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Ugandan Opposition to Visit LRA Lair

Politicians say they have a useful role to play in furthering the difficult peace process between the Ugandan government and the northern rebels.
By Samuel Okiror
The chief mediator in the on-off peace talks designed to end a two-decade insurgency by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has invited Ugandan opposition leaders to meet the guerrilla force’s commanders at their headquarters in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Riek Machar, the vice-president of the semi-autonomous South Sudan region, is refereeing the negotiations between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

He said he hoped the meeting would help build confidence and speed up the peace process.

Since negotiations got under way in July last year, northern Uganda has been largely peaceful, and people have slowly begun returning to their homes from the squalid refugee camps that until recently housed some 1.7 million villagers who had fled the fighting.

The talks, held in the South Sudan capital Juba, were adjourned three months ago, and a date for their resumption keeps being set back, with mid-October now cited as the earliest possible date for a return to the table.

Machar has invited a number of leaders and members of the major Ugandan opposition parties, who have long accused their government of shutting them out of negotiations with the LRA, to take part in the trip.

The flight into the Garamba National Park is being organised by the United Nations, through its special envoy to northern Uganda, former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano. The group is expected to fly into the 5,000 square kilometre park at the end of September or in early October.

The politicians will meet LRA leader Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti, and two other senior commanders, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo.

All four are the subjects of arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague on 33 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC warrants allege that in the course of northern Uganda’s two decade-long civil war, the four leaders "engaged in a cycle of violence and established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements."

The charge sheet further alleges that Kony and his men abducted children as fighters, porters and sex slaves for the LRA movement.

The rebel leaders moved into the Garamba park in late 2004 after leaving their former bases in southern Sudan.

Opposition leaders who spoke to IWPR were enthusiastic about their forthcoming trip. They believe their meeting with LRA commanders and negotiators will enable them to offer guidance and support that will in turn help the peace negotiations regain momentum.

Wafula Oguttu, spokesman for Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, said it was important for leaders from his party to go to Garamba because it is the dominant political force in the north, the focus of the LRA rebellion.

“We are willing to go to Garamba for the sake of peace, for our people who have suffered for the last 20 years,” he said.

John Ssebana Kizito, the leader of the Democratic Party who contested the 2006 presidential election, said, “The opposition has a role to play in these peace talks. Since we have been sidelined [from the Juba peace negotiations] by the government, we are happy to be invited to the Garamba”

“We are going to spice up the talks by giving morale to the rebels. We shall also find out the gaps that are delaying the peace negotiations.”

The Democratic Party holds eight of the 289 seats in Uganda’s parliament.

John Ken Lukamuzi, leader of the Conservative Party, which has only one seat in parliament, said his party had always favoured negotiations.

“While they [the Museveni government] chose the option of the gun, we didn’t. In 2003, I moved a motion in parliament urging government to hold peace talks with the rebels. Consequently, the CP is obliged to participate in the Garamba talks,” he said.

The Uganda People’s Congress, UPC, has its traditional heartland in the north of the country. The UPC dominated Ugandan politics from independence in 1962 until 1971 when President Milton Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin. It is now led by the late president’s widow Miria Obote and has nine seats in parliament.

UPC secretary general Peter Walubiri said opposition leaders ought to be part of the Juba peace negotiations given their local knowledge.

“Our direct involvement in Juba would speed up the peace process and the signing of the comprehensive agreement,” he said. “Some of us know more about this issue than the government’s chief negotiators and would be [good for] such resourceful persons to be involved in the talks.”

Uganda’s chief negotiator at the talks, Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, represents a parliamentary constituency in the far southwest of Uganda. The ethnic and cultural divide between north and south has been a major factor in post-independence Ugandan politics.

Most of the opposition leaders interview by IWPR felt that the ICC’s intention to prosecute Kony and his lieutenants were a stumbling block to peace, and wanted to see the arrest warrants dropped.

“FDC doesn’t want ICC,” said the party’s leader Oguttu. “We as a party don’t believe in The Hague. We want truth and reconciliation.”

Lukamuzi described the ICC arrest warrants as “a big impediment to the Juba peace talks”.

“They should be dropped,” he said.

The UPC’s Walubiri agreed, adding, “We prefer the rebels to be tried using local traditional justice systems. We also want a Ugandan truth and reconciliation commission to be formed to handle issues of accountability and reconciliation, both with regard to the northern conflict and other less publicised wars in the country.”

Walubiri alleged that the Ugandan government and the ICC had conspired to indict only LRA commanders while exonerating the Ugandan People’s Defence Force, UPDF.

“Both the LRA and the UPDF have committed atrocities in northern Uganda in the course of the war,” he said. “The government rushed to the ICC to cover up its own atrocities. This is nothing but a conspiracy.”

All the opposition leaders were strongly opposed to an agreement that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and Joseph Kabila, president of DRC, reached in September to launch a joint military drive to clear the LRA out of Garamba by mid-December.

The LRA reacted to the news with a furious threat to resume hostilities. “Any attack on our military positions… shall be treated strictly as a declaration of war,” said its spokesman Godfrey Ayoo.

Ugandan opposition politicians warned that if the Museveni-Kabila deal is implemented, it will inevitably mean a resumption of the civil war, which has claimed some 100,000 lives and seen the abduction of an estimated 38,000 minors to fight as guerrilla soldiers.

“The Museveni-Kabila agreement disturbs us so much,” said FDC spokesman Oguttu. “If Uganda and DR Congo go ahead and attack LRA in Garamba, this will lead to the resumption of war in northern Uganda. This will definitely be a major blow to the peace talks.

“Museveni is clearly not after a peaceful means of ending this war. He wants to be a military conqueror. However, this rebellion can’t be solved through a military approach as he [Museveni] has tried it for the last 20 years and failed. The only solution to this insurgency is through peace negotiations.”

Lukamuzi commented, “The [Museveni-Kabila] agreement was miscalculated. They are squeezing LRA too much. Government chose dialogue with the rebels in Juba, so let’s go on with dialogue and not jump back again into a military approach with Kabila.”

The government’s chief negotiator, Interior Minister Rugunda, defended the Museveni-Kabila agreement, saying it was in line with the terms of the Juba peace process. He pointed out that under current ceasefire arrangements, the LRA’s guerrillas are required to assemble in the South Sudan border village of Ri-Kwangba, not in DRC.

“The agreement will improve the security of the region,” he told IWPR. “It will further increase impetus to the peace process in Juba by telling the LRA to respect the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which involves moving to Ri-Kwangba.

“The LRA doesn’t have any business to do in Garamba. They should respect the agreement they signed.”

Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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