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Unusual expectations

By Marjoke A.Oosterom

Acholi man says of President Museveni: “If you have many children, you cannot love all of them equally”, another wants to vote for the World Food Programme instead

I am a development researcher based in the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda. Recently, I was taken aback when a farmer who sought my views on the 2011 general elections asked me an odd question: Can I vote for the World Food Programme in 2011?

That question shows that there are certain things we need to understand about a population affected by war. Not just what they have been through, but also how their past experiences shape their attitudes and behaviour at present. After all, can we assume that people who experienced insecurity for more than 20 years know and feel the same about leadership and governance as people that have not? If you were displaced into a camp at the age of 10, which experiences would you take home when you left the camp at the age of 20?

Acholis were in a survival mode for a long time. Their minds were preoccupied with whether they would still be alive the next morning, whether parents would manage to get food for the children, and the pain about family members they had lost.

Before the camps started, preparing one meal was already a challenge for typical Acholi families. During peaks of the conflict, people did not stay home much, but were hiding in the bush. They briefly came home to cook. Young boys climbed the trees to look out for rebels. In case of any threat they threw stones on the roof of the hut to warn their parents, as yelling would disclose their presence. People lived by the day. Such a coping mentality does not change overnight. Even now that stability has returned, it takes time to start thinking beyond survival and engage in broader community development issues, including those that involve linking to local government.

Before people went to camps, insecurity interfered with service delivery in the sub-region. Little could be done. In the displacement camps the aid agencies took over. The humanitarian actors often responded more quickly than the government. That explains the farmer’s question: Can I vote for the World Food Programme in 2011?

As we know, this is not a country where people quickly go out protesting on the streets when they feel government is not doing the right thing. All over the country, citizens experience difficulties in demanding better services. Poverty and lack of education are major obstacles to citizens demanding better from leaders and officials. Besides, many don’t know the responsibilities of the various offices. In short, the so-called demand-side of governance is weak, in particularly, in rural areas. This is a challenge to the functioning of democracy.

In the Acholi sub-region citizens experience extra difficulties to exercise voice. This is attributable to the 20-year protracted violent conflict, caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that sent citizens into displacement camps.

In Acholi, all people wanted during 20 years of conflict, was peace. They have come a long way. Now that there is peace many do not ask for more. Of course they do want better health services, education and infrastructure. But Acholis seem to appreciate services as favours rather than as something they are entitled to.

We thank the government for giving our children guns! an Acholi woman once told me.

She was from a displacement camp in Kitgum that experienced several LRA attacks. Once, the rebels penetrated deep into the centre, close to the army barracks. The military, however, failed to prevent the abductions and killings that took place. The next day, people went up to the barracks. Former Acholi soldiers and youth wanted to be armed to protect their people.

To this day, many Acholi express support for the recruitment of citizens into Local Defence Units (LDUs); for they feel the LDUs were more active than the army in fighting the LRA. Anger about a failing army developed into appreciation for the guns handed to civilians and the few days training they received. People mourn but also champion the LDUs that lost their lives.

Isn’t this world upside down? But it’s likely, when you’re living in such a desperate situation, that this is what you will think rather than arguing that the government should have deployed more troops to the region. Yes, the army was there. But at some point people were forced to protect themselves. This shifted thinking about government’s responsibility to protect them.

This thinking is now limiting people’s capacity to demand for quality services.

Camp life had a silencing effect on people. Acholis lived under the hierarchic structure of camp leadership that overshadowed the lower local councils (LCs). People’s capacity for voice was curtailed by dependency on food relief. They had to be humble to camp leaders, even when these abused their powers and manipulated food ratios. If challenged, one risked being crossed off the food distribution list. Imagine living in this for years; your behaviour conditioned by such powers. Humbleness becomes an even bigger value than it already is culturally. Mere acceptance of how leaders use power becomes a norm, often resulting in apathy.

At present, people say interaction with leaders has become easier now that they no longer depend on them to access relief. On the other hand, many NGO programmes come down through the LCs so it is better to maintain a good relationship with them, despite their corruption. Some, especially women, have carried along this feeling of subjecting themselves to leadership. But it is a man who best explained how he feels the voice of his people had been oppressed and has not yet recovered. He said: “Dyang ka dong kikolo oko woto dok ikin wadi?” – If the bull is castrated, does it still move with the rest? It does not because it now has no ability to fertilise the cow.

Effective voice requires cooperation among people, in order to raise concerns collectively. But harmony in Acholi communities has been under pressure. Take Atim Rose for example. Her brother was abducted and in one of the LRA attacks he killed a child of the neighbour. The father of the child then paid soldiers to come and avenge the death of his daughter. Rose was stabbed in the chest, but survived. At present, the families have not yet reconciled. The father is the brother of the LC1, who excludes Rose’s family from projects and refuses to write letters when Rose needs to access government services. Numerous smaller and bigger cases like this are out there, dividing local communities and limiting cooperation.

The authorities themselves are weak in responding to citizens. We cannot entirely blame the lower levels as LCs are as much affected by the conflict as anyone. I traced people that had been in the first Resistance Councils (RCs) and LCs during the 1990s. The rebels would target them because they were government agents. Therefore, anything that could identify them as leaders had to be hidden. RCs did not keep their books and stamps at home, but buried them somewhere.

Responsible for leading soldiers to the places where rebels had passed, they were exposed to danger. One RC told me: I was very scared. They could see me, I was not a soldier – so I had to be the RC. I was afraid the first bullet would be for me.

While in other parts of Uganda LCs started linking people and government on development issues, their work in Acholi was disrupted in many ways. The village meetings and local courts they organised had to stop abruptly when rumours reached the village that rebels were approaching. Everyone would simply run off. If a meeting was possible they would discuss security issues rather than improving livelihoods. LCs thus miss years of experience in handling development issues. People hardly know their area councillors at sub-county level and how they should advocate for them. Without such awareness it is difficult to raise issue to higher levels. Thus, both leaders and citizens lack experience in organising for development. Higher levels authorities should know better but they often depict villagers as ignorant, spoiled by relief and therefore lazy, ignoring the difficulties people face..

The situation has not just affected the capacity to demand services, but also perceptions of to what extent Acholis are equal citizens of Uganda. In their opinion, the fact that the war lasted so long tells that this government does not care about the region. This feeling is strengthened by the perception that distribution of national resources is disproportionate, neglecting the North. One elder tried to justify the attitude of the President: If I, as a father, have many children, I cannot love them all the same. Some of them I will just love more. Even now, some people still fear this government would rather finish them all and purposefully keeps them poor. This lack of trust makes people reluctant to actively engage with government. They do not believe any good will come of it.

These are some of the challenges Acholi citizens face in having voice and becoming active citizens. Of all aid programmes currently implemented in Acholi, few concentrate on governance. Of these, even fewer approach governance comprehensively, e.g. working not only on strengthening the administration but also on the capacity to have voice and demand, and on repairing the relationship between citizens and their leaders. The sub-region would benefit from such approaches. A chance not to be missed with up-coming elections that will put new leaders in place.

Marjoke A. Oosterom is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Sussex, UK. She is doing research in northern Uganda. The article is based on 8 months village-based research in Kitgum and Kole districts.

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