Webcast Recap

John Prendergast, Special Advisor to the President, International Crisis Group

Gilbert Khadiagala, Associate Professor of African Studies and Comparative Politics, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Moderator: Howard Wolpe, Director, WWICS Africa Program

Is the conflict in northern Uganda in its last throes? This question was the focus of considerable debate during this Africa Program event on the long-standing war between the Ugandan military and the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. John Prendergast, special advisor to the president of the International Crisis Group, argued that conditions are now ripe for a final peace settlement, while Gilbert Khadiagala, associate professor of African studies and comparative politics at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, presented a more skeptical analysis.

In order to convey the tragic humanitarian costs of the northern Uganda conflict, Prendergast began his presentation with a video interview he had conducted with a Ugandan teenager, who sleeps away from his home to avoid abduction and possible death at the hands of LRA fighters. Prendergast argued that ending the misery of northern Ugandans through the peaceful resolution of the conflict is imperative and currently feasible.

According to Prendergast, several conditions have recently been met to facilitate peace in northern Uganda. First, the LRA's military capabilities have been considerably compromised. The Ugandan military has become more effective in fighting the LRA, inflicting casualties at a rate of three to five per day. The 2004 government amnesty offer to LRA fighters has been quite successful, causing widespread defection of LRA commanders and troops. Moreover, an agreement between the Sudanese and the Ugandan governments has diminished much of the resources and protection that Sudan had previously granted the LRA. Second, as a result of his declining military prowess, Joseph Kony, the commander and spiritual leader of the LRA, is reportedly eager to reach an agreement with the Ugandan government. Several of his former officers have testified to his desire to end the conflict once he receives guarantees for his personal safety and immunity. Finally, Ugandan President Museveni has expressed his willingness to compromise and to end the conflict peacefully. His government has also been willing to consider Kony's personal security demands.

Nevertheless, a number of obstacles must still be overcome before the conflict in northern Uganda can be brought to a close. Prendergast maintained that mediation efforts must be more intensive, and that the LRA has to demonstrate greater determination to end the war. In addition, the United States should increase its involvement in the negotiations, in order to energize the process and strengthen Kony's confidence in Uganda's assurances. Work on the final agreement and the reconstruction of the north must start immediately.

Khadiagala differed from Mr. Prendergast in his perspective on the feasibility of a proximate agreement. In his view, the current situation is one of a tolerable, asymmetrical stalemate, wherein the military's upper-hand favors prolonging the conflict rather than ending it. By sending Betty Bigombe to negotiate with LRA representatives and through limited amnesty offers, the Ugandan government seeks to maintain a façade of progress toward a peace to attract international donor support. The popular belief that progress toward peace is imminent has been perpetuated by misconceptions of the implications of the Sudanese-Ugandan agreement and the sense of increased international attention to the conflict. In fact, these developments are neither new nor auspicious, he argued.

Betty Bigombe's mediation achievements notwithstanding, progress in negotiations has been limited and can be characterized more accurately as attempts at pre-negotiation. Even Bigombe's foremost success thus far—the 2004 amnesty and temporary ceasefire—has inadvertently strengthened the hawkish position of some among Ugandan leaders, who believe that widespread LRA acceptance of the amnesty implies that the group would soon succumb to military offensives. When compounded by the delicate constitutional transition in Uganda's capital, Kampala, as well as the high cost of post-conflict reconstruction in northern Uganda, it becomes evident that Uganda is not inclined to pursue a peaceful course resolutely in the near future.

Khadiagala proposed that if Uganda's government is sincere in its intention to end the conflict, then President Museveni should travel to the north and initiate direct negotiations with Joseph Kony. Such a gesture would signal Kampala's seriousness and force Kony to take an unequivocal stance. If Kony refuses to negotiate, his fighters would be more likely to abandon the LRA and enter the amnesty program. However, as long as the likelihood of such a scenario remains low, the international community would do better to pressure Uganda's government to begin reconstructing the north, and particularly the war-ravaged Acholi region. Mobilizing national resources for this cause would demonstrate the central government's commitment to the welfare of the Acholi and do much to remove the grievances on which the LRA bases its appeal.

The Ugandan Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Edith Grace Ssempala, who attended the event, rejected Khadiagala's skeptical view of Uganda's commitment to peace with the LRA. She pointed out that President Museveni did, in fact, travel to the north to promote peace. She also objected to the characterization of the situation in northern Uganda as a "conflict," arguing that instead it is a terrorist offensive by the LRA against innocent civilians. Ambassador Ssempala lamented the lack of leadership among the Acholi, which has been exploited by the LRA, and expressed confusion and sadness that the Acholi community has not ejected the LRA from its midst.

During the Q&A segment of the event, Prendergast reiterated his belief that President Museveni is indeed committed to the peaceful resolution of the war in northern Uganda. He also stressed the importance of local peace initiatives. When asked about the role of women in peace-building efforts in northern Uganda, both speakers pointed to Betty Bigombe and to the valuable work of former-abductee women, as illustrations of the important role women play in reconciliation efforts.

Amir Stepak, Research Consultant
Howard Wolpe, Director