Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Juba Talks: A Cessation of Hostilities or a Mousetrap for LRA?

By John A. Akec

At long last, the Government of Uganda, Lord Resistance Army (LRA), and government of South Sudan have something to boast about: the signing of 14-day ceasefire between the GoU and the LRA. The agreement has come into effect from 6:00 am on Tuesday, 29th August 2006. The agreement commits the parties to cessation of hostilities and ending of hostile propaganda that may undermine Juba Peace Talks. Terms of reference include the requirement for LRA forces to assemble at two locations in Southern Sudan, and one designated area in Northern Uganda within (3) weeks of the declaration of cessation of hostilities. SPLA will protect the assembly points. The Ugandan army is required to open safe corridors to LRA forces when moving to designated assembly points in Northern Uganda. The government of South Sudan will monitor the cessation of hostilities with (2) representatives from government of Uganda, LRA, and African Union.

Another positive development at Juba peace talks is the approval by President Museveni for community leaders from Acholi, Lango, Teso and West Nile to participate in Juba peace talks so that they can represent the community interests. Member of Parliament and Chairman of Gulu District Norbert Mao led a 15-member team to meet President Museveni at State House last Sunday (22 Aug. 2006). It was shortly after that meeting that Museveni called Norbert Mao tell him that he agreed for the Northern Uganda community leaders and politicians to attend the talks. This was a pleasant turn of events compared to the misgivings expressed earlier by the government delegation about the neutrality of these community leaders. The Daily Monitor removed the pictures of the jubilant Mao from its website leaving readers to stare at an empty box with Mao’s name at the bottom. An act of sabotage, or a Southern cliques jealously akin to failure of Sudan TV to show the pictures of Dr. Garang’s visit to Khartoum on 8th July 2005. Just wondering.

In many ways, the above truce is good news of great symbolic significance and an achievement by all the parties, not the least it rewards the efforts and dedication by the government of Southern Sudan. However, there are many complications that have been built into the agreement. For instance, by agreeing for its forces to assemble at designated areas, the LRA has made a very a brave decision, which is fraught with risks. Museveni’s regime for all its worth has never honoured any agreement it entered into. Not once, not ever. The government of Uganda has been quick to present a rather skewed interpretation of the text of the truce agreement. To substantiate this observation, let us recall the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, telling the journalists in Kampala on 26 Aug. 2006:

"We expect Kony and Otti to oblige to the conditions of the cessation of hostilities. As far as government is concerned, we are looking at the Lords Resistance Army in totality…"

The clause in the truce Agreement that refers to assembling point reads as follows:

“The Parties agree that all LRA forces in Uganda and Sudan will assemble at Owing-ki-Bul in Eastern Equatoria State on the eastern side of River Nile and those in DRC at Ri-Kwangba in Western Equatoria State on the western side of River Nile” - Clause 4.b

Now if the principal goal of the clause is to make it easier for the ceasefire to be monitored, then such an all embarcing interpretation of the clause would make it all the more difficult to observe. For example, how would the parties verify that all LRA forces have assembled in totality at the designated points? What if some members of LRA choose not to go to assembly points in complete defiance of LRA leadership for perfectly good reasons such as reluctance to trust their erstwhile enemy, the UPDF? What if the LRA leaders wanted by the ICC choose to remain in their safe havens until the issue of arrest warrant is settled once and for all? Will that count as a violation of cessation of hostilities too? And after all, what does “cessation of hostilities” really mean? Does it not mean that the warring parties simply stop shooting at each other during the truce?

To add more insult to injury, Dr. Rugunda’s went on to assert:

"Anything like keeping arms will be a violation of the cessation of hostilities, " is nothing but complete misinterpretation of the truce agreement before the ink has dried up.

