Despite getting off to a rocky start this month, peace talks to bring an end to the brutal 19-year war in northern Uganda were adjourned this week with mediator Riek Machar citing "substantial progress."
The talks between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government are still regarded as the best chance in years to bring an end to the war. But the fractious first week has dampened hopes of an agreement before the Sept. 12 deadline set by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
The talks are set to restart in the hot, dusty southern Sudanese capital of Juba next week, but some observers are saying a breakthrough may be more likely this week, hundreds of miles to the west in the densely forested border region between Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is where LRA leader Joseph Kony has been holed up in recent months. Mr. Machar, the vice president of the regional government of southern Sudan, is expected to lead a group of LRA family members – including Mr. Kony's mother – to meet with Kony directly this week. A large delegation of traditional and religious leaders from northern Uganda is also expected to visit.
Cathy Clement, central Africa director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, describes these planned meetings as a "very important and promising development." She points out that, "What the LRA wants is to go back to northern Uganda, and they need to meet with the traditional leaders to make peace [with them] for that to be possible."
In past peace talks, it has become clear to negotiators that Kony's primary concern is his personal safety. Any such guarantees will have to include ritual reconciliation ceremonies that can only be sanctioned by traditional leaders.
The LRA has been busy recasting itself as a politically motivated movement with legitimate grievances. The LRA's reinvention began this spring with video footage and interviews in which Kony appears well groomed in a smart army uniform, talking of peace and denying involvement in war crimes.
Every chance it gets, the rebel delegation emphasizes its struggle on behalf of marginalized people in northern and eastern Uganda. The LRA claims this constituency despite the suffering that has resulted from the conflict, with 1.7 million living in squalid displacement camps, and more than 20,000 northern children abducted.
In the first days of talks this month, the LRA delegation came out fighting and accused Mr. Museveni of leading a corrupt ethnic-based government. Its 6,000-word position statement called for an immediate cease-fire, the dismantling of the national army, and a political and economic power-sharing deal.
The government delegation led by Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda immediately rejected the cease-fire demand, saying that in the past cease-fires had been used by the LRA to regroup before launching more attacks and that no cease-fire could be agreed to until a comprehensive settlement was reached.
The gap between the delegations is wide and deep. The government is loath to discuss much more than the terms of an LRA surrender, something the rebels will not accept, warning that the Ugandan army would be in for a "rude surprise" if it thought the LRA was defeated.
Despite the LRA's combative approach, Capt. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the government delegation, said the talks will continue and that the government was prepared to compromise. "We were disappointed with the way the LRA presented their position," he says, "but we will not be diverted [from the peace talks]."