The Northern Uganda crisis affects regional security - Interview with Dennis McNamara

7 October 2007
The Northern Uganda crisis affects regional security - Interview with Dennis McNamara

Uganda, IDPs, humanitarian crisis, Dennis McNamara

Director of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division

You have just come back from Uganda. What really is the problem there?

The problem is that Uganda has a huge population of nearly 2 million internally displaced persons, the result of twenty years of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a fanatical fundamentalist movement with no political agenda except to terrorize the population. For instance, 25,000 children have been abducted. The problem is huge: 2 million people is a massive number.

These internally displaced persons are captives in an awful situation-an unhealthy, unhygienic, unprotected, sustained slum. The military do not permit them to leave the camps. They are not getting proper assistance or protection, either from us or from the government. Women are being attacked, abused and violated on a regular basis. HIV/AIDS is rampant in the camps. Nobody knows the level, but it is one of the biggest killers, particularly among the young. The mortality rate in the camp is three times higher than the national average in Uganda and double the mortality rate in the Darfur camps.

Jan Egeland talks about the forgotten humanitarian crises. Do you consider Uganda as one of them?

It is one of the neglected crises because the international community has said to itself: "What should we do? Let’s feed them." So food aid has been arriving in large quantities-US$90 millions over several years. But we have not made any progress on resolving the real issue. So, Jan Egeland has launched an initiative in New York with the United Nations and the Core Group of Governance-that is, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States-to put together a more comprehensive approach. Obviously, they have started with security and mediation, asking what can be done to obtain a peace deal with the RLA.

The Secretary-General has backed this initiative. The Foreign Minister of Uganda said that his Government would co-operate. So now colleagues are trying to agree on this package. They are also counting upon the critical support of the President of Uganda to see if we can make some actual progress, rather than having to go through another ten years of a captive population receiving humanitarian assistance. This assistance keeps them alive, but it does not solve their problems, and that is the basic issue.

There is an attempt to adopt a more comprehensive approach. I think that there is an increasing realization, as both the Secretary-General and Jan Egeland have said, that humanitarian aid is not a substitute for political insecurity. It has been seen as an easy alibi-we are feeding them and therefore they are alive. Fine! But it is not enough. We know from Somalia what happens-the south of Somalia in particular has become a "no-go" zone. A quarter of a million people in Mogadishu are desperate for humanitarian assistance, but we cannot even land a plane there. That’s the danger of "aid" without solving the security problem.

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Children at the Kilak Corner IDP camp in Pader.
© Sven Torfinn/IRIN

The Security Council is watching this initiative closely and, if it does not work, they will place the matter on their agenda. So there is a lot of international focus. The Core Group is pushing through a package of measures with the Ugandan Government.

Let me say that Uganda is one of the best governments to deal with for internally displaced persons. It is not like Liberia, or Congo or the South of Somalia, where government has totally collapsed. It is a structured government with proper departments and professional officers. They do need to be more committed for, after all, it is a matter of their own people. The primary responsibility is theirs-with our help.

The Security Council has not dealt with Uganda in nineteen years. This conflict has been going on all this time, but the biggest population displacement has taken place over the last five years. A few years ago, there were between 200,000 and 300,000 internally displaced persons; today there are 2 million. The problem is not going away. Although there were claims that the war was over, in fact a few hundred RLA fighters have terrorized the entire population. The Ugandan Army has tried to tackle their hit-and-run tactics, but they are not able to stop them.

The RLA is now in Southern Sudan, recently killing UN staff and disrupting operations. Although the issue is primarily Ugandan, it is affecting regional stability. Therefore, the Security Council must act. They cannot afford, for example, to have the UN Peace Monitoring Mission in Southern Sudan undermined by the RLA. Nevertheless, the core of the problem is in Northern Uganda.


You are the Director of the Inter-Agency Internal Displacement Division of OCHA. What does your office exactly do?

I am a Special Adviser to Jan Egeland on displacement issues. "Displacement" really means "displacement from conflict". In 2004, Jan Egeland asked me to focus on eight countries with major displacement issues. He wanted to see if we if we could make a difference in assisting displaced populations.

Those eight countries are mainly in Africa: Burundi, DRC Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, plus Colombia and Nepal. These counties include the world’s 15 million displaced people. For instance, Sudan alone has more than 5 million; Colombia has perhaps 3 million; Uganda 2 million; Congo 2 millions, etc.

If you add it all up, you have a massive global problem which, as Jan Egeland s said, has been overlooked. It is much bigger than the global refugee problem, but there is no agency and no focus on it as there is for refugees. The provision of camps and the degree of protection to the displaced are in general much lower than refugees would receive if they fled across a border. This is because there are some locations in Congo and in Northern Uganda that are hard to reach. Therefore the press has not been able to give it proper attention.

We have told the press: "We feel that you are neglecting this issue. If this were Sarajevo, you would have had your best television crews there. " In Congo, there is virtually nobody-unless we take them there, as we did recently in Katanga province. As a result, Time magazine did a two-page spread about it. The BBC covered it too, but newspaper editors do not recognize the magnitude of the problem. Congo has probably the highest death rate in war since the Second World War: more than 3 million have died, and it is estimated that more than 38,000 people are dying every month. The problem has not been properly addressed. If you do not get the press coverage, of course, you do not get the donors or political support. So, the problem is very hard to solve.

Thanks to Jan Egeland and others, Uganda is now receiving renewed attention, including from the Security Council. There is perhaps an opportunity to solve the problems-that means, of course, sending the people home. That means support and security-all of the things you need to rebuild ordinary life.

