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Uganda's aggressive peace

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Joseph KonyIn the northern reaches of Uganda, conflict has adulterated the lives of millions and deeply permeated behavioural norms. For many, religion was the ballast against this tide of violence. For others it was purely an instrument of war.

Alice Lakwena, the 'supernatural' rebel leader of the Holy Spirit Movement in Uganda steeled her fighters before battle by telling them that bullets would bounce off their chests and that stones would become grenades when pitched at the enemy. Even today, 20 years after her defeat, her name and exploits remain etched in the memories of her foes and followers alike, an embodiment of rigid faith and ruthless struggle.

For more than 20 years, the Acholi, Iteso and Langi regions of northern Uganda have been terrorised by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla force notorious for its recruitment and enslavement of child soldiers.

Born out of a zealous Christian spiritualism centred on its prophetic leader, Joseph Kony (pictured), a cousin of Lakwena, and radical Acholi nationalism challenging the southern government, the LRA preyed on the fears and vulnerabilities of the northern population and mercilessly exploited its land and people.

The Acholi have ironically been the principle victims of the LRA conflict, seemingly as a perverse means of discrediting the government's capacity to protect its own citizens in the north. The LRA has used this artifice to conduct well-organised insurgent attacks in the north, killing and maiming the innocent, re-supplying their ranks and effectively goading the government into retaliatory attacks deep in their jungle lairs.

In recent years the LRA and Kony in particular have become increasingly isolated, with defections from their ranks, and ruptures in the bedrock of Acholi nationalism.

While Kony has spoken of peace and LRA representatives have participated in the most recent peace talks in southern Sudan, he has baulked at ratifying a final peace agreement.

Kony, who has found sanctuary at a base in the Central African Republic, was indicted with four of his commanders by the International Criminal Court in October 2005 for crimes against humanity and war crimes, specifically, rape, murder, enslavement (including sexual enslavement) and the forced enlistment of children.

But an agreement signed by the Government and the LRA in 2007 determined that ultimate accountability for LRA prosecutions should lie domestically with a special division of the High Court in Uganda and not with the ICC.

Complimentarily, traditional justice systems (similar to the Gacaca community court systems established for reconciliation after the genocide in Rwanda), punitive sentences and reparations would also be employed to deal with less serious cases.

This position appears to reaffirm the Ugandan government's ability to manipulate the process to suit its longer-term strategic aims in the north and does little to galvanise international opinion and action for post-war justice and reconciliation. Moreover there are precedents in Africa for culpable leaders retiring to comfortable exile.

Ultimately, the ICC can re-instate the charges if the Ugandan government's judicial efforts do not meet international benchmarks. It would undoubtedly be prudent for government leaders to commit themselves fully to the effort.

Uganda has earned international praise for its strong commitment to the millennium development goals and in tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis. Despite likely international disfavour for its failure to protect human rights, the government seems determined to deal with issues of peace as aggressively as it conducted the northern war.

Many of Kony's conscripts, including thousands of child abductees, have since embraced a government amnesty for combatants renouncing the LRA and the conflict. While demobilisation has brought rewards for them, passive victims of the conflict remain dispossessed, traumatised and battle scarred

As some angrily strive for restorative justice by claiming compensation for injury, medical expenses, lost cattle and land, others simply pray for the peace to hold, allowing them to make best of what little they have.

A government sponsored Peace, Recovery and Development Plan has channelled millions of dollars into northern Uganda. It remains to be seen what this money actually delivers. Failing infrastructure, a scarcity of trained professionals, and a decline in humanitarian presence following the end of fighting have placed district governments and community based organisations at the vanguard of the north's revival.

They now carry a weighty responsibility not only to restore livelihood but also to promote peace and reconciliation.

The power of the church is absolute in Uganda. Perhaps in this lies the best opportunity to heal rifts and build a foundation for future prosperity in northern Uganda. Although international and national instruments of justice are the preferred mechanisms for dealing with the most egregious aspects of the conflict, grass roots dialogue, for which the church is ideally placed, is a necessary adjunct.

'Truth telling' is a poignant and productive start.

Ben FraserBen Fraser is an aid worker who has worked and written from Pakistan, Indonesia Afghanistan and Sudan.



Topic tags: ben fraser, northern uganda, Alice Lakwena, Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony



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Existing comments

To hear the reports of atrocities committed against children by the LRA is to know evil in its most vile form - committed not decades ago, but in recent years. I pray firstly that peace holds in Northern Uganda, secondly that those children (many now adults) swept up by the LRA can find their way home, and thirdly that a new Uganda can be born through healing and reconciliation.

Joseph Vine | 14 October 2008  

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