Uganda: Laying Ghosts and Making Peace
18 December 2008
Juba — "They are ghosts behind trees. You don't see them until they come up behind you."
Sitting in the afternoon sun of a dusty courtyard in Juba, this overgrown African village that is now Southern Sudan's capital, a veteran humanitarian worker explained how the roughly 1,000 insurgents belonging to the Lord's Resistance Army – the LRA – continue to defy four states and keep millions in distress in east central Africa.
"They're the world's best bush guerrillas" was the simple conclusion, which is why the dramatic attack this week on their bases along the tri-border area by Ugandan special forces -- assisted by Southern Sudan and Congo troops -- is unlikely to have done much more than kill women and children and make the peace process even more difficult.
The LRA is unsurpassed for violence against civilians, including killings, rapes and kidnappings of children who are turned into soldiers and sex slaves. Its leader, Joseph Kony, claims to communicate with God and fight for his Acholi tribe of Northern Uganda, but many of the crimes have been committed against those same people.
Two years ago, there was a sliver of optimism after Kony's representatives and the Ugandan government began to negotiate peace in this town. But the process seems at a dead end. On 29 November Kony again failed to come out of the bush to sign the deal at the appointed hour -- his fourth "no-show" in seven months.
Understandably, patience has worn thin among those trying to seal peace: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the special UN representative, the Southern Sudan vice president who facilitated negotiations and donors like the U.S.
Peace is still possible, but only if three truths are recognised. First, the Juba agreements are deficient in two ways. The LRA is no longer really just an issue for Northern Uganda. Since it moved operations to Sudan, established a base in the Congo's Garamba Park and began to raid in the Central African Republic, its composition has changed radically. Probably more than half its fighters are now Sudanese. Even if Kony wants to sign – by no means certain – they probably would not let him.
Moreover, Kony and several top commanders have been indicted for atrocity crimes by the International Criminal Court. His desire to escape trial and prison in The Hague likely helped bring the LRA into negotiations, but now the threat of legal action could be keeping him in hiding. Uganda is preparing his trial by a special division of its High Court under circumstances that could ultimately persuade the International Criminal Court and UN Security Council to set aside the international indictments. But no one has adequately described terms to the reclusive Kony.
The UN and the African Union should jointly mandate a special representative to try shuttle diplomacy directly with Kony over terms for the LRA's Sudanese elements similar to those offered his Ugandans and about guarantees for his fair trial in Africa.
Likely nothing will persuade Kony to allow his fighters to be disarmed and to submit himself to a legal process that would expose him to long prison time. The second need, therefore, is to quarantine the LRA so it cannot return to Uganda and is no longer on call if Sudan's long-ruling National Congress Party decides to destabilise elections in Southern Sudan next year or revoke its promise to allow the South to vote on independence in 2011.
No conceivable force in the region has the capability to wipe out these "ghost" guerrillas. But they could be kept in their isolated Garamba stronghold by a screening force of AU or UN peacekeepers around that park and along the common border areas of Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic, perhaps with contributions from states like Kenya, which has Luo speaking-soldiers who can communicate with LRA fighters.
Finally, Northern Uganda is quiet – for now. The LRA never represented its people, but there are bitter feelings in the North of victimisation, disenfranchisement and marginalisation. The Juba protocols promise a new deal that the Musevini government says it will carry out whether or not Kony signs, but its record is not encouraging.
Here is where donor countries are essential. They must keep Kampala to its word and not, as Washington has tended to do, take the increasingly undemocratic Museveni at face value because of his anti-terrorism stance.
Pressure needs to be applied so a promised stakeholders conference becomes a vehicle for Northerners to share in planning and executing a reconstruction program that could otherwise become a regime pork barrel and land grab, and so a truth and reconciliation commission can reveal not only LRA but also army misdeeds in the long conflict.
If these actions are taken, the LRA will no longer be a threat, even if Kony hides from justice. Otherwise, the "ghost" soldiers will still haunt the borderlands, and one day a new insurgency is likely to arise in Northern Uganda.