In-depth: Life in northern Uganda
UGANDA: Peace efforts
Ugandan army spokesman Shaban Bantariza says the LRA is difficult to track down
NAIROBI, 5 January 2004 (IRIN) - The frustrations of dialogue
Fr. Carlos Rodriguez, a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Gulu, spends less and less time attending to spiritual matters.
He is instead preoccupied with persuading the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group, to end its brutal war against civilians in his parishes. "There is nothing like standing in front of 50 people with weapons, while you are only armed with a cross and Bible," he says.
Rodriguez is one of a group of religious leaders in northern Uganda who have been searching for a peaceful end to the 17-year conflict. Despite his best efforts, attempts to find a non-military solution to the war have been frustrated by a combination of mistrust between the government and the rebels, dishonoured ceasefires, and an uncertain political will to end the war through dialogue.
Although high levels of insecurity have existed throughout northern Uganda since the rebellion first started, the current phase of the conflict has seen civilians suffer as never before.
An escalation in the conflict followed a March 2002 agreement between the governments of Uganda and Sudan allowing the UPDF to seek and destroy LRA rear bases in southern Sudan. Until that time, the LRA had been able to carry out raids just inside northern Uganda, before retreating back across the border into southern Sudan and out of reach of the Ugandan military.
However, the unwitting result of the anti-rebel offensive, code-named 'Operation Iron Fist', was to force LRA 'cells' from Sudan into Uganda, where they have since wreaked havoc, attacking civilian populations in villages and camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Towards the end of 2002, mediation efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. The LRA was showing signs that it was willing to start talks, and President Yoweri Museveni appointed a government peace team charged with conducting negotiations, and led by then first Deputy Prime Minister Eria Kategaya.
These positive developments reached their zenith in March 2003, with both sides declaring a limited ceasefire designed to pave the way for face-to-face talks.
The ceasefire lasted just a few days. In April 2003, Museveni retracted the limited ceasefire proposal he had extended to the rebels and ordered the resumption of full military operations, citing the LRA's "obstinate refusal to positively respond" to the UPDF limited cessation of operations in Lapul sub-county, Pader District.
Without a clear route to peace, religious leaders, local politicians and civil society groups are now asking the international community to step in to build confidence in the peace process.
Rodriguez told IRIN in July 2003 that the rebels now wanted a mechanism, overseen by the international community, which would guarantee their safety before they would come out of the bush to negotiate. "We are asking for a serious involvement of the international community. Without such involvement it will be difficult. It doesn't necessarily have to be military," Rodriguez said. "There is non-military intervention in the Middle East or even in Sudan. So why is the international community not intervening in northern Uganda?"
Baker Ochola, the retired Bishop of Kitgum, also called for international intervention. "This war has taken almost 18 years now. Both sides have gone on the offensive against each other. The people being targeted are the children, women and the elderly. This is why we feel there is a need for the international community to put pressure on the Ugandan government and Sudan in order to give a break to the people," he told IRIN.
According to diplomatic sources in Kampala, Museveni's government has agreed in principle to the appointment of a third-party facilitator, who would contact the rebels and assist in mediation. "The international community has adequate willingness to provide such a third party. But for the moment, we haven't done much," one such source told IRIN.
"The principle of third party mediation has to come from both sides. We have not heard anything from the rebels. The problem in third-party facilitation is that we need both parties to agree," the source added.
This apparent reluctance by the rebel group to come out and talk has at times been used by the Ugandan government as justification for pursuing a military solution to the conflict. The army says the rebels have cancelled meetings with religious leaders and brutally murdered peace emissaries sent to Kony.
Will Kony Negotiate?
Walter Ochora, the Gulu District council chairman, says Kony "has gone too far" to negotiate or surrender. "Kony as a person, unless he is cornered, will never accept to talk. Some of his commanders may come out, but what he is doing now has become a way of life. If he comes out now he knows he will not wield the kind of power he has now," Ochora told IRIN.
"It is only when the army destroyed his bases in Sudan, when the army began to intercept him, that Kony started sending signals that he wants to talk," he added. "The population was excited about the talks. The president decided to set up a peace team. Kony's message was even played on radio, but Kony was just buying time."
Those who are against a military solution to the conflict argue that the LRA, which is thought to consist of up to 90 percent abducted children, must be treated differently from other rebel groups. "These children are bitter with the society which failed to protect them. And we feel the government has no moral authority to pursue and kill the same people it failed to protect from abduction," one aid worker told IRIN.
But the loose structure of the LRA and its lack of a functioning political wing pose a major dilemma to those advocating dialogue. Many feel that if there is any negotiating to be done, Kony himself will have to come out of the bush to do it.
Future of the presidential peace team
Reagan Okumu, a member of the presidential peace team does not see a bright future for the team. Without any clear terms of reference, the team will continue to act as "window dressing", while the government continues on its military warpath, he says.
"We are supposed to initiate contact with the LRA and negotiate. But at the same time, the government is not showing commitment to peace. The language used by the government is bad; it is not a language for peace. The president himself has told us he does not believe in dialogue," Okumu adds.
In addition, he says, the government is not keen on financing the amnesty commission it had set up to encourage rebels to surrender their weapons. "The government is not serious about the commission," he argues. "It was only set up because of our lobbying but does not have enough money. The government has not made a deliberate effort to finance the commission."
Okumu is also frustrated by the rebel group's attitude, which he says is promoting the conflict and discouraging the peace process. "My biggest disappointment also is with the LRA. They are a difficult lot. Their methods are brutal. When the LRA goes around to kill the very people who have elected me, it discourages me. They are doing extremely negative things, the opposite of peace," he adds.
The only way forward, for Okumu, is an international force with a mandate, not only for peacekeeping, but also for the enforcement of peace. "International diplomatic pressure is enough to make Museveni act positively," he says. "But diplomatic pressure cannot make the LRA change. Kony needs military pressure before he can accept dialogue. Short of this, it will be extremely difficult."
Ugandan army spokesman Shaban Bantariza agrees with the idea of international facilitation, but not with any proposal for a peacekeeping force. "Our problem is not capacity, but we are dealing with a fluid enemy. An international force would just get caught up in the same mess," Bantariza told IRIN.
Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative
UPDF Operation Iron Fist