Background Briefing

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Problems of Voting in the Northern War-Zone

LRA Intimidation

Ugandans who live in areas threatened by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency since 1986 have faced particular difficulties during the pre-election period.  Not only do military operations threaten to disrupt the process, but the LRA has specifically involved itself in the election campaign with a threatening message.  It conducted attacks on December 29 and 31, 2005, and January 3, 2006, killing and abducting civilians.128 According to local NGOs, returning abductees bring the LRA’s message: if you vote for the government you will pay a price.129

UPDF Intimidation and Control

Some citizens of northern Uganda have also been threatened by the UPDF, in a different way. According to several FDC officials resident in Dzaipi, northern Uganda, soldiers campaigning in Dzaipi told them, “If you don’t vote NRM-O, you will run away from this place.”130 According to opposition party officials in Pakele, army Lt. Col Abiriga allegedly told residents during a NRM-O rally at Lewa in Pakele sub-county (northern Uganda), “if you don’t vote for Gen. Moses Ali, I will order my soldiers to withdraw from this [military] detach[ment].”131  Such a threat is serious since Pakele is affected by the LRA insurgency and local communities rely on UPDF protection. 

This echoes concerns publicly expressed by a caller into Gulu-based radio station Mega FM on January 13, 2006.  The caller, who said he was from an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Pader (northern Uganda), said that soldiers there had been threatening to withdraw and leave residents to the mercy of the LRA should the people not vote for the NRM-O.  Human Rights Watch was unable to substantiate the threat, and the UPDF denied any knowledge of similar threats, but the issue warrants further investigation.

In northern Uganda, the UPDF is in de facto control of the civilian population—almost two million people, the vast majority of whom have been forced to reside in IDP camps by virtue of rebel attacks and/or UPDF orders to move to the camps.132 The police have a token presence in the area and civilian security mostly falls to the army, which often arbitrarily detains, tortures and otherwise mistreats civilians suspected of rebel associations, though perpetrators are rarely charged or tried.  Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted in 2006: “I have concerns that the UPDF have been tasked with the disproportionate amount of police functions which are traditionally for civilian police.”133 Human Rights Watch in 2005 criticized the chronic understaffing of the police in northern Uganda.134

Access to Polling Stations

Insecurity and the government’s resettlement programs also threaten access to polling stations.  In Pabbo IDP camp west of Gulu, Human Rights Watch received reports of people who had been moved to new camps as part of the “decongestion” program being implemented by the government.  They are still registered to vote in Pabbo and so must travel up to seven kilometers back to the camp to vote.135 Public transport in the war zone is almost non-existent and walking is hazardous.  In addition, freedom of movement is generally subject to the local UPDF detachment’s assessments of the security situation.136

Residents in Baptist “B” camp in Soroti told Human Rights Watch that some of them moved home in 2005 when the government encouraged people to return to their villages. They registered to vote there but were then forced to return to the camps after LRA attacks picked up in 2006.   In order to vote, some would have to travel up to fifty kilometers back to their home villages.137 

Voting for many in northern Uganda will likely be a trying, dangerous and ultimately impossible task.  The Uganda Joint Churches Council has called on the government to halt resettlement programs until after the elections.138 The Electoral Commission is unable to tell how many people are affected by the resettlement programs,139 but DEM Group is “concerned that the on-going schemes affecting IDPs may negatively affect their participation in voting.”140

[128] “Chronology of recent incidents,” Justice and Peace News, January 2006, Vol. 7 No.13, p.11

[129] Human Rights Watch interview with Father Carlos, Gulu Archdiocese January 21, 2006, Human Rights Watch separate interviews with Pedro Amolat, WFP Gulu Chief, and Lt. Chris Magezi, UPDF, Gulu, January 23, 2006. 

[130] Human Rights Watch interview with opposition party FDC officials, Eranya Joseph and colleagues, Adjumani, January 19, 2006. 

[131] Ibid.

[132] The armed conflict has been going on since President Museveni first came to power, in 1986; forced displacement by army order to camps commenced in 1996.

[133] U.N. High Commissioner forRefugees and Uganda Human Rights Commission, Press Conference, Sheraton Hotel, January 12, 2006.

[134] “Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 17, no. 12(A), September 2005, pp. 48-49.

[135] Human Rights Watch interview with residents of Pabbo camp, January 21, 2006. 

[136] Human Rights Watch interview with UPDF at Pabbo camp, January 21, 2006.   

[137] Human Rights Watch interview with residents of Baptist “B” Camp, Soroti, January 15, 2006.

[138] HRW Interview with DEM Group officials, Kampala, January 17, 2006.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Electoral Commission, Kampala, January 27, 2006.

[140] “Interim Statement on the Display of the Voters Register,” DEM Group, January 10, 2006.

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