On Saturday, there was a breakthrough in one of Africa’s most intractable and bizarre wars. Uganda’s government signed a deal with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) that commits both sides to end the bloodshed and cease hostile propaganda. The LRA rebels have now three weeks to leave their hideouts in Uganda and northern Congo and assemble at two south Sudanese camps. The deal offers the best chance yet of ending the 20 year old war.
Thousands have died during the conflict in northern Uganda, and more than one million have fled their homes. The chief mediator, southern Sudan's Vice-President Riek Machar said he hoped the two principals will take action so that the guns can go silent. The two principals that Machar is referring to are the two towering figures of Ugandan politics, President Yoweri Museveni and LRA commander Joseph Kony.
The conflict in Northern Uganda began shortly after Museveni took power in 1986. Remnants of the previous government fled north and formed the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army (UPDA). The UPDA were routed but formed several splinter groups. One of these groups was led by the ‘spirit moved’ Alice Lakwena. Her 3,000 strong army was defeated and she fled to Kenya. But her nephew Joseph Kony re-mobilised the Acholi opposition and renamed the movement the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony also claims to be a “spirit lead”. His apocalyptic spiritualism gives him Stockholm Syndrome powers over the young boys he has abducted into his army. He also claimed clairvoyant powers that allowed him to predict attacks, or detect attempts by abductees to escape. Former fighters describe how he would appear in a blue cassock or white robe to conduct nocturnal rituals by the light of flickering charcoal fires, or speak in tongues in a special yard reserved for communion with the spirits. The LRA rebels say they are fighting for the establishment of a government based on the biblical Ten Commandments. Kony practices a strategically syncretic religion and celebrates the Islamic holy day of Friday as well as the Christian Sunday. Many believe this is deliberate to broaden his appeal to the Islamists in Sudan as well as the Christians in Uganda.
The LRA is notorious for targeting civilians, mutilating survivors -- often by cutting off their lips or ears -- and for kidnapping over 30,000 children to serve the cult-like movement as fighters, porters or sex slaves. Kony is an Acholi tribesman who was born in 1962 in a small village near the town of Gulu. The town of Gulu is now the site of a major child refugee crisis. He has been supported by the Arab Sudanese government in Khartoum who used him to fight their own southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). This was in revenge for the Ugandan support of the SPLA. Sudan equipped Kony with Soviet-made anti-tank weapons, machine-guns and mines and his fighters engaged both the south Sudanese rebels and the Ugandan army. But it was civilians in northern Uganda who bore the brunt of their attacks. There are signs that the LRA may now be moving away from their call to overthrow the Kampala government. Their demands now include a negotiated solution to the conflict, an end to Acholi marginalisation, and reparations for cattle rustled by pro-government factions shortly after Museveni took power. There is an another external stumbling block to peace. Kony and his senior leaders were indicted by the International Criminal Court in October 2005. Kony told reporters on 1 August this year that he would not be willing to stand trial at the ICC because he had not done anything wrong.
The 62-year old Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is a member of the south-western Ugandan ethnic group the Banyankole. His surname Museveni means "Son of a man of the Seventh" in honour of the Seventh Battalion of the King's African Rifles, the British colonial army in which many Ugandans served during World War II. In the 1960s, he studied economics and political science in Tanzania where he embraced Marxism and Pan-Africanism. After a stint with a guerrilla movement in Portuguese Mozambique, he returned home in 1970 and worked for the intelligence service of then-president Milton Obote. When Idi Amin seized power a year later, Museveni fled to Tanzania. Amin attacked Tanzania in 1978 and Museveni led a force of exiles which worked with the Tanzanian army to launch a counter-attack. As a result the Amin regime was toppled in April 1979. Museveni was named Defence Minister in a new national government. He formed a political party which was defeated by ex-PM Obote in a disputed poll in 1980. As a result, the losing parties refused to recognise the new regime. Museveni cobbled together a new army which fought a 5 year campaign from their rural Western stronghold.
By 1986, his forces were strong enough to take Kampala and that same year Museveni was sworn in as president. At the time, he argued that political party activity splits underdeveloped countries like Uganda along ethnic, tribal and religious lines. He brought in a new system which he described as a broad based, alternate system of democracy in which people compete for political office on individual merit. The downside meant political party activity was restricted. Over the next 10 years Mr Museveni became a favourite African leader of the West. US President Bill Clinton visited Uganda in 1998 and described him as the head of a new breed of African leaders. Uganda's economy began to grow steadily and poverty levels dropped by 20% through the 1990s. He doubled primary school enrolment, and controlled HIV levels with a concerted anti-AIDS campaign.
However dissatisfaction is now growing within Uganda over his long-term leadership. Despite saying that his 2001 election victory would be his last, Museveni nominated again in February 2006 and won another bitterly disputed election which was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court of Uganda. His reputation has also suffered due to Uganda’s involvement in the long running Congo Wars when Uganda and Rwanda united to overthrow long-term dictator Mobutu and then his replacement Laurent Kabila. With Uganda now extricated from Congo, Museveni has been able to concentrate on halting the LRA offensive in the north.
The ceasefire between the Ugandan army and the LRA appears to be holding. Saturday’s truce has furthered hopes that the end may be in sight. On Sunday LRA second-in-command Vincent Otti called on all rebels and officers to assemble to the meeting camp and said “LRA rebels who harass people during this time of the peace struggle would be punished accordingly”.