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Rebel Peace Team Legitimacy Questioned

Some suggest LRA members touring north do not represent the rebel leadership.
By Henry Wasswa
Hundreds of northern Ugandans listened intently when Martin Ojul, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, peace negotiating team, went on radio and asked forgiveness for the atrocities committed by the rebels for the past 20 years.

“I apologise for all the mistakes and the suffering inflicted on the people of northern Uganda by the LRA,” he said. “I beg for forgiveness and request that you forgive us.”

Ojul was not apologising on behalf of the LRA, but rather on his own behalf, a number of commentators have said.

They noted that even as Ojul was talking, a power struggle raged in the rebel ranks at their jungle base Garamba Park in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the vicious guerilla army that has left thousands dead and displaced nearly two million people, has been purging his senior commanders, including Vincent Otti, his deputy and second-in- command.

Many wonder if Otti is still alive despite Kony’s insistence that he is simply under house arrest.

Peace talks between Uganda and the LRA began in July 2006 and have largely been conducted by a negotiating team composed of noncombatants, many of whom are Acholi diaspora who had never seen Kony before the talks began.

The team, with Ojul at its head, is currently touring the north as part of the LRA’s reconciliation mission. But many of those close to the peace process, however, have questioned the delegation’s credentials, especially now with Otti’s dismissal

“If there is a conflict between Kony and Otti, it means there are two minds within the LRA. The question is: to what extent does the peace team, as a whole, relate to the two?” said Professor Morris Ogenga Latigo, an Acholi member of parliament.

Kampala lawyer Moses Ssekaana was more blunt when he told IWPR, “This peace team is not part of the real LRA, and it might have no impact on the peace process. There is a power vacuum in the LRA because the hierarchy of the political wing is not known.

“In any peace process, the one heading the rebellion should lead the peace talks, something which is lacking in the LRA.

“The so-called elite group which is carrying out consultation [in the north] is not known. [They] should have the power of attorney to act on behalf of Kony, but they do not. It will be a mockery if the peace talks fail and the LRA [renew attacks against] the people the peace team apologised to.”

Although the LRA peace team has been criticised, it has succeeded in negotiating three of the five main elements of the peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.

The current talks are the most protracted of any of the attempts to broker a peace treaty with the LRA over the past 20 years.

The first attempts at talks failed in 1994 when the LRA made ridiculous demands such as being given new weapons before they would come out of the bush.

Then in late 2004, after weeks of negotiations, the LRA killed a yet another draft peace treaty, retreated into the bush, and intensified their war.

A year later, the International Criminal Court, ICC, issued warrants for the arrest of top LRA commanders including Kony, Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya was later killed in a gun battle.

Despite the presence of a peace negotiating team, Kony and his commanders have been dictating terms in the talks in southern Sudan’s capital of Juba from their hideout in Garamba park.

Among the most tricky is the LRA’s demand that the ICC warrants be lifted and that instead of facing an international tribunal, they participate in a traditional forgive-and-forget ceremony called Mato Oput.

Members of the LRA peace team are now busily moving through war-ravaged villages and refugee camps in the north.

While some question the legitimacy of the negotiating team, Uganda’s chief negotiator Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda insists that the LRA group is authentic and represents the rebel movement.

“Of course it is true that power is with Kony, but Kony cannot represent himself in the consultations. He appointed these people. These are the closest people and relatives to Kony in the talks. It is true that these people are from the diaspora, but they were appointed by Kony,” Rugunda told IWPR.

Kampala lawyer Alphonse Owiny-Dollo, who was among the Acholi elders who made a trip to visit the LRA leader in DRC in December 2006, insisted the peace delegation has clout.

“To question the authenticity of Ojul is mere speculation,” said Owiny-Dollo. “This peace team has represented the LRA for over a year.

To say that they are not part of the LRA is stretching speculation.

“The peace mission is going to propel the peace process forward and the talks are moving forward.”

While many remain unsure if the enigmatic guerilla leader is serious about the talks, Latigo’s assessment of Kony’s character raises more doubts.

“Kony is a highly deceptive person, but with a very deep and cunning personality,” he told IWPR.

“On the surface, he looks extremely vulnerable and even looks scared sometimes. But under this mask, he is very deliberate, smart, decisive and ruthless person. It is not easy to relate this personality to the peace process.”

The rebel leader, continued Latigo, “does not have to be around in the peace talks” in order to control them.

“His strength has been in knowing what is going on,” he said. “He is consistent in his acts and never takes chances. If you meet him, you are for him. He does not talk a lot, but he is very good at reading people, and then he is able to manipulate them.”

Henry Wasswa is an IWPR journalist in Kampala.

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