NRA Policies Drove The Destruction Of The People And Land Of Northern Uganda – Part 1


General David Tinyefunza

General David Tinyefunza

General David Tinyefunza

Even after seizing power 1986 and removing the northerners from the epicenter of power in Uganda, Museveni and his army and supporters; advocated a policy that was right from the beginning, virulently hostile to the northerners, particularly towards the Acholi people, identifying them as enemies.

The policy of hatred and power to act fueled the discrimination and marginalisation of northerners in public and private domain and was the basis upon which he prosecuted the war in against the northerners.

At the very heart of the NRA High Command was Major General Tinyefunza who held the view, according to the first NRA Commander who “liberated” Gulu, Col. Samson Mande, that ‘Acholi were the enemies, that he would not handle them even with velvet gloves.’ Another person at the NRM/A High Command was Commander Karushoke who likened the Northerners to biological substances to be eliminated to provide living space for “humans”.

Infact, Museveni himself in his choice of words also encouraged the NRA to become brutal and wipe out those “chaps” opposed to his government and publicly vowed to shoot and kill them.

This set the stage for the eventual destruction of the people and land of northern Uganda. General Tinyefunza began it by commanding the troops that went on to commit atrocities, molesting women and children, arresting men and tying them bound up like suitcases (Kandoya style) resulting in permanent disability and paralysis, the raping of men and women and destruction and looting of property, livestock and granaries under the guise of searching for guns.

The tragedy in Acholi sub region was best summed up by the scholar, Dr. Onek Adyanga: “The decimation of the Acholi population is the result of lethal cocktail of deceit, demonization and ethno-xenophobic hate, in which western governments and the United Nations became complicit.”

The result is that the people of Acholi suffered unspeakable misery and a total disruption of their social, cultural and economic support systems fundamental to their survival which will continue to haunt them for generations to come.  Here Acholi Times Revisits the Amnesty Report on Uganda which was released in December 1991 titled, “Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army.”

There have been reports of persistent human rights violations in 1991 in the northern Ugandan districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Apac, committed in particular by the Ugandan army, known as the National Resistance Army (NRA). Rebel forces have been active in these districts for many years and have been responsible for abductions, torture and killing of civilians. Human rights violations by the Ugandan authorities include the imprisonment of 18 prisoners of conscience, the detention without charge or trial of civilians suspected of involvement in rebel activities, the administrative sentencing of 1,100 others for “desertion”, the ill-treatment of prisoners in military custody, and extrajudicial executions.

In March and April 1991 18 local and national northern political leaders, many of them sympathizers of the Democratic Party (DP), were arrested by the NRA. They were charged with treason on 7 May, after being held without charge for periods ranging from three to six weeks, but the state has proved unable to present details of their alleged treasonable activity to the courts. Amnesty International has adopted the 17 who remain in prison as prisoners of conscience.

These arrests illustrate how the rule of law is being routinely abused in Uganda and how the courts have failed to take action to stop unlawful or arbitrary detention. They also illustrate how Uganda’s armed forces are allowed to interfere in the judicial process and sometimes appear to be running an unofficial system for imprisoning and punishing government opponents, which also undermines the rule of law. Although the routine abuse of the rule of law is particularly marked in areas where the government is facing armed insurgency, it is by no means restricted to these areas.

Between March and July 1991 thousands of people in Gulu and Kitgum Districts were detained during a major counter-insurgency operation so that they could be “screened” for involvement in rebel activity. The majorities were held for only brief periods but several hundred were held illegally for up to four months without charge or trial in military barracks in Gulu, Kitgum and Lira. Amnesty International is concerned that some of these people remain detained without charge or trial and that they may be prisoners of conscience.

