9 February 2008

Uganda: LRA Peace Talks - the Inside Story

Juba — AFTER a four-month recess, peace talks between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army resumed on a dramatic note in Juba last week.

The LRA delegates walked out accusing the United States, which has observer status, of trying to hijack the peace process.

There were, however, also allegations that the emergence of hardliners on the rebel LRA side was not helping matters.

The resumption of the talks on January 30 came a few days after LRA chief Joseph Kony sacked Mr Martin Ojul ,his long-time lead negotiator and a man who had worked hard to give the notorious LRA rebel force a civil outlook.

Mr Kony did not give reasons for the sack. But Mr David Nyekorach Matsanga, the man who was appointed to lead the LRA team, said that Mr Kony fired Mr Ojul for allegedly making money from the talks, an accusation the sacked official denies.

Other sources say Mr Kony suspected Mr Ojul to be sympathetic to Vincent Otti, the LRA second-in-command the rebel chief had executed in October for reportedly planning a coup.

But most challenging to the mediator, Dr Riek Machar, who is the vice president in the Government of South Sudan, were the unexpected events that took place this week.

Mr Matsanga attended a meeting at the government team's residence at the Civicon Oasis Hotel on Tuesday with hi-tech eavesdropping devices connected to a wireless button-hole spy camera.

The development has irked the Uganda government delegation whose members are suspicious of the LRA team's motive of employing spying devices in the course of the negotiations.

An eavesdropping device is a tool capable of being used to hear or record oral conversation, whether conducted in person or by telephone.

Apparently, Mr Matsanga seems to be interested in the private consultations amongst the government delegates during discussions, a delegate at the talks who preferred not to be named, said.

Some government team members have, however, dismissed the equipment's usefulness.

Mr Matsanga also carries to meetings a poison detector which he privately swipes on food and drinks served him. The detector, according to experts, finds foreign materials added to food.

"I don't take chances," Mr Matsanga said when asked whether he owns the gadgets. "I know I have been a target and many attempts have been made against me."

On Wednesday, after discovering there was a deadlock, Dr Machar, who had allowed the two sides hold joint meetings in his absence, summoned each of the sides.

The sticky issues include the LRA's demand on Monday that 35 percent of top command jobs in the Ugandan army and other security organs be given to people coming from northern and eastern Uganda.

In a fresh position paper presented to the Uganda government delegation led by Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, Mr Matsanga also demanded that 35 percent of all lucrative central government contracts be offered to bidders from the war-affected regions for economic emancipation.

First to appear before Dr Machar in a closed door meeting was the LRA delegation. The LRA team members told Dr Machar that presently only six ministers originate from the greater north and northeastern parts of Uganda, their assumed constituency.

"Mr Mediator, we query the imbalance in Cabinet in its present form," the LRA team's legal advisor Chrispus Ayena reportedly told the meeting. "There are too many gaps to fill."

The LRA told Dr Machar that the 10 top UPDF posts are held by people from western Uganda and that the same, he claimed, was true of the membership of the High Command save for Maj. Gen. Masaba.

But the government side's spokesman, Capt. Chris Magezi, said contrary to claims by the LRA that the UPDF is run by a clique of officers from western Uganda, the military has an institutional structure, which is not a preserve of an individual.

The LRA also alleged that, apart from the Uganda Revenue Authority where Baganda take about 28 percent of jobs, people from western Ugandan occupy most positions in government bodies.

"If these imbalances are not addressed, Uganda will find itself in a situation like that of Kenya or where north and northeastern will call for cessation," Mr Matsanga said.

But Dr Machar reminded the LRA that as much as they point a finger at the government, they should remember that Uganda was run under a multi-party political system, which the rebels subscribe to.

However, Mr Ayena argued that as much as northern Uganda did not vote President Museveni, the head of state had powers to select politicians from the region to fill the 10 slots of ministers he picks outside Parliament.

"Of the 10 slots, while Dr Rugunda from western was appointed a full cabinet minister, Henry Oryem, the only person from northern, was appointed a state minister," Mr Ayena reportedly told Dr Machar.

Mr Oryem is Dr Rugunda's deputy at the talks.

After trying unsuccessfully from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Wednesday to calm down the LRA, Dr Machar called in the government side, which had been waiting in a tent outside.

But despite the gruelling debates, none of the delegates went to sleep.

Dr Rugunda's team reportedly told Dr Machar that during the implementation of the final agreement, the government will refer to the Equal Opportunities Commission any allegations of regional disparities in job allocation.

In a proposal seen by Daily Monitor, Dr Rugunda's team argued that people from the conflict-affected areas who are living in the Diaspora will be encouraged to return and participate in the national politics and institutions.

The government thus proposed to set up a "Diaspora desk" in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to handle the matter.

The team said that the government recognises the right of any Ugandan to promote any system of governance including federalism through constitutional means as demanded by the LRA.

Dr Rugunda told the meeting that the government will continue to ensure that the composition of armed forces and other security agencies reflect the national character.

On social development, the government outlined its de-mining, re-forestation, rural electrification under Nyagak and Karuma power projects, all based in northern Uganda.

The government team also promised to handle the issues of land, livestock and security for the LRA combatants when they come out of the bush.

Because it was coming to dawn, Dr Machar adjourned the meeting and promised to send to the parties a copy of his proposal arising out of their discussions.

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