Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Uganda's Fate Hinges on the Enigmatic Leader of the Lord's Resistance Army

Northern Ugandans are hoping the rebel Lord's Resistance Army will soon sign a peace agreement with President Yoweri Museveni's government. Their hope is understandable. The LRA's 21-year insurgency and the Ugandan government's response have largely destroyed the region north of the Nile and south of Sudan. But resolving the conflict largely hinges on the enigmatic chairman of the LRA, Joseph Kony.He is the primary reason why the rebels have long been regarded as the most perplexing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Supposedly possessed of supernatural powers at a young age, the Holy Spirit told a 20-something Kony to fight President Yoweri Museveni's government. Followers say he received other spirits, including: Juma Oris, a cabinet minister who served in the late Idi Amin's government; a Sudanese woman named Silli Silindi; an American called King Bruce; and one known as Who Are You? The motivation most commonly attributed to the LRA was to overthrow the Kampala government and establish rule of law according to the Ten Commandments.Yet the rebels contradict that belief in divine law with their forced recruitment of children to fill their ranks and their reliance on extreme violence.

As Matthew Green recounts in his fine book, "The Wizard of the Nile," the Reuters news agency dutifully noted for years that the rebels "are reviled for cutting off their victims' ears and padlocking their lips." No surprise that a major in the Ugandan Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) told this writer in January 2005 that the war in the north should be easily resolved. At the time, the rebels barely mustered a public presence. Many Ugandans had already judged Kony a sociopathic menace and never crossed Karuma Falls bridge, the demarcation point between the south and the north.

Since then, the LRA has abandoned its base in southern Sudan and resettled in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is now perceived as a destabilizing force in East Africa and beyond, if current speculation about a move into the Central African Republic proves to be true.

Labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, the LRA's Kony and four commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The circumstances convinced the rebels to enter into peace talks a year later with Museveni's government. The two sides have reached the precipice of a deal, which would make rebels eligible for military, government and diplomatic posts, only to see Kony back away from it in April.Still, the negotiations allowed the LRA to recast itself, at least in rhetoric, into a movement motivated by nationalist grievance.

Notes purportedly written by a representative of Kony, forwarded to World Politics Review from an Acholi website, outline the reasons for suspending participation in the peace talks. These include everything from the LRA's lack of faith in Southern Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar as a neutral mediator to the Ugandan government's lack of seriousness about ICC "interference" in attempting to prosecute LRA leaders while excusing the other party. "I cannot sign an agreement when displaced people are still suffering in the camps. What peace agreement would that be? It was not the LRA that forced people into the camps. The government and its army did that," reads a passage credited to Kony.His complaint is not easily dismissed.

Museveni's government did usher northern Ugandans into displacement camps in 1996 to allow the UPDF to crush the LRA. Ten years later, between 1.6 million and 1.8 million people lived in the IDP camps, surviving on handouts from the World Food Programme, and the rebels remained a threat. As Green points out, this internment strategy created "giant incubators of disease, alienation and despair." A 2005 study by the World Health Organization documented 1,000 deaths per week, mostly from malaria, HIV/AIDS and violence. And yet, the statistic more commonly associated with Uganda is economic growth that has averaged more than 5 percent since 2000, which is largely restricted to the southGreen, the Financial Times' West Africa bureau chief, correctly understands Uganda's bifurcated nature as a product of its colonial and post-colonial history.

The British first recruited the Acholi into the military to cement a divide-and-rule policy that favored the Baganda, the largest ethnic group, for the civil service. After independence, the military abilities of the Acholi made them an influential minority, at turns oppressive and suppressed. Two Acholi officers led the 1985 coup that ended Milton Obote's second presidency, and their soldiers rioted in Kampala. Less than a year later, Museveni, who rebelled against Obote's disputed 1980 election victory, seized power and sent his soldiers north to impose control. Their execution of civilians and looting of goods and cattle is acutely felt by some Acholi today, and their original abuses provided the impetus for Kony's rebellion.What makes Green's book so valuable is that he demystifies the LRA. He reports that the upper ranks are populated with former military officers from the 1980s who understand military structure and strategy.

The rebels have organized themselves into five brigades with a central command known as the "control altar," and they possess sophisticated weapons such as anti-tank rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and landmines. Their violence, according to Green, is not random; villagers suspected of helping the UPDF are mutilated. Massacring civilians made it clear that they could never mobilize against the LRA because Museveni's government could never protect them.To his immense credit, Green confirms that some Acholi in the IDP camps collaborate with the rebels by buying boots and supplies for them. Some donate because they want to help their captive relatives or because they are given assurances that the LRA's goal is to overthrow Museveni. In parts of the Acholi diaspora, Kony is seen as he perceives himself to be -- as a liberator, a "genuine freedom fighter."

However, Green concludes that the LRA's persistence is less a testament to his leadership and more the symptom of a national malaise. "Museveni's failure was not his inability to kill one man, it was his failure to convince people north of the Nile that he cared."That cannot exculpate the LRA's violence and its cruelty to its Acholi kin and other ethnic groups in northern Uganda. Nor does Green explicitly indicate whether Kony can resolve himself to signing a peace deal. Green deserves praise for recognizing that journalists in sub-Saharan Africa also engage in myth-making and stereotypes of violence. "There was something irresistible about the idea of Kony as darkness personified in the heart of Africa, enslaving women, summoning spirits," Green writes. "Voodoo, harems, barbarism and magic -- he was every primitive cliché rolled into one."When that's removed, what remains is ample reason for skepticism about any peace agreement.

Kony has likely killed two of his deputies, and fellow indictees, over disagreements, which augurs poorly for potential moderates. If his forces are on the run, then they could prey on civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan or even the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, northern Uganda will not be helped by an agreement that is promoted out of political expediency by Museveni's government. If no one is sanctioned for violence, then impunity shall reign.

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