, but to divide and rule
The other understanding suggests that the ironsheet initiative is to be understood as something rather more carefully thought out, and thus, potentially, a lot more damaging and dangerous. -This is Museveni´s attempt to cease a golden opportunity, these analysts suggest. -When just about every rural inhabitant of Northern Uganda has left his or her home for the camps, Museveni presents a plan, seemingly out of mercy, but in real terms out of greed. This plan is to alter the entire demographic and agricultural pattern of the north. The ironsheet houses are not ment to be spread out all over, in individual households, as people used to live. Instead, they are meant to be set up in clusters, say of ten to fifteen in each, as in Julius Nyerere´s famous ´ujamaas,´ except it isn´t, as in Nyerere´s case, to help people help each other, but rather to divide and rule, and then commercialise and take the money. The plan, these analysts continue, is, namely to let people cultivate only the soil immediately surrounding their little clusters of households.
- Perhaps the cruellest chapter. An even greater cause of terror
This way, large amounts of land will be left not only uncultivated, but also, in effect unclaimed. And that way, vast amounts of land are made open to privatisation and commercial farming. Much like Nyerere´s ´ujamaas,´ a disaster for all those in effect forced to be his guinea pigs and actually go and live his dream, the resettlement plan that is taking shape in Northern Uganda now does also not bode well. In fact, an equally fair comparison is the forced resettlement that took place after the great famine in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. When looking back on that whole campaign, Wolde Giorgis Dawit, the man in charge, wrote, with obvious regret, that it was ´perhaps the cruellest chapter of the entire famine´. Rather than free people from the ´terror of want,´ it became ´an even greater cause of terror´.
- In peace. While the war continues
But that way, also, the communal ownership of the land that facilitated the co-existence of crop-growing harvest-based farming with the pastoral grazing of nomads, is also made impossible. And that is when people will begin to suffer the consequences, and turn at each other, rather than at the authorities. We have seen it before, here and elsewhere, and it is as sad as it is common, all over. A shortage of resources, manmade or not, is among the most common cause of conflict and war. Here, therefore, we may very well have not peace and prosperity, but another war in the making. And does Museveni and his croonies care? It doesn´t seem like it. Not for as long as he can generate yet another wave of international support. And then, when everyone has forgotten to ask what really happened to this iron sheet return scheme of his of 2006 - 2007, he can make his profits. In peace. While the war continues.
[Original article: http://www.humanrightshouse.org/dllvis5_print.asp?id=5098]
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