On the Trail of Uganda’s Arrow Boys

Musa Ecweru’s office is on the top floor in the Office of the Prime Minister in central Kampala. He is a Member of Parliament for Amuria, a constituency in eastern Uganda, and since 2006 has been State Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees.

Ecweru’s career might have turned out quite differently if, more than a decade ago, Joseph Kony, head of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), had not directed part of his force into then peaceful eastern Uganda. The LRA was already notorious for killing and maiming civilians and abducting women and children as part of its insurgency in Uganda’s northern Acholi region since the late 1980s.

In 2003, the LRA entered Teso, in eastern Uganda, and Ecweru, then a regional district commissioner in Kasese in the west, was seized by a desire to protect his homeland. He left Kasese and drove to Soroti, in the Teso sub-region, where he met an old contact, Captain Mike Mukula, a pilot and then health minister and MP for Soroti; John Eresu, then MP for Kaberamaido; and a collection of local politicians, administrators and church leaders to discuss what to do.

The local leaders concluded that the government security forces were not in a position to repel the LRA. At the time, Teso was considered relatively peaceful, and the army was occupied fighting Kony in Acholiland.

Villages Full of Ex-combatants

While Teso was unprotected, it had many ex-soldiers who had fought for Uganda’s People’s Army (UPA) against the government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ecweru himself had previously been the UPA’s head of external relations. Most of these veterans were living quiet lives back in the villages, while some had been integrated into the local administration. As one former UPA member told me: “We had so many revolutions that the villages were full of ex-combatants”. The UPA conflict, also known as the “Teso War”, fizzled out in 1992 when President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA), in power since 1986, began to exert greater control over the country’s peripheries.

When the LRA appeared in 2003, most of the former UPA members had been out of action for at least a decade, but they had the experience and training to lead the counter-insurgency. The group became known as the “Arrow Boys” – a name intended to highlight their skills as a silent, deadly force – and would eventually drive the LRA out of the region.

Assembled from the remnants of a force that had once fought against the government, they needed to convince Museveni that the group wasn’t a political power-play by local leaders plotting to complete unfinished business. Smooth-talking, politically connected Captain Mukula chaired the group, and, as he had never been a UPA member, helped reassure the government. Now a businessman with a company called Fortune Energy, he tells me that the Arrow Boys leadership “did our part. We enjoyed it. It was an opportunity for us!”

Mukula and Ecweru’s success with the Arrow Boys clearly benefitted their own careers. Ecweru, in particular, rose from regional district commissioner to minister in three years and is widely praised by his former comrades. When Museveni came to campaign in Teso during the 2016 election, Ecweru was the president’s conduit to the Iteso people.

In Kampala, I also meet with John Eresu, a voluble, substantial presence. Proud of what he did to defeat Kony, he is eager to share his strategy: “You fight him all the time … push him into the swamps … there he cannot fight unless he has amphibious vehicles. And he doesn’t”. The Arrow Boys’ success, he says, was down to organisation: “We sat and structured it. … When people make a resolution, they can do anything”.

These leaders, impressive as they are, all seem comfortable now. The thrill is a practised story. The answer to what the Arrow Boys were, and perhaps still are, could only be found up-country.

Uganda’s Eastern Edge

On the eight-hour journey from Kampala to Soroti we cross to the eastern side of the Nile River at Jinja town and head north. Mbale, the biggest town in eastern Uganda, passes in a haze of orange dust. Two hours later, Soroti arrives in a blast of dry air as hot as a hairdryer. It’s a hard-scrabble place that feels like it’s on the edge of somewhere. Taking an exploratory walk in the moderately cooler evening, I discover a shop called the Arrow General Produce Store.

A shop in Soroti Town memorialising the Arrow Boys for the local community. CRISIS GROUP/Magnus Taylor

I link up with a former Arrow Boys commander I had met in Kampala, who promised to introduce some of his old comrades. He sips a Coke and speaks of local peace-building initiatives, development partnerships and the struggles his men have been through to find jobs since the conflict.

A local security officer stops by and nods benignly when I explain what I’m doing in Soroti. The former commander is clearly a person of some influence – a status perhaps conferred by his association with the Arrow Boys.

Mobilising for the Fight

Four former commanders turn up at intervals over two days. Their stories of the campaign are remarkably consistent. When the LRA came to Teso in early 2003, the army was nowhere to be seen. Some wondered whether the community should let them pass through with the hope that the rebels would leave them alone. But it soon became clear that the LRA was there to spread its campaign of killing and abduction. It would have to be fought.

