UGANDA: Optimism prevails, despite setback in peace talks

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Josephine Akello had hoped the peace talks between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) would finally end with rebel leader Joseph Kony signing a peace accord on 10 April.

Then she heard that the elusive Kony had failed to show up at a much-publicised signing ceremony due in Ri-Kwangba, near the border between Southern Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"We all waited anxiously and hopefully that at last Kony will sign, but what came out gives me a lot of fear," she told IRIN from Unyama near Gulu.

Violence, she added, could resume in northern Uganda, where thousands have been killed, almost two million displaced from their homes and an estimated 25,000 children abducted in more than two decades of war between government troops and the rebels.

Ugandan officials, diplomats, observers and reporters spent a day in the bush waiting for Kony, only to be told the rebel leader wanted some more clarifications before he could sign.

"He said he is still committed to the peace process," the talks’ mediator and Southern Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar told reporters in the capital, Juba. Machar had spent some time trying to contact Kony, but failed.

In the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the head of the government delegation tried to put a positive spin on the latest setback in talks that have lasted two years and cost millions of dollars.

"Government is committed to a negotiated settlement of the conflict and continued peace in northern Uganda," Ruhakana Rugunda, who is also Internal Affairs Minister, told IRIN. "Kony should come and take advantage of this gesture."

The government, he added, was waiting for a report from the mediators, who were still trying to establish contact with Kony before deciding the way forward.

But days earlier, President Yoweri Museveni had hinted that his military could resume hostilities against the LRA. "Kony is the one now to blame for the failure to end hostilities as scheduled; he has once again told the whole world that he is not interested in peace," he said on a visit to Juba on 14 April.

ICC charges

Diplomats in Juba say Kony is scared he will be arrested and handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) where he would face charges of crimes against humanity, rape and war crimes. "He wants reassurances that he would be safe," one diplomat said.

The court prepared indictments in 2005 against five LRA leaders, at the request of the Ugandan government. However, the government has since backtracked, saying the rebel leaders can be subjected to traditional justice instead. The ICC insists the charges stand.

"We can save him because we are the ones who sought assistance from the ICC," Museveni told reporters in London recently. "Because he was not under our jurisdiction, we sought assistance from the ICC. If he signs the peace agreement and returns to our jurisdiction, it becomes our responsibility, not any other party's, including the ICC."

Locals in northern Uganda, who have enjoyed relative peace since the talks began, say they would forgive the rebel leader. They largely believe the ICC indictments should be lifted so he can come home.

"The ICC was the impediment to the final agreement," Odoki Lamaka, commandant of Unyama camp for internally displaced persons in Gulu, said. "It is now the ICC that is between us and peace."

Herron Okello agreed: "We have been ready and we are still ready to forgive any wrongdoing against us but it seems the ICC is spoiling the party. We hear that Kony refused to sign because he fears the ICC."

Relative peace?

Humanitarian workers hope the situation in northern Uganda continues to be relatively peaceful. "The failure to sign the agreement has had no immediate negative impact on what we are doing. We hope that this continues because it is good for the people of northern Uganda," Kirsten Knutson, public information officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) in Kampala, said.

"The LRA has not been active in the region and we do not have any indication of a situation that could force us to prepare for the worst-case scenario," she added.

In a March situation report, however, OCHA noted incidents during the movement of LRA men from the DRC to the Central African Republic (CAR). The first was a raid on the village of Ezo between the DRC, CAR and Sudan on 16-17 March, in which the rebels reportedly abducted 20 people. The second involved looting at Nabiapai, 21km south of Yambio, on 22 March.

On 15 April, Machar told reporters the rebels had kidnapped 55 children in Southern Sudan in recent weeks. “I have reports that these youths have been abducted by the LRA. Why do they continue to do this and say they are still committed to the peace process?"

Aid workers say they have reports indicating the rebels are still active in parts of DRC, where they abducted 200 people last month. Overall, however, the Juba talks have contributed to marked improvements in security and significant returns by camp-based communities to their original homesteads within Acholi and Lango sub-region.

Studies conducted in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader – which, during the height of the insurgency, would witness tens of thousands of children walking into towns each night due to insecurity in outlying areas – indicate significantly fewer numbers of children coming to seek shelter in towns, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

OCHA's report noted that the last remaining camp for displaced people in Lango sub region – Olilim in Lira district – was officially de-gazetted in March, although several thousand people remain in former camps. In Gulu district, only 10 out of 64 schools has yet to return to their original sites while 33 out of 53 in neighbouring Amuru have returned.

A study carried out in 20 camps, however, indicated that 79 percent of displaced people still see security concerns as a constraint on their return home. The signing of a peace deal was cited by 46 percent while 30 percent were awaiting a government directive to go home.

"The people are going on with their work despite the disappointment," said Lamaka, referring to displaced civilians who have gone back to prepare their gardens now that the rainy season has begun.

Analysts say Kony is militarily weakened and is unlikely to again pose significant threat to peace in northern Uganda. "Unless he gets fresh support from somewhere, which is not very likely at the moment, he is too far from Uganda and military weak," a Kampala analyst said. "His best hope is to sign the accord and come out alive."

Source: IRIN