By Peter J. Quaranto
October 10, 2007 — The author is senior researcher & conflict analyst for the Washington-based Resolve Uganda, formerly the Uganda Conflict Action Network. He is also studying diplomacy at the University of Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. Contact Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For almost three years, I have been part of the growing movement to press Western governments to respond to the crisis in northern Uganda. International neglect, while aid poured into Kampala, has allowed the war to persist for two decades. Today that silence is history; world leaders from Washington to London to Brussels are speaking about the urgency of resolving the conflict. Yet, priority does not guarantee prudence. In fact, many Western officials have begun making reckless military threats that threaten to undermine the ongoing peace process. It leaves activists like myself wondering: have our efforts been counterproductive?
The last month has seen a surge of military rhetoric against the LRA rebels. In early September, the top U.S. official for Africa urged a timeline for the negotiations and said that Washington would support military action to “mop up the LRA” if the talks fail. Meanwhile, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed an agreement that allows for joint military operations against the LRA within 90 days. The UN peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC) has announced its readiness to “use force” to push the rebels out of Garamba Park. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, the Belgian Prime Minister urged international action to arrest LRA leaders.
This military planning and pressure might have been welcome in 2005 when there was little hope of a peaceful resolution to end LRA attacks and abductions. Northern Ugandans were then pleading for someone, anyone to fulfill the so-called “responsibility to protect.” Yet, two years later, there are now ongoing peace talks in which war-affected communities are largely placing their hope. Though torturously slow, the negotiations in Juba have brought relative calm to northern Uganda, allowing an estimated 400,000 displaced persons to begin returning to their homes and fields. Most Acholi are simply awaiting a final agreement from Juba before they leave the camps. They believe these negotiations offer the best chance to bring them lasting security.
By all accounts, the recent military threats have alarmed these survivors. Too many times in their history, optimism surrounding peace talks has been shattered by sudden military provocation. With every proclaimed “military solution,” their families have suffered more severe attacks and displacement. As a result, the last month’s rhetoric has kept people closer to the camps, restricting their freedom of movement and right to return.
Perhaps international actors calling for military action believe that threats will increase the incentives for the rebels to negotiate. Yet, this is certainly not a sure bet. The LRA have pulled out of talks in the past when they suspected manipulation by the Ugandan government. Moreover, Khartoum may welcome a rekindled relationship with the LRA to destabilize southern Sudan before its 2011 vote on secession. Military rhetoric may give aggressive elements in the LRA the political cover they seek to withdraw from talks and blame Kampala.
If the LRA then withdraws, can MONUC and the region’s militaries contain and “mop them up”? The answer is uncertain. The region’s forces have failed in the past to overpower the rebels, who travel in small numbers, with small arms caches across borders and superior knowledge of the jungle terrain. The U.S. has promised valuable intelligence support, but superior technology will not ensure success. The consequences of failure for not only northern Uganda, but also the wider region, would be catastrophic. The point is this: why take the risk now when there is a viable ongoing opportunity to bring an end to hostilities?
Perhaps most disturbing about the latest round of military rhetoric is the potential role of the Ugandan government. To present, Kampala has shown commendable commitment to the Juba peace talks. However, its recent agreement with Congo and growing threats plays into northerners’ suspicion that President Museveni will only settle for a military victory. Many fear that the President will cast off negotiations after the Commonwealth meetings in November. The current military rhetoric may provide exactly the right pretext for the Ugandan army to resume operations. Such a move would only further alienate northerners, while risking the escalation of regional violence.
This is all not to argue against any future military role for peacekeeping or protection, but that active military operations should not be employed unless viable peaceful means to end the conflict have been exhausted. The current military buildup is unhelpful and runs a high risk of rekindling violence. It provides a convenient cover for either the Ugandan government or LRA to back out of the Juba talks. The negotiations, flawed as they are, still offer the best chance to end the LRA security threat and begin addressing deeper grievances. Western leaders can best help northern Uganda by making sure the peace talks get a complete chance to succeed.
The great tragedy in all of these military scenarios is that those most affected by the war are ignored once more. The growing international and regional drive to end this horrific war is encouraging, but external actors should not just impose their own solutions. Nor should they ignore local voices and knowledge. What we, the civil society movement, have been urging is an international response that responds first to war survivors. The current ill-conceived military solutions are a far cry from that.
* The writers is a co-founders of the Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda-CAN), www.UgandaCAN.org a grassroots campaign advocating for more responsible U.S. policy to end the war in northern Uganda.