After announcing that he would sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government on Saturday, November 29, Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony again drew a crowd to the jungle camp of Nabanga on the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
As Kony has done in the past, he balked, leaving a host of his Acholi tribal and cultural leaders waiting and wanting, along with the United Nations special envoy Joachim Chissano, the talk’s chief mediatory, South Sudan vice- president Riek Machar and a flock of international observers.
While the signing of the agreement would certainly have been a milestone in the history of Uganda, it remains a meaningless document despite the vast amount of time and money spent by international community on the talks, including the provision of food and other supplies to the rebels, over the past couple of years.
Sadly, the signing of a peace deal could have formally ended a sad chapter in Uganda’s history, a terrible saga in which Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, waged 20 years of a senseless and brutal war in northern Uganda. It effectively ended in July 2006 with a ceasefire that launched talks that continued into the middle of this year.
Only Kony’s signature remained. But it was not to be.
Instead, Kony has once again retreated into the jungles of Garamba National Park in northeastern DRC, after saying, as he has all along, that the indictments by the International Criminal Court, ICC, against him and top commanders need to be lifted. Kony alone faces 33 counts for acts he and his commanders allegedly ordered against unarmed civilians, mostly from his own Acholi tribe.
With Kony’s latest act, lifting or temporarily suspending the charges, as has been suggested so that Uganda might put Kony on trial, is now more unlikely than ever before.
If events of this year are any indication, Kony is leading his militia into a new chapter of death and destruction for thousands of innocent civilians who live in the Haut Uele region of DRC.
It began exactly a year ago when in early December 2007, Kony sent his soldiers against the softest of all targets, the priests and nuns of a Catholic health clinic in Duru. His soldiers looted the place, making off with money and medicine, but they also left a message with one of the sisters.
They told her that the attack against the civilians was because the villagers were cooperating with the UN, which had stationed an engineering battalion in the region to build a new airstrip about 75 kilometres away in the regional capital, Dungu. The UN was the LRA’s new enemy, having replaced the Ugandan government, because it was cooperating with the ICC, which has been after Kony since the middle of 2005.
Just as Kony’s war in Uganda made little sense, with him insisting he was fighting to establish a regime based on the same Ten Commandments he and his men broke every day, his continued war in the northern DRC makes even less sense.
Kony’s brand of terror has merely shifted locales. As reported by IWPR, Kony sent his troops on a two-month rampage earlier this year, during which they looted and abducted hundreds of people from villages from as far away as the Central African Republic, CAR.
His subsequent attacks have been sporadic, and most recently he struck about a dozen villages in the region, then launched a bold attack against about 800 Congolese soldiers who had only recently been posted in Dungu. Reports are sketchy, but eight LRA were reportedly killed.
Some reliable sources suggest that in the past year, Kony has abducted at least 1,000 people, many of the men and boys forced to become porters, some soldiers, and the girls camp cooks and sex slaves.
Should Kony refuse to sign a peace deal even in the event of ICC charges being lifted or temporarily suspended to allow prosecution by a Ugandan court, the international community may be finally forced to capture him.
But despite the talk of a regional force going after him with some UN support, it will be hard to arrange and difficult to carry out.
Kony eluded the Ugandan army for 20 years, by hiding out in South Sudan, thanks to the Khartoum government. But even when that fallback was removed, the Ugandans were unable to grab him. Kony simply retreated to his current camp in the Garamba National Park.
Such a regional force would include Ugandans, Congolese, CAR and South Sudanese troops, but prospects of it being effective are slim.
The DRC has little control over its troops or most of the eastern part of the country, which seems mired in endless militia wars. CAR is incapable of effective military action and has rebel problems of its own. Only South Sudan has a somewhat reliable force, but it’s more worried about the Khartoum government than Kony.
The UN, meanwhile, is simply not an option. Despite a massive force of 17,000 peacekeepers in DRC, it is spread out across a country the size of Europe and has a limited mandate. Even the pending addition of 3,000 more troops to help stabilise the eastern Kivu provinces will not achieve much.
If Kony has accomplished anything with his vacillation over signing the peace agreement, it is extending his and his militia’s survival.
Kony has been able to manipulate the international community with his repeated peace overtures. He has devised the perfect ploy: talk peace, and do the opposite.
What’s clear is that Kony will be around for a long time, doing what he wants, when he wants, in part due to the painful indulgence of the international community.
Sadly, the innocent and the defenceless suffer. Maybe now, finally, the international community will wake up.
Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR’s Africa Editor.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.