Deciding peace & justice in Northern Uganda – ISN

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Ugandan government and  brutal LRA looking end a twenty-year conflict?

By Simon Roughneen in Nairobi


People made homeless by LRA attacks queue for NGO ration cards (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Two weeks ago, the reclusive leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) gave an unprecedented television interview from an undisclosed location in the Congolese jungle, close to the border with Sudan and Uganda. Joseph Kony denied charges leveled against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has indicted him and four other LRA members for crimes against humanity and war crimes, saying “How can I kill the eye of my brother?”

Kony’s budding openness to the outside world has had ramifications beyond media interviews. Even though they have been postponed, peace talks were set to begin 12 July between an LRA delegation and the Ugandan government in the southern Sudanese town of Juba. The talks, if they had happened, would have been hosted by the former Sudanese rebel group known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), under their current role as the lead member of the regional Government of South Sudan (GoSS).

Whatever the catalyst for the new-found willingness of both sides to attempt to forge a deal, the two-decade-long conflict has left a legacy of abduction, death, displacement and failed peacemaking attempts that will occlude the latest process. A simmering dispute between the ICC and the Ugandan government may also have an impact, with the ICC stating that the Ugandans cannot override the indictments with a contradictory amnesty and political process. The Ugandan government sees its legal and political decision-making as a prerogative of national sovereignty.

Northern Uganda’s haunting terrorism

There have been 14 insurgencies in northern Uganda since President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) – a mixture of western Ugandans and descendants from Rwandan refugees – took control of Kampala and drove northward into a region mainly populated by Kony’s Acholi people and the nomadic-pastoralist Karomajong.

The LRA’s atavistic and brutal insurgency is the most recent and longest lasting of these, dating since 1987. Fears among northerners of marginalization by western Ugandans initially made rebellion legitimate to locals. However, the LRA’s elemental cruelty and enigmatic political agenda caused whatever ethnic or regional support for Kony to dissipate. Cause and effect are hard to pinpoint, but in 1991-1992 Acholis formed civil defense units and fought the LRA. Since then, the LRA has exercised unremitting brutality in its attacks on northern Ugandan villages.

However, the LRA, despite its elemental reputation, cannot be discounted as a mere eccentric gang of thugs. Lacking any natural resources such as diamonds or coltan, a mineral used in cell phones and computer chips which has funded rebels elsewhere, it has sustained itself militarily for two decades by living off the land. It has used cruel forms of terrorism, strategic alliances with foreign governments, loose state structures in neighboring countries, and varying its tactics to evade government soldiers.

In the recent BBC interview, Kony described how spirits guided him in the bush, but described his rebellion as political, saying: “We are fighting for freedom.” Kony sees himself as partly a spirit-led Acholi liberator, but seems now to regard himself as defending the rights of all Ugandans against the NRM government – possibly a veiled reference to Museveni’s alteration of the 1995 constitution to allow him to run for a third presidential term, which he succeeded in by winning March presidential elections.

According to former fighters and escaped abductees, Kony employs mysticism as a military tactic, invoking spirits to help and protect his fighters. The tactic aids the LRA by making fighters believe that they are invincible, and convinces opponents that this is true. Children were and are favored as recruits as they are malleable – they learn from commanders easily, and are often forced to kill in their own communities to make escape less of an option.

Given that Acholis and northerners have been the main victims of the LRA, deciphering any clear political or ethnic agenda has been difficult, not least given the eccentric nature of the LRA leader and the cruelty by which it operates. Over 20,000 children have been abducted into the rebel army, as soldiers, workers and “wives,” or sex slaves.

Visiting northern Uganda in April, ISN Security Watch spoke to people in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Pader District. Maureen, now 23, was abducted by the LRA when she was 14. She told ISN Security Watch: “I escaped from the rebels three years ago, I returned to my village. It was empty.” She found her remaining family at an IDP camp some 30 kilometers from her homestead. Her journey was made all the more arduous by her fellow travelers – the three young children she bore while held as what she calls “a wife, a bush wife” by the LRA.

The price of peace

It is stories such as these that the ICC heard while conducting investigations in northern Uganda in 2004 and 2005. This led to the indictments of Kony, second-in-command Vincent Otti and three others. The ICC summoned Kony to make a formal response to the war crimes charges hours after the BBC interview in which the LRA leader protested his innocence. ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has offered Kony safe passage to The Hague.

However, President Yoweri Museveni has promised to grant LRA leader Joseph Kony amnesty if he gave up what he described as “terrorism” by the end of July. In response, an LRA spokesman described the offer as “redundant,” stating that all parties needed to be equal at negotiations. This position was since contradicted by Otti, who said the amnesty offer remained on the table.

In an interview with a UN news service, Moreno-Ocampo said: “We are a prosecutor’s office. We cannot make any comment on how the president of Uganda executes his mandate. What we know is that Uganda helped to carry out our investigations. We collected evidence showing how the LRA systematically attacked civilians, abducted children to use them as soldiers or as sex slaves. We even have evidence that Joseph Kony himself has been raping girls. We will show all this during the trial. We believe that the best way to finally stop the conflict after 19 years is to arrest the top leaders.”

