Ordinary people in northern Uganda participate in informal settings on a daily basis, away from the gaze of those in power. Informal settings allow people to speak their minds with their friends and family, exploring the legitimacy, potential, and power of their concerns.
Problems and Purpose
Due to past and present transgressions committed by the government in Kampala, many ordinary people in Lango sub-region do not perceive the state to be an actor that works to ensure conditions for citizenship, and instead perceive it to be one that actively works to marginalize them. In addition to this, inadequate humanitarian intervention during and following the recent civil war in northern Uganda has left many in the region with negative perceptions of the development community.
In this context, Langis are choosing to participate in informal settings on a daily basis. Here, away from the gaze of those in power, ordinary people are able to speak their minds with their friends and family, exploring the legitimacy, potential, and power of their concerns.
While informal forms of public participation depart from Western or recent Southern examples of institutionalized participation, they are, nevertheless, democratic innovations. Indeed, as the case of the Lango sub-region reveals, many of these forms of participation occur within authoritarian contexts, making their democratic nature self-evident. Besides being a way to speak freely and engage in constructive deliberation, the individual use of informal methods of participation serves as an example to others experiencing similar situations of conflict or decision making.
Background History and Context
There are several points of the country's history worth highlighting in the context of public participation:
- Colonial British rule fundamentally changed the dynamics of the region, bringing together a multitude of ethnic groups who had little previous interaction with each other and no common identity
- Since independence, the various ethnic groups within Uganda have been struggling to secure power in Kampala, a reality that has led to the continuation of violence throughout the country’s short history
- The north has been extremely marginalized ever since 1986, when civil war broke out between the LRA and Ugandan government
- The war has produced intense feelings of disempowerment for ordinary people, as they have had negative experiences with the state and development organizations, actors that are ostensibly there to help
Pre-colonial and Colonial Times
Uganda’s present-day international borders bear little resemblance to the pre-colonial realities of the region. Before the late-nineteenth century, numerous independent ethnic groups inhabited the land that is now Uganda, each with its own complex social system. While there were sporadic skirmishes, cattle raids, and land disputes among the various ethnic groups throughout the pre-colonial period, academic Sam Karugire argues that “there were no such phenomena as inter-ethnic total wars”, and that “these communities were basically well-disposed towards each other”. However as we will see, European colonization at the end of the nineteenth century brought drastic changes to the region.
Gaining control in 1890, Britain chose to administer Uganda with the policy of indirect rule, a form of administration that allowed it to govern through local elites. In this case, Britain enlisted the Bugandan Kingdom and its King, or “Kabaka”, as its surrogate, which elevated the Baganda to a position of relative privilege. Soon after gaining power, the British sent out Baganda agents to assist in administering the various regions of the Protectorate. However, the existence of Baganda agents with said power went against the beliefs of many ethnic groups, including the Lango, and Baganda agents faced violent resistance throughout the initial decades of the twentieth century. The policy of indirect rule also began to affect the economic layout of the country. Due to the fact that the British did not perceive state building and national unity as important objectives, they allowed Buganda to become “the economic heartland, while the North and North-eastern parts of the country had been designed as labour reserves, for the...’national army’”. In short, colonial rule created ethnic tensions across the country, a reality that would have a significant impact on the country for decades to come.
Independence to 1986
Since gaining independence in 1962, Uganda has experienced a high degree of political instability. In particular, the authoritarian presidencies of Milton Obote and Idi Amin brought staggering levels of violence, with at least 800,000 people killed at the hands of the state between 1971 and 1985. Much of this violence occurred due to ethnic tensions in the country, and in 1986 Yoweri Museveni and his rebel group, the National Resistance Army (NRA), took power by force. As Aili Tripp has written, Museveni strived to “dismantle a system of government that was run by the military and had institutionalized state violence based on sectarianism." Even with this approach, ethnic divides in the country were still deep, and tensions in the north of the country began to flare up as those loyal to the Obote government launched insurgent attacks on the Museveni government. In response to this, Museveni gradually began to appoint individuals loyal to his regime, resulting in diminishing representation of northern ethnic groups in government.
War in the North
Various rebel groups emerged in northern Uganda between 1986 and 1988, with two of the largest being the Ugandan Peoples Defense Army (UPDA) and the Holy Resistance Movement (HRM). Although both groups were militarily defeated in 1988, remaining soldiers from both groups helped to form the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) under the command of Joseph Kony. The LRA and the Museveni government then entered a brutal war with each other, both committing heinous crimes against the civilian population.
