by Austin Bay
December 18, 2002
GULU, Uganda -- As airfields in the Sudan-Uganda border regiongo, Gulu's one long strip of asphalt is Chicago O'Hare.
Gulu Town, Gulu province. Go to the map of Africa. Find Sudan --that's the large stretch of country between Egypt and Uganda. Now find theSudanese-Ugandan border, the stretch east of the White Nile. Gulu is thetown of consequence, just south of that border, and its airfield is a prizedUgandan military asset.
It's also a town and an airstrip under attack, in one of thebrutal African wars that have new resonance in the post-9/11 politicalworld.
At first glance, it appears not too much is shaking in Gulu,until you notice the soldiers at the end of the runway, and the troops andtruck on the road from the terminal.
It's at night, of course, that the war arrives, and we won't bein Gulu at night. A persistent, bitter, insane and endless little war it is,one that gets even less Western press attention than the long-running evilin the Congo and the war north, in Sudan.
For 16 years, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has fought Uganda's Kampala government. The LRA and its titular leader, Joseph Kony,have an ideology of a sort. They want to impose the Ten Commandants as thebasic law, a sort of Christian equivalent of Islamic sharia.
But don't connect Kony and his thugs to the Inquisition orCrusades. In fact, the LRA is a creature of the Islamist radical governmentin Sudan, created to harass Uganda and deter Uganda from aiding Christianand animist African tribes in south Sudan in their fight against Khartoum.Some cynical strategist in Khartoum understood Gulu's Acholi tribe hadtribal and historical rivalries with the tribes in Uganda's south, the kindthat could be exploited by giving power-hungry men like Kony guns, money andsanctuary. The addition of a Christian extremist pitch was a propagandapiece de resistance.
The war in Gulu thus pits predominantly Christian Uganda againstan army created by Islamic Sudan. That's one reason last spring Sudandecided it wanted to get out of the puppet war in Uganda, because itincreased Sudan's "terror profile" with the United States. Khartoum cut adeal with Kampala, which allowed the Ugandan Army to attack LRA bases inSudan. Dubbed Operation Iron Fist, the Ugandan Army overran LRA base campsand freed hundreds of abducted Ugandan and Sudanese civilians.
Kidnapping is one of the LRA's nastier tactics. Some of theabducted had been held for years. Not so long ago, journalists would havecalled this a slaving operation of a sort.
However, by late September, the LRA still had forces in thefield, leading the Ugandan government to declare that Sudan was stillsupporting the LRA. The LRA lays a few mines, ambushes a truck, kills a fewcivilians, then gets pasted by the Ugandan Army -- very low-leveloperations. My gut suspicion is, however, that someone in Sudan is stillsupplying them.
But one nation's low level is another nation's intense tragedy.One unofficial figure puts the number of lives lost over 16 years at 23,520,and 12,320 of the dead are civilians. Over 16 years, the war has cost Uganda$1.35 billion. Comparing a poor agricultural country's economy with themultifaceted U.S. economy is tough; there's no steady yardstick. However,one military analyst pointed out that 80 million dollars a year is around 3percent of Uganda's GDP. The U.S. equivalent would be something like $4trillion dollars for 16 years of war -- a huge economic penalty. Dispute thenumbers, but the big picture is incontestable. The war in the north in Guluprovince cripples Uganda's already fragile economy.
And that's precisely Sudan's intent.
To improve sub-Saharan Africa's economic lot requires peace, butat the moment there are still too many groups who benefit from stoking war.Regime change in Iraq is a noble goal. A regime change in Khartoum is alsooverdue.