Uganda – What are the main causes of the emergence of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force?

By Alex Petropoulos (2015)

“Whether the cosmology is true or false is irrelevant if the foot soldiers actually believe it”[1]

The following essay will explore the case study of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force (HSMF) in Uganda, and particularly the factors that caused its emergence in 1986. After a brief overview of the conflict in Uganda and the emergence of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force, we can attempt to develop the various arguments to form a suitable conclusion to this multifaceted question. As the HSMF was founded principally on religious values, the role of religion will be explored. We will then look into the detrimental consequences of colonialism- specifically investigating the “scramble for Africa” and the policy of “divide and rule”. The marginalization process between the South and North of the country continued and in many ways exacerbated post-independence. We then will focus on the violent persecution of the Acholi people by the Museveni government. The essay will use the relevant theoretical framework of “Existential security” to critically analyse the reasons why the HSMF gained so many followers, regardless of its significant religious components. Overall, this essay will aim at ‘unboxing’ this vastly intricate conflict during the 1980’s, and answer the question as to what caused the emergence of the HSMF.

Origin of conflict in Uganda

In order to anchor the issues that plagued Uganda, with particular reference to the North and the emergence of the HSMF, we need to first provide historical and political context. Since Uganda’s independence from British rule in 1962, the country has been in a holistic condition of political, economic and social turmoil. The main reason for this underlying instability and increased tensions in Uganda is due to the political and economic antagonism between the North and South, generated from the colonial period and maintained by the governments from 1962 onwards[2]. The British implemented the notorious colonial policy of “divide and rule”, creating misconceptions and prejudice between the North and South of the country. During the Second World War, the British concentrated on the development of the South, where the economic and intellectual elite were concentrated, and used the North as a large reserve for cheap labour[3]. The decision by the British to give Uganda its independence in 1962 fashioned a great political void that needed to be filled, creating challenges for an overall attempt to re-configure a unified Nation State. Ultimately, this void led to the militarisation of politics and to ethnic polarisation, which would have fatal consequences for the country in the following decades[4]. The country’s history during the period from independence to 1986 can be reviewed as an oscillation of power between leaders from the North and South of the country[5]. Uganda was first ruled harshly from Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada from the North until Museveni (from the South) achieved power by force[6]. Yoweri Museveni’s coup d’état in 1986 had devastating effect on the North of the country. Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) leadership dominates the following 29 years by monolithic rule, up until today[7]. In turn, the dominance of the NRA government generated the rise of various ethnically based fighting groups, particularly in the North of the country. There were two rebel groups that formed in direct response to the corrupt and unstable rule of the NRA; Uganda Peoples Democratic Army (UPDA) that wanted to restore a multi-party system, as well as the emergence of the HSMF.

The Holy Spirit Mobile Force

The HSMF was a movement that emerged amidst the political turmoil in Uganda during the 1980s. The HSMF had the primary aim of fighting to purify the aggrieved Northern Acholi people and purging the residing government of all the ‘evil’ it possessed[8]. The Acholi are an ethnic group from Northern Uganda and South Sudan. The Acholi world is an overwhelmingly dense spiritual community, historically populated by powers, spirits and ghosts[9]. Alice Lakwena was the founder and leader of the HSMF. She asserted that the spirit of an Italian solider who died during the First World War possessed her on the 25th of May 1985[10]. Alice claimed that the Spirit had ordered her to overthrow the NRA government, for mistreating the Acholi people[11]. For Alice’s Spirit, the only solution for peace in Northern Uganda was for their sinful past to be forgotten. Moreover, the HSMF believed in a list of 20 “holy spirit precautions”. These precautions included not eating certain foods and adhering to Old Testament Commands, such as not stealing or deceiving. A strange initiation ritual involved anointment with butter oil and sprinkling of holy water. This in turn supposedly made the HSMF soldiers immune to bullets, turn rocks to grenades and transform bees to ally soldiers on the battlefield.

Alice led a campaign of approximately 10,000 soldiers, that mainly comprised of Acholi people, but also included a minority of Teso and Langi (all of which are closely related to Acholi people- with common roots in Sudan). Some of the former soldiers of the UPDA rebel group decided to join Alice – and her Spirit that could heal soldiers – in her campaign to overthrow the Museveni government[12]. At first they seemed to be successful, winning a skirmish at Kilak Corner in 1986. The victory ensured that others who first doubted Alice and her magical powers now joined the mission. This belief consistently increased throughout a continuation of small battles until the HSMF’s heavy defeat against the government’s artillery at Jinja in 1987, and its subsequent demise[13].

