UGANDA-SUDAN: Worries over Otti’s whereabouts cast shadow on talks

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict in northern Uganda have gained momentum but uncertainty over the fate of a key rebel leader could hinder the process, observers said.

"[Vincent] Otti's death would be a body blow to the peace process - especially if he was killed by his boss Joseph Kony," said a political scientist with an international organisation in Juba, capital of South Sudan. "If he is still alive, then Kony needs to show him to the world quickly."

Southern Sudanese mediators in the on-and-off talks last talked to Otti, deputy leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) several weeks ago. Ugandan media have since quoted army officials as saying Otti was arrested in October and killed in early November.

On 22 November, the government-owned New Vision newspaper quoted LRA fighters who had surrendered as confirming Otti’s death. Despite the uncertainty, Sudanese mediators insist the talks will continue.

"We will go ahead, with or without him. The process cannot be stopped now," said Maj Gen Wilson Deng, chair of the cessation of hostilities monitoring team.

"Impact on the peace process? Not really," South Sudanese Vice-President, Riek Machar, told IRIN. "But I have no reason to doubt Kony’s word because he is on board and committed to the peace process," he said. "I am meeting [Kony] before the 6 December consultative meeting."

Asked about reports that former LRA rebels say Otti was killed in a gruesome manner, he added: "Probably when Otti was arrested - and given the nature of their organisation - they thought he was killed."

Ugandan officials were guarded about Otti's fate. "The impact would not be significant," Army spokesman Maj Felix Kulaigye said. "Whether the talks succeed or not, northern Uganda will have peace."

Observers and aid workers, however, say Otti's fate is vital to the ongoing process. "Kony had demonstrated a human side by allowing Otti to assume the face of the LRA since the talks began," the political scientist added.

"And Otti did not disappoint and was readily available for consultations with mediators and others. His death would cut that main bridge between the LRA and the world," he said.

Missing link

The talks aim to end more than two decades of the insurgency, which has displaced more than two million people from their homes. Since the process started in Juba in 2006, Otti had emerged as a moderate among the rebel ranks and has been the link between the mediators, northern Ugandan leaders and the rebels.

A core member of the LRA, he has also met former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland and UN envoy Joachim Chissano.

Otti was born in 1946 in northern Uganda's Gulu district and is one of five LRA leaders indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in June 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Talks are based on trust," an NGO source said in Juba said. "It took a long time for anybody to trust Kony. If indeed he killed Otti, it will destroy the confidence that the world had gained in Kony's desire to end the war peacefully."

However, Sudanese officials in Juba insist Otti is alive. "To the best of our knowledge, he is alive," Deng told IRIN in Juba - a view echoed by Machar.

"I talked to Joseph Kony a week ago and asked him about the rumours that Otti may be sick or in jail or dead," Machar said on 22 November. "In his words, his forces and the forces of his second-in-command had a conflict, but Otti is alive."

Kulaigye said Otti’s death "would be unfortunate for the talks because he is seen as a moderate".

But another South Sudanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, although he is involved in the talks, said they were becoming increasingly nervous and were now demanding to talk directly to Otti.

"We have told Kony to let us talk to him directly, to confirm that he is alive," the official said. "We would also like to see him in person before a consultative meeting that is due to be held in December."

Former LRA rebels say Kony and Otti enjoyed a good working relationship. "When I was in the bush such a rift between Kony and Otti never happened; now I don't know what could be happening between the two," Col Francis Oyat Lapaicho, a former commander, told reporters in Uganda.

"We hear that the split between Otti and Kony is as a result of the peace talks' money given by the government and donors," he added. "Sometimes Otti has been talking on Radio Mega in Gulu, so it could be that he has been making public statements on radio without the consent of Kony."

An NGO worker in Southern Sudan, who talked to Otti this year, said: "Unlike other LRA leaders, he was somebody you could try and talk to about the thousands of woman and children in captivity."

December talks

The meeting, which is being coordinated by various partners, including the South Sudan government and international agencies, is planned for a location near the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, where Kony has a hideout.

Touted as a consultative meeting to chart the way forward, it is expected to bring together hundreds of leaders from areas affected by the insurgency, as well as observers, mediators and other stakeholders.

It will also hear a report from an LRA peace team that has been touring Uganda to consult leaders, local people and victims of the conflict.

The team has, however, been dogged by questions about Otti's fate, with local leaders in northern Uganda and victims of the conflict demanding to know whether he is alive or not. The team has promised to visit Kony within two weeks to find out.

After the consultations in Uganda and the December meeting, Ugandan officials and the rebels are expected to return to Juba to prepare to resume talks.

"The reports from the consultations are very good – a prelude to further talks," David Gressly, UN Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan, said in Juba. "The process is not yet irreversible, but it is moving in the right direction."

The northern Uganda conflict started in 1986, when disgruntled local communities took up arms against President Yoweri Museveni’s government. The LRA later led the rebellion, using a strategy characterised by killings and rape and abduction of children as fighters and sex slaves.

Source: IRIN
See Also