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Genocide in Comparative Perspective: the Jewish and Acholi Experience

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The debate between General David Tinyefunza and Olara Otunnu on whether genocide is unfolding in northern Uganda or not, deserves to be subjected to historical comparison for better understanding. Otunnu’s charge that conditions of genocide exist in northern Uganda drew evidence from the Government of Uganda and Non-Governmental Organizations reports that catalogued, among others, the deliberate policy of demonization, forcing people into concentration camps, abetting and encouraging rape by HIV/AIDS infected soldiers, and the prolongation of the conflict. The dynamics of the conflict has led to targeting unarmed civilians by both the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) and the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF). These conditions, taken as a whole, Otunnu argues, meet the threshold of genocide.

General David Tinyefunza of the UPDF denies perpetrating genocide against the Acholi people, without disputing the core sources of evidence presented by Otunnu. He argues that what exists in northern Uganda is not genocide but death caused by a situation of war. He adds that President Museveni has neither the will nor the desire to exterminate the Acholi, but protect them in the so-called “protected villages.” 

What is clear from the debate is that both Otunnu and Tinyefunza agree that there is mass death in Acholiland. However, they differ in their explanation about the mechanics of mass deaths, and whether the mass deaths should be characterized as genocide or collateral death. For a nuance understanding, a historical comparison of the mechanics of mass death is necessary. I would like to compare the case of the Jews during the Third Reich (Germany) under Adolf Hitler with that of the Acholi in Uganda under General Yoweri Museveni.

Leadership and Genocide: Hitler and Museveni

The path to consolidation of political and state power by Hitler and General Museveni are similar: First, both leaders began with creating environments where genocide would be seen as justifiable. Museveni ran a one-party state, where he and his associates conceived and meticulously planned genocide in broad daylight. Similarly, Hitler ran Germany as a one-party state. Both leaders excoriated democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, preferring bellicose militarism. 

Second, both leaders demonized their victims and proceeded to whip xenophobia and the fury of the population, initially as means to prosecute a war and eventually as a final solution in itself.  

For Hitler in Germany, the progressive conversion of Jews into enemies was later formalized by an executive decree in 1933, which pointed out that there was a Jewish problem. This graduated to the Nazi slogan that Jews were a misfortune. 

In Uganda, Museveni’s coming to power was based on explaining national crises as caused by northerners, who came to be mostly identified with the Acholi population. This was formalized by the NRM/A intellectuals that there was a northern question; and the derogatory NRM/A slogan became Acholis are “Abanyanyas” [read as equivalent to the Nazis’ justification – Jews were a misfortune]. The “Abanyanyas” referred to non-citizens, in fact, to southern Sudanese.
In both instances, the leaderships denationalized and transformed victims into enemies of the state deserving neither mercy nor reason. The logical solution was the so-called final solution.

Constructing and Articulating the Intellectual Basis
of Genocide

For genocide to occur with the apparent connivance of the population, an intellectual basis needs to be created and masqueraded as critical research. This is often used to brainwash the gullible.  

In Mein Kampf, Hitler vented out his hatred and xenophobia against the Jews by blaming the Jews for the humiliation that Germany suffered during World War I.  Once Jews had been presented as the source of the problem in Germany, the extermination project could be justified as the final solution. But it was not only Hitler; the Nazi intellectuals also legitimated the extermination project against the Jews. They misrepresented the deaths by blaming the victims as responsible for their own destruction.  

In the case of Uganda, to understand the background to the tragedy in Acholiland, we need to examine Museveni’s activities during his youthful days in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. 

While a student at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Museveni wrote his thesis entitled, “Fanon’s Theory and its Verification in Liberated Areas in Mozambique”, where he stated that:

“to transform a human being into an efficient, uncostly and completely subservient slaves, you have, as a pre-condition, to completely purge him of his humanity, manhood and will. Otherwise, as long as he has some hope for a better free future, he will never succumb to enslavement. To become an efficient instrument of oppression, you have to radically dehumanize yourself by foregoing many qualities that are normally found in balanced human beings. You purge yourself of compassion, altruism, consideration for other people’s sufferings and the capacity to restrain your greed. Failure of the oppressor to get rid of such undesirable feelings – like compassion – will mean inability to be a successful exploiter.”

