Causes for the Civil War in Northern Uganda

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Theory of Civil Wars
2.1 Intrastate Wars

3. Case Study: Northern Uganda
3.1 The Political Situation after Independence
3.2 Resistance in Northern Uganda
3.2.1 The Holy Spirit Movement
3.2.2 The Lord’s Resistance Army

4. Conclusion

5. References


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Uganda, a landlocked country in Eastern Africa, has struggled with violent conflicts since the end of colonial rule in 1962. The emergence of the Lo rd’ s Resistance Army (LRA) in 1987 in the northern region is one of the infamous examples of the violence the country had to endure. Since 2006, the LRA is no threat to Uganda anymore, as the movement withdraw to the neighbouring countries and has lost a significant amount of strength.

Several scholars offered different explanations as to why the LRA was able to gain their power and remained to terrorize the Ugandan population for such a long period of time. Many believe that the spiritual system is the main driver behind the high number of fighters and the success of their leader Joseph Kony. But the use of extreme violence against the government military forces as well as against the civilian population is one of the aspects which let the LRA maintain their crusade. However, the strongest argument lies within the north-south divide of the country, which led to inequality and can be seen as one of the main reasons for the conflict.

The following paper will examine the causes for civil wars with the focus on the conflict in northern Uganda. Therefore, an overview of the theory of civil wars will be given in the next section. At first, a short introduction of the change from so- called old wars to new wars will be explained, which is necessary, because a shift in warfare was detected. The section will have a special focus on the causes for civil wars.

In the second part of this paper, the theory will be applied to the case study of northern Uganda. Hence, a short introduction of the history after independence will be given, so that the political situation is clear. This is important for the understanding of the causes for the civil war, because some scholars view this as one of the root causes for the emergence of the rebel movements.

The paper will conclude by stating that surely the reasons contributed to conflict in Uganda, but are not the root causes as Joseph Kony never clearly declared his political views.


This section will give an overview of the different concepts that lay the foundation of this paper. As the war in Northern Uganda can be understood as a civil war, the concept of intrastate wars will be discussed. Therefore causes and reasons for an internal conflict will be explained. A special focus will lie on underlying motivations for civil wars.

The end of the Cold War confronted the international community with a changing nature of war and warfare. Traditionally, war was seen as an armed dispute between two or more states (interstate wars) (Daase 2003: 164). But a shift within warfare can be noticed over the past years, and war is not regarded as only an interstate matter anymore, because new actors seem to emerge. Mary Kaldor (2006: 17) and Herfried Münkler (2006: 134) describe this as a shift from old wars to new w a rs. In this context, old wars are defined as interstate wars, which have a clear distinction between the military and the civilian population. Old wars used to have an explicit distinction between the state of war and the state of peace. Additionally, the duration was in general limited (Kaldor 2006: 19-22). Münkler (2006: 134) gives the example of three criteria to distinguish new wars from old wars. First, he states the privatization of war, which means that warfare is not limited to state actors anymore and new actors emerge. Therefore a shift towards an asymmetric warfare can be noticed. As a third point, he talks about the demilitarization of wars, because civilians get increasingly involved in wars. The model of old and news wars has received some critics, especially regarding the classification and definition of new wars, because some aspects of new wars are also present in supposedly old wars (ibid, 143).

Nevertheless, a shift in warfare is visible and databases like COW (Correlates of War) tried to label the different kinds of conflicts. The first edition of COW differentiated between international wars (with sub-categories) and civil wars. Later on, a more detailed version was published, with the differentiation between interstate wars, extrastate wars and int r astate wars . Furthermore, COW defines a war with the threshold of at least 1.000 deaths per year. Disputes with less than 1.000 deaths per year are graded as low intensity conflicts (Daase 2003: 172-173).

Michael Smith (2010: 98) points out that “since the end of the Cold War, more people have been killed in intrastate conflicts than in interstate wars”. This is particularly interesting, as this statement follows the mentioned shift from old to new wars and therefore from interstate to intrastate wars, especially with regard to the increased involvement of the civilian population.


Intrastate or civil wars are defined as wars within the territory of one state and involve in general the government of that state and a non-state actor, such as rebel groups, guerrillas, organized crime or terrorist groups with resistance on both sides and with at least 1.000 battle related deaths per year. This definition is the most common one and was developed by Small and Singer in 1982. This is also the definition, on which the COW project used to be based on (Sambanis 2004: 814, 817). However, this definition is seen as problematic by several authors. One critical aspect is the number of deaths, which needs to be reached in order to label an internal conflict as a civil war. Most conflicts do not reach the threshold, but are still regarded as intrastate wars, although with low intensity. Determining the number of battle related deaths in a civil war is often critical, because the gathering of reliable information can be quite complicated. It repeatedly appears to be difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians (Sambanis 2004: 816; Mundy 2011: 281; Smith 2010: 100; Lacinda 2004: 199). Moreover, the differentiation between a civil war and other forms of (political) violence, like genocide or terror, is rather difficult and Jacob Mundy (2011: 282) feels that the concepts are mostly not explicated. Another critical point is the aspect of the involvement of a national government, because “in some cases, a functional government has ceased to exist, but we still code a civil war (e.g., Somalia after 1991)” (Sambanis 2004: 816).

Nevertheless, some criteria for labelling an intrastate war as such need to be found and agreed on. In regard to the conflict in Northern Uganda, a set of identifications for civil war is necessary to determine if and why Northern Uganda falls into the category of an intrastate war.

