Africa’s child soldiers
Injustice provokes children to pick up guns. So does poverty. In parts of Africa, poverty means that youth look at guns as a way of earning a living. Powerless politically and economically, some children feel that they can only assert themselves by joining an army
As a boy, when you join an army, you think you are going to see war as in the movies. It’s not like that. In my first combat, I thought I was going to die, that I would never see my mother again.
It was the mid-1980s, and we were attacking a fortified garrison in western Uganda. I was 15 years old and part of a movement that aimed to rid my country of the corrupt regime of Milton Obote, who had succeeded the murderous Idi Amin.
My leader was an inspiring, brave and talented man, Yoweri Museveni, now Uganda’s President. Museveni believed that young fighters not only needed martial skills but also a political awareness of the cause for which they fought — an end to the greed and self-delusion of Africa’s post-independence leadership.
While still a teenager, I learned that the goal of war was social and political transformation. In battle, I came to pity enemy prisoners because I had a cause to fight for and they did not. Motivated by a political agenda — renovation of my battered country — I rose through the ranks to become a trusted aide in the circle around Museveni. In 1986, not long after my 16th birthday, Museveni ousted Obote. The war was over. But not for me.
No longer a rebel but now a leader in the Ugandan army, I was sent for military training to Cuba, Libya and North Korea. I became an expert in tank warfare. While I hungered for an education — and even enrolled at university — I remained valuable as a soldier.
First, in my country, I helped Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, where they were a minority, fight a war against the Hutu majority there. In the summer of 1994, when the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis by the hundreds of thousands, our cause grew in urgency, as did our fighting spirit. For three years I fought alongside Tutsis, finally serving as personal aide to Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president and his country’s leading political and military strategist.
Soon President Kagame asked me to fight in the Congo in order to bring an end to the monumentally corrupt regime of Mobutu. In the Congo I led hundreds of fighters — many of them children — and helped capture pieces of the country. In May 1997, I even helped to capture Kinshasa and chase Mobutu from power. I had “liberated” a third country, and I was only 27 years old.
Tired of war, the following year I turned politician, winning a seat in parliament as a member of Museveni’s “Movement” group, the only legal party in Uganda. Last year, I began to fear that Museveni had become yet another African dictator, more concerned with power than principle. Part of my quarrel with him concerned his failure to establish a genuine multi-party democracy; also, I objected to mounting corruption. The World Bank and other foreign donors supply half of the Ugandan government’s budget, but a third of the money is wasted on senseless military actions such as Uganda’s invasion of the Congo. Museveni holds ultimate responsibility for this corruption.
I defected to a new opposition party and campaigned on behalf of Museveni’s opponent in last year’s presidential election. Even though Museveni faced no risk of losing, he took no chances, arresting his opponent’s aids and supporters. Though I had fought faithfully in Museveni’s army as a child, I was now an adult and a critic, so he arrested me too. Tortured by my own brother (Museveni’s chief of internal security), I was released after local and international pressure, and I left Uganda for Britain.
In tranquil London, I now contemplate my life as a child soldier. I have no regrets, I offer no apologies. Yet I am aware of how human rights advocates deplore the enlistment of youth into Africa’s wars, where the lives of many children are ruined.
Injustice provokes children to pick up guns. So does poverty. In parts of Africa, poverty means that youth look at guns as a way of earning a living. Powerless politically and economically, some children feel that they can only assert themselves by joining an army.
In Uganda, and in most other sub-Saharan countries, more than 40% of the population is under the age of 15. Every country groans under the burden of educating, employing and absorbing so many young people. Of course, no child should go to war. But condemning child soldiers won’t make them go away. Only education will. African youth must be introduced to democracy and pacifism in the classroom.
When a child picks up a gun, he becomes a man and inspires fear, if not respect. In my experience, African youth are forgotten except when politicians need them for battle. If African youth are given a better education and the means to influence their communities, then they will be less likely to be used as cannon-fodder, less likely to pick up a gun, and more likely to read a book.
Seventeen years ago, against the wishes of my father, I picked up a gun, hoping to change the world. I survived and learned. I learned the limits of the gun. Many of my comrades were robbed of that chance, for few remain alive. Of those living, most hold senior posts in the Ugandan army; a few are in politics. Yet most died in combat or of AIDS. Young Africans should remember this when they look for ways to make their mark. —DT-PS
Okwir Rabwoni lives in exile in London, where he provides advice to human rights groups. He was a member of the parliament of Uganda and a former aide to the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame