Sunday, April 08, 2007

Peace in Northern Uganda: Why Naivasha success story could not be repeated in Juba?

By John A. Akec

Peace with justice is an excellent gift any society can enjoy. Nothing compares to it. During peacetimes, enduring civilisations were founded, cultures flourished, and economies boomed. War is a curse to any nation, and does exactly the opposite. It destroys whole civilisations, cultures, wealth, and way of life of its victims over a very short time span. Thus, war is evil in every sense of the word. The sooner it is stopped, the better.

In 1986 carnage visited Acholiland when revolutionaries from Southern Uganda led by president Yoweri Museveni invaded Northern Uganda after overthrowing the government of Tito Okello (an Acholi). This was a power consolidation exercise that saw thousands of innocent civilians killed, the execution of former military personnel, liquidation of potential political opponents throughout Uganda, and most ugly of all, the forceful displacement of 2 million Ugandans, mostly Acholi ethnic group, from their lands into 200 squalid concentration camps.

The main reason, argued president Museveni and echoed by the Western media, were for their own safety and security from the Lord Resistance Army. This was repeated until the world believed it without any question. However, Sverker Finnström, an anthropologist at Uppsala University in Sweden and author of many research papers and a book on LRA war and many other political analysts, believe the creation of the internally displaced people’s camps was a counter insurgency tactic by Ugandan government to deprive resistance movements in the north such as the LRA of food, recruits, intelligence, and support networks. And yet these camps have been blamed for deaths of more than 1000 civilians a week. This mortality rate is three times that of Darfur. Small wonder, many peace activists have described the policy of forceful displacement of members of Acholi group and the consequences resulting from that policy, as genocide.

All attempts to bring about peace have proved futile. The latest attempt by the government of Southern Sudan to sponsor talks in Juba between the government of Uganda (GoU) and the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), too, has reached a dead end, although there are on-going efforts behind the scene to save it.

Modelled after Kenyan sponsored talks, which ended in successful signing of a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between SPLM and the government of Sudan in Naivasha in January 2005, the effort so far has failed to yield significant results, safe for the shaky ceasefire reached in September 2006.

The question is: why Naivasha peace talks between Sudanese protagonists succeeded, whereas Juba peace talks between the LRA and government of Uganda have so far failed to make any headway? The short answer is that some of the vital ingredients that helped Kenyans broker peace between Sudanese adversaries are amiss in the recent effort to mediate peace between the Ugandans in Juba. The elements which contributed to varying degree to the failure of the peace talks are reviewed below.

The Lack of a Neutral Mediator

At the beginning of mediation process, Dr Riek Machar, South Sudan Vice President, who later became the chief peace mediator, met Joseph Kony the LRA chief on 4 May 2006 for the first time near Sudan border with Democratic Republic of Congo. This is what vice president Machar had to say to Kony on behalf of government of South:

"We want peace in southern Sudan and northern Uganda. This is the option we want to pursue with you. Make use of us. You may not trust us but you have to trust us. The offer is better that you make use of us and negotiate with the Uganda government. If you do not make use of us then leave Sudan and go and fight from your country." - Riek Machar, 4 May 2006.

LRA leader, Joseph Kony replied positively to Machar’s proposal:
"We want to talk. I agree to everything, I am a human being; I want my [Acholi] tribe to be ok also. I want you to communicate to me the next thing to do but what I want you to know is that I want to talk." Unquote - Joseph Kony, 4 May 2006.

Moving from above mutual promises to reality has been extremely bumpy, as it has now become apparent to all.

For a start, many of us believed that the government of Southern Sudan pursued peace in Northern Uganda not only on humanistic and moral grounds as something good and worthy but also as a strategic imperative. For once, it seemed that South Sudanese recognized that any insecurity in Northern Uganda will destabilise Southern Sudan and undermine the implementation of the CPA. It is a matter of life and death that war in Northern Uganda ends. South Sudan will definitely be one of beneficiaries of peace in Northern Uganda.

However, the very strategic significance of peace in Northern Uganda to decision makers in the government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and current spill over of war into the borders of Southern Sudan has created a conflict of interest. It became nearly impossible for the GOSS to resist the urge to cut corners in order to force LRA to accept things deemed harmful to their struggle and cause. By falling to this temptation, the GOSS as represented by its Vice President, was no longer seen neutral and thus not fit for the mediation role as it was hoped for at the beginning of negotiation process.

