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

Uganda: Talking to the LRA

Former go-getting World Bank consultant strives to bring peace to northern Uganda.
By Apolo Kakaire
Betty Bigombe is a petite woman with a heart and shoulders that are larger than life. She is the chief peace mediator between the Uganda government and the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, that has been fighting in northern Uganda since 1986.

Talking to her, as she looks relaxed in sneakers, sleeveless jacket and a baseball cap, it is obvious that humility and simplicity have served her well in efforts to talk peace with people others are too terrified to think about, let alone meet. There is certainly no remaining trace in her conduct of the ritzy, go-getting World Bank consultant she once was.

Bigombe’s peace work dates back to 1988 when she was appointed a minister of state in the prime minister's office, in charge of the "pacification of the north".

“I started my assignment as minister to end the rebellion by peaceful means," she told IWPR. "I initiated negotiations with different rebel groups, of which the last was the LRA. With the LRA, unfortunately, that did not succeed.”

The talks collapsed in February 1994 and the LRA insurgency intensified. A decade passed before any significant efforts would again be made to establish peace.

Bigombe had managed to establish talks in mid-1993 with Joseph Kony, the self-styled mystic who leads the LRA and who claims to be a spirit medium. A fellow northern Acholi, like Bigombe, Kony claims to want a Ugandan government based on the Ten Commandments.

When his revolt began 20 years ago, Kony enjoyed support among northern villagers who complained of economic marginalisation by the government of President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner, in Kampala, Uganda's capital.

But the LRA's brutality, described by one diplomat as "a different order of magnitude of evil" compared with most African rebel groups, turned villagers against it. LRA soldiers mutilated civilians who did not cooperate during raids to obtain supplies and young guerrilla recruits.

Captured girls were forced to be sex slaves to LRA commanders. Boys have been made to kill their parents and other boy recruits in cruel initiation ceremonies. Eighty per cent of LRA soldiers are children, according to estimates by the United Nations children's agency Unicef. At least 100,000 people have died in the northern Uganda conflict; more than 20,000 children have been kidnapped; and some 1.6 million people have become internal refugees.

Bigombe retreated to the United States, where she studied at Harvard University before becoming a consultant with the World Bank. While on a World Bank assignment in February 2004 she was devastated to watch a CNN television news report about a massacre by the LRA of more than 200 civilians.

“I was on a World Bank mission travelling across Africa, that’s when I saw the massacre of Barlonyo in Lira District and I just decided this cannot go on for ever," said Bigome.

She was taken aback as her own photo appeared on the screen, with the commentator describing her as the one person who had ever brought the government and the rebels near to peace back in 1993-94.

Bigombe, 52, realised she had unfinished business back home. She took leave from her lucrative World Bank job and returned to Gulu, the northern town at the heart of the insurgency area, to resume her mediation, this time without ministerial status but as one of the few individuals with credibility with both Kony and President Museveni.

Operating with a satellite phone that puts her in touch with Kony's men in the Ugandan bush and in their forest bases in neighbouring Congo and Sudan, she is caught between the rock of the government and the hard place of the LRA.

Asked why the rebels have yet to soften their stance, she said, "It's very difficult for me to answer. So many people ask me as though I was one of the LRAs - and you know I'm not, right!”

She said that in any long-lasting rebellion there is inevitably very deep-seated distrust between the parties. Confidence building inevitably takes time.

"It’s not a matter of saying, 'Put down your gun.' I have to listen to him [a rebel] and understand what it is that drives him to pick up arms. The personality has to be right. You have to be a people’s person and have interpersonal skills, and you also have to be able to read somebody," said Bigombe.

"Government may give you a message to tell the rebels. Sometimes the messages they give me are so very strong [tough] that I know if I went and told LRA that this is what government wants, they would say, 'Forget it, that’s the end of it.' So it’s a question of timing - do I deliver this message now or in two weeks later?”

This time round, Bigombe's mediation effort has not been facilitated by the government because, in her wisdom and experience of negotiating as a minister, she came to realise you cannot succeed if you are dependant on one side. “If I start taking from government now, then I have to start speaking government language,” she said.

Bigombe, whose husband died three years ago, has been using her own personal resources to keep the peace effort going, to the extent that last year she could no longer pay school fees for her children, Pauline and Emmanuel, in the US and Europe. She was helped out by funding from the Norwegian and British governments.

