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Snatching war from the jaws of peace

Zoe Flood
16 January 2009

Africa's longest-running war has entered a new phase. Northern Uganda's notorious rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), have re-emerged as a deadly force, both for local communities and for regional peace.Zoe Flood is a freelance writer, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. She produced the film "The Shadows of Peace: Life After the LRA". She previously worked for the International Crisis Group and the UN's Nairobi-based humanitarian news agency, IRIN News.

The massive recent upsurge in LRA violence followed an ill-conceived military offensive by Uganda and its neighbours on rebel bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Frustrated by the stuttering peace process, the hasty mid-December attack scattered rebels across the region. Some five hundred Congolese villagers were reportedly massacred as they fled, including scores seeking refuge in a church.

After two years of cautious progress, these developments mark the bloody collapse of the peace process most likely to end the LRA's 22-year insurgency. A succession of ceasefires that kept the rebels in their jungle hideouts had produced unexpected benefits for northern Uganda, but these advances could quickly unravel. Grave regional repercussions are also likely: Uganda's rebels have the potential to destabilise the fragile peace in Sudan, and to contribute to worsening insecurity in Congo and the Central African Republic.

The major powers backed the coordinated military initiative through the UN Security Council. To avoid further bloodshed and regional insecurity, they should retract their support and call for an immediate return to the negotiating table.

A return to violence

The Ugandan army, with forces from DRC and South Sudan, launched a joint aerial and ground operation against the LRA after the rebel leader Joseph Kony failed for a third time to sign a final peace agreement. Unknown numbers of rebels (suspected to be between five hundred and one thousand) fled. With them went up to two thousand civilians - abductees in support roles, some of whom were probably killed in the indiscriminate airstrikes.Also on openDemocracy about Uganda and the LRA:

"Ugandan peace: a second chance", Peter J Quaranto, 12 April 2007

"Uganda: peace vs justice?", Tristan McConnell, 13 September 2006

"Proxy war under way between DRC and Rwanda", Hannah Cooper, 15 December 2008, (Security briefing)

Dispersed to both the north and south, LRA militias brutally raided remote villages. The UN says that as many as five hundred people were killed in late December attacks on three communities in northeastern DRC. Suspected rebels struck elsewhere, including reportedly killing ten at DRC's Garamba National Park headquarters and up to forty in south Sudan. The LRA is well known for its ruthlessness, but the scale of these atrocities is unprecedented.

"The LRA are still on the move," says Ivo Brandau, a UN spokesman in the Congo, "The population is extremely vulnerable."

As early as June, regional military chiefs had threatened action to force Kony - who had already stalled once - to sign a final deal, but the December attacks occurred with little "last chance" warning. Indeed, just days before the offensive, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had agreed to Kony's request for direct talks.

Why peace failed

Kony's repeated demands for fresh talks were particularly informed by his concerns over International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants, issued against him and other LRA leaders. While these requests may have handily served as a delaying mechanism, the negotiations in Juba, south Sudan, had failed to reassure Kony of his own security under a final deal.

Museveni had promised to ask for the deferral of the ICC indictments following Kony's signature, but the Court's Chief Prosecutor continued to stand firm in his call for arrests in what is seen as another important test case for international justice. The accountability and reconciliation protocol agreed in Juba proposed national-level alternatives to the ICC, including traditional justice mechanisms, but these were not outlined in enough detail to allay Kony's fears.

The Juba talks also failed to tackle the concerns of the large proportion of south Sudanese combatants in the LRA, present since abductions in the 1990s. Some reports suggest that south Sudanese fighters constitute a psuedo-autonomous faction in the LRA, a dimension that the talks did not take into account.

Kony may have never intended to sign a final agreement, as some observers claim, but for their part the Juba talks clearly failed to provide the rebels with appropriate incentives to put down their weapons.

Gains eroded

Regardless of Kony's commitment to the final deal, and despite the LRA's occasional, but serious, ceasefire violations over the past year, the peace process itself had yielded tangible gains. These have been swiftly unravelling since December's rash military offensive.

The talks had brought unexpected calm and rejuvenated economic activity in northern Uganda, where the conflict had killed tens of thousands and displaced some two million over the last two decades. Half of those displaced had returned to their villages, or to transit sites, since negotiations began in July 2006.

But with the LRA on the move and the tactic of targeting civilians emphatically revived, many civilians are once more seeking refuge in squalid displacement camps. Populations in south Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as in the DRC, are also at risk from the highly mobile and scattered rebels. And the LRA's hardened brand of guerrilla warfare is notable for the disproportionate damage it inflicts, relative to the group's small number of fighters.

A regional threat

As a roving and splintered militant group, the LRA poses additional internal security threats to Uganda's neighbours.

Sudan's north-south peace is already extremely fragile, and may become even shakier this month with the expected ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes. The availability of the LRA as a potentially disruptive force in southern Sudan is attractive to the group's former backers in Khartoum, particularly as July's national elections approach.

DRC and the Central African Republic face their own major internal security challenges. Plagued by violence and a slew of rebel groups in the east, the Congolese government has little control over the far reaches of its territory. Army-rebel confrontations have continued despite the peace process in the Central African Republic, and the state's borderlands have long been lawless. Steps toward peace and calm in either country would be greatly complicated by LRA activity.

Louise Khabure, Uganda analyst at the think-tank International Crisis Group, emphasises the gravity of the regional threat. "The LRA can be used as a proxy for any disgruntled group," Khabure says. "The region is facing a complex security challenge with dire implications."

Violence largely died down during the Juba talks, but in recent weeks the LRA has reverted to its feared and brutal tactics. The multi-national military offensive has so far failed to capture Kony or eliminate the rebel threat, and instead is providing the spark for a new era of atrocities.

The UN Security Council, while condemning the LRA for its recent atrocities, must withdraw its support for the offensive and instead urge all parties to recommit to a ceasefire and renewed talks. Fresh negotiations should be greatly improved, involving Uganda's neighbours and addressing all the concerns - such as the fate of the LRA leadership - that previous rounds did not tackle. Failing this, the gains of two painstaking years of negotiations will vanish. Despite its flaws, the best opportunity in many years for peace with Uganda's rebels will be lost.

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