When things heated up, especially after signing the cessation of hostilities agreement in late August 2006, a high-ranking army officer heading and representing the GOSS on the ceasefire monitoring team began to talk of their old alliance with the government of Uganda. Not only that, we are now accustomed to GOSS authorities bragging about how hospitable and kind South Sudan has been to the LRA.

All the mentioned reasons and many others to be discussed below led to the rejection of GOSS mediation by LRA as summed up by a written statement by Martin Ojul, the leader of LRA negotiating team on 5 Feb 2007:

“…Members of LRA / M Delegation cannot be productive, nor effective, nor constructively function to deliver if the insecure Juba / Sudan remains the venue of the talks; and Dr Machar remains Mediator of the talks”

It is shameful that LRA/M delegation has been pushed to feel that way in Juba. The 12-page document that was circulated by the LRA in February this year to justify why they were unwilling to return to Juba makes for a grim reading. The appalling mistreatment and psychological torture endured by LRA/M delegation has exposed GOSS authorities involved in the mediation in bad light. There was a long catalogue of accusations of GOSS for mistreating LRA delegation. The peace secretariat in Juba did not only let down themselves but the GOSS, Sudanese people, the people of Uganda, and the international community. And as John Prendergast, a special advisor to International Crisis Group told the Voices on Genocide Prevention last February, ‘appearances were deceiving.’ After more than six months of what appeared from outside as an impressive effort, Juba peace talks in the end deflated like a hot air balloon.

The Lack of Understanding and Full Commitment by International Community

The international community has not shown the same level of commitment as it did in Naivasha when peace settlement was negotiated between SPLM and the government of Sudan. Ok, the UN has at long last appointed former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, as its envoy for Northern Uganda and LRA affected areas. While Chissano has been dynamic trying to narrow the gap between the LRA and the GOSS, he is yet to make a complete break through. The assurance to bring in South Africa, Kenya and Mozambique has not entirely convinced LRA/M that going back to Juba is worthwhile. There are unconfirmed news that LRA delegation and a delegation of the GOU led by Salim Saleh have met recently in Mombasa, Kenya, in the presence of the UN envoy, Joachim Chissano. The LRA is reported to have agreed to go back to Juba next Friday, April 13th.

Despite the expression of interest by a number US senators for a greater role by the US in Ugandan peace talks, the Bush administration, it seems, is uncomfortable in asking president Museveni to make concessions. However, the continuation of war in Northern Uganda will undermine the successful implementation of Sudan CPA in which the US was a leading player and champion. And without full backing of the US, the chances of progress in Juba will be very remote.

Great Britain has, too, has shown interest in Northern Uganda, but is sending out mixed messages. Reading the notes on recent Parliamentary briefings on northern Uganda, many British MPs are appalled by the situations in the IDP camps. They deplore the increasing autocratic rule by Museveni, and state of democracy and basic freedoms in Uganda including freedom to elect their government without manipulation by the authorities. And although Museveni’s grip on power in Uganda is not very different from what president Mugabi is doing in Zimbabwe, the world knows more about Mugabi’s reigns of terror, than Musveni’s open-ended grip on power in Uganda. And if LRA/M is asking for devolution of power, they are in real term asking for a share in Museveni’s power. And paradoxically enough, reading Parliamentary briefings notes on war in Northern Uganda, many influential British MPs are in favour of prosecution of Joseph Kony, the LRA chairman, and his commanders by the Hague-based ICC. This is against the wishes of Acholi people who prefer reconciliation and amnesty for all the Ugandans be they from the South or North, including the Ugandan army and president Museveni himself. Talks to tie aid (amounting to more than $500m annually from Britain) to democratic reforms and improvement in human rights record has never been taken further.

What’s more, even a well-informed international conflict analyst of John Prendergast’s stature has recently made remarks that do nothing to assure us that the international community has fully understood the root causes of the war in Northern Uganda.

Prendergast in an interview with Jerry Fowler of Voices on Genocide Prevention in February 2007 was very critical of LRA/M negotiation team. He did not believe they represented the LRA proper because most of them are from Ugandan Diaspora, according to him. Prendergast then accused the LRA/M negotiating team of:

“putting forth all manner of issues, loading down the agenda with things that the Lords Resistance Army as an entity never fought for, and does not represent the people of Northern Uganda on it.”
Furthermore, the advisor to the International Crisis Group reiterated the Ugandan government’s long articulated position that says that what is wanted is “a pure deal directly with Kony.”