The stress of her work is enormous. Bigombe has been accused of many things: being a liar; an agent of Museveni; an agent of the Americans; an agent of the British; and as someone with her own agenda. She has been accused by Museveni of pampering the rebels. She has received death threats from several quarters and is regularly subjected to verbal abuse.

But she has remained steadfast, “You have to see how you can fight it. I have to listen to the rebels, who once told me, 'We choose who we want to talk to, we know who is honest and who may not be honest.'"

Members of Bigombe’s family are always frightened for her. If they could, they would have talked her out of her work a long time ago. “Sometimes I do it at the expense of not informing them of what I’m doing, especially if it is very risky, and then I let them know later,” she said. Her family now simply prays for her.

She said they admonish her, “You are not the mother that you should be, you hardly spend time with us. Your extended family never see you, you hardly have time for us.”

Asked what keeps her going, sadness clouded her eyes as she replied, “Have you been to the camps [refugee camps established by the government for people displaced by the fighting] and seen all these people? I grew up in a very humble background, a very humble home, with just basics.

"But one of the most precious things I had - which I see children in this area are totally deprived of - was the ability to go home. You see the conditions in the camps and you feel you should give back to these people. That’s what keeps me going.”

Bigombe has been very clear and consistent in her views on the intervention in northern Uganda's war by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC made legal history last October when it issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four other LRA leaders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

She said that in principle the ICC intervention is good, but that its timing is wrong. It becomes more difficult for her to talk meaningfully and constructively to the LRA leaders when they know they are being hunted down to be locked up behind bars in Europe.

Bigombe said the mere issuing of arrest warrants would not end the war - peace can only be achieved with the active involvement of those very LRA leaders the ICC seeks to prosecute.

“They [the ICC prosecutors] should have waited," she said. "It would not have cost them much to wait for two years to give this [indigenous] process a chance."

Her lowest moment since returning to Uganda came at the beginning of 2005 when a ceasefire agreement between the government and the LRA had been hammered out and talks were definitely on the agenda.

President Museveni had accepted the draft ceasefire document Bigombe had presented to him. But the peace initiative fell apart after Brigadier Sam Kolo, the LRA's chief negotiator and spokesman, surrendered to the government.

All trust collapsed. Joseph Kony continued to talk to Bigombe, but she felt she had to begin building confidence all over again. “When you see something getting close and then falling apart, it is very disheartening,” she said.

Bigombe said the Acholi people are desperate for peace. “I remember vividly people celebrating so much [in December 2004 and early 2005] when they all felt they were going home because the war was finished," she said. "Children started staying home [instead of going to night shelters for protection against rebel raids] and I remember driving from Kitgum, on the Sudan border, at night and people were burning bonfires, just celebrating and waving feverishly at us that the war was finished.

"And then when you know that you cannot deliver that, it is heartbreaking."

Bigombe has barely any free time. She holds meetings from early in the morning until ten at night. Her only relaxation is running. “I run from about quarter to five in the morning for one hour and 15 minutes. I run 11 kilometres and then I exercise a little bit to keep fit,” she said.

Bigombe, who has won several humanitarian awards for her peace efforts, said, “Mediating peace talks is like wooing a woman, which requires changes of tactics each time you meet. Sometimes I feel I am a punchbag because both sides are blaming me, but I am not about to give up.”

In her efforts, she has won the support of many northern community leaders who favour an amnesty for the rebels and traditional methods of reconciliation.

Gulu's Roman Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama, a leading member of the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative, said, "We do not question the existence of the ICC or its principles. However, we feel that the presence of the court here, and its activities, are in danger of jeopardising efforts to build the rebels' confidence in peace talks."

Odama said the ICC's methods will achieve neither justice nor peace because its activities negated the government's standing offer of amnesty to any LRA fighter who denounces the rebellion.

"How can we tell the LRA soldiers to come out of the bush and receive amnesty when at the same time the threat of arrest by the ICC hangs over their heads?" he asked. "These warrants are blocking the Bigombe peace initiative."

Bigombe confirmed Archbishop Odama's opinion that the ICC indictments against Kony and his top commanders make their surrender impossible. However, she still believes other commanders and many child soldiers can be lured away by the right set of government incentives. "My door for a peaceful solution is still open to those not indicted by the ICC," she said.

“I am selling to them what government can do for them - rehabilitation, reconciliation and economic reintegration,” she told IWPR. "I want everybody to have justice and peace. That’s what I want to be remembered for - that I have been able to bring peace so that children can go to school, so that development can start, so that those who have been fighting can become productive members of the community."

Apolo Kakaire is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.