, LABORA, Feb 15 – Displaced northern Ugandans have flocked home since the army chased the rebels who terrorised them, but few intend to support the government in their first peacetime ballot in decades Friday.
Many northern Ugandans believe President Yoweri Museveni, seeking another term in Friday\’s polls, deliberately left the north in turmoil because the region was home to his early military and political rivals.
The war in northern Uganda, which began just months after Museveni took power in 1986, forced some 1.8 million people into desperate, makeshift camps, where some spent the best part of two decades.
After Museveni ousted a northern-led government, several rebel groups emerged in the north to fight him, but the Lord\’s Resistance Army (LRA) outlasted the rest, terrorising civilians here until 2006.
The LRA rebels have been pushed into three neighbouring countries and remain a threat there but Steven Watmon, who lives in the town of Labora, said the government that restored peace won\’t get his support on Friday.
"I can assure you Museveni won\’t get a single vote in the polling station where I vote," said the 45-year-old.
In the three elections held during Museveni\’s 25-year rule, the north\’s dominant Acholi people voted overwhelmingly against him, giving him only 22 percent support in 2006, according to official results.
Throughout his campaigns in the run-up to the February 18 ballot, Museveni has claimed the north will now back him, since four years of peace have made clear the LRA, led by Joseph Kony, was to blame for their suffering.
"I don\’t thank anyone in particular," Watmon said of the current relative peace. "My life has been wasted."
"It is the president who had the responsibility to make sure that Kony didn\’t come near here," Watmon insisted.
In the late 1990s, Museveni swiftly defeated another rebel group that was terrorising his own Banyankole people in western Uganda, which, to Watmon, proved he cared less about northerners.
Museveni created much of this mistrust by often framing his rebellion as an anti-north struggle, according to professor Ron Atkinson, a historian at the University of South Carolina.
"Enemy soldiers were usually referred to as northerners in general, as Nilotes, or as Bacholi," Atkinson, an expert on Acholi history, wrote in the forward of a soon-to-appear book.
Many remain furious that Museveni failed for so long to expel Kony and did not secure the squalid camps where his army forced people to live, said Father Joseph Okumu, a prominent religious leader in the region.
Others find it difficult to forgive the crimes committed by Museveni\’s own soldiers during their advance north through the late 1980s and for years afterwards.
"I think this is not so easy to forget," Okumu said.
Okumu, also an expert Acholi culture, argued Museveni missed an opportunity to secure healthy support in the north.
He suggested an Acholi cultural justice process called Mato Oput, which demands a full acknowledgment of the crimes committed before forgiveness can be offered, would have helped.
But, Okumu said, cultural ceremony aside, many here might re-think their politics if the president simply apologised.
"Show you have a sense of remorse, then things begin. But it\’s not there yet," Okumu said. "People have heard nothing from the government saying sorry."
Two of Museveni\’s top challengers in Friday\’s vote are northerners but the veteran strongman is widely expected to keep his job as opposition parties failed to field a common candidate.
They have also predicted the ballot would be rigged, a fear echoed in concerns voiced by foreign observers over the ruling party\’s deaf ear to international advice on measures that would make the vote more transparent.