Prisons in Kampala, Kirinya and elsewhere in southern Uganda have received 1,100 prisoners arrested in the north during the counter-insurgency operation and subsequently convicted in Lira and Nebbi of “desertion” from the NRA and allied Local Defence Units (LDUs), as locally recruited militia which support the government are known. There are reports that some of these prisoners had never been members of the NRA or LDUs, and that several were formerly imprisoned as “lodgers” (people detained without charge or trial outside the framework of the law on suspicion of involvement with insurgents) who had been released in 1989 and 1990. It has been reported that the prisoners did not receive fair trials but were summarily sentenced in what appears to have been an administrative hearing. This appears to represent an attempt to perpetuate the phenomenon of “lodgers” in a way that avoids criticisms about violations of human rights, for officially the 1,100 prisoners concerned have been tried, even though in practice they have not.

There are persistent reports that some of those held by the NRA during the counter-insurgency operation were beaten and ill-treated. The 18 northern leaders were beaten by soldiers before they were brought to court on 7 May. Uganda’s ombudsman, the Inspector General of Government (IGG), has subsequently carried out an investigation into this incident but details of his conclusions have not been made public. Civilians detained for “screening” in Gulu town in late March 1991 are also reported to have been beaten. There are widespread reports of rape by soldiers in rural areas. Soldiers are also alleged to have looted and destroyed property.

Reports have implicated NRA troops in a series of extrajudicial executions – deliberate and unlawful killings of prisoners or unarmed non-combatants. In March 1991 five civilians were shot dead in Atiak in Gulu District. At least 35 civilians are alleged to have been extrajudicially executed at Komyoke near Lagoti in Kitgum District in early April. In mid-April seven men were reportedly extrajudicially executed in and around Bucoro in Gulu District. In late May 1991 soldiers are reported to have shot dead a schoolboy prisoner in Kitgum town.

Insurgents have also been responsible for serious abuses against civilians. Their activities evidently explain the deployment of the NRA in northern Uganda and provide a context in which human rights have been violated, just as the NRA’s own campaign against the army of President Milton Obote provided the context in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed in southern Uganda between 1982 and 1985, particularly in the “Luwero Triangle”. In 1991 insurgents have been active in northern Uganda and various groups have committed abuses against civilians. In July 1991 rebels belonging to the United Democratic Christian Army (UDCA) abducted 43 girls from a school in Gulu most of whom have subsequently escaped or been set free. In other incidents villagers suspected by UDCA rebels of supporting the government and assisting the NRA have been killed or mutilated.


Since late 1986 the National Resistance Army (NRA) has been fighting a counter-insurgency war against rebels in northern Uganda. Throughout this period there have been persistent reports of gross abuses against the civilian population by both the NRA and the rebels. In various reports Amnesty International has drawn attention to reports of torture and ill-treatment of captives by the NRA, to allegations of extrajudicial executions by the army and to the detention without charge or trial of thousands of “lodgers” – prisoners arrested by the NRA in rural areas by the army and handed over to the custody of the civil prisons service. One entitled Uganda: The Human Rights Record 1986-1989 and published in March 1989, described the full range of abuses reported during President Yoweri Museveni’s first three years in power. In 1989 and 1990 thousands of “lodgers” were released from civil prisons, but there remained a significant problem of prisoners being held for long periods without charge or trial in military barracks. Amnesty International also remained concerned that extrajudicial executions were continuing to occur and that the authorities failed to take decisive measures in the majority of cases to prevent further incidents and to bring to justice those alleged to have been responsible for such executions. The organization has been concerned too by the failure of inquiries and investigations ordered by the government or the armed forces and announced publicly to reach a conclusion and to produce reports that make recommendations on measures to prevent extrajudicial executions.

Prisoners of Conscience

On 7 May 1991 18 prominent citizens from northern Uganda, among them Omara Atubo, who was then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and Andrew Adimola, the Vice-President of the Democratic Party (DP), were charged with treason in the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Kampala. They had been arrested in Gulu, Kitgum and Kampala on various dates between the end of March and the middle of April 1991. After their arrest the 18 were held illegally without charge or trial in military barracks in Gulu and Lira before being transferred to Kampala. On the morning of 7 May they were flown to Kampala from a military barracks in Lira. Before they flew, however, they were ill-treated by being beaten and forced to do physical exercises and they appeared in a shocked courtroom looking bruised and dishevelled. After being remanded in custody, they were imprisoned at Luzira Upper Prison near Kampala.