First, the local leadership started a recruitment campaign through radio and local networks, particularly the church. This was remarkably successful, and many people rallied to the cause. Donations to support the volunteers were organised by the bishop of Soroti.

While the Arrow Boys had a store of ex-rebels and enthusiastic new recruits, the group initially lacked guns. For Museveni’s government, arming a group substantially comprised of former rebels must have been a difficult prospect. Could it now rely on these men, who had spent hard years in the bush fighting the national army? This question occupied the government for a while, but in the end it had little option.

Robert Adiama, Former Arrow Boy Head of Counterintelligence, with a medal presented for services during the LRA campaign. CRISIS Group/Magnus Taylor

Ecweru tells me that after driving to Kampala and then Soroti in June 2003 with his four rifles, he organised a group of 60 recruits, mostly former UPA members, to attack the LRA at a place called Komolo. They had been given guns by the internal security agency, but had no uniforms and must have appeared something of a rag-tag bunch, slowly feeling their way back into combat. Still, their resistance took the LRA by surprise and temporarily routed the rebels. One former Arrow Boys commander tells me, with a hint of derision, that Kony’s forces were no match for them. Kony’s men were not great fighters, but instead relied on the fear that could be instilled through extreme violence, mostly directed at civilians.

President Museveni took note. He called Ecweru and demanded to know why he had left his post in Kasese. Ecweru responded that the LRA was attacking Teso. On 30 June, the LRA attacked Soroti airstrip. By early July, Museveni was seriously worried and in Captain Mukula’s words: “State House moved to Soroti”. This hands-on approach gained approval from the former commanders, who still respect the president’s willingness to travel to the field.

It didn’t take long for Museveni to work out what needed to be done. He issued 7,000 rifles to the new Arrow Boys auxiliary force, which would also be formally integrated into the army. At its height, the Arrow Boys would boast a force of over 7,000, divided into twelve battalions, each commanded by an army major. As soon as the Arrow Boys were formally integrated into the army, that spelled the beginning of the end for the LRA in the region. The Arrow Boys were determined recruits, trusted by local communities who would willingly supply them with information on the terrain and the enemy’s whereabouts. As one former commander told me: “We had a conviction to liberate our community”.

Disappointed Hopes

By December 2003, the LRA had been driven out of Teso. Some Arrow Boys saw this as the end of their contribution and left the group immediately. Many remained deployed for some time and were later included in a demobilisation program over several years. The final three battalions handed in their guns in 2007. Some were given the opportunity to join the army and a few were offered highly coveted posts as reservists to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

But most Arrow Boys just went back to their communities, upset about the lack of recognition they received from government. Many claim that salaries and demobilisation payments were delayed or never paid. Some allege that the army stole these funds and then beat those who protested.

Among the Soroti Arrow Boys, there remains a strong fraternal bond. There is hope that the government may recognise their contributions one day, but not much expectation. The former bishop of Soroti, Bernard Obaikal, says he has tried to mobilise funds for a statue, but has found none yet.

In some of my conversations, there are hints that the community’s reaction to the Arrow Boys, particularly in the several years after the LRA was driven out of the region, was more complex. Some mention that “wilder” recruits from the villages on occasion had to be disciplined for using their new-found status to intimidate or extort community members. Predictably, the former commanders are not keen to dwell on this. Those not involved militarily, including the ex-bishop and current mayor, tell me that while there were regrettable incidents, the abiding community memory remains that the Arrow Boys protected Teso when the government was not able to do so.

Learning from the Arrow Boys?

The Arrow Boys offer a fascinating example of how a local defence force was effectively mobilised, in a genuine emergency, to protect its own community. But it may not be an example easily replicated in other locations. Following the Arrow Boys’ military successes, similar units were formed around Lira, in Lango region, and Kitgum, in the north, with mixed results. The groups were less proficient than the Arrow Boys and consequently more at risk from LRA attack. The Teso success had several unique factors, including the presence of a dormant but capable force that could be redeployed, and the existence of a united community, determined to repel Kony from the region.

The risks of arming the remnants of an anti-government rebel group, via political networks with a recent anti-government history, should not be underestimated. On this occasion, the government was successful in gaining support from the group’s leadership, but it could easily have lost control. Its major success was the effective integration of the Arrow Boys into army structures.

The Arrow Boys played a significant role in the fight against the LRA, but they were an improvised solution and the result of government failure to provide security in the region. While their successes are celebrated in Teso, the failures that led to their mobilisation – and the dangers associated with it – should not be overlooked.

Magnus Taylor is an Analyst for Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa project. He is responsible for Sudan and Uganda.

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