Uganda's knife edge

The failure of peace talks with Joseph Kony and the LRA requires radical rethink to end the crisis i

The Juba peace talks for Northern Uganda stand at a perilous juncture following the rejection by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony of a peace deal with the Ugandan government.

A Human Rights Watch report released this week asserts that the LRA has embarked on a “new spree of abductions and sexual violence” since February 2008, taking at least 100 people "and perhaps many more, in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Southern Sudan”.

The peace process in Juba, South Sudan is the latest in a series of abortive efforts by the Ugandan government and external actors to end the LRA’s 21-year-long campaign of atrocities in the northern part of the country. Although a few of these initiatives have sought to engage regional powers outside Uganda, diplomatic efforts have focused principally on mediating between the LRA and the Ugandan state.

Neutralizing the LRA is a laudable and necessary objective. But lasting peace in the region will require stronger security institutions in Northern Uganda as well as comparable institution building in neighboring states.

It will also require a major effort by the Ugandan government to address the pressing economic and social needs that have fed discontent and a sense of exclusion among Northern Ugandans. Even with the failure of the Juba talks, Northern Uganda remains relatively calm — though the LRA’s recent wave of child abductions may signal preparations for a new offensive — but many people remain in IDP camps because infrastructure in their home villages has been destroyed.

The proximate cause of the collapse of the Juba talks was Joseph Kony’s failure to appear for an 10 April signing of the peace agreement, as well as for a subsequent meeting scheduled for 10 May. Kony’s conduct in recent months has provided little evidence of a good-faith commitment to peace: he moved away from the border of South Sudan to a new base in CAR, and he refused to meet with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Northern Uganda, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, or even with members of his own negotiating team.

Kony is an erratic and self-proclaimed messianic figure, and many observers doubt his willingness to abide by the terms of any peace deal he might sign. But the tribulations of Northern Uganda also testify to the challenges of creating stability in a region surrounded by weak and embattled states. The LRA has demonstrated the remarkable capacity of even a small and ill-organized militia to create widespread and enduring mayhem. For more than two decades, the LRA – which fields at most a few thousand soldiers, ninety percent of them abducted children – has terrorized northern Uganda’s minority Acholi people, driving 1.5 million into displaced persons camps, and committing rapes, child abductions, and other crimes on a massive scale.

The chaotic conditions in CAR, Eastern DRC, and Southern Sudan provide an ideal incubator for the LRA’s predations. This chaos has been stoked by three regional wars: the still-unresolved aftermath of the Congolese civil war, the spillover of the conflict in Darfur into Chad and CAR, and the North-South civil war in Sudan, settled by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which is now threatened by growing tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan that could result in renewed hostilities. Until two years ago largely confined to Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, LRA fighters have established new bases in Eastern DRC and Southeastern CAR. Some observers suspect that the Sudanese government in Khartoum may have again begun arming the LRA, as well as militia groups in CAR, as part of an effort to undermine security in South Sudan.

The LRA’s continuing atrocities have also been made possible by the irresponsible conduct of some members of the Ugandan diaspora, who have been willing to align themselves with the LRA despite its crimes, as well as by the inadequacy of the Ugandan government’s efforts to bring security to Acholi communities and promote economic development in Northern Uganda.

Although in October 2007 the Ugandan government announced a three-year, $600m reconstruction and development program for the North, none of that money has been disbursed to date. The government has devoted few resources toward establishing basic services in IDP camps or toward promoting the return of displaced persons to their home villages, leaving such efforts largely up to international NGOs and Western donor states.

Even if a peace agreement is signed, or if Joseph Kony is arrested and brought up on charges before the International Criminal Court, the government of Uganda will face continuing challenges in rebuilding and reintegrating the North, in order to dispel local concerns that government policies have marginalized the region. Lasting peace in Northern Uganda will also require concerted efforts by the UN, African Union, and donor states to resolve violent conflicts and build security in neighboring Eastern DRC and Southern Sudan.

Matthew Levinger is a program officer at the United States Institute of Peace and served previously as director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not take policy positions.