An intrastate war is regarded as a violent uprising against the national government and therefore the involvement of the government is one strong condition to label an internal conflict as a civil war (Sambanis 2004: 829). But, the picture is not just black and white, because more (external) actors can be involved, e.g. warlords, criminal organizations, a variety of militias and other resistance movements (Smith 2010: 106). External actors like neighbouring countries or non-profit organizations can be involved as well. NGOs mostly act because of an increased security threat and therefore neither support nor oppose the national government, but try to enhance their own security. But neighbouring countries will probably try to prevent the spill over of the conflict to their territory by supporting either the government or the rebel groups. The prospect of (new) political and economic alliances, profits from sales (e.g. weapons) or the enhancement of their own position can be quite promising and could lead to a stronger involvement (Smith 2010: 106, 108). The military is also regarded as an essential player. In general they support the government, but Smith (2010: 105) mentions that especially coups d’états are seen as a threat.

Furthermore, the already mentioned threshold of annual battle related 1.000 deaths must be taken into consideration as well as the location. In fact, the main battle ground must be located in the state territory. The involved groups should mainly recruit their combatants locally and have at least some territorial control within the country (Sambanis 2004: 828-829).

Intrastate wars usually last for a long period of time, sometimes even decades. The beginnings as well as the end points of internal conflicts are usually hard to determine, because they start out with low levels of violence and mostly evolve over time (Smith 2010: 101). Sambanis (2004: 829) suggests that the conflict must have caused at least 500 deaths in the first year to be labelled as an intrastate war. The level of violence must be on a minor or intermediate level and a period of at least six months without major war activities should determine the official end point of a civil war. Most civil wars are fought until the bitter end, which means that either the opposing group or the government wins the war (Smith 2010: 105).

The majority of intrastate wars take place in countries with a low development index (Daase 2003: 172, 176). Bethany Lacinda (2004: 195) also sees connections to the level of development and goes further by stating that civil wars are unlikely to happen in rich countries with a stable democratic system. Therefore, political instability can be seen as one important factor for the outbreak of an intrastate war (Sambanis 2004: 856; Jakobsen et al. 2014: 143). Jakobsen et al. (2013: 141) gathered three explanations why low income countries are prone to internal conflicts. Poverty can be a strong contributing factor to grievances within the population, “the income level proxies the opportunity-cost of fighting”, because a low income population has nothing to lose and/or the “income proxies state capacity so that rebel labor increases with the opportunity for successful rebellion because of ineffective counterinsurgency”. Those three arguments mix in reality and can also change over time.

Especially countries with a high level of impoverishment and limited access to fair law enforcement and justice are prone to internal conflicts. The reality does often not match the needs and desires of the population and this can easily lead to rebellion and the outbreak of a civil war (Jakobsen et al. 2014: 142, 144-145).

Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler (2004: 570) recognized hatred (ethnic and/or religious), political repression, political exclusion and inequality as drivers of grievance. According to Lacinda (2004: 197), ethnic differences are often regarded as one of the main drivers of civil wars, but she believes that convincing evidence for that argument is still missing. However, Sambanis (2004: 856) compared different coding concepts for civil wars and came to the conclusion that ethnic tensions can be important and must be considered. Religious differences play an equally important role. The author therefore believes that the “ethnoreligious identity may have been written off too quickly as a correlate of large-scale armed conflict – even “civil war” – by many scholars” (Sambanis 2004: 856). It is nevertheless essential to point out that ethnic and religious proxies only need to be considered in countries with a vast diversity of ethnic and religious identities (Collier, Hoeffler 2004: 571).

Furthermore, the factor greed should not be underestimated, because rebel organizations tend to gather more funding than necessary to cover their costs, which consists for example of looting or drug trafficking. Countries with great resources like oil or diamonds are especially prone to looting, because rebel groups can not only profit from sales, but might also secure future rights. Some scholars go further by stating that rebel groups and internal uprising act exclusively out of greed, so therefore “rebellion is not explained by motive”, but by the lucrative chances and opportunities. But, the reason for e.g. exaggerated looting could also be the possible prospect of “post-conflict pay-offs” (Collier, Hoeffler 2004: 563-564; Lacinda 2004: 196-197).

To summarize, most rebellions occur out of political reasons, like political inequality or poverty, which can be a result of political decisions (e.g. favouring one region over the other). The goals of rebel groups are also important to look at. The need for more political freedom and participation and recognition can easily evolve into the demand for autonomy or the control of the government. Those goals are often intertwined and can change over time (Smith 2010: 107).


The following section will take a closer look at the history of the conflict in the northern region of Uganda to better understand the standpoints and reasons behind “the most protracted and devastating conflict in the history of post-independence Uganda” (Omach 2011: 271) with the emergence of several resistance movements, e.g. the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), the U ganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) and especially the Lord’ s Resistance Army (LRA). As the history is part of the causes for the conflict, a clear distinction between stating simply the historical happenings and the causes is hard to draw and can therefore intertwined in this chapter. Even though this paper focuses on two actors, the LRA and the national government as main players of the conflict, an introduction of the Holy Spirit Movement is necessary to comprehend the rise of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It is also important to note that the LRA did not limit their presence to Uganda, but expanded their territory, especially to the neighbouring states, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Nevertheless, this paper will merely focus on the period of LRA activities in Uganda.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Causes for the Civil War in Northern Uganda
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Politikwissenschaft)
State and Non-State Actors in Violent Conflict
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Conflict, State, Non-State, Uganda, civil war, northern uganda, causes for civil war, theory of civil war, intrastate war, holy spirit movement, lords resistance army
Quote paper
MA Mareike Peters (Author), 2016, Causes for the Civil War in Northern Uganda, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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