The treason charge, which under Ugandan law precludes the granting of bail for 480 days, was so vague that it did not appear to justify the continuing detention of the 18: in particular it did not specify the dates, location or nature of the treasonable acts that they were alleged to have committed. On 12 August 1991, in response to an action by defence lawyers, the High Court ruled that the charge was defective but refused to dismiss it on the basis that “the discharge of the accused persons will only expose them to another arrest”. By giving this ruling the court appeared to be condoning arbitrary detention and thus undermining the rule of law. The judge did urge the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to supply the necessary details under-pinning the charge but failed to set a time limit for the DPP to comply.

Amnesty International believes that the 18 were detained for reasons other than treasonable activity, reasons which include the investigation of alleged embezzlement of public funds, local power struggles at District level, opposition to NRA actions in the north and consequent criticisms of government policy. The organization is concerned that treason is being used as a holding charge in the absence of any evidence that could lead to the conviction of the 18, or even justify their prosecution. One of the 18 was released on bail on grounds of poor health in June 1991. Amnesty International has adopted all 17 who remain in custody as prisoners of conscience.

Prisoners of Conscience from Gulu

On 29 March 1991 the NRA began “cordon-and-search” operations in Gulu District by rounding up several thousand people in Gulu town. There were reports that some were taken to a compound owned by the Ministry of Agriculture where people found without proper papers, NRA deserters and those suspected of being rebels were made to run a gauntlet of soldiers who clubbed them with rifle butts. The suspected rebels were apparently identified for the NRA by former insurgents. Approximately 2,000 people were confined overnight in the town’s football stadium. There are allegations that some of those held were beaten.

Local political leaders, notably a number associated with the Democratic Party, were among those arrested. Okwonga Latigo, Chairman of Gulu District Resistance Committee Five (known locally as RC V),(1) Tadeo Omal, a Prisons officer, Mayor of Gulu town and Chairman of Gulu Municipality Resistance Committee Four (RC IV), Yovan Ojok, an agricultural officer from Gulu, Jacob Okello Orach, Chairman of Gulu Town Bazaar Ward Resistance Committee One (RC I), and Aldo Okello, a member of Gulu RC V for Awach sub-county, were among those arrested. Okwonga Latigo and Tadeo Omal are reported to have been arrested as they protested in the stadium about the conduct of soldiers during the “screening” operation. They, together with Yovan Ojok, Jacob Okello Orach and Aldo Okello, were among those charged with treason on 7 May. Other Resistance Committee members arrested around the same time who were not charged but appeared also to be prisoners of conscience included William Thomas Otto, representative on Gulu RC V of Purongo Sub-County, who is still detained without charge or trial, and Ayoli Akot and Julio Joe Odur, who were both released uncharged in late July after being held for four months in Gulu barracks.

In late 1990 Okwonga Latigo and other Gulu Resistance Committee officials, among them William Thomas Otto and Julio Joe Odur, had established a “Task Force” to investigate allegations that district funds had been embezzled. Amnesty International is concerned that the progress of these investigations may be the real reason behind their arrest. The organization is further concerned that the immediate cause of the arrest of Okwonga Latigo and Tadeo Omal appears to have been an attempt to fulfil their roles as elected representatives of the community by protesting about the behaviour of NRA soldiers towards civilians.

Prisoners of Conscience from Kitgum 

Among those charged with treason on 7 May were also a number of prominent citizens from Kitgum, the District bordering Gulu to the east. Kitgum District Resistance Committee Five (RC V) had been the focus of a power struggle between members sympathetic to the Democratic Party and others who were formerly members of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). The Democratic Party, founded in 1956, and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), founded in 1958, are historically the two major political parties in Uganda. Although the parties themselves have not been banned, party political activities have been suspended since the NRM came to power in 1986. The DP receives its strongest support from members of the Roman Catholic community, which is most numerous in the densely populated area of Buganda in the south and among the Acholi people of Gulu and Kitgum Districts. The UPC is traditionally associated with the Anglican community which is particularly strong in northern Uganda. The Acholi supporters of the DP, which was in opposition during the second UPC government of Milton Obote between 1980 and 1985, a government responsible for gross abuses of human rights, have continued to represent a powerful political force in northern Uganda up until the present. They have been critical of the NRM government’s policies in relation to the north and have frequently spoken out about human rights abuses.

