Monday, July 24, 2006

Northern Uganda: The Implications of Peace or the Lack of It

By John A. Akec

The best description of peace talks in Juba between the government of Uganda and LRA is that they are heading nowhere. It appears to me that the Ugandan government delegation is there on a face-saving mission at best, and at worst carry out research on the LRA and then kill the talks. And as long as Museveni’s regime believes it is not under military threat, or pressure from the world community, it feels it has nothing to lose if talks fail.

The government delegation believes they are there to tell LRA to disarm, disband, and be reintegrated into Ugandan society. The delegation is not there to acknowledge the authenticity of political grievances that created LRA in the first place. Despite finally accepting to meet face to face with LRA delegation, it is still unable psychologically to recognise the delegation appointed by LRA high command, preferring to talk to Joseph Kony directly. I will be the least surprised if Ugandan government delegation next time demands to be allowed to pick the members of LRA negotiating team. That is what happens when a regime has been ruling and oppressing its citizens for over two decades. Such leaders-for-life increasingly come to live in ivory towers far removed from reality. The Ugandan political elite have too much faith in their infallibility and would not tolerate being criticised in the open. As South Sudanese, there is no trick in the Ugandan government book that I have never seen being deployed the government of Sudan against the insurgency in Southern Sudan.

What’s more, the government of Uganda (GoU) has refused to accept the most obvious of requirements and demands of a promising negotiation: the importance of ceasefire. This is a missed opportunity for the government to demonstrate to the world that it is serious to bring about a just peace and that they are just not in Juba to negotiate a smooth LRA surrender. Ceasefire is a nice starter that can be a win-win-win strategy for all concerned (GoU-LRA-GOSS) specially if the negotiating parties are serious about ending the suffering of their people. In this case, the LRA called for a ceasefire agreement to be reached, the government delegation rejected it out of hand.

According to Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, Ugandan Interior Minister and head of Government delegation, the LRA is going to exploit ceasefire in order to: “ Recruit and arm their fighters, re-organise their forces, treat their sick, unearth buried arms and ammos, loot and stock food, rejuvenate collaborators’ networks, and continue with the hostilities unabated.” An ICC official could have issued a similar statement.

All this does not put into consideration the fact that many observers have more often than not accused the Ugandan government of blowing up opportunities to negotiate peace with LRA through the issuing of ultimatums, ambushing negotiating teams, sowing seeds of division amongst LRA negotiating team, and buying the mediator’s favour. That Kampala’s government eventually assassinated those opposition leaders who signed agreements with Museveni in the past. That is not just the LRA who suffers from credibility deficit but Museveni government is one of worst offenders and abusers of trust since war began in 1986. We can go on to support this argument with well documented reasons.

Hence, unless the parties begin a new page and learn to trust each other and start to believe that what will be agreed will be honoured; they are wasting Dr Machar’s precious time. Worst, by refusing to sign a ceasefire, the GoU may be planning to exploit “confidence building” measures and contacts with Kony to locate LRA leaders in order to launch a surprise attack (in coordination with DCR) on LRA positions. And with luck, settle the problem there by getting rid of Kony once and for all. This can deal a blow to Acholi’s resistance, which Joseph Kony has come to symbolise. But the consequences of that action may come to haunt Museveni for the rest of his life. It will forever eliminate “negotiation” in the equation of ending the war in Northern Uganda. It will be a good ticket for all to engage in an open-ended war that will further tear Ugandan society apart.

According to media sources, it was government delegation that was allowed to make a first opening statement followed by LRA’s. All agree that it should have been the other way round. As an organisation with grievances against the status quo, LRA should have been allowed to make the first opening statement. The government should then follow. All the same, it just happened to take that precedence. Martin Ojur summed up the grievances as:

“Political persecution and marginalisation, demeaning attitude designedly expressed by people in power to insult and demonise some ethnic groups in the country, deliberate imbalance and disparity in the development of our country, …”

Ojur then declared that his movement will demand for protection of human rights, good governance, halting the state-backed land grabbing and cattle rustling, acceptance of cultural diversity, respect of international law and territorial integrity, peaceful coexistence with all countries, among others. Ojur also called for the “ethnically-based” Ugandan army (Ugandan Peoples Defence Force, UPDF), that has been accused of heinous atrocities in Northern Uganda to disband and be replaced by a new ethnically balanced army that include people from Northern and Eastern Uganda (who have been marginalized and by-passed by economic development under president Museveni).

For Ugandan delegation, it was all rage, rage, and rage! The GoU is not accustomed to hearing these kinds of utterances. In true democracy, you can guarantee to hear brutal criticism being heaped on the government by those in opposition on a daily basis as a duty of doing the people’s bidding. The manifested shock at what could have been a normal opposition speech is the litmus of democratic tolerance in Uganda. There is none. And despite the impressive improvement of economic life in some parts of Uganda, the citizens of that country are anything but free.

Sources in Juba say the government delegation almost packed their suitcases in order to head for Juba airport on their way back to Kampala. It took hours of persuasions from Dr Riek Machar for them to return to the negotiating table.