Museveni followed his thesis by remarking that “Hitler was a smart man. ...What he did in Germany, we will also do it here” (Uganda). To reinforce his admiration for mass murderers, Museveni boastfully approved the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, in spite of the fact that about 50 million Africans were killed. During interview with Atlantic Monthly, Museveni said, “I do not blame white people for slave trading. If you are stupid, you should be enslaved.” Blaming the victims of this form of genocide for their own extermination is the most pitiful and bigoted utterance. Yet no outrage was registered at home and abroad.  

In his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni presented the Acholi, as a group, as responsible for the atrocities committed in Luwero. But let us consider the facts: the report of the commission of inquiry into the Luwero deaths have never been made public. Former fighters with Museveni have pointed a finger at Museveni for the Luwero deaths in their articles to the Monitor newspaper. Museveni promptly reacted by issuing injunction against retired National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) military officers from continuing to publish the Luwero war memories. Museveni’s fear is that his complicity for deaths in Luwero will be exposed.

Demonizing the Victims: the Acholi and the Jewish Experience

There are similarities between the two leaders in favouring and promoting hatred that would lead to the crimes of genocide. 

Killings that lead to the crimes of genocide are usually preceded by psychological preparations. Museveni effected it through a vilification of the Acholi, as a group, by presenting them as responsible for the atrocities in Luwero. This provided justifications for “revenge” killings of the Acholi by the predominantly southern NRM/A soldiers. To continue stoking the flame of hatred and xenophobia against the Acholi, as a group, Museveni skillfully resorted to the indignity of displaying, for partisan reasons, human remains and rattling human skeletons as a political campaign ploy.
The various derogatory remarks about the Acholi people made by Museveni and his associates were interspersed by dehumanizing references of the Acholi people as inferior, primitive, backward and savage. In 1986, the NRM/A political commissar, Commander Karusoke Kajabago, referred to the Acholi people as biological substances, implying that they were deserving of extermination. 

The domestic internalization of the demonic ideology consigned the Acholi people to enemy status, within their own country, upon whom acts of debasement and genocide are acceptable.  Thus, what is aroused in the population is not so much hatred, although hatred is part of it, but indifference. 

The Strategy of Genocide: Implementation and Ruses

[a]. Concentration Camps:

If we examine the phenomenon of concentration camps, we find that it is characteristic of most genocide. First, the concentration camps were created through a great deal of ruses and deception throughout Germany and Uganda.  

The infamous concentration camps in Treblinka and Auschwitz were presented by the Nazis’ as industrial centers rather than what they really were. To effect the deception, the gate of Auschwitz still bears the infamous inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Brings Freedom). Although some Jewish victims might have thought that the violence was part of Hitler’s repressive measures, they had no idea what Treblinka and Auschwitz, among others, signified for them. 

The extreme success of German propaganda was evident from the German murderers themselves who witnessed that, “down to their final moment before liquidation, they (Jews) believed they were going to be transported to some other place.” 

Museveni’s ruse in moving the Acholi population into concentration is similar to the Nazis. Initially, the unarmed civilian populations were encouraged to run for sanctuary to UPDF detaches, to churches and to police stations during UPDF and LRA firefights, but they would return to their homes after the hostilities. But soon, the UPDF innovators and architect of the final solution saw this as a strategic blessing. The Acholis were to move into the concentration camps for protection from combat hostilities.
When the Acholi’s realized that those camps were death camps, they resisted and stayed in their homes. A victim cried, “we were told that these camps were for our protection, but we are brought here to be killed.” The UPDF made mandatory that the unarmed civilian population must relocate permanently to designated concentration camps and those refusing would be deemed LRA sympathizers. Within 48 hours, the UPDF air force strafed those unarmed civilians who were reluctant to move, militia groups killed whoever remained to collect food and property, villages were burnt and artillery units fired live shells indiscriminately into unarmed civilian communities.