In June 1990 allegations were made that funds belonging to Kitgum High School Parent and Teachers Association and to the District were being embezzled by senior officials who had previously belonged to the UPC. Amnesty International is concerned that a power struggle for control of Kitgum RC V and the pursuit of these allegations of embezzlement may be the real reasons behind the arrest of Maurice Lagol, the District Education Officer,Hannington Opira, a businessman and RC V member, Philip Odwong, the headmaster of Guillio Pastore Primary School and an RC V member, John Ocira, the Chairman of Kitgum High School Parent Teachers Association and an RC V member, Penyamoi Ojara, Secretary to Kitgum RC V and Chairman of the Resistance Committee’s Finance Sub-Committee, G.B. Ocan Acaa Lamola, a district tax officer and Chairman of Kitgum Town Central Ward Resistance Committee One (RC I), and James Olobo, a member of Kitgum town Resistance Committee Three (RC III). Those arrested include sympathizers of both the DP and the UPC. The majority had been involved in exposing and investigating the allegations of corruption.

Another Kitgum citizen, Tiberio Atwoma Okeny, the leader of a minor political group, the National Liberal Party, was charged with treason on 7 May 1991. He is reported to have been detained on 28 March 1991 by NRA soldiers at Puranga on the road between Kitgum and Lira. No official announcement was made about the reasons for his detention, although it was initially reported that the army was preparing a case against him for defaming the NRA. On 13 March 1991 Tiberio Atwoma Okeny had alleged that there was a deliberate policy of spreading Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the north through homosexual rape by NRA soldiers. His statement followed press reports making similar allegations. Tiberio Atwoma Okeny, who is thought to be in his late 60s, is an outspoken political figure from Kitgum District, frequently critical of both the Uganda government and the rebels. He has been a prominent proponent of peace in northern Uganda since 1986 and has been involved in efforts to mediate between rebels and the government. Tiberio Atwoma Okeny has often spoken out concerning alleged human rights abuses by both the NRA and rebels and is known to have been unpopular with government officials and threatened by some. Amnesty International is concerned that the real reason for his arrest is his outspoken criticism of the conduct of the NRA in northern Uganda, particularly his recent allegation about homosexual rape.

Other Northern Leaders

Three senior members of the Democratic Party (DP), two of them members of parliament, were among the accused who appeared in court on 7 May. Andrew Adimola, a veteran Ugandan politician, is the DP’s Vice-Chairman. Zachary Olum is the DP’s National Organising Secretary and NRC member for Nwoya County in Gulu District.(2) Irene Apiu Julu is Kitgum District’s women’s representative in the NRC. Perhaps the most prominent politician among those charged is Daniel Omara Atubo, who at the time of his arrest was the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Resistance Council (NRC) member for Otuke County in Lira District. The only one of the 18 from Apac District wasR.T. Odur, the officer in command of Loro civil prison in the district. It is believed he was arrested in early April.

Andrew Adimola, who is in his late 60s, was arrested on 14 April in Gulu and held in Gulu military barracks. On 4 May he was released by the army in Gulu, which suggests that the grounds for his arrest were not known locally, but before he could leave the barracks he was re-arrested. On 6 May he too was moved to Lira. Andrew Adimola was eventually released on bail because of his poor health on 24 June. Daniel Omara Atubo, Zachary Olum and Irene Apiu Julu were arrested on 15 April 1991 in Kampala, the day after they had attended a meeting of northern politicians, which expressed serious concerns about the conduct of troops in northern Uganda. They were then flown to Lira in northern Uganda where they were kept in unlawful military custody for three weeks before being returned to Kampala to be charged.

