THERE is fear in Southern Sudan that the much-talked-about peace process in Uganda will end in failure. Northern Uganda has experienced 20 years of rebellion by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group led by Joseph Kony, which is blamed for the death of thousands and the displacement of two million people — mainly Kony’s own Acholi people.
Kony and four of his top commanders face indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the killing of civilians, abduction of children, sexual enslavement, rape, and other crimes.
Some political analysts felt that it was the warrant of arrest from the ICC that prompted the LRA to accept an initiative from the government of Southern Sudan to engage in peace talks with the government of Uganda. The talks began in Juba, Sudan, in 2006, and led to the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement the same year.
But, just as the peace talks were gaining momentum, the LRA withdrew, accusing the chief mediator at the talks, the Vice-President of Southern Sudan, Dr Riek Machar, of being biased. Pressure was mounted on the rebel team, however, and they returned to the negotiating table.
It was decided that, in order to find a framework for the talks, the two parties should consult the people about the way forward. The government of Uganda’s team, led by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, travelled across the country collecting views from Ugandans; and, on 31 October last year, the LRA team made a historic visit to Uganda.
The LRA delegation — the first in more than 20 years — raised hopes among Ugandans that peace was finally around the corner. Top members from the rebel command were absent at the talks, but a key person in the negotiation process was the LRA second-in-command, Vincent Otti. Although wanted by the ICC for 32 crimes, Otti was considered as moderate, and committed to peace.
Sadly, however, after the arrival of the LRA delegation in Uganda, the news broke that Otti had been arrested by his own LRA leader, and could even be dead. Everywhere the LRA team went, they were asked about Otti’s fate.
Although overshadowed by these questions, the LRA delegation embarked on its fact-finding mission to the internal-displacement camps in northern Uganda, but its mission suffered another setback when news spread in Kampala that the operations commander of the LRA, Patrick Opiyo Makasi, had surrendered to authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was expected back in Uganda.
He was pardoned by the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni.
The Ugandan state-owned newspaper New Vision confirmed the death of Vincent Otti on 21 November last year, after three LRA fighters had defected and gone into hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They said that Otti was killed on 2 October, with many others, and that the way he was killed was too horrific to describe.
The media in Uganda now describes the LRA as faceless. Under Otti, the LRA had started a shift in position, observers felt, because Otti had preferred a more liberal approach than Kony’s cautious one.
Kony has appointed Okot Odhiambo as Otti’s replacement. Odhiambo is a ruthless LRA commander, and is fourth on the ICC list of wanted LRA leaders. News from the LRA hideout on the border of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo indicates that Kony wanted to keep Otti’s death a secret to avoid a serious uprising within the LRA, but New Vision said that 300 LRA fighters and their families defected last November and are negotiating their surrender with the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The LRA blames the Ugandan government for destabilising the group.
THE PEACE PROCESS in northern Uganda cannot be reported without mentioning the contribution of the Churches that have suffered alongside the people. It will be remembered that the Anglican Bishop of Kitgum, the Rt Revd Benjamin Ojwang, his wife, and other family members were abducted in 2004 and beaten up by the LRA. The Church has continued to work for a lasting peace in northern Uganda, however, and bishops met LRA leaders.
The Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Revd Henry Orombi, urged the Acholi in August last year to forgive the rebel soldiers for the crimes committed against them. “When you forgive, there will be freedom in your hearts: you begin to know what paradise, peace, and freedom are,” the Daily Monitor quoted the Primate as saying at a camp in Kitgum district.
Churches in Uganda have come together to work for peace under the umbrella body, the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC). They have been to the north to meet internally displaced persons; to southern Sudan to meet the mediating team, the LRA team, and the government of Uganda; and their influence is being felt in the peace process.
“We have got to keep the goal in view: the goal is to end this senseless war, and give a future to thousands of people whose childhood and youthfulness have been taken away,” said the Assistant Bishop of Kampala, the Rt Revd Zac Niringiye, who is chairing the UJCC national task force. “About 1.8 million people are herded away in camps, and we need to give them their lives back. It seems that the stated goal to end the war is agreed upon. This is unprecedented, and all parties must be applauded.”
There are still mixed feelings among Ugandans whether the LRA should face the charges laid against its members by the ICC. Another question is whether Uganda should adopt a justice system such as the one adopted in Rwanda to try people accused of genocide — or even a truth and reconciliation commission, as in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
The LRA delegation concluded its fact-finding mission to Uganda with a call for forgiveness. Before departing, one of the team leaders, Martin Ojul, said: “We are committed to peace. The peace agreement should have been signed a long time ago. Kony is not for war: he blessed our coming here; he is for total peace. We came to consult and mobilise our people in the affected areas on accountability and reconciliation.”
To demonstrate the rebels’ commitment to peace, Ojul asked for forgiveness, and released a white dove.
Manasseh Zindo is a Sudanese journalist working in east Africa.