Uganda's future is clouded by its rebel war

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The Independent Online

Uganda today is often described as a model for African development. And it is true that much of the country is happier than in the days of Idi Amin's dictatorship. Since 1986, President Yoweri Museveni's economic reforms have boosted growth and controlled inflation. Although the regime falls short of being a healthy democracy, opposition parties are free to operate and dissent is tolerated. Unlike many of its neighbours, Uganda has cause to be hopeful about the future.

Uganda today is often described as a model for African development. And it is true that much of the country is happier than in the days of Idi Amin's dictatorship. Since 1986, President Yoweri Museveni's economic reforms have boosted growth and controlled inflation. Although the regime falls short of being a healthy democracy, opposition parties are free to operate and dissent is tolerated. Unlike many of its neighbours, Uganda has cause to be hopeful about the future.

But any optimism for Uganda must be muted while the government's war with rebel forces rages in the north of the country. This 18-year conflict has killed 100,000 people and driven 1.6 million into refugee camps. Thousands leave their villages and trek into towns each evening to avoid rebel raids. Considering the brutality of the so-called Lord's Liberation Army, it is little wonder people are so terrified. This vicious rebel collective, led by a Christian fanatic called Joseph Kony, is estimated to have pressganged and misused some 20,000 children.

It is difficult to argue with the view expressed yesterday by the UN's head of humanitarian affairs, when he described the conditions of more than a million Ugandans as "the most neglected humanitarian crisis in the world". Some aid workers argue that conditions for Uganda's refugees are as bad as - if not worse than - in Darfur.

The nature of the crisis in Uganda, however, is quite different. In neighbouring Sudan, the priority is clearly to stop the Sudanese government supporting the Arab militias, who are persecuting Darfur's black population. In Uganda it is unclear whether it would be better to support the Government wholeheartedly in its battle against the rebels, or to increase pressure on both sides to reach a solution through dialogue.

Mr Museveni argues that he is close to defeating the rebels. And it is true that Kony's forces have been weakened by Sudan's decision to cease helping them two years ago. But a military solution is rarely the best one. Guerrilla armies are notoriously difficult to defeat, especially if they have ethnic roots in the region as these rebels do. And there is evidence that some rebel commanders want peace. While there is still a chance of negotiations, the UN, with the African Union, should push for a deal. In the meantime, the international community must ensure that aid reaches the victims of this appalling conflict.

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