Since peace talks with Uganda’s rebels collapsed, some say war must resume
IN MARCH, after nearly two years of on-and-off peace talks, negotiators for Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) announced that their leader, Joseph Kony, an elusive self-styled mystic, was at last ready to emerge from the bush and sign a deal to end one of Africa’s longest wars. For two decades, the conflict had brought misery to a region bordering several countries (see map), left tens of thousands of people in northern Uganda dead, and displaced nearly 2m others. Earlier this year, the date for signing a peace deal approached. But at the last minute Mr Kony called off the event and sacked his negotiators. Now there is a danger the war may resume.
It is yet another humiliating setback for those who have advocated talking to a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. So those who have always argued for taking a tougher stand against the LRA, such as Uganda’s senior soldiers, have the upper hand again. At the end of June, citing the lack of progress towards a peace deal, the leaders of Uganda, Congo and the autonomous region of south Sudan agreed for the first time to co-ordinate military efforts to stamp out the rebellion once and for all.
But the prospect of a new offensive may well set the LRA on the war path again, pushing the rebels farther afield into a new redoubt in the Central African Republic (CAR), the region’s weakest link. Very poor and with a feeble army, the CAR can least afford to have the LRA roaming across its wastelands. Since independence in 1960, the CAR’s eastern corner has been criss-crossed by just about anyone with a gun, including mercenaries plotting coups in Chad, Congolese rebels, and units of Sudan’s janjaweed militia who have terrified the disaffected people of Darfur.
In February and March, the CAR had a taste of the LRA’s barbarism. As Mr Kony’s lieutenants were negotiating a peace deal that was later aborted, the rebels spent ten days raiding villages around Obo, near the CAR’s border with Sudan, looting homes and abducting some 150 people. “They said they were there for the girls and would come back,” says Jeanette, a 28-year-old who says she was kidnapped, gang-raped and then released by the rebels. “And when they did come back, if there was any resistance, they said it would be worse.”
But for all the fighting words of the leaders of Uganda and other governments in the area, it is doubtful whether they can effectively resume an all-out war against the LRA. The ceasefire that accompanied the talks with the rebels when they started nearly two years ago has more or less held in northern Uganda; life there has been returning to normal. Local Ugandans, mostly Acholis from whom the LRA is drawn, do not want to jeopardise that. Moreover, the south Sudanese, whose main trade route to Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and beyond passes through the affected area, oppose a renewal of war. And Congo, which would have to undertake the daunting task of driving the LRA out of its jungle hideouts in the country’s north-east, in such places as the Garamba National Park, has one of the least competent armies in the world.
The military hard men, especially in Uganda, say that only the threat of force will drag the LRA back to the negotiating table. They have been encouraged by the news that Mr Kony has at least named a new negotiating team. “As far as we’re concerned,” says Congo’s defence minister, Chikez Diemu, “I do think that when you want peace you prepare for war.”
7 months ago