Statements by government officials both before and after these arrests indicate that the authorities were annoyed about the political activities of some northern leaders, particularly members of the DP. In January 1991 the then District Administrator in Gulu, J.B. Ochaya, is alleged to have written to the Director of Research and Political Affairs in the Office of the President accusing the DP of having “maintained the war” in the north. The letter, which mentions Zachary Olum by name, describes one manifestation of DP opposition as “writing about alleged atrocities committed by the army, and also influencing the Amnesty International report”. In an interview with the government-owned New Visionnewspaper on 10 May 1991, Major- General David Tinyefuza accused northern political leaders of “using government funds and property to negatively mobilise the masses”. In a press conference on 11 May 1991 Major-General Tinyefuza is reported to have accused Andrew Adimola, the DP’s Vice-Chairman, of hosting political meetings at his home before his arrest to discuss “sectarian politics in order to create confusion among the people”.

None of the actions by northern leaders which have been condemned by government officials appear to have involved the use or advocacy of violence. Instead, they have been criticized – and, it seems, eventually imprisoned – for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression.

The Use of “Treason” as a Holding Charge to Justify Long-Term Detention

On 7 May 1991 the 18 prisoners of conscience were charged with treason. The particulars of the offence given were that “Atubo, the other 17 and others not before the court between 1989 and March 1991 in various places in Apac, Lira, Gulu and Kitgum districts contrived a plot and expressed the plot by overt acts in order by force of arms to overturn the lawful government of Uganda”.

Although making clear that the 18 were plotting to overthrow the government, the charge was defective in that it provided no details and no supporting evidence to substantiate the accusation. Without such details, which would include particulars of the nature of the alleged overt acts, the dates on which they are supposed to have happened and the locations in which they are alleged to have taken place, it is impossible for the accused to prepare a defence. Under Ugandan law those accused of treason are not eligible for bail, save in exceptional circumstances, for 480 days after they have been charged. Inadequately framed treason charges can therefore be used as a way of holding prisoners without trial for 480 days, when in reality there is no evidence which would permit their prosecution on such a charge. This is particularly so if the courts fail to challenge the authorities’ abuse of the charge.

On 12 August 1990 the High Court ruled the charges were defective. The judge, Justice Kityo, should then have ordered that the 18 be released, but he failed to do this. Instead he urged the Director of Public Prosecutions to supply the necessary details “as soon as it is possible”. By failing to order that the 18 be released and compounding this by failing to set a time limit for the DPP to comply with the order to supply the necessary details, the judge indirectly indicated that he condoned arbitrary detention and the undermining of the rule of law. The state has had several opportunities in court to provide the necessary details about their alleged offence but by November 1991 had failed to do so.

The case of the 18 prominent northern politicians is an example of an abuse of the rule of law which appears to have become a routine way of dealing with political opponents of the government. On 9 August 1991 34 soldiers and civilians allegedly linked to groups seeking the return of the Buganda monarchy were released after they had spent 19 months in Luzira Upper Prison awaiting trial on treason charges. Before they were charged, they spent 15 months illegally detained without charge in military custody where some were reported to have been tortured. The 34, after almost three years in prison, were released when the government dropped the charges for lack of evidence. On 9 August the authorities finally provided details of alleged overt acts of treason in the cases of another nine, including the Kampala-based businessman Joseph Lusse, who have now been committed to the High Court for trial. Amnesty International is seeking assurances that these nine prisoners will receive a prompt and fair trial in accordance with internationally recognized standards of fair trial. On 21 August 1991 the Solicitor General also ordered that treason charges be dropped against 19 elderly men originally arrested in 1986 and never brought to trial. In addition to these cases, Amnesty International knows of another 104 individuals currently facing treason charges in seven different cases: in the cases of at least 72, prolonged detention without charge in military barracks has been followed by the bringing of treason charges which fail to specify the nature, location and date of the overt acts allegedly committed.

