For a couple of decades, Uganda has been viewed as a model of development in Africa. The only glaring blemish on Uganda's cheek has been its failure and perceived unwillingness to resolve the conflict in Northern Uganda.
But if Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni expects his ongoing attack on the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to achieve the results of destroying the rebel group, capturing its elusive leader, and clearing that blemish, he is overly optimistic. In effect, by pursuing a publicity stunt, he may have squandered an opportunity to nurture peace in the region.
Thanks to his December attack, the relative reprieve that had been established for two and a half years has unraveled.
It's not just that violence breeds violence; after 20 years of dealing with Joseph Kony's LRA and its terrorizing of Northern Uganda, Mr. Museveni should have known better.
The war caused the displacement of approximately 2 million; the LRA murdered tens of thousands; and it abducted and absorbed approximately 30,000 children into its ranks.
Attacks diminished over the past two and a half years and were mostly confined to neighboring countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and south Sudan. But if any question lingered about the LRA's enduring capacity to horrify, the past few weeks have reminded us. The LRA has been committing atrocities in northeastern Congo, killing as many as 900 people, abducting some 200, displacing around 130,000 and generating fears of their return to Northern Uganda.
These atrocities come as a result of – and perhaps in retaliation against – the offensive not only from Uganda, but also from south Sudan and Congo. On Dec.14, the on-again, off-again negotiations with the rebel group – a source of frustration for the displaced persons in the region, for the Ugandan government, and for the international players – came to a head. The three countries united forces in an unprecedented joint ambush on the rebels at their base in Congo.
Justified as the offensive may seem, the timing was also politically suspect. Museveni has so successfully courted the international community, that 40 percent of the Ugandan national budget consists of foreign aid, most of it from the US. And Uganda has been nicely rewarded for its successes by securing a rotating seat in the UN Security Council.
Sometimes, however, maintaining a good image is more difficult than creating a good image in the first place.
With a new US administration that places an emphasis on human rights, it's probably a good idea to seem proactive.
East Africans have high hopes for the priority President Obama will give them, based on his ethnic heritage. And with a seat on the Security Council, it might be wise for Uganda to clean up its own backyard in order not to lose any of its good standing. Because its backyard includes Congo and south Sudan, it makes sense for the offensive to have been a unified endeavor, despite the historic rivalries in this Great Lakes region.
Of course, positive PR can't hurt any of those countries – Congo with its troubles in the southeast and Sudan with its hands full, as well. Sudanese Vice President Salva Kiir was able to exploit some of this positive PR in his meeting earlier this month with President Bush.
Sadly, the ambush was inadequately executed and poorly planned. And it's for this reason that – as far as we can tell – the LRA seems to have gotten away fairly unscathed, in spite of the alleged capture and surrender of approximately 40 rebels.
US-based advocacy groups have long cautioned against this kind of ambush for that very reason. Rather than ending anything, its most immediate impact has been to trigger a new wave of LRA atrocities in the Congo – murdering, abducting, and displacing hundreds.
For the Ugandan government to prove its commitment to peace efforts in the region and maintain its good stead in the international community, it must focus on the welfare of its people and attempt to halt the conflict. The joint forces should stop their offensive, keeping troops on the ground to receive any escapees – child soldiers and other abducted individuals who were forced into the rebel ranks.
With the continued coordination of Uganda's neighbors, peace negotiations should resume. The Ugandan government must renew the Peace, Recovery, and Development Plan with uncompromising dedication in order to assist the people of Northern Uganda in their recovery.
The international community can affirm this effort by supporting peace negotiations, critically evaluating the most effective way to punish LRA leaders, and pressuring Uganda to uphold its responsibility to its citizens in the North. The victims of the LRA don't need a publicity stunt; they need a concerted attempt to resolve the conflict.
[Editor's note: The original subhead mischaracterized where the attacks took place. They took place at the LRA's base in the Democratic Republic of Congo.]