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Uganda: Kony’s concern for personal safety undermines whole peace process

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Last week the populations of northern Uganda, southern Sudan, northeast Congo and southeast Central African Republic looked with impatience to Juba, where a great ceremony already was prepared to celebrate the first serious step in the ending of the twenty-two year old conflict in northern Uganda. Unfortunately the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) leader, Joseph Kony, suspended the peace talks at the last moment by refusing to sign the Final Peace Agreement. In the same breath he dissolved his peace talk team and fired his negotiator in Juba. Kony justifies his actions by stating that he is misled in the solution to resolve the conflict.

First, according to him, there is lack of credible environment of dialogue. The mediator between the LRA and Museveni’s government, the vice-president of the southern Sudan government, Riek Machar, wouldn’t be neutral given his collaboration with the latter. The second reason is the lack of understanding and full commitment by the international community. Kony describes the UN special envoy, Joachim Alberto Chissano, former President of Mozambique, as incompetent and inexperienced in all fields of conflict resolution. Kony has certainly right when he states that the international community has difficulties to understand the conflict and never showed full commitment to stop the violence, nevertheless it must be clear that the real reason for not signing the Final Peace Agreement, which contains all the substantive agreements reached between the two parties in Juba since July 2006, is the fear of being persecuted for committed atrocities, together with a lack of desire to come to a peace agreement. Although the Ugandan government and the LRA agreed (in the reconciliation and accountability agreement of June 2007) to establish a domestic legal framework as a substitute for prosecutions by the International Criminal Court (ICC), it seems to be that Kony and the other LRA commanders against whom the ICC has issued arrest warrants, don’t trust Museveni. Additional they complain what they call ‘selective justice’ on behalf of the ICC, given the fact that it doesn’t accuse the Uganda’s army, neither the Ugandan government of human right abuses or crimes, whereas it’s known that both have committed grave abuses during the twenty-two years of conflict.

The other reason for the withdrawal of the peace talks is that the LRA is getting more from the peace process than it is giving. Prior to the start of the process, the LRA was fragmented, under military pressure and desperate for food. Now, in return for negotiating, it received food, money and security. The problem with this relief effort is that it is estimated on the existence of 5,000 combatants, women and children around Garamba National Park (LRA’s hiding place in North Congo). However, this number is based on the LRA’s own projections and more reliable estimates point at no more than 3,500 combatants. There are rumours that the LRA are burying food for future use and trading food for supplies at local markets in Congo. At the same time it profits of its relative security to forge alliances with other rebel groups and militias in the region and to recruit, resupply and train. According to Machar, the LRA has abducted 55 children in south Sudan during the last weeks. Hence, the rebel group has some good motives to stall the peace process. However, there seems to be discord in the LRA, giving the fact that this week nine members were killed, including a top commander, Okot Odhiambo, by or ordered by Kony over differences about the proposed agreement. Nevertheless, it seems to be that the LRA has another reason to hold up the peace process as there are rumours that the rebels retain their relationship with Khartoum, who’s mainly interested in ensuring that the LRA survives the next few years so that it can be used as a possible proxy against the SPLM/A. Such a strategy sounds all the more feasible if South Sudan chooses independence in 2011, depriving in such an act the north almost entirely of its single most important revenue, oil. 

The experience learns also not to overestimate the political will on behalf of Museveni to come to a peaceful end of the conflict or even more, to come to an end at all. If one pattern arises with regard to negotiations, it is that the Ugandan government starts negotiations with Kony only to sabotage the talks at the key moment. Precedents were shaped in 1988 and in 1994. The Ugandan government and the Ugandan army have both political and economical interest in maintaining the conflict. Politically, the conflict prevents any step towards the political organization among the Acholi, who are perceived as a potential challenge to Museveni’s hold on power. The existence of the LRA allows the government to silence political opposition and to blame Kony for the underdevelopment of the Acholi population. Additionally, the continuation of the war –but also other reasons- provides Museveni significant American military aid and diplomatic support by describing the LRA as terrorists. Economically, the prolongation of the conflict justifies high levels of defense spending, which created a constituency within the army for its continuation.       

Hence, to keep the peace process moving forward, the international community must keep pressure on both parties by increasing the costs of further war, limiting the room for manoeuvre and reducing the opportunities for spoilers. In practice this means that there must be a significant military threat to the presence of the LRA in northeast Congo, preferably by deploying MONUC troops in the area and at the same time making its operations in northern Uganda and southern Sudan untenable. A solution concerning the personal safety of the LRA leaders can be letting them find refugee abroad. The problem with the latter is that it can create another precedent of impunity for the most serious crimes and atrocities and besides will undermine the ICC’s deterrent value and its capacity to pursue other cases (for example Darfur).

Pressure must also be carried out on Museveni, making clear that there can be no military solution. Given their influence on Museveni, the military capacity and intelligence assets, Washington and London can play an important role in that. Museveni has to understand that if the political, economical and social marginalization of the Acholi holds on, there will still be a breeding ground for actors as Kony, nonetheless the Acholi population yearns for peace. But peace may not come at expense of justice. Long-term redevelopment in northern Uganda and to redress the grievances of the Acholi population –the decimation of their cattle herds, the economic devastation of their region and their political exclusion on the national level- is the best approach to end the violence and for that it may not be coupled to a successful ending of the talks. Although since the start of the negotiations in July 2006 400,000 northern Ugandans returned to home, there are still more than 640,000 Acholi’s in camps set up by the government in 1996. Only nine percent of all Acholi’s who lived in the camps, have already returned to their villages of origin.

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