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Uganda/Sudan: Two women peace negotiators reflect on their experiences

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A meeting organized by the Geneva based Center for humanitarian dialogue in Nairobi brought together women who played leading roles in peace processes in Africa to learn from their shared experiences. Two of the participants, Betty Bigombe and Santa Okot played key roles in the Ugandan peace process. Louise Tunbridge of IRIN Radio began by asking Betty Bigombe, who was one of the mediators, to reflect on what she might have done differently.

Bigombe: Yes, there are areas that I know I went wrong. In any peace processes, in fact often times when I am asked, what would you do differently in peace negotiations and I would say I would first start mediating among mediators because there is always proliferation of mediators. And there is so much back stabbing, there is so much rivalry. And it is one of the areas that I did not pay much attention to. I was so naïve enough to believe that everybody wanted peace. Even the soldiers wanted peace. There were also economic benefits out of the war and therefore wanted it to continue. Those are things I did not guard against and did not really put a framework or a mechanism of trying to deal with such issues that eventually undermine the peace process.

Tunbridge: As a woman trying to step in and mediate a very violent conflict, what is it like?

Bigombe: You first have to prove you matter. And that took a little bit of time. There was a lot of reaction. A lot of reaction - the rebels felt they were insulted that there was a woman sent to deal with this, this is a male domain, and therefore, we told you that the President was not serious about this. Even the women, I mean the perception was still that "no there is lack of seriousness in here". So it takes really reaching out to the grassroots and showing seriousness. It also takes taking lots of risks. I have been ambushed, I have landmines that were planted for me blow up people. Even when going for the first meetings with the rebel leaders, I knew that there were possibilities of not coming back alive. So, it takes that for people to start believing that actually women can do it and probably get more serious and less diverted by making economic gains out of the power process.

Tunbridge: You ended up being seen as a mother figure, didn't you? And even being called "Mother", can you explain?

Bigombe: Yeah, well, I suppose it is how you communicate with them. I believe we women exhibit more patience. I believe women are better listeners than men. Men will probably be looking at their watches, "I have to go because there is this doing". I would sit all night long, sitting and listening. And my approach was not to lecture to them, if you pick up a weapon to fight, it means you have issues. It is not like going for games. So, I want to listen to that.

Tunbridge: But to be classified as a sort of mother figure, is that where women in mediation want to be or is that pigeon holing women into this eternal mother figure?

Bigombe: You know these are some of the values that other mediators have not realized. It is a process that they can build confidence. You are also being tested all the time on your ability to be neutral, to understand what they are talking about. They are watching whether you really understand, whether you appreciate and whether you look at things their way. And that is the kind of thing that can win the hearts and I am saying this, that women can do this much better than men can.

Tunbridge: That is Betty Bigombe. When fresh talks to end the same LRA conflict began in Juba, Southern Sudan in 2006, Santa Okot was telephoned by the LRA leadership and asked to represent them in the peace talks as their negotiator. At that time, she was a teacher and had been involved in local politics in Uganda. She also had a young family. I asked Santa Okot if it was difficult to represent the LRA rebels, given their reputation for carrying out atrocities.

Okot: Yeah, it was a very difficult task and very difficult to move in the community up to now because then, you know all this period they say, Kony is a killer, is a terrorist, you know this and that, and one would feel that if you go there immediately, you are killed. But for us, when we went there, he received us very well and I had a discussion with him. He told me why he started the war, and why he invited me to go and help him on his side and so on and so forth. So, he gave me a lot of courage. But I had a lot of fear from the government because at the initial stage the President himself called me on the phone and told me to get out of Juba. The fear which I had, the stigma which I had was that wherever I could come back, I was not be free with the community. I know my children were traumatized because one of my eldest daughters asked me, of all places, why did you go to the other side? I explained to her and said you know we want peace for the grandmothers, the grandfathers, they have got to be alright and there is no problem so she understood.

Tubridge: What do you think you personally managed to achieve during the peace process?

Okot: To put the issues of women on the table because the women were the ones who suffered the most and the children. We advocated also for a special fund to be put for the women who suffered during the war. And it is in the agreement. On that it is not signed. Each time I would go to the rebel camp, the LRA, everyone would want to talk to me. So, that shows that they value the woman as a mother.

Santa Okot, negotiator for Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army during the failed Uganda peace talks, speaking to IRIN Radio's Louise Tunbridge.

Producer: Louise Tunbridge
duration: 5'44"