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Africa's peace seekers: Betty Bigombe

Betty Bigombe spends her days talking to rebels and Army officers in Uganda's bush country. She is one of Africa's peace seekers - individuals willing to leave loved ones behind, shrug off personal threats, and even spend significant amounts of their own money to end some of the continent's most intractable conflicts. Part 2 of three.

(Page 3 of 4)

"Hello, Mr. President," she answered in her gravelly voice.

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The tirade continued. Mr. Museveni had declared a unilateral cease-fire to give rebels time to move toward peace. But his patience was wearing thin. Bigombe wanted an extension. He implied he was ready to end the cease-fire and loose the military on the rebels.

At first, Bigombe responded quietly, trying to soothe: "Do you want the killing to stop?"

But he continued, ending with: "Don't you ever ask me again for an extension" of the cease-fire.

So she just remained silent. Bigombe spends hours every day talking on her two cellphones - coaxing, encouraging, and scolding the Army commanders, President Museveni, and rebels. But sometimes one of her most powerful tools is not talking at all. In the ego-heavy circle of guerrilla commanders, Ugandan military officers, and heads of state, she says, silence works wonders.

After a few quiet moments, Museveni said, in a slightly repentant tone, "OK, Betty." Then he began listening. He eventually extended the cease-fire from its original seven days to 47.

This episode "shows the president is patient," says his spokesman, Onapito Ekomoloit, even though he's skeptical the rebels want peace. "They have never been serious," he says. "They have never been sincere."

Rebel commanders also call Bigombe from their satellite phones in fits of rage, she says. They demand, for instance, that Uganda's Army withdraw fully from the north.

Bigombe goes quiet. After a while, the commander often asks, "Are you still there?"

Eventually he barks, "I'll call you back in 30 minutes." When he does, she says with a knowing smile, he's "much more reasonable."

"When I go silent, they know I'm not pleased," she explains. It sends a simple message: "Do you want to blow it all up - or move toward peace?"

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Several recent changes, experts say, have improved the prospects for peace.

• Donor nations are pressuring Museveni to end the war. After largely ignoring the conflict for years, outside powers now worry about the scale of the humanitarian crisis and its destabilizing effects on the region. The US is providing "nonmilitary" support to Uganda's Army. But that's not enough, argues John Prendergast of International Crisis Group in Washington: "The lack of a direct American role - when both sides of the equation care more about the Americans than any other government - tells you the peace process is going to have tremendous limitations" despite Bigombe's efforts. He urges President Bush to appoint a high-level envoy, as he did in Sudan, to support Bigombe.

• The tactics of Uganda's long-ineffective Army have improved, in part because of US help. Fresh battlefield victories make Army commanders, now in a stronger position, more supportive of talks. Yet there's an economic incentive to prolong the war. The Acholi Inn where Bigombe stays, for instance, is owned by a top army commander. The war helps keep the motel full of diplomats, aid workers, and others. Commanders "deliberately misinform the president" to extend the war, says one source who requested anonymity.

• The LRA has lost most support from its long-time patron, the government of neighboring Sudan, whose leaders had long accused Uganda of backing Sudanese rebels in their 21-year civil war. So tit for tat, Sudan supported the LRA. But when Sudan signed a peace deal with its rebels in January, it no longer needed the LRA.

Last December, amid these changes, Bigombe engineered the first face-to-face talks between the government and the LRA in a decade. Hopes were high for a full cease-fire and a start to formal peace talks. But at the last minute, the deal collapsed. Both sides blame each other, and the fighting continues today.

The setback revived concern that Bigombe isn't tough enough to pull off peace. "She needs to be able to say, 'No!' to the government," says Sheikh Musa Khalil, a local religious leader.

It may be a matter of outside support. "A mediator must have leverage," says Paul Omach, a professor at Uganda's Makerere University. As an independent peace seeker, he argues, Bigombe has none. Whether it's her or someone else, "You need somebody with authority and power," he says.

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