Peace Talks: Ugandan Style
Last week, we saw how confidence-building measures turned into a fallout between Vincent Otti, the LRA deputy chief; and Dr. Riek Machar, South Sudan vice president and current peace chief mediator. Trust is like glass, once broken, it is extremely hard to put back together. No sooner did the LRAs guests leave Nabanga (LRA’s headquarter in DCR) than the host (LRA) packing and relocating. Furthermore, five LRA commanders who were supposed to join the delegation have been instructed to remain behind. All this was sparked by insistence of the chief mediator that LRA vice chairman, Vincent Otti, must accompany the LRA’s team to Juba as a precondition for a second round of negotiations. The other contentious issue that contributed to wrecking LRA confidence in the chief mediator was the request by Dr. Machar that LRA reveal the locations of their forces in Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo. This request was seen by LRA as too premature to be asked since no agreement has been struck and the chances of renewed hostilities are real.
The panic that gripped the LRA leaders to move camps is a result of deep mistrust that has accumulated over many decades of ethnically fuelled war that saw bout 2 million Eastern and Northern Ugandans (98% of population in those regions) forcefully moved from their ancestral homelands to squalid concentration camps that have been described as death trap. They were necessary as a counter insurgency measure to deprive the LRA of popular support among the population. United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator Jan Egeland has described the situation in Northen Uganda as "the world’s worst neglected humanitarian crisis."
In these camps, 3500 people die every month. About 1000 children die every week of preventable causes. The government track record of honouring agreements with various armed groups (about 22 of them) in the last 20 years is poor. Abel Alier’s famous book, “Too Many Agreements Dishonoured”, could easily apply to Uganda. In most cases, none of those agreements was implemented. And in most cases, the leaders of those groups that signed agreements were liquidated one-by-one.
This week, 19 faiths leaders in the United States petitioned president Bush to support the current efforts in Juba (South Sudan) to bring a peaceful end to the conflict in Northern and Eastern Uganda. Those who signed the petition include the leaders of World Vision, Church World Service, American Jewish World Service, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Episcopal Church.
As a gesture of seriousness, LRA declared a unilateral ceasefire last week and asked the government of Uganda to do likewise. As the talks resumed on Thursday (10 Aug. 06), the government of Uganda rejected the LRA request of a ceasefire. As a result, the LRA team staged a walked out.
The government of Uganda insists that any ceasefire must come within the framework of a comprehensive agreement. What is surprising is when one reads the terms of reference that have been forwarded by the government of Uganda, it is nothing like a “temporal” ceasefire such as one the SPLA/M and government of Sudan signed in 2002. The ceasefire that was signed by the warring parties in Sudan went on for 2 years, was renewed every 3 months, and did not request SPLA to declare the exact locations nor the number of their forces. The same applied to the ceasefire between SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) in Darfur and the government of Sudan. The chances of negotiations succeeding were very small, and hence it was understandable that SLA and SPLA were reluctant to show their cards in the middle of the game.
The ceasefire model that is being advanced by the government of Uganda has been borrowed from the model of cessation of hostilities in Mozambique following the agreement between FRELIMO and RENAMO in October 1992. The part of the FRELIMO-RENAMO agreement related to cessation of hostilities dealt with: ceasefire, separation of forces, concentration of forces, and demobilisation. The last three items were there as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, and not as preconditions for a temporal ceasefire.
In current GoU-LRA peace talks in Juba, we do not even know the issues of contention. For example, we do not know the government position on power sharing, wealth sharing, and devolution as demanded by the LRA. All we heard of is a “soft landing for LRA.” It is as if the government of Uganda is not ready to address the multifaceted root causes underpinning the conflict in East and Northern Uganda.
Ceasefire should be a temporal measure to allow the parties to negotiate in an atmosphere of tranquility and trust. It would not help the LRA negotiators to continue to receive reports from the field that their men are being hunted and killed by the government forces on a daily basis. A case in point, just this week, Ugandan army has claimed that it has killed 9 LRA soldiers in Northern Uganda. One of those killed is reported to be the third highest-ranking LRA commander, Raska Lukwiya. Such reports will do nothing to persuade the LRA that Museveni is serious about ending the hostilities and bringing peace and justice to their country.
Reading Ugandan press, specially the New Vision and the Monitor, what one finds is not encouraging. The mood in Kampala is hawkish. Death of civilians in the camps, and the news of killings of a Uganda by another Uganda in the North is nothing but a distant thunder in the relatively more peaceful and prosperous South and West of Uganda. There is no sense of urgency, nor are these Ugandans concerned that continued oppression of their fellow countrymen and women in Northern and Eastern Uganda will one day catch up with Ugandans everywhere in the medium to long term and could rip their country apart. That ‘the hunger of your dog follows thee’, is a lesson that Ugandans are yet to learn.
The priority at Juba talks should be for the parties to sign a temporal ceasefire during the talks, which should be renewed every 2 to 3 months, depending on the progress achieved and the willingness of the parties to extend it. Once an agreement is reached on political issues of contention, issues such as the separation of forces, concentration, demobilisation, and reintegration of combatants into the national army should follow suite. Only, and only then will the temporal ceasefire become permanent and irreversible. Otherwise, what the government team is advocating is nothing short of putting the carriage before the horse.
What’s more, Ugandan media constantly refer to an approaching September 12 deadline. By that time, a peace agreement must be reached, or else the Ugandan army is going to resume its hunt for LRA. Many South Sudanese who witnessed many failed negotiations between SPLA and government of Sudan will find such a deadline laughable. Even after Machakos break-through in July 2002, it was to take another 2 years for the parties to work out the details of each protocol. The two conflicts are obviously different and one would expect much to be achieved quicker in Juba talks if there is will by all the parties to make compromises. Yet, the idea of a deadline being imposed on political negotiations is nothing but an excuse for the government to find an exit route from the talks.
On a more positive front, it has been reported that the UN Security Council is now poised to appoint Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, to be the UN envoy for Great Lakes region, with responsibility to help in ending the war in Northern Uganda. This decision is a compromise to an initial call by Canada and a number of international NGOs to the UN Security Council to appoint a special envoy for Northern Uganda, a move Ugandan government has so far resisted. Chissamo has experience of peacefully ending a similar conflict in Mozambique, as well as acting as a mediator between the opposition and Zimbabwean government. He is a man trusted by Kampala, according to media sources.
The LRA war, as I understand it, has roots in an uneven distribution of power, wealth, and economic development since independence and the militarisation of political system. It is all is caused by an all pervasive “winner takes all" attitude to national cake. All the governments in Uganda without exception since independence, Museveni’s regime included, tend to be ethnically entrenched. Most of them are more interested in consolidating their ethnic power base by suppressing and marginalizing other groups as opposed to caring for all Ugandans. This continues until the balance of power swings in the favour the “oppressed group” and the cycle starts all over again.
For UPDF, killing a ‘an LA rebel’ has become part of their daily ritual just like hunting a rabbit. It is very much like the apartheid system in South Africa, when it was ‘normal’ to discriminate and mistreat members of the black majority.
The government of Uganda should take lead in addressing the flaws in power and wealth distribution in the country. They should grab this opportunity to bring about a just peace and not let it pass by.
Failing that, the international community is duty bound to bring the government of Uganda to account.