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Ugandan Peace Talks Stall

As Kampala blocks a mission to meet the Ugandan rebels in their stronghold, military forces are poised to push them out of the Congo.
By Samuel Okiror
Recent political and military developments have made the prospect of renewed talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army increasingly remote.

The Ugandan authorities have warned negotiators not to go and meet rebel commander Joseph Kony at his base in the Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, citing fragile security at the jungle camp.

The travel ban comes just weeks before a January 31 deadline which Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has set for signing a peace deal. Museveni also says the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, must abandon its jungle hideout or else face attack by Congolese and United Nations forces already poised in the region.

The threat of military action against Kony comes in the wake of a September 2007 agreement between Museveni and DRC president Joseph Kabila, and statements by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Kony should leave the Congo and make peace.

Although armed action against Kony could sabotage the peace talks which have continued since July 2006, it could also trigger a violent response from his rebel force, perhaps even a renewal of war in northern Uganda.

Regardless of the risks, Ugandan army officials say the planned offensive by their colleagues in DRC is in line with an agreement reached in the Juba peace talks in August 2006 that required the LRA’s guerrillas to assemble at Ri-Kwangba in South Sudan, not in the Garamba park.

“We have signed an agreement with Congo government to flush out the LRA rebels from Garamba forests. The operations will be done by Congo and [UN] MONUC forces,” Ugandan army captain Paddy Ankunda told IWPR.

“According to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement [CHA], the LRA are supposed to be in Ri-Kwangba, not in Garamba. But the LRA have continued to violate the agreement. The joint operations will be in line with the CHA and will reinforce the Juba peace process”

The move appears to have the backing of the United States.

Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, hinted at American support during a meeting with Museveni last year in Kampala. Although she did not specifically mention the LRA, Frazer said the US government was “very concerned about the situation in the eastern Congo, and we are working to ensure that the security situation improves”.

At the time, Uganda and DRC were attempting to settle a military clash over oil drilling in Lake Albert, which both countries share.

The travel ban issued by Kampala comes on the eve of a planned visit by some 400 or 500 people from Uganda to meet with Kony on the South Sudan-Congo border.

“At the moment, we are not sure of what would happen to anyone who travels to meet Joseph Kony,” said Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for international affairs, who had been named as deputy head of the peace mission prior to the ban.

Okello said his government was worried about the safety of its citizens because of the unpredictability of Kony, not least the reports that he killed his own second-in-command, Vincent Otti, in October 2007.

“The government will not allow any Ugandan to travel to Garamba until LRA gives a clear and proper explanation [of the] circumstances that led to execution of Vincent Otti,” Okello told IWPR. “Those who will go against our advice are going at their risks as government can’t guarantee their safety and security.”

Okello said Kony’s call for some 500 people to meet him in Garamba was designed to delay signing a peace agreement.

“It’s very unfortunate. This issue [trip] is misplaced and intended to delay the peace process,” he said.

Meanwhile, a number of people who had initially planned to make the trek to Garamba have cancelled.

The Anglican bishop of northern Uganda, Nelson Onono Onweng, dismissed the need for any further meetings with Kony in the bush.

“There is no need to think and waste time to go to Garamba. Even if I was given 5,000 dollars, I wouldn’t go,” Onono told IWPR in an interview.

“What should people go and do in the bush? There is no need to go there. The LRA delegation came here, consulted and we gave them our views. Let them go and brief Kony and return to the negotiating table in Juba to complete the peace talks.”

Bishop Onono said Kony may have called for the massive meeting because he no longer trusted his own negotiating team, which is lead by Martin Ojul.

Ojul is reportedly in Juba and has been unable to meet Kony. Attempts by IWPR to reach Ojul for comment failed.

“I am suspicious, and begin to have a feeling that his delegation seems to be at a loss,” said Bishop Onono. “Kony seems to have lost trust in his delegation. Since they completed their consultations [in Uganda] three weeks ago, they have not reported to him.”

Other officials from the north have also cancelled, saying they would be risking their lives if they went on the trip.

“Personally, I will not go. It’s too risky and I wouldn’t advise the people to go. For those who will go, who will guarantee their security and safety?” said Gulu Resident District Commissioner, Walter Ochora.

“It’s useless for 400-500 to visit Kony [when] his delegation just recently completed consultations in Uganda. The LRA delegation should talk to Kony and return to Juba [rather] than wasting time trying to fly 400 people to meet Kony.”

In the northern Ugandan town of Lira, district commissioner Franco Ojur accused the LRA negotiating team of dragging out the talks merely so that money assigned to cover their costs would keep flowing.

“I am not going to lead any delegation to Garamba to do nothing,” said Ojur. “There is nothing to do in Garamba any more.

“If Kony just wants to see the people, let him come out of the bush and meet us here in Lango. There is no point for us to go to Garamba. I am not going to risk to take people there.”

However, Santa Okot, a member of the LRA delegation, defended the trip, arguing that it was intended to build confidence.

“The meeting is very necessary for confidence building as it draws leaders from South Sudan, northern Uganda, international observers and Ugandans in the diaspora,” explained Okot. “It‘s going to be helpful as there will be face-to-face discussions between Kony and the delegates.”

Okot said predicted that some delegation members would defy the government’s ban.

“If government wants to block people from travelling, they can go ahead,” she said, adding that this would not hamper those who wanted to go.

The trip is being sponsored by the government of South Sudan, which is mediating the talks in Juba, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army is to provide security for the delegates, she said said.

Okot said a peace agreement could be reached by March.

“By March, the peace agreement will be signed,” she told IWPR. “After meeting Kony, and the planned meeting of 400 people, we shall return to Juba and finish the two remaining items on ceasefire and disarmament, demobilisation and integration of rebels before we sign a final deal.”

The LRA rebellion has lasted 21 years and seen at least 100,000 people die and 1.7 million others become internal refugees.

After the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for the LRA’s top commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the guerrillas retreated to the remote northeast corner of DRC.

Kony has exerted his control over the talks from his camp. No date has been set either for the planned meeting between him and his delegation, or for the resumption of peace talks.

Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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