In 1996, as fighting intensified in the north, the government implemented the ‘protected villages’ strategy that “brought people from widely scattered small villages together into much larger aggregates ranging from a few thousands up to tens of thousands." Within these Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, northerners would experience unspeakable horrors, a reality that academic Chris Dolan has argued amounts to a form of social torture, and thus became the “defining feature” for civilian populations for the rest of the war. As a young student described, once in the IDP camps, “we could not go to our gardens and dig.” Thus, displaced from their land and cattle, people living in the camps soon became reliant on food aid provided by international NGOs. Adam lived in an IDP camp in Lira during the war and described how in the camp “you don’t have access to anything like food, you are supposed to depend on the handouts which is being given. No serious facilities like toilet, bathroom, and so on...so the situation was alarming.” Through his research in Acholiland, Dolan also found that the supply of food was limited. As time went on in the camps, he writes, “the number of meals people ate per day decreased”. Here, living on handouts from international organizations such as the World Food Programme, people struggled to survive. In a context such as this, feelings of extreme marginalization were exacerbated by negative interactions with development organizations.
Northern Uganda Today
After more than two decades of war during which millions of people had their lives completely uprooted, the LRA left northern Uganda in 2008. While this was positive news for everyone in the region, there was never a peace agreement reached between the Ugandan government and the LRA, and thus people continue to fear that conflict will return to their communities. Today economic, political, and institutional imbalances throughout the country are extremely visible. The United Nations Development Programme, in their recent Human Development Report 2015, has found that the Human Development Index rate for northern Uganda is “well below the levels for...the rest of the country.”  Discussing this same topic, academic Sam Karugire writes, “while the national average poverty rate fell from 31 per cent to 24 per cent, in northern Uganda, it fell from 64 to 48 per cent." In fact, the situation in the north is so dire that parliamentarians have contemplated secession, declaring, “if the state of Uganda cannot accommodate the people of Greater Northern Uganda and treat them as equal citizens, then these people themselves will one day find where to belong." Today, the north is an opposition stronghold.
The civil war in northern Uganda deeply affected almost all of the informants interviewed for this research. In particular, the war has changed how many ordinary people understand the state, as they do not see it as an actor working to ensure the conditions for citizenship. Numerous individuals suggested that the Museveni government deliberately treats northern Uganda unfairly in comparison to other regions in the country. This runs counter to the intentions stated as he took power in 1986, and thus became a major contributing factor in the advent of the civil war. Isaiah, for instance, stated that, “the government in power were not dividing the development equally...So, fellas from northern Uganda got annoyed and started to join, to go to the bush, and they started to fight.” Interestingly, most informants concluded that the relative marginalization of Lango sub-region was a form of revenge on the part of the southern dominated government for the rule of Milton Obote, a northerner. For example, when asked why he thought the government treated northern Uganda differently from the rest of the country, Abraham stated, “maybe it was because...Obote was from here and Museveni is from there. Maybe such kind of things was making them treat this region like that.” When Isaiah was asked why he believed President Museveni did not adequately protect Lango sub-region during the war, he stated, “One reason is...the President [Milton Obote] he replaced was coming from northern Uganda, and we see the reason he has not been having much love for northern Uganda is that he’s thinking...the gone president has done a lot for northern Uganda.” Simon also reasoned that the regional disparities exist because of past atrocities committed by Milton Obote, describing how still to this day, “You find the central region looking at the north like ‘you kill our people’.”
These attitudes toward the state exist for reasons beyond the war. For example, there was a strong consensus amongst the informants for this research that elections in Uganda are corrupt. Abraham stated quite bluntly that elections in the country are, “not free and fair.” Hannah stated that elections in the country are “full of bribery”. Elaborating on this point, she stated that, “on the voting day, people can vote and you can see really that they have voted for the person they want, but at the end of it the person you assume may be in power is not the one. Another person is in power.” Violence during the election period was another common experience that emerged in this research. During my interview with Eve, she told me of a traumatic story that took place on the day of the 2006 elections. On her way to her garden outside of town, she witnessed several supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye being brutally beaten by government soldiers. Reflecting on this experience, Eve stated, “when I think about elections, it is not safe. It is not safe at all and we don’t even see the reason why this election [is] now in Uganda, because when there is election there is no change...so it is just a waste of resources.” To make matters worse, several informants indicated that protesting against the corrupt electoral process was not possible. Simon said, “it is too dangerous to protest.” He concluded that, “I feel like it is dangerous to demonstrate...even to a certain extent arguing...with the police or somebody who have the power is not something very...easy in Uganda. So it is risky.” Here we can see that state-sponsored institutionalized spaces for participation are viewed as largely disempowering for ordinary people.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Unlike 'institutionalized' forms of participation, informal methods of engagement are acted out on a day-to-day basis as part of routine human interaction. As such their originating entities are often individuals or social groups. Funding is also not an issue when it come to informal participation although its transition into public engagement may come at personal expense depending on the context. For example, deliberations among peers (informal participation) may result in an agreement to pursue formal participation, which may require funding.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In most cases of informal participation, participants are either purposefully chosen or become involved through sheer circumstance. For example, an individual who’s suffered injustice at the hands of the state may approach or be approached by those with a similar experience.
