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

Uganda: Real Peace or Empty Gesture?

By Peter Eichstaedt

I’ve always loved this expression of futility: that an activity was like “nailing jelly to a tree”. Try as one might, it only leaves a mess on your shoes.

The phrase is an apt description of the expected signing in the coming week or so of a peace deal between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the government of Uganda.

Though negotiators say a deal has been reached and that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni may arrive in Juba, South Sudan, to sign it, the agreement raises more questions than it answers.

The reason is rebel leader Joseph Kony. Not only has Kony been a slippery character since the inception of the peace talks in July 2006, he has been so since the rebellion began back in 1986 when the early incarnations of the LRA first appeared.

Numerous attempts to reach a peace with Kony have been thwarted in the past, including his reported execution of peace emissaries.

Perhaps the closest anyone came to a peace deal was in late 2004 when an agreement had been reached, and much like this current round of talks, the document was in Kony’s hands awaiting his signature.

At the time, Museveni had given Kony a deadline - something that Kony truly hates - of midnight on December 31, 2004.

Kony kept asking for more time - just like he has these past months - saying he needed to consult with his commanders. The New Year’s Eve deadline passed. Museveni attacked.

Although Kony’s war continued in northern Uganda throughout 2005, it never reached the intensity of previous years, and in late 2005, LRA units led by former LRA deputy commander Vincent Otti were already settling in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

After various skirmishes in South Sudan with the Ugandan army in early 2006, Kony also was in the Congo, and by mid-2006, so were most of his scattered units from northern Uganda.

Now, nearly two years after the peace talks began, Kony is still out there, having survived all this time on supplies provided by international aid groups.

And we are on the eve of the signing an historic peace agreement that will end more than 20 years of bloodshed, death and destruction in Uganda.

But wait a minute! Where’s Kony?

His new chief negotiator says he is in the Congo where he has been all along. But a spate of reports emanating from Ugandan intelligence community has placed him at various times in the Central African Republic, CAR.

This has of course led to speculation that Kony may be forging a deal with other rebels groups such as his, to become a militia for hire.

There’s been speculation that his former supporters in Khartoum intend to use the LRA as a proxy force against the rebels of South Sudan. The suggestion is not so far-fetched.

By basing Kony in the remote northern region of CAR, where it meets western Sudan and southern Chad, the Sudan government would have a formidable group to attack the Darfur rebel forces of the Justice and Equality Movement, who have been effective in southern and western Darfur.

The JEM rebels have based themselves in eastern Chad, but have also attacked some Chinese oil operations deep in central Sudan. Kony’s army could be very useful in thwarting JEM.

But where does all of this leave Uganda? Well, holding an empty bag, which is what the peace agreement may well be.

The latest reports say the signing of a peace deal has been put off until April 15 so that Kony can get to where he was supposed to have been all along: Ri-Kwangba, the location on the border of DRC and South Sudan where he’s scheduled to sign the agreement.

He won’t go to Juba to sign, because he fears he’ll be captured for a trial in The Hague before the International Criminal Court, which issued an indictment against him in 2005.

Meanwhile, officials from Uganda say they’ll sign the peace deal regardless of whether Kony is present.

But what’s the point?

Although it’s a nice idea, who really believes that Kony and his men will simply throw down their guns and go home, which the peace deal gives them 30 days to do.

Why would Kony do that after 20 years of a chaotic guerrilla war in which he was never defeated or captured?

Does anyone seriously think he will go back to his village in Odek, just 45 kilometres from Gulu, and return to collecting herbs and growing a garden, as he did in his youth?

Do Ugandans think this is a just and fair end to 20 years of horror?

And, would Kony turn himself over to the unformed and unexplained special high court that Uganda says it will create to try Kony for 20 years of atrocities?

A dose of reality needs to be dished out as the signing festivities are prepared.

If Kony signs the agreement, which is not a certainty at all, he will do what he has always done: he will do what’s best for himself and fade back into the jungle.

Does signing mean anything if Kony is still on the run? Not much.

Couldn’t Kony conceivably return, assuming he is re-supplied and re-equipped? Yes, he could.

What happens to justice for the thousands and thousands of victims in northern Uganda if neither Kony nor his fighters are around?

Without Kony or his fighters in hand, even the traditional reconciliation ceremonies of mato oput cannot be conducted. The ceremonies require two parties to participate.

Without Kony in hand, the commitments by the government to put Kony on trial in Uganda are nothing but empty rhetoric.

And what about the ICC indictments? With Kony in CAR, Uganda can wipe its hands of him and say, “Sorry, not our problem any more.”

If Kony walks away from this peace deal, signed or unsigned, both Kony and Uganda are thumbing their noses at justice of any kind: traditional, Ugandan, or international.

They will have also insulted the international community which has worked so hard to bring about this agreement, and for the past dozen years tried to staunch the bloodletting in northern Uganda while the government fought the war with battalions of ghost soldiers and ill-equipped local militias.

And as long as Kony remains out there, free to do as he pleases, he becomes the real winner in this madness. He has successfully used and abused the entire international community for the past two years whose only tactic has been pay off and appeasement.

The only accomplishment has been a tenuous peace across northern Uganda.

Unfortunately, little else of substance has happened, because as always, dealing with Kony and making sense of this war has been like nailing jelly to a tree.

Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR’s Africa Editor.

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

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