Uganda's ex-combatants struggle to reintegrate

05 November 2014 by Samuel Okiror

Uganda’s government programme for the social and economic reintegration of some 27,000 amnesty-granted former armed rebels has stalled, leaving thousands with few options to earn a living.

After ex-Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighter Bosko Akena was captured by Ugandan troops in the Central African Republic last December, he was demobilized. He received an amnesty certificate and a reinsertion package of 263,000 shillings ($120), along with a mattress, blanket, hoe, basin, jerrycan, cups, plates and five kilograms of maize and bean seeds. But almost a year on, his package is proving insufficient to sustain a living. He resides in a slum on the outskirts of Gulu town, doing odd jobs. “We are struggling to fend for ourselves and families with no proper means. We were just reinserted into the community without any basic trainings and funds to start income-generating activities,” Akena told IJT.

According to figures recently announced by Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, which runs the official reintegration programme, just 7,170 out of 26,932 ex-combatants from 29 armed groups and tribal attackers who renounced their former alliances have been reintegrated in their communities.

The programme, launched in July 2009, has helped some ex-combatants and victims in learning skills like carpentry, bricklaying, motor vehicle and bicycle repair, hairdressing, tailoring, metalwork, planting trees and entrepreneurship, as well as providing them psychosocial and financial support and seeds and seedlings. 

“A lot of the ex-combatants are very frustrated with their reintegration process,” says Stephen Oola, a transitional justice and governance expert at Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project, because they’ve missed out. “Many have simply been reinserted into the poor communities without alternative livelihoods or skills sets. Psychologically, their minds are still at war and many continue to suffer various forms of PTSD,” he told IJT.

Underfunding

The Amnesty Commission cites underfunding. “We are constrained. One of the bottlenecks to the reintegration programme is lack of financial resources,” Moses Draku, the commission’s principal public relations officer, told IJT. He dismissed the 1.8 billion shillings that the Ugandan finance minister allocated to the commission in her 2013-2014 national budget as “a drop in the ocean”. According to Draku, “The commission needs about 16 billion shillings to effectively reintegrate the remaining [ex-combatants].”

In an interview with IJT, Uganda’s minister in charge of political mobilization, Richard Twodong, said: “The government is aware of the challenges faced by ex-combatants and trying to address them. However, we are currently constrained with the limited resources.”

Still, critics charge that not enough is being done. “These people [ex-combatants have been neglected, abandoned and marginalized. The government hasn’t provided them with livelihood programmes to cope up after the bush life,” said MP Lilly Adong. She thinks current policies focus on state authority and reconstruction, but “emphasis should be put on social economic transformation, empowerment, peace-building and reconciliation, so that these people can’t easily think of re-offending and going back to commit rebellion”. 

Over half the programme’s beneficiaries are from the LRA, the rebel group led by Joseph Kony, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and still at large. But the former rebels’ presence in Acholi sub-region, the epicentre of the two-decade insurgency, is increasingly seen as impeding local recovery and sustainable peace-building and heightening insecurity. Police report of individuals turning to crime to make ends meet. “Some of the former combatants are involved in criminal activities, land wrangles and violence in the region,” said Jimmy Patrick Okema of the Acholi regional police. 

Problem runs deeper

Makerere University’s Oola believes the problem runs deeper. “A combination of factors accounts for the failure of the reintegration in northern Uganda: the failure of the Juba peace process to completely end the LRA rebellion, lack of sufficient resources, improper planning, mistrust of the government by the combatants and uncoordinated strategies,” he said.

Kampala human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo is sceptical. “From the very start, the government of Uganda viewed amnesty as an end in itself,” he said. “The government has never been committed to full reintegration of former combatants. It has focused more on reintegrating the displaced communities over and above ex-combatants.”

Meanwhile, Akena, the ex-LRA soldier living in a Gulu slum, said that since surrendering, he feels stigmatized. “The community members use rude language and call us all sorts of names. They still see us as rebels, killers, looters and abductors who tortured and tormented them.”

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