Uganda's Unfinished Peace

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Adam Pletts / Getty

Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army

To one side of the clearing on the remote border, Sudanese government soldiers bristled with weapons and kept a lookout. To the other, there was little but an impenetrable wall of Congolese bush. In between gathered an eclectic mix of Sudanese mediators, Ugandan government ministers, journalists, rock-and-roll activists and tribal chiefs, all hoping to witness what should have been the end of one of Africa's longest and least understood wars.

The date was April 10 — the long-anticipated signing of peace by Joseph Kony, a mysterious rebel leader who was once a Catholic altar boy but, for the last 20 years, has led the Lord's Resistance Army rebels out of hideouts in Congo and Sudan to terrorize northern Uganda. The sense of expectation was tangible as some rebels, dressed in gumboots, tattered combat trousers and dirty T-shirts or soccer strips, emerged, a handful at a time. Were these the advance party? Where would Kony come from? Would he even sign, we all asked ourselves as the officials took their places at the table for the ceremony.

In the lead-up to the day, there had been talk of a parade by the rebels, who are proven bush fighters but renowned much more for massacres and mutilation than their army drill. Some, like Sals, a 24 year-old who said he joined the LRA in 1995, stayed long enough for a chat. "There are many bad things this government has done — that is why we are fighting them," he said, holding his AK-47 close to his chest. "But we are talking now," he added with a smile. "I will go back to Uganda when this war is finished. I will join the army — I will continue to defend my country." Then, the rebel in charge, identified not by his uniform — a Hawaiian shirt — but by the satellite phone dangling around his neck, ushered him away and he melted back into the bush.

Then, on April 10, as we waited, rebel negotiators appeared, sparking renewed excitement, only to report a hitch. Kony wanted clarification on what form of justice he would have to face should he sign the deal. To most of the people waiting for Kony, the delay of a day didn't seem like such a bad thing after over two decades of war, during which tens of thousands had been killed and some two million displaced. But, retreating to a bush camp — where, thanks to a team of professional caterers airlifted in by the United Nations, we feasted on hot meals and drank South African merlot and ice cold Heineken beer — it emerged that all was not well.

Justice has been a central issue to the peace talks. While still hunting the rebels with his army, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the LRA for war crimes. It did so and has charged Kony and several of his commanders. Since the talks began in 2006, the rebels have, in turn, said they wouldn't sign until the ICC charges were dropped. Much to the ire of human rights activists, alternatives to the ICC's justice were agreed upon — everything from procedures in Ugandan courts to traditional reconciliation rituals. But, as the delay proved, all of that was not sufficient for Kony.

It was quickly revealed that the LRA's top negotiator was sacked amid reports he had stolen tens of thousands of dollars and failed to deliver a letter from the Ugandan President to Kony guaranteeing his safety. And then, despite days of waiting, no one could contact the rebel leader, who was already elusive but has become even more so since he executed his deputy late last year. Reports of further clashes and summary executions within the ranks trickled back into the camp from elders who were dispatched to find out what was going on.

For many, the process has descended into farce. For those clinging on to the process, Kony's next chance to come out of the bush is on May 10, when Ugandan elders will return to Southern Sudan to supposedly discuss questions of justice. No one has any idea if he will turn up, and patience, too, is wearing thin, especially among those in the international community, which has paid over $10 million for the process. They complain that for some of the negotiators the process has become more about money and political positioning than resolving the problems of northern Uganda, long marginalized and battered by the war.

Despite food and medication given to the fighters to stop them from preying on civilians, the rebels are roaming around the lawless wilds of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic. The most recent reports indicate that the LRA kidnapped some 350 more civilians and had been in training during the failed signing attempt. "The governments of Sudan, the CAR and the DRC — with the assistance of the U.N. — must join forces to secure the safety and release of those kidnapped immediately and bring those responsible to justice," urged pressure group Amnesty International on April 22.

U.N. officials say their blue helmets are ready to take the fight to the LRA. On the day Uganda's President was meant to sign his side of the peace deal in Sudan, Museveni put on a show of force and implied he was ready to help the Sudanese stop the LRA attacks. Regional diplomats say they are pushing for more cooperation against the LRA. But that is all likely to be bluster. "We are not talking with the group because they have political legitimacy but because they can't be beaten militarily," said one exasperated follower of the peace talks. He makes one grim prediction. "They are in the black hole of Africa — if left alone, they could grow into a regional mercenary force." Their cycles of atrocities are likely to continue and they may have to be taken on militarily. But, for now, in one of the most lawless corners of the continent, there is no one willing or able to do it.