Ri-Kwangba — He was expected to sign. The document was ready, the witnesses present and the media eager. But Joseph Kony, the commander of rebel Lord's Resistance Army, did not turn up in public, although there were indications he was in the vicinity. This was in Ri-Kwangba on the DR Congo, Sudan border.
As a result, the much-awaited Comprehensive Peace Agreement was delayed for the third time because the rebel leader has some questions he wants answered.
He wants to know about the alternative justice mechanisms Kampala plans to use to deal with war crimes he committed in place of the case at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has issued warrants for him and two of his top deputies.
South Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar, who has mediated between Kampala and Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) since mid-2006, said the rebel was ready to sign but did not understand elements of the document.
"It looks like we are not going to have a signature today...(Kony) wants clarification on two issues Mato Oput and the Special Division of the High Court," Dr Machar announced to hundreds of Acholi leaders, witnesses and observers at the Ri-Kwangba border clearing after a two hour wait.
"I have dispatched a team of elders to go and explain it to him, and I will also hold a brief meeting with him later today or tomorrow morning."
The news was devastating to the people who hoped an early deal would be reached this time round after two postponements in the past. Kony delivered his reservations through his chief negotiator David Nyekorach-Matsanga and his delegation after a two-hour meeting.
All indications, however, showed that Kony was in the vicinity and probably would sign the final agreement today, Friday.
The mediation however, showed some frustration at an apparent lack of communication between the LRA negotiators in Juba and the combatants in the DR Congo and Central African Republic.
"This (need for clarification) should have been communicated during the workshop that took place three weeks ago but I hope to hold a brief meeting with Kony today or tomorrow to clear that," said Dr Machar.
A tent to accommodate 200 people had already been filled at Ri-Kwangba. The government team sat on the right, Dr Machar's mediation team was in the centre and the LRA were supposed to sit on the left.
At Ri-kwangba, about 15 members of Kony's protection unit -the Control Altar - were seen moving around with Kalashnikovs and walkie-talkies. The government side, however, seemed to take Kony's concerns in good faith.
"First, we are grateful that Kony has left the Central African Republic to come and sign and if he wants a few issues cleared, why not?" said Government's deputy negotiator and International Affairs Minister Henry Okello Oryem. By press time yesterday evening, Dr Machar and the Ugandan team were still waiting for a team of religious and cultural leaders who had crossed the border to clarify a few things with Kony.
Kony's 22-year old insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives, uprooted two million more in northern Uganda and also destabilised neighbouring parts of southern Sudan and eastern Congo. ICC prosecutors in The Hague accuse the three suspects of multiple war crimes including rape, murder and the abduction of thousands of children as fighters, porters and sex slaves. Even if Kony does sign a final peace deal, the rebels have vowed never to disarm until the indictments are scrapped.
President Yoweri Museveni is due to sign the agreement on April 15 in South Sudan's capital Juba. His government has said it will only call for the ICC warrants to be lifted after a final deal is reached. The ICC has said its warrants for Kony and the two other commanders - Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen - remain in force. But the UN Security Council could ask the Hague-based court to put them on hold if members see a real chance for peace.
In a bid to convince the ICC that the matter can be handled internally, Kampala and the rebels have agreed to set up a special division of Uganda's High Court to deal with war crimes.
Kony wants more details on how the special court would work, in tandem with the traditional northern Mato Oput reconciliation rituals which the government proposes using too, Dr Machar said.
ICC supporters say only a judicial process delivering stiff jail terms for grave crimes is an acceptable alternative. But the court does not want to be seen as the last barrier to peace if talks look like ending one of the continent's most brutal and intractable conflicts.
Additional reporting by Reuters