Global Policy Forum

Peace Eludes Northern Region Again

Integrated Regional Information Networks
January 4, 2005

A small crowd of local officials, UN staff, diplomats, religious leaders and reporters sat waiting on the grounds of a hotel in the northern Ugandan town of Kitgum on Friday. They were undeterred by the hot breeze blowing across the dry tropical savannah, simply waiting and hoping that a historic moment was about to herald a new era of peace in the region.

The sky darkened as clouds gathered over the horizon. "The rain is a sign of fortune," Ogenga Latigo, a member of parliament from the area, said.

Like many in the crowd, he was confident that the government would sign a ceasefire agreement with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), paving the way for talks to try and end the brutal civil war, which has displaced more than 1.6 million people. The LRA has also abducted more than 20,000 children, forcing the boys to fight within its ranks and making sex slaves of the girls for its commanders. The UN has called the situation one of the world's most "forgotten" humanitarian crises.

The waiting continued. "My parents once complained that I was the most impatient person they have ever seen," an Italian missionary, Fr Carlos Rodriguez, joked. "I was later to prove them wrong - this is not a long wait considering what we have gone through."

Then the mediator between the government and the LRA, Betty Bigombe, appeared. A former Ugandan minister who attempted to seek peace in the conflict in 1994, Bigombe had just flown in on a helicopter from further north, near the Sudanese border, where she had been meeting LRA leaders, Western diplomats by her side. "A draft memorandum has been developed, but there have been delays which cannot permit us to sign the memorandum," she told reporters. "We shall inform you on the new date and venue of the signing."

An air of disappointment filled the room. "I hope they will get back to me on the specific areas of contention in the draft agreement," Bigombe added.

The religious leaders requested a copy of the memorandum. However, Ruhakana Rugunda, the Ugandan interior minister who had led the government team, said he preferred distributing a text mutually agreed upon by his team and the rebels. "This is the saddest day of my life," the Catholic Archbishop of Gulu, John Baptist Odama, who heads the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, told reporters after the announcement.

Thereafter, a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles, accompanied by Ugandan military vehicles, began the journey back to Gulu, some 100 km southwest of Kitgum. Gulu, 380 km north of Kampala, is the regional capital. Dusk had set in as the convoy snaked its way into the darkness. Still, even in twilight, scores of displaced people from the numerous camps stood along the road's edge, cheerfully waving at the vehicles. They apparently thought a ceasefire agreement had been clinched.

"This is dashed hope," Rodriguez told IRIN. "Those people are supposed to be indoors at night, but they have been waiting - thinking that this was a day of hope for them, which it has turned out not to be." Another religious leader predicted that the government would extend its unilateral ceasefire to allow further negotiations. The prediction was dashed as President Yoweri Museveni told a crowd celebrating New Year's Day in Gulu town that he would not renew the ceasefire which had expired minutes earlier. "The army will start full scale operations beginning 7 a.m. (04:00 GMT) on the 1st of January 2005," Museveni said. "Talks can continue outside Uganda, but the operations will not cease until Kony's group irreversibly commit themselves to come out of the bush."

Failed Promises

Rugunda's team and the LRA negotiators, headed by its spokesman, Brig Sam Kolo, held their first face-to-face meeting in Kitgum on 29 December. "I had a positive impression [of the talks]," Rugunda told IRIN after the meeting. "They [LRA] told me that they have agreed and want to resolve all the issues through dialogue, not war."

Bigombe told IRIN: "They discussed the ceasefire agenda and an agreement will hopefully be signed in the next two days. I am now drafting the ceasefire document to be given to them for discussion." Sources said Kony told the LRA delegation not to sign the ceasefire agreement until they had consulted. Ugandan officials said they believed the LRA was not serious about ending the conflict.

Many ordinary people caught in the cross hairs of the conflict were disappointed. "War will not solve our problems," Margaret Odongoyet, a displaced mother of six in Gulu told IRIN. "I wish both sides could understand this. The president should know that fighting has failed for the past 18 years - it will not solve this problem for good."

Several civilians said they felt the government had failed the peace negotiations by rushing the LRA into accepting a draft agreement proposed by the government, while at the same time giving ultimatums to the rebels and threatening to kill their leaders. "They give them [the LRA] short periods," George Ocan told reporters. "Let the rebels be given more time to sort themselves out and understand the agreement they have to sign."

Bigombe presided over a peace initiative in 1994 that collapsed after Museveni called on the insurgents to surrender or "face the might of the army". Several peace initiatives have been launched since, but have all failed to end the war, which began in 1988 when LRA rebels took up arms against the government, ostensibly to fight for greater recognition for the Acholi region.




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.