It is a huge task …

It is a huge task and there is no agency handling it. We are an inter-agency mechanism trying to get the other partners to do what they can. It is our task to get the UNHCRs, the UNICEFs, the WHOs and the UNDPs of this world to undertake their proper actions. This issue has been neglected by many agencies. Now, with the Humanitarian Reform of the United Nations, agencies are more formally responsible than before. Hopefully, in this way we can really make some progress. UNHCR, for example, is now going to Northern Uganda for the first time to co-ordinate the protection of displaced persons.

In Liberia, children go back to the jungle if they are not given support, education and employment. They may start another war in West Africa. They are easy recruits, and they may become militia, criminals or whatever. There has to more support for the returnees to rebuild their lives. That is the missing part of the equation.

So what is it exactly that you are trying to do?

As a humanitarian agency, we can apply limited pressure on the development actors. This is a system problem, a donor problem, a host government problem. The needs must be more focused on these issues.

The single biggest missing link in this equation is how to protect the civilians, in particular the women and children. They are highly vulnerable in the camps; they are vulnerable if they try to go home; they are vulnerable after they go home. It often happens that they are protected by the military, but the military often abuse the civilians. In Northern Uganda, the military abused women and girls on a regular basis-not only the RLA-and were not held accountable for this.

Do you see any hope?

Oh, yes! After twenty years, Southern Sudan has peace and it is more or less holding. Other success stories are Angola, Burundi, Rwanda and Mozambique. So there is hope. We are dealing with the bleak side, because that is where attention is needed, but one should not forget the successes. I think it is very important to learn why peace works? Why did the people stay in Mozambique? What happened during the reconciliation? These are important lessons from which we should learn as we enter new post-conflict situations. We are not very good at learning from past experiences.

What is your personal motivation in fighting for the displaced populations?

I think that when you see how vulnerable these people are and how much hope (in most cases unrealistically high) they place in us-the UN, the agencies-you realize that nobody else is helping them. For the displaced persons, we are actually their only real voice. There is no UNHCR for them, like there is for refugees. There is no UNICEF, as there is for the world’s children. So, the more we can advocate to donors, to governments, to the media, to the world, the better. I think that if you could see the miserable condition in which most of them live, you could not help but be motivated. These are the poorest of the poor, often living on the top of rubbish dumps in Somalia, in the slums in Northern Uganda or in Congo. It is just awful and they are dying at a rate three or four times higher than the average. That is our motivation.

How can we make a difference?

You can do quite a lot with relatively little. It is quite surprising. A small supply of medicines could stop a cholera outbreak. Wells, if carefully dug, can do enormous good. It is not always the expensive projects that are the answer. It is the more carefully planned projects suggested by the locals who know how the system works and are extremely valuable links in this process.

What is your message to the international community in Geneva?

We neglect these populations at our peril. There is an ethical factor. These are human beings dying a couple of hours away from here-dying unnecessarily. And we are doing very little about it.

But there is also the self-interest of governments. If you neglect countries, they will degenerate into no-go zones, as in Southern Somalia. We do not have access to it anymore as it is controlled by militias, the military, fundamentalists (you name it). That is not in the global interest.

Everything else flows from there: you have pirates attacking passing ships; you have an armed militia; you have cross-border military activities. It becomes a trouble spot that you have to deal with at some point. This is why we should stabilize Southern Sudan and invest in it. If you do not, you might have yet another conflict. So, let us deal with Northern Uganda. Make sure we get a peace deal. Impose it if necessary. Otherwise you are going to destabilize Southern Sudan again and Congo. The world cannot say about Africa: "Out of sight, out of mind."

I think it is also a matter of global solidarity and responsibility for these people. You cannot have a Sub-Saharan drought with a starving population being fed from Kenya. That’s not a sustainable situation and it could destabilize the region, affecting the economy, politics and security and, eventually, having a global impact. So it is cheaper, simpler and better to encourage immediate recovery. The world is blind to this-it waits until there are starving babies on TV.

Why? Because we did not invest in what was asked for to stabilize that county. This short-term, short-sighted mentality is very dangerous because we’ll pay more to stabilize it later-while they pay with their lives. Why do we not do it now when it needs to be done? Some governments are realizing this, whereas others tend to ignore it. We get about half of what we need in humanitarian aid every year. We do not get anything like the amount we need for recovery and investment. The result is that we continue to readdress the same problem. An example: twenty years ago Bob Geldorf did a heroic action, LiveAID for Ethiopia, to save the starving babies. But the actual problem was not dealt with. That is a simplistic, negative and unproductive cycle. We could have invested in the agriculture sector in that region and stopped the famine.

Kenya has 3.5 million people on food aid. But this is a fertile country and there should not be anybody receiving food aid there. We haven’t invested in the agriculture; we haven’t invested in the demographics. In Uganda there have been 2 million people on food aid for the past ten years. This is quite unnecessary. Uganda is an even bigger breadbasket than Kenya. We are not resolving the problems. We are just dealing with the problems when they become too painful to ignore.

To stop this mess, we need to mobilize the voices. This means a global mobilization of NGOs, of agencies, churches, civil leaders, governments, the UN. You need a massive effort. We are talking about fifteen on-going conflicts in Africa at the moment with perhaps 24 million displaced persons. This is three times bigger than the refugee problem. There is no agency for these people. They do not have any voice, so we need to make use of any voice that is supportive.

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