[b]. Some Deceptive Linguistics of Genocide: “Work” and “Protection”

The language used by the Nazis and the UPDF are comparable and similar. The Nazi concentration camps were mostly referred to as “work camps” and never as death camps, which was what the camps were in practice. 

The UPDF spoke of the concentration camps as “protection villages” and never as death camps, even when the reports of the Government of Uganda such as Suffering in Silence (January 2005); Health and Mortality Survey Among Displaced Persons in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader Districts, Northern Uganda (July 2005), and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports describe conditions, which evidently meet the threshold of genocide.

Who is fooling who here?

The Nazi’s fooled nobody but themselves because, after the war, they were brought before the Nuremberg Tribunal and convicted. One of the problems in Germany was that most Germans were in a state of denial as illustrated by their attitude of silence and indifference. 

The UPDF are also fooling themselves. General Tinyefunza confirmed that only 15 soldiers are posted to protect a population of over 50,000 concentration camp inmates from the LRA attacks. Whereas, he agreed that Museveni, an individual, is protected by over 12,000 soldiers (1 Division of troops), consuming over one-third of the national military budget. Clearly, the concentration camps are not meant to provide protection.
We must be clear that the UPDF language of offering “protection” in villages and the Nazi language of “work camps” are similar. They are effective veil to cover the unfolding genocide.

[c]. Denials and Maligning of Victims

In both Germany and Uganda, propaganda played a central role in shaping the course of genocide.  

The Nazi propaganda purported that the Jewish people killed themselves while the Nazis were mere onlookers.  

This is similar to Yoweri Museveni propaganda that the Acholi’s are killing themselves while the NRM/A are offering protection and safety.
Preposterous as Hitler and Museveni’s allegations are, the main purposes of the denials and maligning were to blame the victims for their extermination. This shifted the guilt onto cousins or kin and kinship of the exterminated. 

The Donor Community and Accountability

There have not been any clear pronouncements about the tragic human catastrophe in northern Uganda from foreign donors, who finance up to 52 percent of Museveni’s administration budget. The donors have procured arms, trained and equipped the UPDF and the police force and continuously provided positive propaganda. It is this complicity that has made the donor community overlook the unfolding genocide in northern Uganda.  

We should all be ashamed about our failure or, even connivance with, the perpetrators of genocide by giving material and moral support. Many western donor's diplomatic missions have regularly visited the concentration camps, signed the visitor’s book, but made no public complaints against the unfolding genocide.
The silence and support by the western donor community for Museveni’s regime must be construed as giving tacit assent to continue perpetrating the unfolding genocide against the Acholi people.
Why is it that the situation in Acholi, much like the tragic, humanitarian suffering in Darfur which Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), described as the "world’s worst and forgotten humanitarian catastrophe" been denied the status of genocide? How come the tragedy does not also capture the sympathy and attention of the donor community?  

The Acholi genocide remains unparallel in terms of the ferocity sustained over time by several participating perpetrators and by the complicity of the donor countries.  

This is genocide where the ideological matrix of denial is among the most developed of any genocide in Africa; and, is actively propagated by donor community and agencies.
This is genocide where deniers such as General David Tinyefunza, Herbert Ogwal, Ambrose Murunga and Kintu Nyago, have called it “war” and often resorted to personal attacks, which are unrelated and distracting to what Otunnu actually charged. 

This is genocide occurring in broad daylight in spite of copious indicators: the Government of Uganda official reports, Non-Governmental Organizations, Humanitarian and Human Rights Agencies reports documenting atrocities, Museveni’s published philosophical justifications of mass murders and systematic demonizations of the Acholi people, and explicit dehumanization by NRM/A political commissars, meeting the threshold of genocide.