Ugandan peace deal in danger of collapse

A peace agreement between the Ugandan government and a notorious rebel group is in jeopardy after the rebels' chief negotiator abruptly quit to pursue a career in politics.

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NAIROBI // A peace agreement between the Ugandan government and a notorious rebel group is in jeopardy after the rebels' chief negotiator abruptly quit to pursue a career in politics. The breakdown comes as attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) continue in neighbouring countries, though not in Uganda, prompting calls for renewed military intervention. David Matsanga, the LRA's peace negotiator, spent most of the past three years hammering out a deal to end Uganda's two-decade civil war. A final peace agreement was reached in late 2008, but Joseph Kony, the rebel leader wanted by the International Criminal Court, has refused to sign the deal unless the ICC drops its indictments.

Mr Matsanga resigned on Friday telling reporters in Nairobi that his job is finished, and that LRA operations outside of Uganda are out of his control. "As LRA peace negotiators, we have achieved our goals," he said. "Peace has returned to northern Uganda. The LRA fighters are now beyond our capacity and as such, we cannot chase General Kony for the signature. The signature has become moribund." Kony, a self-styled mystic, started the LRA in 1987 as a Christian militia fighting for the rights of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. He also wanted to overthrow the government and replace it with one based on the Ten Commandments.

In 2002, the Ugandan army drove the rebels into southern Sudan, and northern Uganda has been peaceful since about late 2004. However, two million people were displaced during the war and many still live in squalid, tightly packed camps. The LRA is notorious for cutting off limbs, lips and ears of victims. They are also known for recruiting young boys as fighters and girls as sex slaves. Since being driven from Uganda, the rebels have continued to prey on villagers in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, more recently, the Central African Republic (CAR).

In stepping down, Mr Matsanga, who has lived in exile in the United Kingdom for the past 23 years, said he wanted to challenge Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's president, in the 2011 presidential elections. "I have an ambition to vie for the presidency," said Mr Matsanga, who claims to hold a doctorate in political science. Analysts said that the resignation was a sign that the current peace process had collapsed. After Kony failed to sign the final peace deal, the Ugandan army launched an offensive across the border in DR Congo in December to root out the LRA. The attack failed to kill Kony or any top LRA leadership and only pushed the rebel group farther north-west into CAR.

"The war is on," said Louise Khabure, a Uganda analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank based in Brussels. "In terms of negotiations, there is no clear way forward." The current size of the LRA is unclear, but experts say it is between 500 and 3,000 fighters, with many believed to be women and children forced to work for the rebels. Mr Matsanga said he did not know the army's size, but confirmed that Kony was in CAR.

"Kony is not [Uganda's] problem," he said. "Kony is now an international problem. It is up to the international community to get Kony back to the negotiating table." In CAR, the second poorest nation in the world, LRA attacks have aggravated the dire humanitarian situation. At least 2,000 people have been displaced by recent LRA raids on villages in the dense rainforest, according to the United Nations.

"LRA attacks are ongoing, and every week there are reports of new incidents," said Nick Imboden, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian affairs office in CAR. "These are not major but are frequent." The LRA spill-over and a separate conflict in north-east CAR has created massive malnutrition, especially among children, the UN children's agency, Unicef, said. "In both the conflict-affected north and the more stable south, almost 700,000 children under five are living below acceptable standards, and now many are moving toward the outer edge of survival," said Jeremy Hopkins, Unicef's representative in CAR.

The LRA is also still operating in war-torn DR Congo, according to the UN. Last month, the rebel group launched 55 attacks on villages forcing 12,000 people to flee their homes, the UN said last week. The attacks on villages are mostly to resupply and to forcibly recruit men, women and children into their ranks. Analysts and politicians have called for a renewed offensive to wipe out the LRA once and for all. A bill is currently working its way through the United States Congress that would pledge US support to a Ugandan-led military campaign against the LRA.

The Enough Project, an organisation that campaigns against genocide, said in a report that "a revitalised and revamped military operation focused on apprehending the senior LRA leadership while simultaneously protecting civilians is the best way to defeat the insurgency and allow displaced civilians to return to their homes".