The agreement does not explicitly demand the LRA to disarm. In fact it says if talks fail, they will be allowed to leave peacefully. By such unreasonable interpretation and intransigence, the government of Uganda has already broken one of main clauses in the trace: the one which asks the parties to stop all form of hostile propaganda in the media. And this is even more apparent in what President Museveni’s had to say to press on Sunday (27 Aug. 2006):

“If they [LRA leadership] don’t respect the [cessation of hostilities] agreement that they have signed with us, we are going to hunt them down and catch them because time is not on their side,”

Adding: “The agreement will not allow them to hide anywhere. If they don’t show up, it will be worse for them. They have nowhere to hide since the DRC is now settling down after their elections…”

This is President Museveni at his best. If anything, by agreeing to the terms of demanding the assembling of its forces at designated places, the LRA has made a risky gamble that stands to put the lives of their fighting men at grave risk. Not more than a fortnight ago, the government forces hunted down and slaughtered 15 of LRA members in one week while the LRA had declared ceasefire. In case they choose to execute the clause as interpreted by the government of Uganda to the letter, the LRA men will be at the mercy of being slaughtered like sheep by the UPDF in daylight. Nowhere have I seen an army treating their victims with such disrespect as they did with the body of Raska Lukwiya, an LRA commander killed in cold blood by UPDF on 12 Aug. 2005.

Furthermore, if the LRA forces keep their arms, the action would be regarded as a violation of cessation of hostilities by GoU, which will order an attack on the assembly points. And if the top LRA commanders stay behind, that would still count as violation of truce to GoU.

On her part, the International Criminal Court (ICC) that had issued an arrest warrant in July 2005 against (5) LRA leaders is not impressed by the cessation of hostilities and the fact that Uganda warring parties have elected the way of civility and decided to sit down to resolve their differences. According to Reuters (28 Aug, 2006):

“International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors said on Monday they still hoped for the arrest of leaders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) despite an offer of amnesty by Uganda under the terms of a truce.” (Reuters, 28 Aug. 2006)

Reuters also quoted ICC’ s deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda: "We certainly hope that they [South Sudan and Ugandan governments] will execute the warrant that has been issued against the top leaders of the LRA."

In short, some of the terms of the truce are subject to abuse and misinterpretation by the government of Uganda. They have turned the agreement on cessation of hostilities into more of a mousetrap than a truce. It presents the LRA in a gold platter to UDPF to do as it pleases.

With LRA cramped up in concentration camps and at the mercy of UPDF, what incentive is left for the government of Uganda, which believes in nothing else but merciless brutality? What else will oblige government of Uganda to make any concessions to LRA negotiators in Juba in return for peace in the region? Was it not better for Museveni either to declare an unconditional ceasefire, or else take the blame for holding 2 million hostages to serve his counter-insurgency policy in Northern Uganda that is responsible for death of so many?

The symbolic significance of the truce should never be undeshrestimated even if the Uganda government decides to abuse it to its advantage. Some of the terms included in it make it unnecessarily complicated to implement. It is a license to UPDF to shoot at LRA men at close range. SPLA will not be able to defend LRA soldiers as it claims. It has no capacity to do so. The only guarantee for its observation is for the concerned parties to exercise tolerance and show goodwill.

Both the Ugandan government and that of Southern Sudan would need to show more tolerance. Those LRA members willing to take the risk to assemble can do so. And those less willing to risk it should stay in their hideouts. Northern Ugandan situation is not unique. Armed organisations such as the IRA in Northern Ireland have been able to keep a ceasefire for years without the request for its members to assemble anywhere. Even more notorious and shadowy organisation such as Bask Separatists in Spain was able to declare a ceasefire many times and honour it until it decided to end it. The government of Southern Sudan should persist in calling for international support and co-mediation of South Africa to strengthen the peace process.

More serious phase of negotiations has just begun to divide the Ugandan national cake. LRA negotiators have furnished the Chief mediator with economic data about current distribution of wealth in Uganda. They also asked for power devolution and equitable representation of the North and East in national institutions.

And despite the many perils surrounding the implementation of peace truce in days and weeks ahead, an important process has begun. One hopes that peace will return to Northern Uganda, which will usher in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity for great majority of Ugandans and for the people of the Great Lakes region.