After a brief introduction to the context of the conflict in Uganda, and the emergence of the HSMF, we can now concisely explore the various explanations for the creation of the movement in the 1980’s.

Role of Religion

The role of religion in the emergence of the HSMF cannot be overlooked, as it served as a vital part in attracting many followers, mobilizing the ethnic population in North Uganda and functioning as code of conduct. The formation of the HSMF in Northern Uganda during the 1980s is certainly one of the strangest and most unusual of movements in that it possessed significant and fascinating religious components. A war based on fear of ethnic extinction requires a degree of ethnic renewal in response. In essence, this is what founded the HSMF movement and attracted its followers[14]. This is arguably because the Acholi’s conventional methods had failed them in the past, and they were now looking for non-conventional methods. This is what the Acholi found with Alice and her special message of spiritual redemption. Moreover, religion certainly functioned as a code of conduct amongst the HSMF followers. The HSMF had strict moral rules of behaviour, which also aided in increasing its local popularity, particularly amongst the Acholi people. There were many levels of commands, regulations and prohibitions within the movement that had to be respected[15]. This had a positive and unifying effect with much of the local support being a result of the strict, but fair, set of guidelines given[16]. The code of conduct does not appear to have initially been the draw to the organisation but is a factor that allowed it to grow in popularity and was a decisive factor for newer recruits. Religion in this case was used to control the followers of the group, as well as making them afraid to desert. A form of witchcraft existing in Acholi is ‘Kiroga’. Supposedly, on demand, the Spirit form can incite a Cen – a vengeful Spirit of a person who has died a bad death- to inflict on the victim of their choice disease and even death[17]. Finally, we could argue that religion was used as a way of mobilizing the people –acting as a ‘vehicle’- to participate in the conflict. In the case of the HSMF, religion was used to mobilise the Acholi ethnic group, organize them as a singular unit in an attempt to withstand the violent persecution of Museveni. According to Frances Stewart;

“While all conflicts have several motives with political and economic ones, mobilisation frequently occurs on the basis of particular identities. Movements can then sometimes be classified as ‘religious’, on the basis of how people are mobilised rather than with respect to the political or economic motives for such mobilization”[18].

Stewart’s argument demonstrates the pivotal role of religion when it comes to the unifying of an ethnic group or population against a common enemy. However, to characterise the conflict in Northern Uganda during the 1980s as religious, as well as attribute the emergence of the HSMF on solely religious motives, would be irrefutably wrong. Although religion did function as a pivotal part in attracting followers, mobilizing the ethnic group and controlling them, there are underlying factors that go ‘beyond’ religion in explaining the emergence of the HSMF in the 1980’s.

Beyond Religion:

As demonstrated in the paragraph above, although the role of religion plays a part in the emergence of the HSMF, there are other underlying factors that need to be explored. When investigating the main arguments for the cause of the HSMF, scholars seem to be concerned with cultural, regional, ethnic, political and economic tensions. This is because, the mainstream literature argues that groups, such as the HSMF, that resort to religious symbolism as a political ideology, are generally those that not only feel mistreated and abandoned by the government, but even marginalised by both colonial and post-colonial political and economic structures and process[19]. We will look at the impact of colonialism, the violent prosecution of the Museveni government against the Acholi people in the North and lastly apply the theoretical framework of “existential security”. Ultimately, the following section of the essay will go ‘beyond religion’, and demonstrate the various factors that can be argued to have caused the emergence of the HSMF.