Similarly, an individual may seek out those they feel could benefit from deliberative interaction. In Lango, a village elder purposefully engaged community members in dialogue and debate on topics like women’s rights – an issue whose interpretation and understanding have profound effects on things like community cohesion and social capital.
One similarity between informal and formal, institutionalized forms of participation, is that they tend to select from among those with a stake in the decisions made or actions taken. In Lango, continuing formal education as a young girl required a collaborative decision with family members. Without the inclusion of her family in the decision-making process, it is unlikely the young woman would have gained their support, thereby jeopardizing her opportunity to participate as a formally-educated member of society.
Methods and Tools Used
Informal forms of participation do not differ significantly from their formal counterparts involving, as they do, dialogue, deliberation, collaborative engagement, and collective decision making. Where the methods and tools differ is in their context – the private rather than the public or political sphere – and the way they are employed – through trial and error, observation, or intuition rather than formal training or experience in facilitation. Formal participation often takes the form of ‘events’ or pre-planned, structured engagements that follow a set agenda and are overseen and managed by trained facilitators. In contrast, informal participation is often initiated spontaneously or on an as-needed basis throughout the day and, as such, relies on the interpersonal and conversational skills of its participants acquired through socialization.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Given that formal spaces for participation are viewed as unsafe for many ordinary people in Lango sub-region, the use of informal channels of participation often lead to deliberation, decisions, and public interaction.
Example 1 – Individual Capacity Building through Group Interaction
A research participant named Isaiah serves as an example of informal participation that led to public interaction. Isaiah lived in an internally displaced persons camp in Lango sub-region that was the site of a massacre by the LRA in which hundreds of people were killed, including women and children. While the LRA perpetrated the attack, the government was also largely responsible, as they had pledged to protect the IDP camp during the war but had failed to provide an adequate number of soldiers. Following the civil war, Isaiah was encouraged to file a lawsuit against the government in search of reparations. As he later said, “I was encouraged by our brothers in Acholi sub-region who suffered the same and they were given reparations.” Today, Isaiah is attempting to get this lawsuit to the highest court in the country, where he is demanding for substantial government compensation for families affected in the massacre. Thus, through informal interactions with members of the Acholi ethnic group, which was also affected by the war, Isaiah was able to build the confidence needed to not only interact with the state, but also challenge it in the pursuit of justice. This confrontational form of participation is very uncommon in northern Uganda due to the violent, authoritarian nature of the state. Thus, it shows the potential of informal participation to build confidence in ordinary people.
Example 2 – Self-Empowerment through Deliberative Decision-Making
A 17-year-old research participant named Hannah provides an example of a decision that was made after informal participation in her home. According to Hannah, “one day I wanted to go to school and my parents stopped me, that I could not continue with studies, but I had to sit them down and I told them the advantage of educating a girl and they, they even changed their mind and brought me back to school.” Through informal participation, Hannah’s parents changed a decision that had the potential to greatly alter Hannah’s life, and instead decided to allow her to go to school.
Ava told the following powerful story: “A moment I felt that my rights were protected was one day when I heard a lot of thoughts in my mind and I wanted, like, even to end my life. But I went to one of the people in the community and [they] counseled me and comforted me and I felt like my life was being protected.” Here, a young person was on the verge of taking her own life, but through talking with individuals whom she trusted in her own community, decided to change her mind. It is important to note that in both of these situations neither Hannah or Ava went to the state or NGOs for support, instead relying on interacting with their close family and friends to affect real change in their lives.
