Africa, Headlines

POLITICS: Ugandans Opt for Talks to End Rebellion

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Oct 14 2003 (IPS) - For 17 years, the government of President Yoweri Museveni has failed to crush the rebellion in northern Uganda, which has displaced up to a million people.

There are now growing signs that peace talks are being considered as an option.

These signs began emerging during a celebration to mark Uganda’s independence on Oct. 9. Addressing the nation, president Museveni said he had not given up on talking to the rebels and that he considered peace talks as a way to end the conflict, but only if the rebels would renounce violence. “I am open and ready to talk (to the rebels) to enable them come out,” he said.

Museveni, who also made similar remarks to Commonwealth Gen-Sec. Don McKinnon Monday, urged the rebels to take advantage of the year-old amnesty, which expires in December.

McKinnon, in Uganda on the second-leg of a four-nation African tour ahead of a December Commonwealth summit in Nigeria, said Museveni gave him “the impression that things were looking a lot better” in northern Uganda.

Most Ugandans are tired of the war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel movement known for cutting the ears and lips of villagers and abducting children for use as sex slaves and child soldiers.

The conflict, which was initially regarded as a northern problem, has affected virtually every Ugandan.

Government’s military expenditure has steadily been growing, overshadowing provisions for health, education and social services. Resources have been diverted to pay for the war.

A recent report said the social and economic costs of the conflict in the north have been huge. Up to 100 million U.S. dollars, or 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), has been lost to the Ugandan economy annually – affecting the development of an entire nation, said the report.

The report was commission by the Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda, a coalition of more than 40 local and international non-governmental organisations.

Immediately after the report was published, president Museveni rejected peace talks as a way of solving the conflict. He said he did not believe in dialogue, describing the LRA, among other things, as “empty headed criminals”.

Museveni’s decision to use military options rather than dialogue has dragged the war for 17 years, resulting in the abduction of over 12,000 children, as well as in the killing and raping of thousands of villagers. It has also created a humanitarian crisis, with over 800,000 people from the northern districts of Kitgum, Gulu and Padyer living in internally displaced people’s camps.

Since Mar., hundreds of children have become what has been described as ‘night commuters’, spending their nights in the streets of the main northern town of Gulu in fear of rebel attacks.

In Mar. last year, Museveni even pitched camp in Gulu and an ‘Operation Iron Fist’ launched Mar. 2002 in collaboration with the Sudan government to wipe out the rebels, who have military bases in southern Sudan.

Museveni failed. The war has now moved to eastern Uganda.

Museveni’s decision to talk peace comes after pressures from both local and international communities including donor countries like Denmark, the United States and Germany.

In August last year, he appointed a Presidential Peace Team (PPT), which consisted of Members of Parliament from the affected region. Museveni expressed his willingness to engage in direct negotiations and declare a ceasefire provided certain conditions were met. Since then, the PPT, as well as some government officials, has been able to talk to the rebels by telephone.

Unfortunately, the team has not made much progress, especially after the sacking early this year of its chairperson Eriya Kategaya (who was Minister of Internal affairs) for openly opposing President Museveni’s decision to stand for a third term contrary to Uganda’s constitution. A new chairperson has not yet been appointed to replace Kategaya.

Santa Okot, Member of Parliament from Padyer, told IPS by telephone that she was glad to hear that Museveni still wanted to talk peace. “I hope the President’s comments were from the bottom of his heart,” she said.

Santa, who is also a member of PPT, said: “We are not making any progress because the (PPT) chairman (Kategaya) is no longer in the office. Right now, there is nothing much to do,” she said.

Okot urged Museveni to invite international representatives to join the peace team and allow enough time for the team to negotiate peace. “When we opt for peace, it should not be a rushed thing. It takes a while,” she said.

Okot believes Museveni’s decision to end the amnesty in Dec. would destabilise the peace process.

“The president says amnesty ends in December. Then what happens next, since negotiations have not started? This would only make the rebels suspicious. The amnesty should have no time limit,” she said.

And will the rebels agree to talk peace? “We just have to try. We cannot assume that they (rebels) are not willing,” she said.

Although several attempts have been made to end the conflict since 1986, the government and rebels have not met face-to-face. There have been some informal contacts between religious and LRA commanders in the bush.

For more than a decade, Acholi leaders have advocated a peaceful solution to the conflict in their region.

The Acholi people, who form the bulk of the LRA, including its enigmatic leader Joseph Kony, straddle the Sudan/Uganda border. Many Acholi leaders have persuaded a number of rebels out of the bush, undertaking great personal risks.

Peace groups like Kacoke Madit, a non-profit making forum, aims at identifying and implementing practical initiatives to end the conflict in northern Uganda by peaceful means. Formed in 1996 by Acholi people of northern Uganda living in the Diaspora, it aims to curb the escalation of the armed conflict affecting the districts of Kitgum and Gulu. It is now a worldwide network.

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