As touched upon previously, colonialism played a significant role for the conflict in Uganda, and the emergence of the HSMF. The paragraph will argue that the impact of colonialism in Uganda can be seen as twofold; the actual partitioning of the country during the period of New Imperialism, and, the more recent ‘divide and rule’ policy during British reign that created long-lasting tensions in the country. The “Scramble for Africa” was the name for the invasion, occupation and colonization of African territory by European Powers in the late 19th century. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou in “The long-run effects of the scramble of Africa” explore the damaging effects of colonization, particularly focusing on the division of the continent, which began with the Berlin conference in 1884[20]. They argue that the borders of African countries were designed in European capitals at a time when Europeans had barely settled in Africa and had little, if any, knowledge of the geography and ethnic composition of the continent. This therefore separated many ethnic groups and forced various groups to coexist within the same borders. This lay down the foundation to increased tensions within several countries in the long run. Michalopoulos and Papaioannou ultimately conclude that by partitioning ethnicities poorly, we have seen as a result, many civil conflicts erupt in the continent[21]. This notion can definitely be extended to the case of Uganda; with the forced coexistence between ethnic groupings such as, the Acholi in the North and the Baganda in the South. James Latigo, explores the second consequence of colonialism as the notorious colonial policy of “divide and rule”[22]. Under British rule in Uganda, between 1894 and 1962, the Northern part of the country was used as part of this policy. Based entirely on prejudice and misrepresentation of facts for political reasons, the Acholi people deemed not ‘martial’ enough to fight British wars[23]. This not only caused social problems within the country, but also established and developed an economic divide within the country. During the colonial period, the British encouraged and promoted political as well as economic development in the South of the country and used the North as a labour camp. Overall the two consequences of colonialism – the creation of the country borders under the ‘scramble for Africa’ initiative and the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ – had systemic consequences for Uganda, which would see the Acholi people unrepresented and facing severe persecution from its own government.

Museveni’s harshly violent reign from 1986 in many ways continued the British-created myth of the Acholi, marginalizing them politically, economically and socially. As a direct consequence of the British “divide and rule” policy during the first half of the 20th century in Uganda, an economic gap was beginning to form. The economy of the South was becoming rich, enhancing regional development and was where the governmental elites resided, while conversely, the North remained poor heavily dependent on agriculture yields. Museveni’s government carried out continual attacks against the defenceless Acholi people, and the economically dire situation in the North resulted in large periods of famine and widespread diseases that afflicted the population. The hostility and prejudice of the South towards the North can be accurately summed up by President Museveni’s statement:

“The Acholi people in the North are like grasshoppers in a bottle that would rather eat each other before they found a way out”[24].

The situation was clear; without credible military and political leadership representing the North, and particularly the Acholi people, it left a vacuum that created opportunities for people such as Alice Lakwena to flourish. Alice, a young person in her twenties, emerged as a leader offering a holistic solution using the Acholi cultural archive to reinvent traditions. By doing this she managed to establish a new social hierarchy that successfully mobilized the population during the mid-late 80s.

Museveni’s NRA government with its insufficient provision for the Northern population of Uganda had a direct impact on existential security. The existential security debate will be developed and applied to Uganda to illustrate the ways in which it contributed to the emergence of the HSMF. The following paragraph will take this line of argument; a weak government, means that people within the country are more likely to be religious and therefore when a ‘guardian’ comes along with promises of security the population is much more likely to believe it. Norris and Inglehart are the scholars who first coined the term ‘existential security’; defining it as “the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted”[25]. Norris and Inglehart performed a global survey measuring the levels of religiosity, and considered the implications of the results they obtained. Ultimately the deduction of their work, “Sacred and Secular”, concluded that the most secure European welfare states with well-developed social nets, are more secular in their orientations that those living in poorer, developing nations[26]. They argue that one can even track existential security with a few measurements such as GDP per capita, rates of AIDS/HIV, access to clean water and the number of doctors available. Underlying this approach is the assumption that there is a capable state, able for most part to have the ability to protect its people, and deal with threats. In most parts of Africa this assumption falls apart – where Weber’s idea of a state with a monopoly as the legitimate use of violence hardly exists – with indifferent governments. In Uganda, primarily focusing on the North, where there is no social safety net, a majority of the population cannot even afford to put a roof over their head. Economically, Uganda is the 21st poorest nation in the world, with a total of 579.96 USD GDP per capita in 2013[27]. Moreover, there is a HIV epidemic in the country, with estimates quoting that in 1992, around 18% of the total population suffered from AIDS. Therefore it is perhaps not at all surprising that there are high levels of religiosity in Africa, as well as Uganda. According to a PewResearchCentre project, nearly all respondents consider religion important in the survey’s poorest countries, such as Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda[28]. In general, the survey found the African countries extremely high in levels of religiosity with the estimate at 90% of the population[29]. Regarding Uganda, the North suffers considerably more being marginalized by the overarching government. In 1992 the North had 72,2%of the national poverty headcount in comparison to the South’s (central) 45,6% (Refer to Appendix A)[30]. It is also significant to note that although rural and urban poverty rates have fallen in recent years, Northern Ugandan rates remain high and virtually unchanged- arguably due to the continual neglect by Museveni’s reign. Therefore, feelings of existential insecurity means it is more likely religious values and practices are prominent; thus in places like Northern Uganda people are more willing to listen to a proclaimed saviour, which is exactly what happened in the case of the emergence of the HSMF.

