In April, the Ugandan government appeared to be on the verge of signing a peace agreement to put an end to the decades-long conflict in the country's north. But after the rebels' enigmatic leader Joseph Kony failed on several occasions to show up and sign the agreement, negotiations appeared dead and steps were taken making a return to military confrontation appear likely. Derek Kilner files this report from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.
Nearly a month since the Lord's Resistance Army leader skipped a third gathering to sign the agreement with the Ugandan government in the Southern Sudanese capital, Juba, Uganda's military announced plans for a military operation against the group.
Ugandan military spokesman Paddy Ankunda says the troops for the mission will be provided by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, where many of the rebel troops have been based in recent years.
"The DRC government has decided to attack the Lord's Resistance Army because ever since they refused to sign the peace agreement, they have been killing Congolese. And therefore it has been decided that the DRC will lead this operation," he said.
Ankunda says the operation will begin by the end of June and that the governments of Uganda and Southern Sudan will provide intelligence and "moral support". A spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo, Jean-Paul Dietrich, told VOA that the mission will offer logistical assistance.
During two years of peace negotiations, Ugandan officials have several times previously threatened military action. And Ankunda says the government is still open to further talks with Kony.
"There is a door open for the talks and for those who can trace Kony and rediscover the initiative to engage in peace talks they still have an opportunity and the government will support them fully," Ankunda said.
But Ankunda has also said that Kony has shown himself unwilling to engage in the peace process, a view shared by many observers."Kony showed very little evidence of good faith in participating in the negotiations. He was unwilling to meet with the U.N. Special Envoy to Northern Uganda. He moved away from the site of the talks into a base in CAR. He was even unwilling to meet with members of his own negotiating team. It's very difficult to speculate about Kony's motives. I think he's demonstrated to be an unreliable negotiator," said Matt Levinger, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
Levinger says he has been skeptical of a military approach, noting that the Ugandan government has failed in previous attempts to deal with the group by force. And with bases in the DRC and Central African Republic, and a continued presence in Southern Sudan, the LRA has become a thoroughly regional security problem.
The operation announced by Uganda, with cooperation from DRC, Sudan and the U.N., appears to go some distance in providing a regional approach. But Tim Allen of the London School of Economics cautions that even a regional military operation will face challenges.
"I wouldn't underestimate the military capacities of the LRA. After all, they ran rings around the Ugandan army when it went into Southern Sudan. They are a formidable fighting force in that kind of terrain. They've always operated in small units and they have a considerable amount of discipline and military capacity. I'm not suggesting that they're going to invade large areas or something like that, but I don't think it will be straightforward to simply take them out, so to speak," he said.
Allen says the LRA used financial support it received during the peace talks to obtain more weapons, and used the lull in fighting to recruit more soldiers. Human Rights Watch accuses the rebels of abducting at least 100 people since February in Southern Sudan, Eastern Congo and the Central African Republic. The LRA is infamous for the forced recruitment of child soldiers, though Allen says research he has conducted in the North indicates that the LRA may in fact have abducted more adults than children.
Additionally, the operation will be led by the DRC military, which has had trouble dealing with its own insurgent groups in the country's east, including Rwandan Hutu rebels and a group led by former General Laurent Nkunda. It is also unclear how well the operation will be able to pursue the LRA in the Central Africa Republic, where it has been increasingly active recently.
While the security threat posed by the LRA has become more regionalized the grievances of Uganda's marginalized northern population remain as present as ever.
"The economic growth that has occurred in Uganda since the mid 1980s which has been quite impressive in African terms has been almost entirely concentrated in the south. So there are clearly very serious issues to deal with at the national level to promote integration in the country as a whole," said Allen.
Levinger says the Ugandan government can do more to promote economic and political engagement with the north separate from its approach to the LRA.
"I would be curious to see whether it might be possible for the Ugandan government to create some kind of formal channel for Northerners to express concerns without engaging the LRA. In other words to create a parallel process to what has been tried at Juba, excluding the LRA but seeing if there are other parties in the North that might be talked to," he said.
Indeed Allen emphasizes that other parts of the north, beyond those directly affected by the war, have also been neglected. Western governments have been heavily involved in northern Uganda, from facilitating the peace process to funding extensive development projects. But unless there is a fundamental shift in the central government's approach to the North, Allen says, the problems will continue.
"Donors who basically are funding so much of the public services in Uganda have to use their influence and financial clout to push for some arrangement in which the country becomes a whole in some sense, because the longer it goes on as it is the worse it's going to get and the grievances in northern Uganda will get more serious over time," he said.
For now there is an understandable focus on efforts to finally bring an end to a war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced an estimated two million. But a military solution or peace agreement will still leave challenges for Uganda's north.