Ugandan Rebels Cleared of Sudan Attacks

Many other questions hang over final signing of a peace deal.

Ugandan Rebels Cleared of Sudan Attacks

Many other questions hang over final signing of a peace deal.

Thursday, 27 March, 2008
Officials in South Sudan say rogue paramilitaries left over from the country’s civil war, not Ugandan rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, are to blame for recent attacks on civilians in the region.

The announcement will come as a relief to all sides as they await the final signing of a peace deal reached between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, last month in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Officials said at least 14 suspects had been captured and were in the custody of the autonomous region’s military, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, and more were expected to be rounded up.

They said none of the men appeared to be LRA members, and they were of South Sudanese rather than Ugandan ethnic origin.

The arrests seem to absolve the Ugandan rebel movement of responsibility for a bout of raiding in South Sudan last month in which at least five villagers were killed, about 50 people abducted and property looted.

Suspicions that the LRA forces were behind the attacks led to allegations that the rebels were not really committed to the ongoing peace negotiations with the Ugandan government, and were flouting a permanent ceasefire signed last month. South Sudan has played host to the talks since they began a year and a half ago.

The South Sudanese authorities made it clear that it was not, as many had assumed, the LRA who were to blame, but renegade combatants from Sudan’s own long civil war, which ended in a peace and autonomy agreement in 2005

South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir told reporters last week, “There are some SPLA elements and armed civilians who organise themselves to loot and disrupt civilian lives in the villages in the name of the LRA.”

Kiir said he was convinced that the raiders were masquerading as Ugandan rebels by the fact that they looted alcohol and cigarettes, both of which are forbidden to LRA fighters.

“The attackers looted… alcoholic drinks and packets of cigarettes from the markets they disrupted in Kajo-Keji County, drank all the alcohol and smoked the cigarettes – a practice that is not in the constitution of the LRA,” he said.

Kiir’s vice-president, Riek Machar, who was instrumental in bringing the LRA and the Ugandan authorities to the negotiating table, said the attacks were carried out by a group calling itself “No Unit”, consisting of former guerrillas who were never integrated into the SPLA.

The investigation which revealed the raiders’ identity was carried out by SPLA commander Wilson Deng, who is responsible for monitoring LRA compliance with the terms of the peace deal, under which rebel combatants are supposed to gather at a designated assembly in Western Equatoria Province, near South Sudan’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The identification of the attackers as renegade combatants from Sudan’s own long civil war, which ended in a peace and autonomy agreement in 2005, adds credibility to the LRA’s pledge to stick by provisions of its peace deal with the Ugandan government.

South Sudan officials are hopeful that the peace deal will be signed soon, since that will allow them to focus on better security in their country without having to worry about the presence of a Ugandan guerrilla group as well.

Kiir said he is urging Machar, the chief mediator in the peace process, to “speed up the negotiations” in anticipation of a signing event by the end of this month.

Once the document is signed, the LRA will have one month to demobilise and disarm its armed forces in South Sudan, turning members over to SPLA control for transport back to Uganda.

At that point, Kiir explained, “we can easily identify elements who threaten our civilians”.

But others in South Sudan who have been close to the situation insist that the LRA is responsible.

Zamba Duku, a senior official in Central Equatoria Province, insisted that attacks on the villages of Kajo-Keji and Lainya had to be the work of LRA rebels since no other paramilitary groups remained in the area.

“There are no more militias terrorising our villages except the LRA, who are threatening our citizens from returning home from the internally displaced camps that ran… during the civil war in the Sudan,” Duku told IWPR.

County Commissioner Oliver Mule, of Kajo-Keji, agreed. He said that people abducted and later released claimed their attackers spoke Acholi, the language of northern Uganda, although others were speaking simple Arabic and Kiswahili.

Some have speculated that the raiders were in fact a mixed group of rogue elements from both LRA and South Sudanese forces.

The LRA has fairly deep roots in South Sudan, since it was received sanctuary and assistance for a dozen or more years from the government in Khartoum, which allowed it to mount operations into northern Uganda and also used it as a proxy force to fight the South Sudanese rebels.

The LRA is known to have incorporated some South Sudanese into its units.

Kiir, who is optimistic that a final settlement would be signed soon, said Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni assured him recently that he would fly to Juba to sign the deal personally.

That leaves one outstanding question – the intentions of LRA leader Joseph Kony.

“I need Riek Machar to also go and bring the LRA leader Joseph Kony to Juba so that he can come and sign the peace agreement in order to end the hostilities that exist between them,” said Kiir.

But whether Kony will sign the agreement remains in doubt.

Representatives of the LRA, including its top negotiator, David Matsanga, were in The Hague last week, meeting officials from the International Criminal Court, ICC.

Matsanga and lawyers representing Kony want the ICC to drop its indictments against Kony and his top associates, on the grounds that an international trial would be redundant because the Ugandan government has agreed to set up a special court to try LRA leaders for crimes committed during the 20-year war.

Kony has said he will not sign the peace agreement unless the ICC withdraws the charges.

The ICC, however, has rebuffed that request. The LRA delegation was told by ICC senior legal advisor Phakiso Mochochoko that it had misconceptions about the court’s procedures and that the ICC arrest warrants would remain in place.

“The LRA and government of Uganda are pursuing a political process, but the ICC is pursuing a legal process,” Mochochoko told IWPR. “As far as the ICC is concerned, the arrest warrants remain valid and enforceable, and the expectation from the court is that the government of Uganda should enforce them”

It remains unclear whether keeping the ICC warrants in place will prevent a final peace deal being signed in Juba.

Hamid Taban is an IWPR contributor in South Sudan. Peter Eichstaedt is Africa Editor for IWPR.

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