What allowed it to continue?

When the HSMF was finally defeated in 1987, and Alice had been exiled, it seemed that there would be peace in Northern Uganda. However, the structural violence that had persisted did not disappear. Next came the emergence of another rebel group led by Joseph Kony, originating in Northern Uganda as a movement to fight for the interests of the Acholi people- The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)[31]. Kony is the cousin of Alice, inheriting the same charisma and talent for theatrical gestures[32]. The movement has no clear aims and final goals. Kony himself is a firm believer of an apocalyptic vision that the Acholi people are on the brink of extinction. Kony’s belief is that the Acholi’s only salvation is to embark on a “moral crusade”, but how that will occur is still ambiguous[33]. The LRA rapidly lost support from the local population due to its violent regime of attacking innocents, kidnapping children and training them to become child soldiers[34]. In short, Kony attempts a similar approach to Alice in transcending political institutions and representing a new moral identity, acting as a mouthpiece of God through the Holy Spirit. Just as the factors that primarily caused the emergence of the HSMF – economic, political and social tensions between the North and South- Kony has been able to occupy the void that Alice once did. He uses religion as way of mobilizing the population against the common enemy, just as Alice did with the HSMF.

In conclusion, this essay has illustrated the complex situation in Uganda during the 1980’s, and taken a multifaceted approach in answering the question as to why the HSMF emerged. Ultimately, the answer can be explained as twofold; the long-term consequences of ill-thought colonial policies and the short-term factor of the violent persecution of the Acholi people by the Museveni government. The creation of the myth that Acholi people were somehow inferior, lay down the foundation for economic, political and social marginalization, and was intensified after independence. Museveni used this myth to promote his political agenda and further ostracise the North. The weak government with its unwillingness to protect the Acholi from the many dangers facing them – (scarcity of food, rampant disease and economic frailty) – pushed people to turn to religion as the only hope for their salvation. This is where the framework of Existential Security is particularly relevant, in helping the HSMF emerge. The strong feelings of insecurity in the region resulted in high levels of religiosity. Thus, when a proclaimed saviour such as Alice, and later Kony emerged, the community was more willing to adhere to their unconventional methods. Therefore, in the case of the HSMF, religion played the role of attracting and mobilizing the local ethnic population against a common enemy. As long as the Acholi people are victims of Museveni’s political vindictiveness and persecuted, religion will continue to play a prominent role in the region, enabling movements like the HSMF to emerge successfully.

Bibliography

Cited Books/Journals

  • Acker Van Frank, Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army: the new order no one ordered, Royal African Society, vol. 103, no 412, 2004.
  • Dorosh Paul, and Thurlow James, Agglomeration, Migration, Regional Growth; A CGE Analysis for Uganda, International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009.
  • Frances Steward, Religion versus Ethnicity as a Source of Mobilization: Are There Differences?, MICROCON Research Working Paper 18, 2009.
  • Haynes Jeff, Religion and Politics in Africa, East African Educational Publishers LTD, 1996.
  • Jackson Paul, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, University of Birmingham, unpublished.
  • Latigo James Ojera, Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region, in Traditional Justice and Reconciliation after Violent Conflict: Learning from African Experiences, IDEA, 2008.
  • MichalopoulosStelios, and Papaioannou Elias, The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa, Harvard University, 2011.
  • Norris Pippa, and Inglehart Ronald, Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization?, MPSA2010 paper, 2010.
  • Norris Pippa, and Inglehart Ronald, Sacred and Secular, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • PewResearchCenter project, Unfavorable views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2008.
  • RoyoJosep Maria, War and peace scenarios in northern Uganda, Escolar de cultura de pau, 2010.
  • Vinci Anthony, The Strategic Use of Fear by the Lord’s Resistance Army, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Routledge, 2006.