Example 3 – Shifting Traditional Views through Open Dialogue and Deliberation
Abraham, an elder in a rural village in Lango sub-region, utilizes informal participation to deliberate with his friends on important issues in the community, including challenging his friends’ traditional views towards women. In northern Uganda, women face various challenges: they are not allowed to own land and are expected solely to care for their children and household. However, Abraham actively challenges this view, which is held by many of his friends, “because when I have witnessed ladies…really doing amazing things, I have been able to talk to my friends who still look at women as people who are not important. I have been able to challenge them.” When asked whether his friends listen to his views on women’s rights, Abraham responded that “most of them are also trying to now accept and like incorporate that. Because like also in the past girls were not really paid in school, they were not allowed to get education, but currently my friends are also sending many girls to school and you realise that they pay their daughters’ fees before their sons’ fees. That is a good change.” Abraham's experience demonstrates how informal participation provided a forum in which friends in a Lango village could deliberate, and ultimately change their minds, about traditional views in the community.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
These forms of informal participation are, in part, a reaction by ordinary people to the current authoritarian context in northern Uganda, in which the state and the development community are not viewed to be actors that work to ensure conditions for citizenship. Given this context, the forms of informal participation shown above are significant, as they allow ordinary people to speak their minds with their friends and family, exploring the legitimacy, potential, and power of their concerns. Ultimately, these examples demonstrate how informal participation is helping ordinary people in Lango sub-region to feel more empowered in their lives, a fact that is especially important given the many disempowering experiences in other aspects of their lives.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The reliance on informal channels of participation demonstrates the negative effects that fractured state-society relations and ineffective development interventions can have on ordinary people’s understandings of participation. In Lango, where millions of ordinary people have experienced violence and/or forced displacement at the hands of the state, as well as disempowering moments with aid agencies, most ordinary people do not view institutionalized participation created by state and non-state actors to be safe spaces. Rather, ordinary people in Lango are choosing to participate in informal spaces with family and friends where they can explore the legitimacy and potential of their concerns.
Thus, this case serves as a reminder that democracy-building will not be successful by simply adopting certain hegemonic liberal or neoliberal models. Instead, as John Gaventa writes, the goal should be “to construct and deepen democracies, which may work differently in different places, and to find the most effective entry points for doing so, based on the local contexts." While this has started to occur, with alternative models of democracy and exciting practices of participation emerging in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and India, Gaventa has warned of the potential that these new models and practices will be uncritically promoted across the global south. As he accurately notes, the aforementioned countries all “share certain key characteristics – relatively strong or at least functioning states, strong civil societies, and often a social movement, party or strong political leadership which has worked to create new democratic spaces for participation”. These characteristics are not always observed in more fragile states, such as Uganda, and thus participation is understood and practiced differently there. The Lango example supports the recommendations of academics such as John Gaventa, who advocates that “far more work is needed in general on how to map and understand the social practices of engagement...and to understand how key concepts like deliberation, participation and decision making are understood and practiced in local cultures”. Additionally, more work is needed to discover how, if at all, informal processes like those in Lango can be assisted by development organizations. In particular, research carried out by trusted locals within these communities would be a benefit, as conducting research as a privileged outsider limits the access to and understanding of such spaces.
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Gaventa, John, and Greg Barrett. “So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement.” IDS Working Paper 347 (2010): 1-72. https://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/Wp347.pdf
Uganda Country Profile BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14107906
Uganda IDEA Democracy Index https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices/sites/default/files/profile-pdfs/count...
Most of this article is based on field research conducted by Ethan Way. He describes his interview process as follows:
"For this research, seventeen semi-structured interviews with individuals of all ages were conducted in Lango sub-region, northern Uganda. With the objective of gaining perspectives from people with different backgrounds, a balance of gender, age, and living setting was sought out. In total, eight women and nine men were interviewed. Of the eight women, half were younger than 25 and three were living in extremely rural settings. For the nine men, four were younger than 25 and six were living in extremely rural settings. Finally, a balance of those who could speak English and those who could only speak the local dialect of Leblango was pursued. This was mainly because it signified differences in educational background, and thus a balance of English and Leblango speakers would help to ensure a balance in the level of education. The fragile context that is post-conflict northern Uganda was the main factor in my decision not to organize focus group discussions.
Before all the interviews started, I explained to informants my motivations behind the research and alerted them that, if they wished, they could be anonymous or they could be given pseudonyms to protect their identity upon publication. To my surprise, sixteen of the seventeen informants told me that they did not mind if their names were included in the research. However, upon reflection, I have decided to use pseudonyms for all of the interviewees of this research due to the sensitive subject matter that was discussed."