By Alexis Okeowo in Kampala (AR No. 113, 24-May-07)
There are hopes that that the peace process in northern Uganda will start moving forward again after the Kampala government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army signed a new truce and agreed to resume negotiations from May 31.
It is widely hoped that the talks, underpinned by a new two-month truce agreed on May 19 and lasting until the end of July, will lead to an end to the 21-year old conflict that has resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths and displaced nearly two million people.
The Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, has spread terror throughout northern Uganda by massacring and disfiguring civilians. The rebels have also abducted an estimated 20,000 children to serve as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. Northern civilians have also accused government soldiers of atrocities.
The International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague has indicted LRA leader Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and two other commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although it was President Yoweri Museveni who invited the ICC to work in Uganda, he has since offered LRA leaders an amnesty from domestic prosecution in exchange for a peace deal.
Negotiations in the South Sudan capital Juba stalled in January after the LRA announced that they were walking out because they were worried about their safety. They accused mediators from the South Sudan government of bias, and demanded a new venue and new mediators.
The venue will remain in Juba when the talks resume, but there will be new monitors from Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique. The United Nations special envoy to northern Uganda, former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, will also aid the mediation process.
Although the final agreement to resume talks was reached on May 19, the groundwork was laid in mid-April when the Ugandan government's lead negotiator, Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, Chissano and the elusive Kony met in the village of Ri-Kwangba in Sudan. There they secured an initial agreement to resume peace negotiations.
Ri-Kwangba is on Sudan's southwestern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo; most of Kony's fighters now operate from forest bases in northeastern Congo. The Ri-Kwangba deal stipulated that the LRA guerillas be given a six-week deadline to assemble in the village and that they be given security guarantees.
"We only need the way [to Ri-Kwangba] to be open - we don't need any protection," said LRA spokesman Obonyo Olweny. He added that he believed that this time, the LRA fighters would move to the base freely if the Ugandan and southern Sudanese armies refrained from attacking them.
The Ugandan government military accused the LRA of jeopardising the potential truce when rebels attacked a village in northern Uganda and killed seven civilians on April 30.
"They undressed the seven, tied their hands behind their backs and used clubs to smash them on the heads and kill them," said Lieutenant Chris Magezi, who did not identify the village concerned. "This is a blatant violation of the truce agreement, and an indication of the lack of seriousness on the part of the rebels to pursue a peace deal with the government."
However, this hurdle seems to have been overcome, and the May 31 reopening of peace negotiations is on track for the time being.
The LRA is primarily composed of former soldiers from the north who left the army after a southern president, Yoweri Museveni, came to power in a guerrilla offensive waged by his own southern-dominated rebel National Resistance Army in 1986. Disgruntled northerners left the new Ugandan army and began a campaign, in the shape of the LRA, to regain power, forcing women and children to join their ranks.
The LRA established bases in northeastern Congo and southern Sudan, contributing to the serious instability in both those regions.
A major hurdle for the truce will be the ICC indictments against the four LRA leaders, who insist there will be no peace deal unless the indictments are withdrawn. The ICC has repeatedly refused to drop its charges.
"[LRA leaders] are of the opinion that the indictments should be withdrawn before we can reach a conclusive peace agreement. However, we told them that we cannot withdraw the case unless we have signed an agreement with them," Rugunda told reporters.
He added that the ICC charges would be the first item on the agenda when the talks restart.
However, the ICC indictments will prove a formidable obstacle to overcome. On May 25, Sky News broadcast a televised interview with LRA deputy Leader Vincent Otti in which he threatened a return to war unless the ICC charges are dropped.
Interviewed by Sky correspondent Stuart Ramsay at a remote spot on the Sudan-Congo border, Otti said, "We cannot go back to Uganda without lifting these indictments. That is impossible. We cannot go, and without our going none of the other soldiers can go. But we can fight.
"If they [the ICC prosecutors] refuse, then the war will continue. I am prepared to do anything - even war. I am ready for war. If they don't drop the indictments you will see that we have enough to capture power. We were seven [people, when the LRA was formed in 1986]. Now we are thousands. Everybody in Uganda wants change but they can't do anything without the barrel of a gun."
Ramsay said that in the three days he spent in the LRA camp, he saw at least 100 heavily-armed soldiers, some of them aged only 14 or 15.
"Most sport dreadlocks and wear combat fatigues and T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of gangsta-rap stars such as 50 Cent," the Sky TV man said. "Women, girls and children are kept out of sight, although I saw at least 20 aged between 15 and 20 carrying out chores and fetching water."
Past agreements that required the LRA to move to specific assembly points have been marred by accusations of ceasefire violations on both sides.
It remains to be seen whether the LRA fighters will all congregate at the designated area this time around, but government negotiators remain optimistic. The landmark peace talks began in July 2006, but have stalled frequently since then.
Alexis Okeowo is a reporter for the IWPR Africa Report based in Kampala.