And worst of all, John Prendergast dwelt at great length in that interview on finding a solution that “appeals to Kony’s survival instinct.” He then suggested two solutions: that Kony and his commanders be shown ‘door A’ which safeguards their personal security, as alternative to ‘door B’, where they will be hunted and brought before an international court to face criminal charges. With such demeaning argument, John Prendergast leaves himself open to accusation of racial prejudice long practiced by some Western intellectuals that regarded most Africans to have only the capability to think like primates living in Stone Age and crawling at the bottom of ‘Marlow’s pyramid’. That is, Africans are incapable of aspiring to higher order human values of self-esteem, self-actualisation, sacrifice, working for the interest of wider community, rising above narrow-self interest, and so on and so forth.

In fact, the following statement by Joseph Kony extracted from the script recorded by a Reuters’ correspondent of his first face-to-face meeting with South Sudan vice president Riek Machar speaks for itself and refutes the mistaken beliefs held by Mr Prendergast. This is what the LRA chief had to say:

“Because we are human beings also we know law, we want peace. We are fighting for our people to be free. We are fighting for the right cause. We want to talk in a good way not forgery not by force not in a local way. We want also to be international not as the papers of Uganda say."

"We want to talk. I agree to everything, I am a human being; I want my [Acholi] tribe to be ok also. I want you to communicate to me the next thing to do but what I want you to know is that I want to talk." Unquote - Joseph Kony, 4 May 2006.

These are not words of a primate limping at the bottom of Marlow’s pyramid as John Prendergast would have us believe, but are statements of a political animal aspiring to attain the highest human values of dignity, freedom, and self-achievement.

While we may decry the brutality the LRA meted out in the course of their struggle, Mr. Prendergast cannot use it to disqualify the LRA from higher thoughts since even the “advance societies” have committed no less gruesome atrocities throughout history up to the present moment. Yet, it seems the likes of the International Criminal Court have no trouble ignoring and tolerating atrocities by President Museveni.

And to be fair, it is not John Prendergast or Crisis Group who only thinks that inviting intellectuals from abroad to take part in the talks has brought irrelevance to Juba talks, I have heard president Salva Kiir Mayardit expressing similar misgivings about the role of Northern Ugandan Diaspora in Juba peace talks when he visited London last November. I was quite disappointed to see our president forgetting that South Sudanese Diaspora were part and parcel of the SPLM struggle for freedom and that such dichotomy never existed.

I have argued elsewhere that my research has uncovered that Uganda Diaspora has always been active and connected to home issues. For example, Josephine Apira and others have long identified with LRA/M and Northern Uganda for many years. Hence, it is neither correct nor fair to depict the Acholi Diaspora as those who caught the LRA bandwagon into Juba at the last minute to advance their personal agenda. They have every right to form the core of LRA/M negotiating team in Juba and are well equipped to speak on behalf on Northern Uganda. Liberation struggle is a voluntary thing and it does not require mandate from anyone. LRA/M was restricted and banned from establishing offices in the West as SPLM did. We must bear that in mind when comparing LRA/M lack of visibility in the West.

I have no doubt that the double standard is the common thread that underpins this condescending attitude towards Kony and Northern Ugandan Diaspora. Otherwise, no organisation or leader should be expected to strike deals, be they political or commercial, without recourse to human resources and intellectual capital available to them. And this applies to all leaders and organisations whether that leader is George W. Bush, Salva Kiir Mayardit, Yoweri Museveni, or Joseph Kony. None of them should be deprived or blamed for seeking the help or surrounding themselves with those in the know when negotiating an important agreement.

John Prendergast and the Crisis Group can still play an important role to enlighten the international community about root causes to war in Northern Uganda and help to bring about a lasting peace in the region through a more objective analysis of facts on the ground, without allowing prejudice of any sort to colour their judgment.

And as I have argued elsewhere, the root causes of war in Northern Uganda are not very different from problems faced by Ethiopia (before breakaway of Eritrea), and Sudan. The causes are mainly those of political and economic marginalisation. With and without Kony and the LRA, there will always be instability until these causes are addressed. Devolution of power could be key to stopping future wars and disintegration of Uganda as one nation. Northern Ugandans have read Sudan CPA and Darfur Comprehensive Peace Agreement (DCPA). To imitate and follow the foot steps of Southerners and Darfurians in Sudan is extremely central and natural human trait. We do ourselves no favour pretending that Northern Ugandans as well as those in Teso and West Bank of the Nile in Uganda will not call for rethinking the unity of Uganda on new basis and new terms. A quest for freedom is infectious. No one can stop it.

