GULU, 9 February 2011 (IRIN) - Hundreds of thousands of former internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Uganda have registered to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on 18 February, but many doubt the outcome will improve their livelihoods.
"Our cattle should be compensated [i.e. we should receive compensation for cattle losses], land mine victims are crying for help, people want schools, hospitals, clean water, good roads in villages; land conflict is still common; and people are poor [so] they should be given support to boost their agriculture," Patrick Oketta from Kitgum District said.
The region suffered more than 20 years of conflict, as Ugandan government forces fought the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The rebels waged a brutal war, abducting children and girls to fight for them or serve as sex slaves, and killing or mutilating those who resisted. Military action against the LRA in Uganda has, in the last three years, dispersed the fighters into the remote borderlands between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Last year, President Barack Obama presented to the US Congress a strategy to support the disarmament of the LRA. Obama's strategy highlights protection of civilians as the first objective. It emphasizes increasing the options for LRA fighters and what it calls “associated persons” to leave the battlefield safely.
Nearly two million people were displaced by the war in Uganda, but the majority have returned home from camps where they had sought refuge and will for the first time in decades vote in their villages. However, an estimated 43,000 people were still living in IDP camps or settlements in Acholi subregion in December, most in already decommissioned camps.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only 5,664 (mainly vulnerable) individuals were living in 13 remaining camps. Apart from vulnerability or special needs, these IDPs had failed to return to their villages due to poor infrastructure and inadequate basic services, land conflicts, fear of Karamojong cattle rustlers particularly in Agago District, and concerns over mines and unexploded ordnance, mainly in Lamwo District. But while relative peace had finally returned to northern Uganda, Oketta added, there was still a lot of work needed to improve the general situation in the region and across the country.
"I will vote, but I don’t think my vote matters. We voted twice for change for the better but the change didn’t come," Obol Olyel of Paminja village in Amuru District said. Olyel is a survivor of the LRA conflict, and lost two sons to the rebels in 2003.
"I am happy that I am finally home, but even if you vote or don’t, the leaders are not mindful of problems facing the locals in the village," he added.
An elder in Nwoya District, where oil has been discovered, felt that the country needed leaders to manage resources for the benefit of their citizens. "Oil is here, less than 50km from my home village of Purongo," Bosco Lam told IRIN. "The oil should help the country have better hospitals with drugs and staff, schools, and employ our children."
Eight candidates are vying for president, including incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 25 years. In northern Uganda, their campaigns have been dominated by demands from former IDPs for infrastructure to be rebuilt, support for children’s education, compensation for people who lost property during the war, and support for sustainable livelihoods.
Thousands of candidates are also vying for 375 parliamentary seats. In Acholi subregion, these candidates have resorted to night campaigns popularly known by locals as `wang oo’ - a reference to the Acholi tradition in which families gather around a fire at night to discuss the day’s transactions, tell folk stories, teach their children discipline and perform other traditional functions.
The presidential and parliamentary elections will be followed by local elections from 23 February. "The forthcoming elections are important, not only for Uganda but also for the region," said Catherine Ashton, European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. "They are only the second multi-party elections to have taken place in Uganda since the National Resistance Movement came to power in 1986."