Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Juba Peace Talks: The Confidence-Building Measures that Shook LRA Confidence

By John A. Akec

As many head teachers and parents would tell you, not every school trip or mountain climbing exercise goes well. Some trips, despite good intention and preparations end up in tears. Such was the sorrowful fate of a confidence-building measure expedition organised by the governments of Uganda and Southern Sudan (the current peace mediator) in which 15 relatives of LRA commanders, Acholi elders, Church leaders, peace activists, and journalists were transported to meet Joseph Kony near the border of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Southern Sudan. According to news reports: on Wednesday 3 August 06, Joseph Kony met with Acholi leaders, many of whom spent the night in Kony’s base. On Thursday Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti met Dr. Riek Machar, the chief mediator, as well as personalities representing the government of Uganda. On Thursday night and Friday morning, the relationships between Riek Machar and LRA soured, to everyone’s amazement.

According to media sources, on Wednesday (2 Aug. 2006), the LRA promised in principle that Vincent Otti would accompany Riek Machar and LRA delegation to Juba for the second round of peace talks. On Thursday (3 Aug. 2006), the LRA changed its mind and informed Dr. Machar that it did not feel safe enough for Otti to join the talk at this early stage when there is no ceasefire, and the ICC arrest warrant is still in place, thus rejecting the government of Uganda’s (GOU) key demandFurthermore, the LRA turned down the request by Riek Machar to reveal the locations of their bases in Southern Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. It was at that point that Riek Machar stormed out of the meeting, ordered his convoy to leave the site of the meeting leaving the LRA negotiating team stranded in the bush some 27 miles away from Kony’s base in the DCR. On Friday (4 Aug. 2006) the LRA expressed its concerns over its rapidly declining confidence in the mediation role of Dr. Riek Machar and the GOSS and threatened to look for another venue for the negotiation if the eroding impartiality of the mediator did not stop.

The GOU also did not help matters by contradicting Dr. Machar when it declared that it is ready to resume talks with or without Otti. It also went into overdrive to undermine the confidence between the LRA and GOSS by claiming that the LRA had withdrawn from the talk. However, to show that it had not withdrawn from the talk, it declared a unilateral ceasefire. However, the government thus far has not reciprocated on the ceasefire, insisting hat i will agree to one only after a comprehensive peace agreement is singed.

Because of this mistrust, the LRA is said to have relocated its headquarters for fear of attack by Ugandan army, especially since its location is now well known to the GOU following recent confidence building visits by various government functionaries. Although the GOU took advantage of this misfortune to drive a wedge between the LRA and the mediator by declaring that the LRA has pulled out of the talk, the LRA quickly snuff it off by declaring a unilateral ceasefire and invited the government to reciprocate it was still interested in the peace talk.

The Northern Uganda’s Peace Initiative led by South Sudan vice president, Dr Riek Machar, has put his name in the limelight of world’s media. The pictures of his first meeting with Kony in May 2006 were flashed on TV screens around the world. The initiative has attracted a lot of interest internationally. For instance, in a meeting with president Museveni last week, British High Commissioner to Uganda, Mr. Francois Gordon, told the press in Kampala that the international community is following the talks with “keen interest.” John Prendergast of International Crisis Group said recently in a workshop at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington DC that “the effort of the government of South Sudan to mediate between the LRA and the GOU is noble.” Prendergast called for the US administration to appoint a peace envoy for Northern Uganda and to act as a guarantor for any agreement that the parties to conflict might reach in the future.
To appreciate what happened last week, it is worth looking into Dr Machar’s biography. He led an unsuccessful coup d’ tat against John Garang in 1991. The break away group was later renamed South Sudan Independent Movement (SSIM) which later signed the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement. Under Machar’s leadership, SSIM disintegrated. Khartoum Agreement that Dr Machar championed was a spectacular failure and enabled the Khartoum government to secure oil fields in the Upper Nile region. Ever since, military balance has swung in favour of the Khartoum government. Finally, in 2000, Dr Machar fled to Kenya with a handful of followers, leaving the bulk of his army under the control of the Khartoum government. Machar rejoined SPLM/A under John Garang in 2001. To his credit, Dr. Machar played a dynamic role in healing a rift between Chairman John Garang and his then Deputy, Salva Kiir in Rumbek in November 2004. Otherwise, his rejoining did not mean much in terms of military gains for SPLA but it was a moral, symbolic and political victory for SPLM and South Sudanese as a whole since he was the original leader of the rebellion.

