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Ugandan peace deal hinges on fate of rebel leader Add to ...

A peace deal to end the civil war that has held northern Ugandan hostage for decades is set to be signed in less than two weeks, amid much fanfare from the Western donors pushing the process.

But few observers - including, critically, the civilian population of the north - seem convinced either that the deal will be signed as scheduled on March 28, or if it is, that it will represent a true end to the savage conflict.

The government of Uganda and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army have been engaged for more than a year in talks in Juba in southern Sudan. In recent weeks, they have signed the last of five protocols, covering issues including reconciliation, cessation of hostilities and disarmament, leading up to a final accord.

But the people of northern Uganda, 1.2 million of whom have taken shelter in refugee camps haphazardly guarded by the Ugandan army, have always said only one thing will make them feel safe enough to go home: the death of Joseph Kony, the brutal and enigmatic guerrilla who leads the rebel force, made up mostly of abducted children.

"They still haven't worked out what's happening to Kony, and I don't understand how they can sign an agreement without that," said Matthew Green, author of Wizard of the Nile, a new book on the LRA and one of the few Westerners to have met Mr. Kony. "His fate is the most important question in the whole process, and it hasn't been answered."

Mr. Kony and four of his top commanders were indicted for crimes against humanity in 2005 by the International Criminal Court. Two of those charged have since died. The rebel leader has said he will sign no deal until the indictments are dropped. Earlier this month, a delegation from the LRA went to meet with court officials from The Hague. The court staff insisted again that the indictments will stand.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who pushed for the indictments in the first place, said last week that he was prepared to see them dropped, and that LRA commanders would be tried in the Ugandan justice system. But it is not simple for the court to cancel the charges, and in any case, many international justice champions who worked long years to see the court established have no intention of seeing the first indictments it issued scotched to facilitate a questionable peace process or even a local justice system.

It is impossible to tell how much of the ICC's stand is sincere, and how it is designed to prod Mr. Kony into a deal.

Nebi Ochieng, a security analyst from northern Uganda, is watching the talks and says Mr. Kony is just playing. The members of the delegation that supposedly represents him are expatriate Ugandans not in his inner circle, he said; none of Mr. Kony's closest commanders are taking part. He believes the rebel leader is simply stringing the talks along while he regroups and watches what the ICC does.

"His plan B, if the indictments are not dropped, is to resume the war," Mr. Ochieng said.

That possibility looked more plausible on Monday when Uganda's Minister of Defence, Ruth Nankabirwa, said she has solid information that Mr. Kony had moved his forces into the jungles of the Central African Republic, a vast distance in the opposite direction from where his troops were meant to assemble and be demobilized, with no indication he planned to attend a signing.

Yet not everyone is doubtful about the Juba talks. One Western diplomat close to the process insisted there was reason for optimism: "Throughout the whole process, everyone has always said they will never be able to agree to those protocols, but they have been signing. I don't think they would have spent so much time signing all these protocols if they didn't intend to go through with it."

But the diplomat also noted that a signing could happen without Mr. Kony coming out of the bush - one of his representatives has apparently been joking about needing a new suit for his pivotal role on the 28th - and that would leave real questions about the deal.

Mr. Green noted that there is more international pressure than ever before to end the conflict; where once southern Sudan was an anarchic area with a civil war of its own, it is now run by a government that wants stability on its border and is pushing this process.

Public campaigns such as Canada's GuluWalk and, in the United States, the Invisible Children, have brought new attention to the conflict and increased pressure on the many Western countries that bankroll Mr. Museveni's government to use their leverage to end the war, which began in 1986. "There is much more realization that Kony is a threat to regional stability," Mr. Green said, "and much more international pressure."

There are reports that the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendyai Frazier, has taken close interest in the talks and that the United States, Mr. Museveni's key backer, is determined to see a real deal done.

And with the remaining rebels, who reportedly number just a few hundred, far off in the Central African Republic, there is an unprecedented level of calm in Uganda. There have been no attacks or atrocities around Gulu, the regional capital, for many months; in some areas, people have begun to leave the refugee camps.

But many more have stayed put. In part, this speaks to complications in repatriating a population that has been displaced for more than a generation. There are disputes over who owns land. The traditional mechanisms for determining who will live and work where have been disrupted. And no one has had any way to earn income. In the camp they get food aid; at home they have nothing.

Mr. Green said, however, that the fact that so many people remain displaced ultimately speaks to the continuing questions over Mr. Kony's fate. "The war isn't over in people's imaginations. And it won't be, until we know what happens to Kony."

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