Endless Peace Talks?

On-off negotiations between the government and the LRA might take years to conclude.

Endless Peace Talks?

On-off negotiations between the government and the LRA might take years to conclude.

Monday, 8 October, 2007
Since Uganda’s civil war in its northern province began in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni has been predicting that the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, would finally be quelled by the state’s military machine.

But deadline after deadline has passed, and the LRA and its leaders are still alive and kicking.

Just months after Museveni’s own southern-based rebel force, the National Resistance Army, NRA, fought its way to power on January 25, 1986 and ruled through what it leader described as a “no-party” system, it had to tackle northern rebels.

A rag-tag army of religious zealots, armed only with stones and stout sticks, led by a woman voodoo priestess named Alice Lakwena, decided to attempt to seize national power with the aid of the “Holy Spirit”.

They marched from the north towards the national capital, Kampala, in the south, convinced that the vegetable oil they had smeared over their bodies would repel the bullets of Museveni’s NRA, now the state military force.

Lakwena’s forces advanced to within about 100 kilometres of Kampala near Jinja on the Nile, where the prophetess told her followers that the waters of the world’s longest river would part to enable them to begin their final march on the capital. Instead, the fighters of Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement were trapped in a forest by Museveni’s forces, armed with machine-guns and artillery, and were mown down in large numbers.

Decisively defeated and destroyed, the group imploded as Alice fled with some of her followers into permanent exile in neighbouring Kenya.

Within months, Joseph Kony, variously described as a nephew or cousin of Lakwena, picked up his relative’s mantle, recruited some of her followers and formed the Acholi-based Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which has waged war against the Museveni government in the north ever since.

Like Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, the LRA combines traditional belief in the spirit world with aspects of Christian doctrine. Kony says the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments form the core of the LRA’s code – although this has not stopped his fighters from kidnapping some 38,000 children to serve as child fighters, porters and sex slaves.

Warrants for the arrest of Kony and his top commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity have been issued by the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, but the court, which does not have a police force of its own, has been unable to enforce the warrants.

Uganda’s head of state finally stopped giving deadlines for the military defeat of Kony and the LRA last year and opened talks designed to end a war that pushed nearly two million people from their villages in the north and resulted in some 100,000 deaths. At the inception of the Sudan-mediated talks on July 14, 2006, Museveni, in an apparent attempt to avoid losing face, gave the LRA two months to conclude the talks - a deadline that proved impossible and that has passed by 15 months.

Nobody talks of deadlines any more and many analysts are predicting that the on-off peace negotiations might take years to conclude, given that the rebel leaders still fear they will be transported to an ICC prison cell in The Hague, despite frequent assurances from government negotiators that they will instead be tried before traditional tribal courts, where the emphasis is on reconciliation rather than punishment.

Deepening mistrust between the two sides - allied to funding problems - is hampering the negotiations which have yet to resume since being halted at the end of June.

“The negotiations are subject to many issues,” Godfrey Wanzira Sasagah, a leading Kampala lawyer who specialises in international law, told IWPR. “It is a protracted thing because it is another complicated and intricate process. Even the first year of talks is too short a time to resolve the issues.

“The rebels are saying, ‘I am negotiating with you, but at the same time I am supposed to be tried?’”

Sasagah said anyone in such a Catch-22 situation would find it difficult to understand and deal with.

The ICC issued its warrants for the arrest of Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and senior commanders Okot Odhiambo, Rasta Lukwiya and Dominic Ogwen on October 13, 2005. Lukwiya subsequently died in battle with government troops in northern Uganda.

The LRA top leaders are currently based in the 5,000 square kilometre Garamba National Park in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. They moved there after the LRA was forced out of its traditional bases in southern Sudan.

Government representatives have said that if the LRA leaders sign a final peace deal they will be subject to traditional tribal court systems, under which they would undergo long-established rituals, confess their crimes, seek pardon and later be forgiven - a process, government officials argue, that would water down the ICC indictments because it handles the contentious issue of impunity.

But Sasagah said, “Those fellows at the ICC may think of dropping the indictments, but they are aware of the consequences. Other rebel groups might say, ‘If that is what they have done to the LRA, what would happen to us?’ It might give other groups other ideas if the indictments, which hugely worry the LRA, are dropped.”

A month after the peace negotiations began in Juba, the capital of autonomous South Sudan, the Ugandan government and the LRA signed a historic ceasefire agreement that most people in the north hoped would bring peace to their ravaged region.

Though the guns have indeed fallen silent since then, the two sides have not stopped feuding, with the LRA constantly laying down new conditions before they will agree to a final peace deal. The latest rebel demand was made in August this year. LRA negotiators demanded that the international community provide funds totaling some 2 million US dollars to enable them to carry out a consultation exercise required under a draft agreement allowing both sides to consult their followers about a future post-war justice system.

Up to 500 people are to be flown eventually from northern Uganda to Kony’s Garamba National Park headquarters for talks as part of the consultation process.

Ugandan government officials told IWPR that although they concluded their own consultations on October 4, the LRA had not even begun, citing lack of funds for its failure to begin the process.

While the government hits out at the LRA for the delay in resuming peace negotiations, the rebels blame Museveni’s administration. “Definitely, it is obvious that it is the Ugandan government that is delaying the talks,” rebel spokesman Godfrey Ayoo told IWPR by telephone from Nairobi, Kenya. “The LRA is still committed to the talks. There is a constitutionally elected government in Uganda, and that government’s responsibility is to take up the issues which we put on the table [at the beginning of the talks].”

Ayoo did not refer to the ICC indictments, but said, “In brief, we want the government to install good governance, observe respect for human rights, treat the country as one nation, allow people to participate in governance, and fight poverty by giving back to the people of northern Uganda what was taken from them when the government army invaded the region.”

The rebel spokesman said the LRA has been irritated by “provocative” statements by senior government officials, including one by Henry Okello Oryem, deputy foreign minister and deputy chief negotiator, who accused the LRA of mobilising funds to restart the war.

“Oryem has said that we are looking for resources to purchase arms,” Ayoo told IWPR. “That is war-mongering from a deputy leader of the government peace team, and it is unfortunate to come up with such provocative statements. Our target in the peace talks is not a time framework, but a peace that will be sustained if only ministers like Oryem Okello [are not] reckless.”

The Ugandan government said, in an agreement reached on September 8 with the DRC, that it has a “Plan B” to end the LRA rebellion. If the peace talks continue to stall, this would involve a joint Ugandan-Congo army attack on Kony and the rebels in the Garamba National Park before Christmas, with United Nations soldiers providing logistical support.

Government officials, meanwhile, said that they have no idea when a final peace deal might be signed with the LRA and acknowledged that the ICC indictments had made it difficult to build confidence between the two sides. Deputy Defence Minister Ruth Nankabirwa, head of a government peace talks support committee, told IWPR on October 4, “It is more than a year since the peace talks started. I cannot give a time framework for when the talks will end. But you must understand that the situation has been so bad: there has been mistrust and we had to work on confidence-building. This took a long time.”

Sasagah added, “There are many issues that will prolong the process. It will all take a very long time.”

Henry Wasswa is an IWPR journalist in The Hague.

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