Uganda: Neither Mine-Free or Mine-Safe in 2012

According to statements by the Government of Uganda and by published reports, Uganda will complete the demining of all known minefields by August 2012.  Uganda is focusing its demining activities in the northern district of Kitgum, along the border with Sudan, in areas affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion.  Certainly the LRA rebellion contributed a significant amount of Uganda’s landmine contamination, but, as even Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni acknowledged during his recent re-election campaign, Uganda has been the subject of 26 rebellions in addition to the LRA rebellion since 1986 when Museveni came to power; after Museveni himself had led a five-year rebellion in the heart of the country. There is known landmine contamination in the west and northwest of the country that the government attributes to the Allied Democratic Force and the West Nile Bank Front rebellions, but demining will not take place in these areas because the contamination is labeled as “nuisance” mines rather than an organized deployment of mines in a minefield. 

The Government of Uganda and its mine action authority, the Uganda Mine Action Center, are to be commended for their work in support of the development of the Mine Ban Treaty and for their aggressive approach to the Agoro Hills and Ngomoromo minefields in Kitgum District.  Although the Government of Uganda was an early and ardent supporter of the Mine Ban Treaty, the country did not begin demining activities as required by Article 5 of the Treaty until 2006 when the LRA withdrew from Uganda and the violence abated.  Because of this late start to demining, Uganda was not able to meet the Treaty-mandated deadline for clearance and so requested and received an extension until August 1, 2012 to complete mine clearance.  With less than a year to go until that deadline, UMAC remains confident that the demining activities proposed and approved in the extension request will be completed.

Landmine Use in Uganda

The first documented use of landmines in Uganda that I have been able to find dates to 1979 and has been acknowledged by the Government of Uganda.  In 1979, the Tanzanian Peoples Defence Force and the Ugandan rebel movement, the Peoples Resistance Army, under the command of Yoweri Museveni, attacked and defeated the forces loyal to then-President Idi Amin.  The TPDF and PRA drove Amin’s forces across the country into the far northwestern region of the country, the West Nile, where Amin was from and where he crew his strongest support.  As Amin’s forces withdrew across the Nile River, they laid landmines to protect their retreat and prevent any further advance of the TPDF and PRA.  For most of the next 15 years, the mines laid by Amin’s loyalists were the only landmines in northern Uganda.

Shortly after Amin’s defeat, new elections took place in Uganda in 1980, elections that were most likely rigged and returned former President Milton Obote to power.  In response, Museveni launched his “bush war” and began a five-year civil war against Obote’s regime.  Now, while Obote’s regime would not be the most unbiased observer, the accusations of Obote’s ministers that Museveni’s National Resistance Army was using landmines were supported by stories filed by Reuters and other news agencies documenting the mining of roads around Kampala by rebels destroying trucks, buses and ambulances traveling between Kampala and other towns in central Uganda.  In 1985, towards the end of the civil war, the National Resistance Army was reported to have used landmines to protect its bases in western and southwestern Uganda (Fort Portal and Mbarara, respectively) whilst continuing to harass Ugandan army forces by mining the roads around Kampala. The United States government was reported to have provided Obote’s government with helicopters so that the Ugandan army could travel safely through the country and avoid the dangerous roads. 

The use of mines by the National Resistance Army would have mimicked similar usage by rebels in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, rebel movements that Museveni had either trained with (Mozambique) and / or expressed admiration for (Zimbabwe, at the time at least). 

In 1994, after the breakdown of the Betty Bigombe-mediated talks between the Government of Uganda and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA received material, financial and technical support from the Government of Sudan.  Sudan’s support of the LRA is often seen as a direct response to Uganda’s support of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army led by John Garang, a friend and former classmate of Museveni’s.  The LRA received landmines from Sudan and began to use them widely,  to sow fear by placing them in and around homes and to protect their fighting forces from counter-attack or pursuit.  The LRA is associated with landmine contamination in the modern districts of Gulu, Amuru and Kitgum.

Two other rebel forces, the Allied Democratic Force and the West Nile Bank Front, also used landmines in the 1990s.  The ADF used mines in Kasese district and western Uganda – very near to where the NRA’s headquarters were located in the early 1980s – and the WNBF used mines in the West Nile region to the far northwest of the country – the same place where Amin’s forces used mines in 1979.  Therefore, landmine contamination in western Uganda and northwestern Uganda covers multiple periods and conflicts.

In the 1990s, the Ugandan army denied any usage of landmines even though the country possessed landmine manufacturing facilities.  In 2000, the Ugandan army was accused of using mines in the battle with Rwandan forces over the town of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but no credible reports of mine use by the Ugandan army can be found after Museveni and the NRA seized power in 1986.

Demining Activities Insufficient

The history of mine usage in Uganda shows that a much greater portion of the country is likely affected by landmines than just those districts affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion which were the focus of activities in Uganda’s approved Article 5 extension request.  In the extension request, the government of Uganda recognized the presence of “nuisance” mines in western Uganda, but the government attributes this contamination to the ADF rebels and makes no mention or acknowledgement of the accusations of mine use leveled against the NRA in the same region.  Uganda had been subject to a comprehensive mine survey, but the government rejected the findings of the survey, recognizing landmine contamination only in areas where the contamination could be directly tied to LRA activity.  Landmines continue to be found elsewhere in western and northwestern Uganda and Handicap International UK has recently launched a victim assistance and mine-risk education program in western Uganda to address this on-going threat.

In addition, because of the five-year civil war between the NRA and Obote’s regime in the early 1980s, I believe there is likely landmine contamination in the much more densely populated regions of central Uganda, around Kampala in the so-called Luwero Triangle.  The NRA was accused of mining roadways to distribute transit and harass Obote’s army and residual mines may remain from those activities, but Museveni’s government has not taken responsibility for, or even acknowledged the possibility of the NRA’s use of mines during their war.  The focus on the LRA’s landmine activities is part of a broader pattern of the Museveni regime to blame “bandits” and “hyenas” for problems in the country, without recognizing that his own past as a rebel leader might play some part.

Verdict: Landmine Contamination and Casualties will Continue in Uganda

In reviewing the progress of demining in Kitgum District’s Agoro and Ngomoromo hills, I believe the government will achieve the stated goal of clearing the minefields described in the Article 5 extension request.  The government has hired 39 of the 40 deminers that were planned for in the request and Norwegian People’s Aid was able to provide the “Mine Wolf” demining vehicle from Sudan to expedite clearance of large areas.  To date, no significant delays have been met although the government has continued to seek additional funding for the clearance activities. 

However, the presence of “nuisance” mines in western Uganda, the continued discovery of landmines in western, northwestern and northern districts, and the possible presence of mines in central Uganda mean that Uganda may achieve its stated goals of clearing specific minefields, but that won’t render the country mine-free or mine-safe by the August 1, 2012 deadline.  If suspected hazardous areas are not cleared through technical survey, Uganda will continue to experience casualties for many years to come.

Michael P. Moore, August 24, 2011

One Comment on “Uganda: Neither Mine-Free or Mine-Safe in 2012”

  1. […] “Uganda: Neither Mine-Free of Mine-Safe in 2012,” August 2011 […]

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