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Uganda Peace Talks Bring Hope

Can Sudan’s Machar bridge the gap between Kampala and the LRA?
By Matthew Green
Sporting dreadlocks and wielding bayonets, the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels emerged from the undergrowth wearing iron stares and, in the case of one warrior, a shirt of the English football club Arsenal.

But within an hour the young fighters were cracking grins, shaking hands and saying “thank you” after their meeting with mediators, offering a rare glimpse of the human face of one of the world’s most elusive rebel groups.

South Sudan’s vice-president Riek Machar waited for four days in a mud hut on the Sudan-Congo border for a chance in July to meet Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, leader Joseph Kony, who finally sent his deputy to the meeting.

For all the frustrations of dealing with the Ugandan rebels, Machar has managed to bring them to the table with the Kampala government, a feat that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.

Signs of new commitment by both parties have raised hopes that the vice-president might bridge the gulf of mistrust that has defeated numerous attempts to end the 20-year conflict, one of Africa’s longest.

Resolving the fate of Kony will be perhaps the hardest issue, complicated by war crimes charges brought by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague against the LRA leader and four of his top commanders.

However, for more than 1.5 million people forced to live in pestilential internal refugee camps in northern Uganda, as well as the many young people press-ganged into the rebel force, the talks have kindled hopes of one day going home.

Taking place in a meeting hall within a tented camp – which caters for visitors who can afford 130 US dollars a night – even the venue in Juba, the Southern Sudan capital, symbolises a break from the past. Previous meetings were held in clearings in the wilds of northern Uganda, just across the border, where the rebels were constantly wary of attack.

Sudan’s unprecedented role as host for the talks has already helped the two sides agree an agenda since the opening ceremony on July 14, now scrawled in blue ink on sheets of paper in the meeting room. Covering everything from an eventual ceasefire to greater political participation for marginalised areas, the closure of camps, reconciliation, amnesty and disarmament, the idea is to forge a comprehensive solution to the conflict.

Agreeing an agenda is in itself progress, considering that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni said in February that the government would not talk to Kony.

That said, the talks have yet to stop the fighting. Uganda has declined to meet the rebels’ demand for a ceasefire until a comprehensive deal is signed, fearing they may use the breathing space to re-arm. In the meantime, the army says it is still killing and capturing rebels.

A parallel propaganda war has broken out in Juba, where detailed allegations of cannibalism, sodomy, murder and beheading have become standard fare at press conferences given by both sides. The verbal hostilities, however, have yet to derail proceedings, with the government still adamant it wants a deal by a self-imposed September 12 deadline.

Led by Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, the Uganda delegation wants to negotiate surrender terms, saying they have made a big concession by offering to shield Kony and his commanders from the ICC, whose chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, issued warrants last October for the arrest of Kony and four associates to face 33 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Ugandan government even plans to send Kony’s mother Nora Oting to visit him in the bush, along with about 40 relatives of other rebel commanders, hoping they will help persuade them to return home.

Kampala’s reversal of its earlier insistence on prosecutions suggests there may be growing reasons why President Museveni wants a deal, despite his two decades-long preference for fighting rather than talking.

Ending the war would help restore Museveni’s international image, tarnished by his government’s pursuit of opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye on treason and rape charges ahead of last February’s Ugandan elections.

A peace deal would also go down well with donors who are increasingly worried about growing signs of authoritarianism since Uganda's parliament changed the constitution to allow Museveni to run for a third term.

The rebels have rather different reasons for wanting to talk.

Kony has survived since the mid-Eighties partly with the backing of the Sudan government in Khartoum, which adopted him in 1994 to help fight their own southern rebels, who now form the government of south Sudan and are partners in the Khartoum government.

Concerned that they would lose their safe havens after Khartoum signed a deal to end its war with the south in January 2005, the LRA leaders and their fighters crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, entering alien territory far from their traditional sources of supply.

While south Sudan’s government has been providing the rebels with food to discourage them from looting, it is unclear how comfortable they are in their new home in DRC.

In January, the United Nations Observer Mission in DRC, MONUC, a 17,000-strong peacekeeping force, botched an attempt to arrest LRA deputy leader Vincent Otti, whose guerrillas killed eight Guatemalan UN soldiers during the fighting in the vast Garamba National Park.

MONUC and the Congolese government have since been preoccupied with preparations for the July 30 elections, the first in DRC for nearly half a century, but the LRA may not feel safe in the country’s northeastern forests forever.

Sensing an opportunity to win kudos at home and abroad for neutralising rebels accused of killing thousands of Sudanese civilians as well as wreaking havoc in Uganda, Machar has seized the chance to start talks.

Ending the conflict would block any attempt by the Arab-dominated Khartoum government to use the rebels as a proxy to destabilise Sudan's African majority south ahead of a planned referendum on independence in 2011, agreed as part of the north-south peace deal.

South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, is also keen for the thousands of Ugandan troops who crossed into Sudan in 2002 to hunt the rebels under a protocol signed with Khartoum, to leave. Many of his people resent their presence.

Machar puts the number of rebels at 5,000, although the Ugandans say there are far fewer.

Whatever the LRA’s real strength, their delegates in Juba say the force is far from defeated and aims to raise an ambitious political agenda.

Reviled for mutilating Acholi villagers in northern Uganda suspected of collaborating with the army, massacring villagers and kidnapping children for use as fighters, porters and “wives”, the LRA has widely been assumed to lack clear objectives. But the rebel delegation, partly made up of exiled Acholi tribesmen living in Kenya, Britain and the United States, as well as some active-duty field commanders, lists detailed grievances.

The LRA team has tabled papers calling for northerners to be given a fairer share of national jobs, education and a more equitable stake in government for north and east Uganda, as well as compensation for cattle looted by the army.

But observers fear that civilian representatives, who include a lawyer and schoolteacher, may fail to adequately reflect Kony’s position, forged during years of guerrilla warfare. The delegates dismiss these concerns, saying they all want to tackle the root causes of the crisis in northern Uganda, which many people in the area trace back to the divide-and-rule policies of British colonialists.

While few in the north express overt support for the LRA, the rebels hope to capitalise on a sense of disenfranchisement revealed at the February elections, when northerners voted overwhelmingly against Museveni and his government, dominated by southern Ugandan tribal groups.

But the real make-or-break issue will be Kony’s future.

Assuming the rebel leaders trust Museveni’s promises to ensure their security, they may still want guarantees from the ICC and Moreno-Campo in The Hague that the case against them will be dropped. At this stage, there is no sign of compromise from the ICC, which says it is legally obliged to press ahead with arrests and prosecutions.

LRA delegates are mindful of the fate of Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was extradited to The Hague on war crimes charges in June despite having accepted exile in Nigeria to end fighting in his homeland.

Interestingly, the rebels have been taking legal advice about the ICC.

Machar had hoped to convince one of the five indicted commanders to attend the start of the Juba talks, but LRA second-in-command Otti, who is one of the indictees, was too scared of being arrested to venture out.

“Peace can even take one year or two years,” he said at the initial negotiations meeting on the Sudan-Congo border. “It is like climbing trees - you can’t start at the branches.”

Matthew Green is a Reuters correspondent currently on sabbatical to write a book on the LRA, to be published next year by Portobello Books.

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