Foreigners are too quick to press the “genocide” button

Published in Uganda’s Daily Monitor on January 10, 2011

Shortly before Christmas an American professor from the respected, Catholic university of Notre Dame posted on the Internet what he believes to be an authentic memorandum, dated November 14 1986, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to his brother, Salim Saleh.

The document (posted at describes a low-altitude flight that Museveni allegedly took over the north of the country that he had just begun to rule. It states that “we must assume full control of the fertile lands. It will be necessary, therefore, to find a way to drastically reduce the population.” Elsewhere, the memo describes the local, Acholi people as “chimpanzees.”

If genuine, this document would establish the historical reputation of Museveni and his brother as murderous and even genocidal thugs. But the memo is almost certainly a fairly—but not very—sophisticated fake. The real story here is the willingness of decent and well meaning foreigners to reduce Africa’s complexity to more easily intelligible simplicities, and then promptly to hit the “genocide” button.

Dr. Todd Whitmore, the scholar in question, is a serious man who has published several books on Christian theology and ethics. He came to Uganda in 2005 to study Christianity as practiced by the (overwhelmingly Catholic) Acholi. At first, he says, he had no thought of getting involved in politics or human rights issues. But his "fieldwork”—which included living among Acholi people in the notorious “internally displaced persons” (IDP) camps where Museveni’s government had interned them—soon blew away his hopes of standing on the sidelines as an impartial observer.

In an essay that appears in the online journal, Practical Matters, Whitmore summarises the sorry, recent history of the Acholi. Citing other published sources, he argues that Museveni’s army launched a “counterinsurgency without an insurgency” in the north—using the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion as a pretext for going in to secure control of the region’s key resource: good farmland. He cites the Ugandan military incursions into Zaire/DRC as evidence that Museveni’s men—and Salim Saleh in particular—were always out to enrich themselves: in the Congo’s case, by snatching gold and diamonds. He cites a 2005 World Health Organisation assessment that every week 1,000 Acholi were dying from diseases directly attributable to the appalling conditions in the IDP camps. He reminds us that many people tried to leave the camps but were forced back at gunpoint—by Ugandan government troops who were numerous enough to enforce the internment but suspiciously unable to rout a rag-tag rebel group.

It is a gruesome tale, with ample evidence of avarice and injustice. The memo, if authentic, would make it much worse than that: a concerted, 20 year effort to “reduce” the Acholi in order to steal their land. But I suspect Whitmore was so moved by the suffering of the Acholi that he was too ready to seize what looked like a “smoking gun.”

Why is the memo not credible? Firstly, there are plenty of Acholis living outside of Uganda, many of them angry and embittered. How come Whitmore’s source failed to pass this smoking gun around those diaspora networks, rather than waiting for an American to come along twenty years later?

Secondly, the purported memo suggests that, prior to his flight over the north, Museveni meant to let go of Acholiland and redraw the Ugandan national boundary south of Gulu. This makes no sense at all. Men who have struggled for power do not give away slices of their fiefdoms, even slices they believe to be fairly barren and useless.

Moreover, Museveni is not a stupid or uneducated man and he had many years to ponder a future for Uganda while struggling for power over it. It is inconceivable that he was entirely ignorant of the fertility of Acholi soils until he spotted them from the plane.

Thirdly, the memo describes the context in ways that are too neat. It begins by stating that "we captured Kampala in January 1986 and later drove the uncouth UNLA soldiers out of the country in March 1986." This helps the outsider, 25 years later, find the right page of history. But why would Museveni feel the need to remind his brother of these events—twice stating the year—barely six months after they happened?

All of this suggests that Whitmore has fallen for a scam, because he was already predisposed to believe the worst. And, having fallen, he spends many pages in Practical Matters arguing that Museveni should be indicted for genocide. He adds, in what seems like a gesture at impartiality, that LRA leader Joseph Kony should also be so indicted.

Beyond doubt, Museveni’s modernising, civilizing vision, combined with a sense of the north as being backward and peripheral, led to bad policy, badly implemented, increasingly corrupted by the arrogance of power, increasingly compromised and diverted by greed and militaristic adventures. But this does not add up to genocide any more than two plus two adds up to 22.

The world needs less genocide talk, not more. Bad outcomes result less often from Grand Evil than from a mess of venal sins, ambitions and dreams, working in combination with real conflicts of interest. Upping the ante by waving the Grand Evil banner does not help in sorting out the mess.

Kampala, January 03, 2011