Websites

Appendix A

The below table demonstrates the poverty trends in Uganda since 1992/1993. The table is particularly relevant as it divides the national poverty headcount (%) according to region; illustrating the economic inequality between the South (central) and North of Uganda.

Petropoulos

[35]

[1] Paul Jackson, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, (University of Birmingham, unpublished), 18

[2] Maria Royo, War and peace scenarios in northern Uganda, (Escolar de cultura de pau, 2010), 6

[3] ibid, 6

[4] ibid, 6

[5] ibid, 6

[6] ibid, 6

[7] Ojera Latigo, Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region, (IDEA, 2008), 85

[8] BBC, Uganda’s mystic rebel dies, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6274313.stm, (Accessed: 4/5/15)

[9] Paul Jackson, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, (University of Birmingham, unpublished), 12

[10] ibid, 11

[11] Warchild, The Lord’s Resistance Army, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6274313.stm, (accessed: 2/5/15)

[12] Jeff Haynes, Religion and Politics in Africa, (East African Educational Publishers LTD, 1996), 185

[13] Paul Jackson, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, (University of Birmingham, unpublished), 12

[14] Paul Jackson, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, (University of Birmingham, unpublished), 12

[15] Maria Royo, War and peace scenarios in northern Uganda, (Escolar de cultura de pau, 2010), 9

[16] Vinci Anthony, The Strategic Use of Fear by the Lord’s Resistance Army, Small Wars and Insurgencies, (Routledge, 2006), 365

[17] Frank Van Acker, Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army: the new order no one ordered, Royal African Society, vol. 103, no 412, 2014), 340

[18] Frances Stewart, Religion versus Ethnicity as a Source of Mobilization: Are There Differences?, (MICROCON Research Working Paper 18, 2009), 5

[19]Jeff Haynes, Religion and Politics in Africa, (East African Educational Publishers LTD, 1996), 185

[20]Stelios Michalopoulos, and Elias Papaioannou, The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa, (Harvard University, 2011), 1

[21] ibid, 25

[22]Ojera James Latigo, Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region, (IDEA, 2008), 86

[23] ibid, 86

[24] Ojera James Latigo, Northern Uganda: tradition-based practices in the Acholi region, (IDEA, 2008), 89

[25] Jonathan Morgan, Is religion disappearing, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/08/is-religion-disappearing/, (Patheos, accessed: 29/4/15)

[26] Pippa Norris, and Ronald Inglehart, Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization?, (MPSA2010 paper, 2010),7

[27] Valentina Pasquali, The Poorest Countries in the World, https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/economic-data/the-poorest-countries-in-the-world, (Global Finance, accessed: 29/4/14)

[28] PewResearchCenter project, Unfavorable views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe, (The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2008), 20

[29] ibid, 20

[30] Paul Dorosh, and James Thurlow, Agglomeration, Migration, Regional Growth; A CGE Analysis for Uganda, (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009), 3

[31] Warchild, The Lord’s Resistance Army, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6274313.stm, (accessed: 2/5/15)

[32] Paul Jackson, Politics, Religion and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, (University of Birmingham, unpublished), 12

[33] ibid, 13

[34] Warchild, The Lord’s Resistance Army, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6274313.stm, (accessed: 2/5/15)

[35] Paul Dorosh, International Food institute Uganda, 3

One thought on “Uganda – What are the main causes of the emergence of the Holy Spirit Mobile Force?

  1. Excellent analysis. Your essay is very well researched, very well written, well referenced, and demonstrates some very good critical thinking.

    At the same time, perhaps there could have been some reflection on why, despite the analysis, it is not the case that the form of collective resistance which emerges in all postcolonial and socio-economically deprived settings is religious. Sometimes it has been nationalistic, sometimes ideological, sometimes primarily ethnic or tribal – but so why was it specifically religious in the case of Northern Uganda?

    On another note, sometimes the signposting is almost a little too forced. The essay also seems to mistake colons and semi-colons. And it fails to cite places of publication for books in the bibliography.

    In any case and despite these fairly minor issues, this remains a very good, thoroughly researched and well argued essay which answers the question well.

    Like

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