UGANDA: Rebel commander's defection “a boon” to peace
A resident who was mutilated in an LRA attack (file photo): The LRA are accused of mass murder, rape and pillage in northern Uganda, the DRC and Southern Sudan
KAMPALA, 30 January 2009 (IRIN) - The reported defection of a senior rebel commander could revive hopes of a peaceful end to a regional conflict in which hundreds have recently died and thousands fled their homes, a leading cleric in northern Uganda said.
Okot Odhiambo, second-in-command of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), contacted the International Organization for Migration (IOM
) to announce his defection.
"We are coordinating with the Ugandan government and the UPDF [Uganda People's Defence Force]; I can confirm that he has defected," Jeremy Haslam, IOM's head of office in Uganda, told IRIN.
The IOM, he added, was now negotiating Odhiambo's safe passage from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Uganda.
"I have heard about the intended surrender; the treatment he gets will play a big role for similar moves by [other] rebel commanders in future," Gulu Catholic Archbishop, John Baptist Odama, told IRIN on 30 January.
"This must be the time where mercy triumphs over other convictions to build true reconciliation. Let him be handled like someone who has surrendered," said the cleric, who has been involved in various efforts to peacefully end more than two decades of war between the LRA and the Ugandan government.
Odama said he hoped the surrender would lead to the conclusion of a peace process through a signed agreement, and ease an ongoing military offensive in eastern DRC.
"When he comes out, he should convince his boss [LRA leader, Joseph Kony] to come and sign [a peace agreement] instead of resorting to war," Odama told IRIN. "War generates hatred, revenge and other evils. We think that it will be of no use for the government to go on with an outright military offensive with its consequent loss of lives."
The LRA have been flushed out of their bases in the Garamba National Park, north-eastern DRC, but have split into smaller groups. These are now accused of mass murder, rape and pillage in DRC and Southern Sudan.
They have also abducted children and driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. On 27 January, the UN reported an attack by 13 suspected LRA rebels on the remote village of Tora in which at least 100 civilians were killed.
The LRA have been particularly vicious since December when Uganda launched an offensive against them, with the support of the DRC and Southern Sudan armies. This "poorly executed" offensive provoked a wave of "retaliatory" massacres, according to Enough Project, an international think-tank.
The Ugandan army said military pressure from the three armies had started yielding results and that the surrender would weaken the LRA military command. "If he surrenders, Kony will be isolated because Odhiambo was one of his field men who were running around," spokesman Maj Felix Kulaigye said.
Walter Ochora, Gulu district commissioner, said the surrender "would mean the LRA has been surprisingly weakened and that it is on its death bed, which can only be good news for the people of northern Uganda".
Others had different opinions, however. "[The defection] will be the only obvious positive contribution of ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ instead of what we have heard since it was launched," said Kalule Kawooya, a lawyer in Kampala.
Opposition leader Ogenga Latigo doubted reports of Odhiambo's defection. "If he really comes out, it will mean there are some dissenting voices [developing] in the LRA, opposed to the strategy of Kony, and it will signal the beginning of the end to the LRA. I still have my doubts that this is true."
Odhiambo is one of five LRA commanders indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005. Two have since died, including Vincent Otti, Odhiambo’s predecessor, who was reportedly killed on the orders of Kony in 2008.
The rebels agreed to a truce with the government in 2006 and entered into peace negotiations, but the process has been stalled, with Kony insisting the ICC warrants must be dropped before he signs a final agreement.