Detainees held without charge

Several hundred other people arrested during the “cordon-and-search” operations in Gulu in 1991 were held for several months without charge or trial.Okello Nokrach, for example, a civil engineer and businessman in Gulu, was arrested in early April. He was held without charge or trial in Gulu’s military barracks, apparently until 31 July when he and a number of other prominent detainees, including Ayoli Okot and Julio Joe Odur, were released with 81 other prisoners held uncharged since April. In a meeting with Amnesty International representatives in Gulu in August 1991, Mrs Betty Bigombe, the Minister of State for the North and East resident in Gulu, suggested that the detention of Okello Nokrach and seven other prominent citizens had been due to denunciations by members of the community with personal grudges against the men. Evidently, their prompt appearance in court and judicial scrutiny of the evidence against them should have prevented such arbitrary detention.

While welcoming these releases, Amnesty International is concerned that they were held for four months without charge on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations in the first place. It is illegal under Ugandan law for suspects to be held for longer than 24 hours without charges being brought against them. However, since 1986, as before, the army has felt under no obligation to respect or enforce the country’s laws on arrest and detention procedure. President Museveni himself has condoned the army’s behaviour, so that in practice a quite separate detention system, unregulated by the law and beyond the reach of the courts, has been established and allowed to continue.

Amnesty International is also concerned that at least three other northern community leaders remain in detention without charge or trial. William Thomas Otto, mentioned above, is reported still to be held in Gulu military barracks.Kassim Okeny and Oketta, Chairman and Secretary for Defence of Alero sub-county RC III in Gulu District, were reportedly arrested in May. On 27 May Colonel Samuel Wasswa, the Commander of the NRA’s 4th Division based in Gulu, announced that Kassim Okeny and Oketta were to be executed by firing squad for giving support to rebels. The announcement, which was reported in the Ugandan press, provoked protests because civilians arrested by the army remain under the jurisdiction of the civilian court system and are not liable for prosecution under the NRA’s internal Code of Conduct. On 8 June 1991 the Army Commander, Major-General Mugisha-Muntu, apparently intervened to prevent the executions. The army has claimed that it has evidence linking the three to rebel activities. Despite this claim the three are not known yet to have been brought to court and charged.

Amnesty International has been unable to discover how many other people arrested in the north since late March 1991 remain in detention without charge or trial. In mid-May 1991 Mrs Betty Bigombe announced at a rally at Anyeke in Apac District that over 3,000 rebels had been “netted” in Atanga sub-county in Kitgum District alone. It is not clear to Amnesty International whether these people have been released or whether they too remain in detention.

“Deserters” Sentenced at Grossly Unfair Trials 

On 18 May 1991 669 prisoners arrested in Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Apac Districts during counter-insurgency operations were transferred from Lira military barracks to Luzira Maximum Security Prison near Kampala. They were subsequently transferred to prison farms in western Uganda. A further 341 prisoners arrested in May and June 1991 in Nebbi District in northwest Uganda were transferred to Kirinya Main Prison in Jinja in early July. The authorities announced that both sets of prisoners had been found guilty in military hearings of desertion from the NRA and Local Defence Units (LDUs), the locally-recruited militia set up to assist the NRA with their local knowledge and experience. The majority had been sentenced to five years in prison, although those found guilty of deserting with weapons apparently received terms of 10 years. These prisoners are reported to include men of fighting age who had fought with previous government armies in Uganda, but not with the NRA. A number are reported to have been held without charge or trial as “lodgers” in previous years. It has also been reported that the prisoners did not receive fair trials but instead were summarily sentenced en masse by two senior army officers, one of whom was the 5th Division Intelligence Officer, in what appears to have been an administrative hearing where the charges against them were read out, followed by their sentence, without a genuine trial taking place. This appears to be an attempt to perpetuate the phenomenon of “lodgers” (prisoners detained without charge or trial in civil prisons at the orders of the NRA) but to avoid criticisms concerning violations of human rights, for officially the 1100 prisoners concerned have been tried, even though in practice they have not. It has been reported that disquiet within the government has led to the formation of a committee to review the cases of these prisoners. While a review is to be welcomed, international standards lay down that imprisonment should only follow a fair trial or similar judicial process.

Continues Next Week

Extracts from Amnesty International report, 1991 – Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army.