Thursday, July 19, 2007


After a year of stormy peace talks, the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) think a deal ending one of Africa’s longest and most brutal conflicts is still within grasp.

The negotiations have been tortuous and intermittent since they kicked off in the southern Sudan town of Juba on July 14 last year, but both sides point out that violence has ebbed.

Top government negotiator Ruhakana Rugunda argued that keeping the two archfoes at the same table after two decades of a war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2 million was in itself an achievement.

“The fact that the government has had structured, productive and sustained talks with the LRA for the first time is a positive thing,” he said.

“We have also had Ugandans speaking with one voice as far as peace is concerned.”

A cessation of hostilities was signed on Aug. 26 and violence in the northern part of the country affected by the conflict has receded, despite several grave violations by both sides.

LRA spokesman Godfrey Ayoo was equally upbeat about the peace process.

“For the first time in the history of the rebellion, both ourselves and the government have accepted that there is a political problem, which needs a political solution, and the entire country is speaking with one voice,” he said.

After a breakdown in talks, the two sides resumed negotiations in April, leading to the signing late last month of a protocol on accountability.

In 2005, the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted LRA chief Joseph Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and three other commanders for crimes against humanity — specifically, murder, rape, mutilations and mass abductions.

Arrest warrants were issued against them, prompting LRA threats to withdraw from the peace process, but the third phase of the five-stage agreement being negotiated provides for a local justice mechanism.

But the ICC obstacle has yet to be removed, with the government so far refusing to urge the court to rescind the charges against LRA leaders.

“ICC remains a big stumbling block to peace in Uganda,” Mr. Ayoo said in a recent interview.

Observers have argued the government should make the most of the relative stability that has returned to northern Uganda by deploying police to further secure the area and allow a return to normality.

UNICEF spokesman Chulho Hyun noted, however, that no large-scale return of displaced people has yet occurred, nor has the LRA released the estimated 1,500 women and children it is believed to hold in slavery.

“The right of access to essential services in health, nutrition, safe water, education, protection and shelter by the most vulnerable populations in the most disadvantaged parts of the districts remains largely unfulfilled,” he said in a recent statement.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, only 55,000 persons have returned to their villages of origin in the Acholi region most affected by the war, while more than a million from the same area remain in camps.

Mr. Rugunda said he hoped the stop-start peace talks would pick up pace.

“The year has been well-spent. We would have liked to have moved more quickly, but a few factors came up that one would not ignore. But we remain determined to see a more speedy process,” he said.

Walter Ochola, a local elder who has acted as a mediator between the two negotiating teams, argued that too much had already been covered in the talks for either side to renege on their commitments.

“They have already handled three out of five items on the agenda. This is a great achievement,” he said.

“The way I see this process, with the achievements already recorded, there is now no turning back.”

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