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

Uganda: New LRA Truce Offers Hope

Cautious optimism that peace will take hold after the rebels come back to the negotiating table.
By Alexis Okeowo
There is hope the tenuous peace may take root in northern Uganda after the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army renewed a lapsed truce and agreed to resume talks.

The truce, reached on April 14, will last two months and is aimed at furthering the peace process to end a 20-year old conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced two million.

The Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, has spread terror throughout northern Uganda by massacring and mutilating civilians. The rebels have also abducted thousands of children to serve as soldiers, porters and sex slaves.

After landmark talks in the south Sudanese capital, Juba, the Ugandan government signed a landmark truce with the LRA in August 2006.

Chaired by Riek Machar, vice president of the government of South Sudan, the negotiations resulted in an agreement on a formal cessation of hostilities. Under the agreement, the LRA was supposed to relocate its forces to designated assembly points in remote parts of southern Sudan.

Negotiations in Juba stalled in January after the LRA walked out saying they were worried about their safety. They accused the South Sudan government mediators of bias, and demanded a new venue and a different set of mediators.

As a result, the eight-month ceasefire between the Ugandan national army and the LRA, lapsed on March 1, fuelling fears that northern Uganda could be plunged back into violence.

New terms have now been agreed, and peace talks will restart on April 26. Although Juba will remain the venue, there will be a bigger monitoring team including representatives from Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique.

Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, who has been appointed as the United Nations special envoy to northern Uganda, will help the South Sudan government with the mediation effort. Chissano's mediation team will include the Mozambican Minister for the Presidency Francisco Caetano Madeira, South Africa army general Gilbert Lebeko Ramano, Tanzanian government official Ali Siwa and Kenyan government official Japheth Getugi.

Chissano, together with the LRA’s elusive leader Joseph Kony and Uganda's lead negotiator, Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, were all present at the truce meeting on April 14 in the village of Ri-Kwangba, on the Sudanese border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

The deal stipulates that the LRA guerrillas have a six-week deadline to assemble in Ri-Kwangba. The deal also guarantees security for the rebel fighters.

"We only need the way [to Ri-Kwangba] to be open – we don't need any protection," said an LRA spokesman, Obonyo Olweny. He added that he believed that this time, unlike before, the LRA fighters would move to the collection point, as long as the Ugandan and southern Sudanese armies refrain from attacking them.

The LRA is primarily composed of former soldiers from northern Uganda, who left the national army after Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, took office in 1986. The discontented rebels began a savage campaign to regain power, forcing women and children to join their ranks. The LRA established bases in north-eastern DRC and southern Sudan, exacerbating instability in those areas.

One major obstacle to making the ceasefire work is the outstanding indictments issued by the International Criminal Court, ICC, against Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and three other commanders, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Ugandan military said in August 2006 that it had killed Raska Lukwiya. In March, 2007 the ICC prosecutor requested the withdrawal of his arrest warrant because of his death.

Established in 2002, the ICC started its first investigations in 2004 to look at possible cases in DRC and Uganda. To date, the only suspect to be detained is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of a militia group in the eastern DRC region of Ituri, on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers. Lubanga is currently in The Hague awaiting trial.

Although the LRA indictments mean the Ugandan government – which initially invited the ICC in to investigate possible crimes committed in the north – is obliged to seek Kony’s arrest and transfer for trial, it has shown a readiness to negotiated with LRA leaders in the interests of peace.

The ICC, however, has repeatedly refused to drop the charges against the rebels.

LRA leaders say that they want the government to implement traditional local justice instead. The traditional Acholi tribal system known as "mato oput" involves a ritual in which a murderer faces relatives of the victim and admits his crime before both drink a bitter brew as an act of reconciliation.

"LRA leaders are of the opinion that the indictments should be withdrawn before we can reach a conclusive peace agreement," said Ugandan minister Rugunda. "However, we told them that we cannot withdraw the case unless we have signed an agreement with them."

Rugunda noted that the ICC charges would be the first item on the agenda when the talks restart.

As a minimum, the rebels want a 12-month suspension of the ICC arrest warrants. The Kampala, which itself asked the global human rights court to investigate the LRA, has repeatedly said a peace deal should be signed before it considers asking the ICC to drop the case.

LRA representative James Obita said the rebel leadership had asked Chissano to speak to the United Nations Security Council on its behalf. "We want the government of Uganda, through Chissano, to go now to the Security Council and say surely we have now reached a point of no return," said Obita. "We're saying at the very minimum – suspend the warrants for 12 months so that we can complete the process and have the comprehensive peace agreement signed."

Past agreements requiring LRA fighters to gather at specific assembly points have been marred by accusations of ceasefire violations on both sides. It remains to be seen whether the guerrillas will go to the designated area this time round, but both delegations say they are optimistic about the prospects for peace.

"We have reached a stage where the process will just move forward. Many concessions were made to facilitate confidence building," said Rugunda.

Despite the difficulties, the peace process has fostered improved conditions for beleaguered civilians in northern Uganda, according to Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations' Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator.

“The humanitarian situation in northern Uganda and parts of southern Sudan has improved significantly in the past year,” she said on a visit to areas of northern Uganda along the border with Sudan.

“People are returning to their homes and re-establishing their livelihoods. But a final peace accord between the parties remains necessary, to sustain and promote further progress on the humanitarian front.”

Sustained security improvements over the past year, attributable to the peace process, have given some 1.4 million displaced Ugandans – many of whom have spent two decades in overcrowded internal refugee camps – renewed hope that peace will finally come. It has also encouraged many to begin returning to their homes. In the past year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that more than 300,000 displaced persons have left refugee camps to return to their homes in the north.

Among other indications that the situation is improving, OCHA said there had been no civilian abductions since the start of the talks. And there has been a reduction in the phenomenon of “night commuters” – children who daily travel long distances from their village homes to seek shelter overnight in urban centres.

Despite the progress, northern Uganda requires continued emergency relief and protection, OCHA warned. Some one million displaced people remain in the camps. And while returning families benefit from greater access to cultivable land, the lack of schools and health facilities in their home areas have prompted some to leave wives and children behind in the camps.

Alexis Okeowo is a reporter for the IWPR Africa Report based in Kampala.