On Tuesday, the head of government negotiating team had to issue another statement to refute the allegations labelled against the GoU by the LRA in its opening statement. The statement praised UDPF as “professional and envy of the region.” That it never committed any atrocities or killed its citizens. He asserted that the current constitution is more than capable to address any grievances, including the alleged land grabbing.

As things stand, the government of Uganda does not believe that it is doing anything wrong to merit the overhaul of the current system of governance. This is Africa’s old problem of lack of compromise, and explains why wars in Europe, America and elsewhere took fewer years to end. We lack the art of compromise in spirit of coexistence. Everywhere in Africa, Uganda included, we are haunted by “winner takes all” mentality.

Sudan and Uganda’s old colonial masters, the British, were masters of both craftiness and compromise. History is full of British fighting decolonisation forces, and then quickly turning around to device a policy that puts the colonised on the road to independence by making concessions and enacting changes to address and accommodate grievances of the colonised. Colonisation has no colour, as John Garang observed. Most African leaders who have supposedly been educated in this great British culture have apparently missed the obvious: conflict resolution and ability to recognise that there are times when future disasters can be avoided by implementing a change in direction and tone. Conflict resolution always requires giving up something in exchange for something. In this case, it is peace and stability in Uganda, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR).

President Mengistu of Ethiopia was confident enough in his regime’s military might that he flatly refused to settle the Eritrean problem on a negotiating table. Mengistu’s military machine eventually collapsed, and he had to flee the country to a life of exile in Zimbabwe. If Siad Bare were wise enough, he would have seen the break up of Somalia coming long before it actually happened. There is nothing new about Uganda government attempt to dodge the truth.

Yes, UPDF may deceptively appear so “professional” and so “smart” that it could be wrongly perceived as capable of finding a military solution to rebellion in Northern Uganda. Yet, its fate will not be different from that of the armies that fought to maintain the status quo on the expense of equality and justice- and eventually lost. Even Alexander the great forces had to retreat at some point. Hitler’s tanks and aircraft did not safe him.

Instead of solving its internal problems amicably, the current Ugandan government prefers to pursue its dissidents across its borders into neighbours’ territories. Once their army is there, they begin to mess up with the security and stability of the neighbour. Uganda only respects Kenya and Tanzania. It is a respect similar to that of thief fearing a well-guarded compound. Otherwise, Uganda tried before to interfere with Rwandan politics, which later backfired badly. It has been exporting wars into Democratic Republic of Congo. Its armies roam in large parts of South Sudan in search for the LRA. This has made it difficult to differentiate between the security breaches by Ugandan army and those of LRA.

Apparently, the Uganda patient does not feel it needs a doctor. People are going to read the Ugandan refusal to enact radical changes in their political system to accommodate ethnic diversity and combat the feeling of marginalisation in the East and the North of Uganda as an insistence to continue to export its own troubles to its neighbours. This is despite the fact that Ugandan political problems are not dissimilar to those of Sudan, and can be addressed in similar manner.

A peaceful conclusion to war in Northern Uganda will bring great benefits to the region. Uganda will be amongst the beneficiaries of stability in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda as goods can be allowed to flow freely as trade barriers fall for the mutual benefits of the two entities. Not only that, for next few years, the balance of trade will be in Uganda’s favour. That will be worth billions of dollars of export to South Sudan in goods, agricultural produces, and services. Ugandans skills will be hired in large numbers in Southern Sudan. As we speak, the government of South Sudan has adopted Ugandan international code for its new mobile phone company. In other words, Southern Sudan is already a province of Uganda!

Furthermore, South Sudan will also try to invest in Ugandan agriculture, forestry, fishery, transport system, electricity, petroleum refining, among others. That will be to good an incentive too sacrifice on the altar of greed and myopia.


These will be too numerous to count. They include development of hostile relationships between the two countries and may lead to war. The Nilotics in the East and North of Uganda may decide to fight for independence from Uganda and seek long-term integration with Southern Sudan. A third possibility is what professor Mohammed Mamdani of Columbia University recently warned about: the possibility of emergence of new and powerful political movement in the North in alliance with the current political opposition in Uganda against Museveni’s regime and NRM that will threaten to eclipse the LRA. Between these three scenarios lie a myriad of combinations. None of them will favour Museveni in medium to long term.

The new government of Southern Sudan has started a vital process. But it lacks the clout and the resources to pressure the warring parties to craft a viable settlement. Even if an agreement is reached, the chances of its implementation will be nil. The International community must provide support, pressure, and guarantees to reaching a just solution to the LRA war. Recently, Mr Kofi Annan has expressed UN’s support of the principle of negotiation. He however appeared helpless in regard to the objection by the Ugandan government to appointment of a UN envoy for Northern Uganda who will supervise the talk and act as the eyes of the international community. As far as things stand, it is a no-go area. The matter is regarded as closed which is very sad indeed.

On the other hand, South Africa has expressed its readiness to act as a supervisor and observer of peace talks in Juba if invited by any of the parties. So far, no one has acted on this offer. It is therefore high time for the government of Southern Sudan to be realistic about what it can achieve by itself and within its meagre resources. It needs to call for the support of international community.

In order to achieve real peace and not just a gesture of good will by the international community, more resources and support are needed. There is danger that Ugandan government will do all it can to strangle the talks. This opportunity must not be allowed to slip away like others in the past.