The Interference by the ICC (International Criminal Court)

The ICC bungled and selective justice has sought to prosecute one party in conflict (the LRA) while excusing the other (the government of Uganda and Ugandan People Defence Force). A Southern Sudanese studying political sciences at University of Tasmania in Australia once commented in my blog about the ICC:

“I don't really understand why Museveni and his government has miserably failed to solve their own problems with the LRA? Meanwhile the ICC itself is "crippled", with dyfunctional frameworks, can only punish the weak and excuse the strong.”

The ICC is an unwanted guest in Northern Uganda. It is working very hard to lengthen the nightmare suffered by the people of region for more than 2 decades. And despite persuasion by many human rights advocates that the ICC will gain more moral ground by giving the grass root efforts a chance to resolve the conflict peacefully. However, the Hague court is chasing the Ugandan problem with wrong weapon, while risking moral self-annihilation. So long as the ICC continues to pursue its case against LRA leaders, it will remain one of prime inhibitors of progress in Juba peace talks.

The Lack of Seriousness by the Government of Uganda

According to a document circulated recently by LRA /M singed by Martin Ojul, the leader of LRA/M negotiating team, every proposal put forward by them was rejected by the Ugandan government delegation without providing any acceptable alternative. Top of demands made by LRA/M are conducting a national referendum on federal system in the next 2 years, establishment of independent electoral commission, setting up a commission for rehabilitation and reconstruction of northern and eastern Uganda, establishment of 2 legislative houses, among others. All have been rejected. What sort of negotiation is this without compromise?

Administrative Problems at Peace Secretariat in Juba

Despite generous donations by members of international community to fund Juba peace talks, the LRA delegation has complained of thrift and poor provision as shown by meagre personal allowances (not exceeding $70 a day). The delegation could not afford computing equipment, and stationary. Many could not pay short visits to their families in Europe and it was difficult hard for them to get tickets to fly home over Christmas. This is despite the fact that Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, the US, Canada, and other donors have donated more than $10m. During negotiation, these people should have been paid generously and accorded a VIP treatment because many of them had left their jobs to spend months and months in Juba to do their people’s bidding. They have also left behind their families with no one to care for them. One would have hoped that the Dr Machar could have been a little more generous, more sensitive, and a bit more pragmatic. He has done his best despite being busy with other government responsibilities, and it will be better if somebody else shoulders the role of mediation if GOSS insists on Juba as the next venue of peace talks.

Concluding Remarks

The ingredients that helped in bringing about a successful conclusion of Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Naivasha, Kenya in 2005 are mostly missing. Chief of which are the limited experience of GOSS in mediating in conflicts of this nature, the closeness of GOSS to president Museveni, the interference by ICC, and the misunderstanding by some members of international community of the true nature of conflict and its root causes, and the refusal by the government of Uganda to agree to a political settlement that will address the root causes.

There is no doubt the government of Southern Sudan has started a vital process which brought the issue of war in Northern Uganda to the fore. We must appreciate what the GOSS has done so far despite the above challenges. But as regard to moving process forward to address the root causes to war and find a political settlement, GOSS and all the stakeholders must evaluate their options including considering the change of the venue and the mediator.
It would be unwise for both the government of Southern Sudan and the Ugandan government to continue to insist on mediation of Dr Machar and Juba as a venue when one party to the talks has lost confidence in the venue and the mediator.

In 21st century, compromise, creativity, and flexibility are key to survival and well being of any society. Hence, let us think of a new country, a new chief mediator, a role for Southern Sudan and new role for Machar or someone else.

Change of venue and the trying out new ideas such as those on the table may positively alter negotiating atmosphere (currently poisoned by mistrust), and may unlock the gate to real progress if not a settlement that meets the needs of all and creates a road map for a more peaceful Uganda and a prosperous Great Lakes in the years to come.

Let not the bright future in store for our East African and Great Lakes region be hostage to the narrow interests of a few. Beyond the mountain of our human self-inhibition lies a land of unlimited possibilities for all the people of the region.

Let us all overcome.


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