Some unforgiving commentators do draw a parallel between Machar’s return to SPLM in 2001 and the biblical “prodigal son” who left the family rich and powerful, returned broke and weak. They also point out that as Chairman of SSIM, Dr Machar was largely responsible for the disintegration of his political group. He is said to be unpredictable and controversial at times. The ghost of his track records, showing him to be a quitter and lacking in foresight, may continue to undermine his credibility.

To rectify the situation, Furthermore, the President of GOSS has not taken full charge of the negotiation although Dr. Machar is still the actual mediator, again showing the erosion of confidence in Dr. Machar. Instead of proceeding to discuss substantive issues, Dr. Machar will now have to spend some of the effort on rebuilding confidence. Time will tell if Dr. Machar can overcome the curse and the shadow of his past failures and pull off a miracle this time around?

The greatest weakness of Southern Sudan mediated talks between LRA and GoU (Government of Uganda) is the lack of focus and absence of information about any progress or the lack of it. In order to make some progress, the Chief mediator should continue to insist on ceasefire declaration by both parties. Once the parties agree, they should declare their principles of negotiations. Then the GOSS should call for support of international community including that of the UN, South Africa, Britain, and the US and others. In particular, the GOSS should use its good office with current US Administration to convince the Bush administration to appoint a Peace Envoy for Northern Uganda and to act as a guarantor of any agreement that may result from these efforts.

Furthermore, the implications of ICC arrest warrant should be addressed. Few weeks ago, Mr Koffi Annan, the UN Secretary General said the “ICC’s arrest warrant made LRA leaders less approachable.” Ms. Betty Bigombe told Christian Science Monitor that the ICC’s arrest warrant of LRA commanders has brought “complications.” The implication of such statements was played out this weekend when the trust between the LRA leaders and Riek Machar fell to rock bottom.

Since the war started in August of 1986 in Northern Uganda, about 2 million in Northern and Eastern Uganda have been forced out of their homes by the Ugandan army to live under horrendous conditions in some 200 camps, largely recognized as death traps.

U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland described the Northern Uganda conflict as “One of the worst forgotten conflicts in the world, and worse [in magnitude] than that of Darfur or Iraq.” Dr Rima Salah, UNICIEF Deputy Director, told Congressional Human Rights Caucus on 9th March 2006 that:“The social issues that exist elsewhere in Uganda's domestic violence, rape and child abuse, among others‚ are exacerbated in the camps. The mortality and morbidity rates are described as emergencies spun out of control.”

Mark Simmonds (MP, Boston and Skegness, UK) in a briefing to British Parliament in July 2006 quoted a report by World Vision (Uganda) that 3,500 people die every month in Uganda's Internally Displaced-Persons' camps. This mortality rate is believed to be 3 times higher than those recorded in Darfur in 2005.

High profile Ugandan personalities such as Dr Olara Otunnu have described the policy of forceful relocation of Acholi population to these camps as “Genocide.” Otunnu, a former UN Undersecretary and Special Representative for Children and Arm Conflict painted grim a picture of abject destitution in these camps in an article published in Foreign Affairs (Jul/Aug. 2006) entitled “Secret Genocide:”

“4,000 sharing a latrine, women waiting for 12 hours to fill a jerrycan at well, 10 people packing themselves sardine-like in a hut."

As a result, any form of economic activity has been brought to a grinding halt. A whole culture, people, and their environment are being systematically destroyed by Uganda’s government counter-insurgency policy. Everything Acholi is dying, wrote one commentator. Hence, what was once a thriving community and vibrant economy in Northern Uganda has been reduced to wasteland as human development indicators went into free fall: 95% of population now lives below poverty line, 70% of them in absolute poverty, 1000 children die in the region every week of preventable causes. Contrast that with the situation in the Southern and Western Uganda: only 37% live below poverty line.

This situation cannot continue without serious action being taken to reverse the fortunes of Northern Uganda for the better. It is also a threat to peace and stability in Great Lakes region. The government of Southern Sudan and vice president Riek Machar have committed themselves to a demanding task. The government of Southern Sudan is now under intense scrutiny to show leadership, or loose face and credibility.

Whether Dr Machar will stay the course and not allow himself from being manipulated or unduly influenced by any of the parties to conflict remains to be seen.


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