Africa advocacy groups say it’s good news that President Bush and other world leaders are speaking out in favor of the Juba peace process for Northern Uganda. But they warn that escalating talk of regional military action could bring about a return of violent attacks, which could spur a further displacement of civilians. Neither president at Tuesday's White House meeting gave details of their discussion of Uganda's conflict with northern Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, but spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Washington believes the struggle needs to be resolved "sooner rather than later."
Conflict analyst and senior researcher Peter Qaranto of the Washington-based advocacy group Resolve Uganda says that Tuesday’s White House meeting with President Museveni offered President Bush the opportunity to use real leverage to ensure Uganda’s commitment to securing a sustainable peace for its people.
“We do believe that the President did one thing, which was to raise the profile of peace in northern Uganda, to emphasize that it was an issue important to him. And I think that this is something I can attribute to the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people that have been marching, that have been writing their Congress members, emphasizing this important issue. At the same time, one of the messages we were trying to send going into this meeting was that the White House had to be clear that now is not the time for military buildup or for military threats against the LRA. With an ongoing peace process that offers the most viable opportunity to end this conflict, the last thing we need is provocation that provides cover for either the Ugandan government or the LRA to withdraw from talks and resume military operations,” he said.
The talks to end Africa’s longest running conflict got under way in Juba, southern Sudan in August of last year. Frequent stumbling blocks over various terms and phases in the negotiations have fostered a growing impatience that has prompted the Kampala government and other countries to discuss taking unspecified regional military action against the LRA if talks continue to stall. Researcher Qaranto warns that fears of the talks unraveling could spark a return to violence that would undermine the unprecedented gains achieved since a ceasefire went into effect.
“I think that the impatience of many actors in this peace process is understandable. It’s been tortuously slow. But at the same time, we have to ask ourselves, what has the process actually achieved? Nearly 500-thousand people who have been displaced by this conflict have been able to return home. There’ve been virtually no attacks or abductions in northern Uganda. And we have every reason to believe that though it is going to take time, the peace process can deliver a viable way forward for northern Uganda,” Qaranto noted.
He said that Tuesday’s LRA announcement that two highly placed emissaries of rebel leader Joseph Kony had arrived in Kampala to meet with President Museveni this coming Thursday is an important confidence-building measure. It will be the rebels’ first official mission to the Ugandan capital since the start of their insurgency in 1987.
Although ongoing negotiations have stalled in recent weeks, the LRA remains engaged in a process of adjudication and reconciliation of war crimes, as spelled out in the agenda of the Juba talks. The rebels are planning to initiate a six-week nationwide tour, during which they will consult with Ugandans about ways to bring justice to victims of war crimes committed by both the rebels and government soldiers.
Peter Qaranto acknowledges that neither president made mention of human rights issues at Tuesday’s meeting, but says that the grassroots pressure of concerned Americans makes President Bush aware that he cannot ignore the humanitarian nature of the conflict. However, he noted that other pressing priorities in the US-Uganda relationship may have blocked Mr. Bush from using what he called a historic opportunity to weigh in on legitimate human rights concerns.
“Our interests in northern Uganda have been overshadowed by a strategic relationship with the Museveni regime. We’ve been willing to overlook human rights abuses in northern Uganda. Or we’ve been willing to take our cue from Kampala in not becoming too involved in the peace process because we’re more interested in maintaining a military-to-military relationship, continuing to have increasing trade between our two countries, and, of course, the often-overlooked contribution of Ugandan troops to US-supported peacekeeping in Somalia. And so I believe human rights have taken a back seat. I think we’ve seen progress in this regard, but actual prioritization in this regard is still lacking,” he said.