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

Uganda: Acholi Elders May Hold Key to Peace Talks

Origins of brutal 20-year-old war with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army lie deep in tribal history and culture.
When Vincent Otti, the second in command of the Lord’s Resistance Army, met South Sudan vice president Riek Machar here in the jungle last week, he was typically animated.

Pointing, waving, and clapping, and at times speaking inaudibly and then shouting, Otti refused to join the peace talks between the LRA and Uganda that were to begin in the capital of Juba.

“You’re not indicted,” he said repeatedly to Machar, who had organised the jungle rendezvous. Otti was referring to indictments against himself, LRA leader Joseph Kony, and three other LRA commanders.

Otti instead demanded a meeting with elders of the Acholi tribe, the dominant ethnic group of northern Uganda to which Otti, Kony, and the others belong.

These elders, he insisted, were responsible for the decades-old conflict which had put more than 1.6 million residents of the north and largely fellow Acholis in 200 refugee camps across the north.

An estimated 25,000 children have been abducted by the LRA and forced to become child soldiers and child “brides” of LRA solders, and tens of thousands have been killed and or mutilated.

The request surprised Machar. It also strained his patience.

Machar and his entourage, which included several foreign journalists, had been waiting in the jungle for several days, surviving on goat meat, roasted corn and water.

“You’re complicating matters,” said Machar. “Very few people trust you.

“You contribute to that [distrust] because you isolate yourself. You are now refusing to take the chance to show up. Even your leader [Joseph Kony] is afraid to talk to the people.”

But, insisted Otti, the next step for the LRA in ending the conflict was to meet with the Acholi elders. “They are the fathers of this war,” said Otti. “They should come and see their children.”

Although some viewed Otti’s refusal to participate directly in the talks as a road- block, Machar ultimately conceded to Otti’s request.

“It is important to me,” confided Machar later that the LRA leadership consult with whom it wants. Hopefully, he said, “they can work out the mechanism to end the war”.

The exchange underscored the ethnic complexities of the region and the difficulties on the road to peace.

A lot is riding on the talks. For the LRA, it could mean that a life on the run could be over.

For the people in refugee camps in northern Uganda, it may signal an end to their suffering and an opportunity to return to their villages.

And for the South Sudanese, it could finally mean an end to the war that has ravaged the population for nearly three decades.

Among the benefits of peace are lucrative oil deals in several provinces of south Sudan, most of which have barely been tapped.

Already the south Sudan government has received 800 million US dollars in oil sharing revenue from the government in Khartoum as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Were Acholi elders critical to the peace? Machar and others seemed to think so.

After being criticised for killing mostly their fellow Acholi tribesmen in the decades-long war, Otti explained that early on Acholi tribal elders had given their blessing to the LRA’s war against the government of Yoweri Museveni who came to power in 1986.

In the intervening years, however, that blessing withered as some Acholi leaders joined the Ugandan government.

Many others distanced themselves from the atrocities resulting from the LRA’s brutal tactics, which seemingly had lost any direction or political purpose.

The LRA leadership felt betrayed by it’s own people, explained Otti, and had struck back at those it felt had abandoned them. But now Otti and Kony wanted to meet with the elders.

“They should come so we can settle,” said Otti. “We also want to hear from them.”

“They are the key to the solution,” said Machar. “It is these elders who asked them to fight the government. If there is to be peace, [the LRA] must talk with them.”

Machar agreed to gather Acholi elders in Juba by the end of the month and transport them to the bush. “It may push the peace process forward,” he said.

But the LRA is not the only problem facing south Sudan. The week before the peace talks began, a truck belonging to the German construction company, GTZ was attacked.

In the back of the pickup were some 15 locals who had been given a ride. Some dozen or more fighters opened fire on the truck, killing five and wounding 11.

At first the LRA was blamed, but it quickly denied responsibility and blamed the attack on the Ugandan government, saying Uganda wanted to sabotage the peace talks.

Machar also said the attackers probably were not the LRA. He blamed a renegade militia in the area that was being backed by the Khartoum government, which he said instigated instability in the south.

The culprits were not found, and the attack emphasised the fragile environment surrounding the Juba peace talks.

Despite these problems, the parties at the Juba talks say they all want the same thing: peace.

In their meeting in the bush, Otti promised Machar that he would eventually attend the negotiations. And if an agreement was reached, he assured Machar that Kony would sign it.

But it could be a lengthy process, Otti warned. “We fought for 20 years. We should take it step by step. We cannot end it in a day,” he said of the war. “It is not like playing ball.”

Machar remained optimistic.

“We want peace as human beings,” he said privately the day before the peace talks. “We want development. We want to catch up.”

When asked why the LRA had suddenly decided to seek peace after 20 years, Otti explained that “peace talks come when the war becomes difficult”.

Despite detailed position papers that have been presented at the talks by LRA negotiators, few of whom have been part of the LRA, Otti said the rebels had one simple goal.

It was nothing more than “to go home”.

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with the Uganda Radio Network, a project of IWPR – Africa.