Government and Rebels Sure of an End to 20-Year Conflict

Vincent Otti (right), deputy chief of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, gives Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar a list of its delegates just before peace talks began in July. (Photo: Matt Brown / AFP-Getty Images)

Both the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.) were upbeat on Monday about a peaceful end to their 20-year-old war that has killed thousands and displaced almost two million people in the north of the country.

The signing on Saturday of an agreement to cease hostilities gave both sides new hope that a comprehensive agreement was in sight, although they acknowledged the need for continued vigilance.

"In spite of a rocky start to the talks, there is currently an unprecedented will from both sides to reach an agreement. We are confident of reaching an agreement, though there are still a few things we do not agree on, but we see a better rapport, we see more commitment and all of us agree on the need to have peace in northern Uganda," the head of the Ugandan delegation to the talks, Ruhakana Rugunda, the interior minister, said on Sunday.

His L.R.A. counterpart, Martin Ojul, agreed, telling IRIN by phone from Juba, southern Sudan, where the talks are being held: "Hopefully, the government will [consolidate] the cessation of hostilities agreement, but the L.R.A. is more committed to this process than ever before. We are committed to the process, however long it may take."

In the next round of talks, according to analysts in Kampala, the mediators will have to find a compromise, especially to L.R.A. demands that include huge cuts in the military, L.R.A. representation in all political appointments, and total autonomy of northern Uganda.

Other sensitive issues will include wealth- and power-sharing as well as the economic and social development of northern Uganda.

Rugunda agreed, saying the next three weeks would be crucial to the process as rebels start assembling in two areas in southern Sudan, but he was hopeful that a compromise such as that reached during the debate on halting hostilities would also be reached on other outstanding issues.

The Ugandan government and L.R.A. on Saturday signed an agreement to cease hostilities effective from Aug. 29. Rugunda said the process would require all stakeholders, including the Ugandan population, to be vigilant. "There are still suspicions and we should not give detractors a chance to exploit any weak points that may show in the implementation of the agreement," he said.

The truce calls for the safe passage of L.R.A. forces to two sites designated as assembly points, one at Owiny-ki-Bul in Sudan's eastern Equatoria on the east side of the Nile, for those rebels in southern Sudan and in Uganda, and another for those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) at Ri-Kwangba in western Equatoria to the west of the Nile.

Those fighters in Uganda who cannot move to southern Sudan are allowed to assemble in any place of worship in Uganda, according to the agreement.

"The forces of the L.R.A. shall surface wherever they may be present … places of worship in Uganda, designated in consultation with religious leaders, may serve as sanctuary for the L.R.A. forces," the agreement states.

L.R.A.'s second in command, Vincent Otti, called a local radio in the northern Uganda town of Gulu on Sunday to urge L.R.A. fighters to respect the cessation of hostilities deal, saying it was "real."

"Do not abduct people or steal food. If you want food, ask the community. Do not commit atrocities and no ambushes as you move," Otti said on MEGA FM, a semi-official broadcaster. He said he had spoken to L.R.A. commanders who were expected to lead their forces to the two designated assembly areas in southern Sudan.

In the past, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni had maintained that the ceasefire should only be part of a final deal as the rebels had used such opportunities to re-arm and recruit new fighters.

A legislator from northern Uganda, Jimmy Akena, who had attended part of the talks before Saturday's breakthrough, said there was mistrust between the two groups, "but they all agree that there is a need for peace and they are only haggling on how that peace should be delivered."

What was not clear was what would happen to the assembled rebel fighters in case the two parties failed to reach a final agreement. "In the unlikely event of failure of the peace talks, the L.R.A. shall be allowed to leave the assembly areas peacefully. The possibility of failing is a bit unlikely," Rugunda said.

During the next round of talks, the truce will be reviewed biweekly as the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army will look after the rebels.

A truce-monitoring group led by the southern Sudan government will comprise two members from the L.R.A. and two each from the Ugandan government and the African Union. They are supposed to be in Juba by Tuesday to begin monitoring the implementation of the agreement.

The Juba negotiations are seen as the best bet to end the two-decades-long conflict in northern Uganda that has since spread to southern Sudan and the northeastern D.R.C.

Tens of thousands have been killed and nearly two million displaced in northern Uganda since the L.R.A. took over leadership of a regional rebellion among the Acholi tribesmen in what relief agencies say is the world's worst and most-forgotten humanitarian crisis. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]