Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern Ugandans Deserve a Break

By Bill Oketch

Instead of serious peace talks, we get nothing but drama.

After having lived through northern Uganda’s 21-year-old conflict, it seems that only God can save us from the threat of renewed war since negotiations have settled nothing.

Even before Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, failed to sign a final peace agreement with the government of Uganda, I suspected the talks would wilt.

My fears came true first on April 10, and were only reaffirmed when Kony failed to show the second time in May.

Kony has toyed with the International Criminal Court, ICC, demanding that since he has been indicted, some 155 other rebel commanders in his army should also face the court in The Hague.

After all, he says, they carried out the atrocities – such as cutting people’s lips, ears, and breasts – that he allegedly ordered.

Kony apparently has forgotten that none of them, mostly minors who had been abducted from their homes and forced to commit these crimes, had a voice in the movement that was louder than his.

Of the five LRA leaders who were originally indicted, Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen are still at large. Vincent Otti is presumed dead and Raska Lukwiya was killed in 2006.

Kony fled to the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to avoid the ICC’s warrants, and his absence for the past two years has brought a general calm to northern Uganda.

But the protracted two years of peace negotiations has also given the fugitive leader breathing space and he has allegedly committed atrocities in the DRC, the Central African Republic, CAR, and South Sudan.

Though tranquility has been enjoyed in the north, many residents doubt now that the Juba peace talks alone can address the crimes of the LRA – although the majority want them to resume.

The reasons are simple.

First, Kony himself asked that peace talks resume.

Second, Kony vowed to drop rebellion in the north, and has kept his word on that.

Third, local leaders believe talks are the only way to bring lasting peace to the north. These include the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, ARLPI, the Lango Religious Leader Forum, LRLF, and others.

Fourth, most of the nearly two million people displaced by the war have gone back home.

These facts should be uppermost in the minds of Ugandan government and the LRA peace negotiators. It serves no purpose for the government to make repeated declarations of war.

The war must stop so that all Ugandans can stand together and rebuild the nation.

We in the north are tired of witnessing the deaths of our loved ones and we must be given a chance to build a future for the many widows and orphans created by war.

The government should open the doors to humanitarian agencies, aid groups, and community-based organisations to provide services to the war affected communities.

Priority should be given to research and study so that interventions, or combination of interventions, yield superior results in resettling the population to their home communities.

All organisations working in the region must meet and discuss the best ways forward.

Only when reconstruction of the north is well under way, can we then talk about reconciliation. Although much has been said about the traditional reconciliation ceremony of mato oput, in reality it has proved to be useless.

For example, recently some Acholi tribesmen in Kitgum and the Karamojong tribal members from eastern Uganda conducted mato oput ceremonies to settle acts by the Karamajong cattle rustlers accused of stealing cows in Acholi territory.

No sooner had the ceremony concluded, than the Karamajong killed three people in Kitgum. For the people of northern Uganda to enjoy lasting peace, we must look beyond mato oput.

Fear of the ICC warrants drove Kony into exile, and now war survivors are beginning to rebuild their homes and lives despite the grim memories of the war which are very much with everyone.

The responsibility for peace, security and reconstruction now rests with the government. And if the government fails to deliver, another civil war might erupt.

If the north is to recover, the administration in Kampala must first focus on health and education.

Too many people are dying from preventable diseases – not the rebel war – and children under five years of age and expectant mothers the primary victims.

During the war, the internal refugee camps had health clinics, but with the demolition of the camps, those clinics and the care they provided are gone.

Ugandans in the Lira area now must travel long distances to access health care in refugee camps that still exist with clinics.

Although some new health centres are being built, the care that is available is far short of the region’s pressing needs.

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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