Fresh hope for peace in northern Uganda?

Talks between LRA rebels and Uganda's government could begin as early as this week.

"What do we want?" asks David Onen Acana, paramount chief of northern Uganda's Acholi people. "Peace at any cost."

For two decades, war has raged here between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. Under the leadership of Joseph Kony, the LRA has murdered and mutilated civilians accused of collaborating with the army and abducts children as a main source of new recruits.

This brutal conflict has traumatized and exhausted the people of northern Uganda. But local leaders are cautiously optimistic that the war could draw to an end because of a new peace initiative opened up by Riek Machar, vice- president of neighboring southern Sudan.

Over the past eight weeks, Mr. Machar has orchestrated a series of face-to-face meetings with Mr. Kony, which observers see as a sign of trust between the two men. As second in command of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) Machar is also an ally of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

But the talks are threatened by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which issued warrants for the LRA leadership in October and wants Kony and his top commanders arrested for war crimes.

The ICC's credibility rests on its ability to end impunity toward human rights abuses and war crimes. The transfer of former Liberian President Charles Taylor to The Hague last week was a victory. The failure to put Kony and his top commanders in the dock, however, would seriously undermine the fledgling court.

Betty Bigombe, a former Ugandan government minister who was profiled last fall by the Monitor as part of a three-part series on African peaceseekers (see story online at csmonitor.com/2005/0913/p01s04-woaf.html), has for years sought to negotiate an end to the conflict. Reached by phone in the US, Ms. Bigombe says Machar should be supported in his efforts to bring Kony to the negotiating table. "Any initiative to end the war must be supported by all efforts," she says, adding that the ICC remains a "complication."

An army's new role as mediator

The SPLM's role as peace mediator is new. Up until a few months ago its army was engaged in regular battles with the LRA. But SPLM leaders recognize the need to remove the LRA threat from their territory if they are to bring stability and development to their neglected region.

Last week, Machar's overtures gained the support of US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, who argued that peace must come first, irrespective of ICC wishes. "If the government of Uganda can come to some agreement with the LRA, that has to be the priority, " she said on a visit to Uganda's capital.

That view echoes those of leaders in northern Uganda. "Peace has a higher value than anything else," says Norbert Mao, a top local government official. "I believe in the [ICC]. It is a great thing. But the chief prosecutor's mother is not in a displaced-persons camp.... We are grappling with, and living, a difficult reality."

Reality of life in northern Uganda

That reality, here in northern Uganda, includes the 1.8-million people living in squalid camps while thousands of children stream nightly into towns to avoid abduction by the LRA.

Others warn that the ICC should not undermine the opportunity for a negotiated peace. "This is the time for the ICC to keep quiet," argues Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who has been involved in previous failed attempts to negotiate peace with the LRA. "Something good is coming out, and threats to arrest Kony do no good, he says. "I'm not against the ICC but mark me well: If there is a peace process going on and you talk about arrests, I cannot understand you."

Archbishop Odama lays the blame for the failure of Bigombe's recent peace efforts squarely at the feet of the ICC.

"At the same time [that we were talking peace], everyone was saying the ICC will arrest [LRA leaders], and that derailed the peace process," he says. Since then, Bigombe has struggled to rebuild trust and make meaningful contact with LRA leaders.

The ICC has reiterated its position that states are obliged to arrest Kony and his commanders and bring them to face justice in The Hague. Two weeks ago, the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, dismissed the new peace initiative, saying it was just another example of Kony using negotiations to "buy time and regroup."

There is understandable skepticism given the failure of past negotiations, but those involved in previous talks say Machar has made remarkable progress in gaining Kony's trust.

"We should be optimistic and give support to this initiative with Machar," says Chief Acana, "because he has gone two steps further than anyone else in actually meeting with Kony face to face." A videotape released last month showed Machar meeting with Kony. In it, Machar was seen handing Kony $20,000. "Spend this on food, not weapons," he advised. Kony was heard to protest that he is a human being, too, and wants peace.

President Museveni says he will give Kony until the end of July to lay down his weapons, and has not ruled out extending amnesty to Kony. At the same time, his government has yet to send a high-level delegation to southern Sudan to meet with the LRA negotiating team, saying it must first establish the genuineness of the LRA team before engaging in any talks.

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