The government of Uganda and the rebel Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF-II) signed a formal ceasefire agreement in Kuru sub-county, Yumbe District, northwestern Uganda on Saturday, with the aim of paving the way for political dialogue in the West Nile region.
Minister for Internal Affairs Eriya Kategaya, for the government, and the UNRF-II chairman, Maj-Gen Ali Bamuze, signed the peace agreement in which the parties said they would "mutually and unequivocally" to stop all forms of hostility and belligerence, according to local media.
The agreement followed dialogue between the two sides since 1998 and the announcement in January 2001 of a general amnesty for those rebels who renounced rebellion and surrendered to the Ugandan authorities.
UNRF-II was formed in 1996, after breaking from the West Bank Nile Front (also based in the northwest and predominantly Muslim), to fight the government of President Yoweri Museveni, and led by Bamuze - a former Ugandan army soldier of the deposed dictator Idi Amin, according to a report on major armed opposition groups in the Great Lakes region commissioned by the Forum for Early Warning and Early Response. [www.fewer.org/]
The Ugandan army spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza, said in April that UNRF-II largely consisted of ex-soldiers of Idi Amin's regime, which was overthrown in 1979, and who subsequently fought Museveni's government before eventually being "flushed out" of Uganda in 1997.
In the past, the rebel group has abducted civilians and attacked civilian targets, in common with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) - previously supported by the Sudanese government, in retaliation for Ugandan support extended to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).
Bamuze said at the weekend that he had started the rebellion because he and his people "had been hurt" in the past, but decided to abandon the fighting because of pressure from the elders and other stakeholders, and an olive branch extended to him by the government, the independent Monitor newspaper reported on Tuesday. "I have come out with my entire team and we shall put our [demands] on the table for discussion," he was quoted as saying.
Kategaya assured Bamuze and others at the signing of the peace deal, including Attorney-General Francis Ayume, that there would be "no tricks in the implementation of the peace process", the Monitor report stated.
A joint task force has been composed, comprising three representatives from UNRF-II and three from the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF), to ensure implementation of the agreement, including that the two parties carry out comprehensive documentation of personnel, arms and ammunition
in the possession of the rebel group.
The task force has also been mandated to oversee and coordinate the return of the UNRF II ex-combatants currently based in Juba and Khartoum in Sudan, and to facilitate the return of UNRF-II leaders overseas elsewhere, the Monitor reported.
Returning UNRF-II officers have also been undergoing sensitisation workshops in Yumbe, with inputs on law and order, the constitution and poverty reduction efforts from the ruling National Resistance Movement, Uganda Human Rights Commission, Uganda Amnesty Commission and the UPDF, according to sources in the north of the country.
The return to Uganda in early April of some 1,300 former UNRF-II rebels, who had been sheltering in exile in Sudan, has been generally seen in the context of improved diplomatic relations between the two countries as well as the Ugandan amnesty, regional analysts told IRIN.
By mid-April, some 2,500 UNRF-II fighters and their families had returned to Yumbe - the district in which they had previously been causing serious insecurity - to abandon fighting and negotiate peace with the government, local media reported.
The UNRF-II rebels had taken the chance to return when they realised that the UPDF was serious in its campaign against the LRA in southern Sudan (an operation it is undertaking with the blessing of the Sudanese government) and would hardly be likely to leave another rebel force operating in Sudan, according to Ugandan military sources.
The rebels camped at Koka in Yumbe after their return to Uganda, having previously been based at Roja, north of Kajo-Kaji, on the Sudanese border, according to The New Vision Ugandan government-owned newspaper in April.
Bantariza told IRIN in April that some of the UNRF-II soldiers were still in "good shape" and would be integrated into the Ugandan army. "We cannot do a wholesale integration into the army," he said. "Only some who are capable. A number of them are quite old, which makes them not good soldiers."
Critics of the government, especially from West Nile and Acholiland (the latter comprising Gulu, Pader and Kitgum districts), have argued that Kampala has been half-hearted in its commitment to its amnesty offer and shown greater urgency to pursue military means to end insurgency.
The Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative criticised the government in late May for sending the army to tackle the LRA in Sudan, saying it was against the spirit of the amnesty the government had offered rebels and dissidents, and seemed to have silenced anybody advocating dialogue and reconciliation.
The peace deal with the UNRF-II rebels may go some way, at least, to mitigating that criticism.
The challenge now, according to humanitarian workers, will be to set up rehabilitation centres in the north and west to help resettle those rebels who return, and to ensure at least some measure of social and economic development for these marginalised areas.