David Smock of the United Sates Institute for Peace (USIP) told ISN Security Watch: “If Kony is offered and agrees to amnesty and safe return to Uganda, this will be a serious blow to the ICC and its efforts to promote transnational justice. The LRA cases are among the few currently on the ICC docket. In recent months, the Ugandan government has only been willing to communicate with LRA leaders who are not indicted by the ICC. The possibility of amnesty being suggested by the Ugandans is an important new development and may be a recognition that this is the only possible deal that Kony might be willing to accept and in turn the only option to achieve peace, a price that might have to be paid despite its implications for the ICC.”

Southern Sudan’s role: enlightened self interest?

This peace initiative has been driven by the GoSS, particularly Riek Machar, a former rebel leader in south Sudan and GoSS vice president. During the Sudanese wars, Machar switched allegiances numerous times, taking his mainly ethnic Nuer militias into the pay of the Sudanese government for a time, and fighting the Dinka-dominated SPLM/A before realigning with southerners.

In recent months, the LRA has been suspected of numerous attacks in south Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including an attack on a UN compound in Sudan and the murder of eight Guatemalan members of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC.

The Sudanese aspect of the northern Uganda conflict goes back a long way, and explains at least a part of the latest peace venture.

Diaspora northerners attempted to act as the LRA’s political front in the 1990s, before falling out with or being intimidated by Kony when meetings took place. At the time, the LRA was firmly in alliance with the Sudanese government, who used it as a proxy force against the Ugandan government. The latter supported the southern Sudanese SPLM/A, then involved in a decade-long conflict with Khartoum which would cost two million lives by its end in January 2005. At times, the LRA was better equipped than Uganda’s armed forces (the United Peoples Defense Force, UPDF), due to Sudanese support. It lived off the land, raiding farms and villages for supplies and people.

Machar is known to have given the LRA US$20,000 for food and living expenses, believed to be a tacit pay-off to forestall continued LRA attacks in south Sudan. While this is ostensibly a shaky foundation upon which to start a peace process, there may be grounds for optimism.

The USIPs Smock believes the peacemaking effort is genuine and that “both GoU and LRA seem to be taking [it] seriously. However, it is also most understandably an effort by GoSS to reduce the violence in southern Sudan and to get the LRA out of the south.”

Still, Smock acknowledges: “The payment by GoSS of US$20,000 to the LRA as a partial inducement to participate is troubling.”

The GoSS has an enormous task ahead to build infrastructure from scratch in vast and war-devastated southern Sudan. With many aspects of the January 2005 peace agreement with Khartoum falling behind schedule, the GoSS may feel it is in its best interests to stabilize its southern neighbor – and to ensure that the LRA does not remain a threat to southern Sudan.

Old news, new prospects

Peace talks have been attempted a dozen times since the LRA rebellion broke out in 1987. Negotiations in the early 1990s led by then-Minister for the Pacification of the North Betty Bigombe failed, as the LRA had recourse to Sudan for rearming, and Museveni imposed seven-day deadlines for talks.

In 2000, the first Amnesty Act was introduced after lobbying by Acholi religious leaders, which gave a blanket amnesty to all fighters who returned from the bush. To date, 10,000 former LRA fighters have taken advantage of the deal. However, in 2002, the government launched Operation Iron Fist, which sought to drive the LRA out of southern Sudan. Massive civilian displacement, renewed violence and LRA abductions occurred. As fighters took advantage of the amnesty and fled the LRA, it recruited, usually coercively, thousands of children and fighters as replacements.

Kony and the LRA senior cadres felt they would have too much to lose by coming out of the bush. Acholi fighters were rounded up en masse by the Idi Amin government in 1971, so any amnesty offer is suspicious. Otti, Kony’s second in command, killed 200 people in his own village of Atiak, and reprisals by northerners by demobilized LRA fighters would be almost inevitable.

Now the LRA expects to enter into wide-ranging peace talks that would address what it sees as root causes of the conflict. The Ugandan government seems to have a much more pragmatic idea of what the talks could achieve; ending hostilities and LRA reintegration via the new amnesty. The south Sudanese government has not yet put forward a framework for the talks, and it is not clear whether both sides will have established clear negotiating positions, or that effective parameters for talks will be set.

In recent weeks, LRA spokesmen have stated their belief that the Ugandan government was responsible for forcing people into vast IDP camps in northern Uganda. Almost two million people remain displaced across the region, but since re-election, President Museveni has promoted return where possible to villages for the displaced. Even establishing the basic meaning and understanding behind the talks is proving difficult, as seen in the LRA response to the amnesty offer and its implication that the LRA cause is illegitimate.

If the talks fail – as they most likely would if rushed – the ensuing distrust may be insurmountable on both sides and lead to more violence and displacement. There seems to be some acknowledgement of this by parties involved. In a departure from the narrow deadlines set for previous talks, President Museveni extended the deadline for an agreement to be reached from 31 July to 12 September. It seems though that the LRA leadership will not attend the Juba talks, if they go ahead. Machar returned to Juba last night after spending days with the LRA at their Congolese hideout.’

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