Uganda–Lord’s Resistance Army Peace Negotiations: Addressing Dead Ends in a Maze

Tasneem Jamal

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2007 Volume 28 Issue 4

Project Ploughshares continues its peacebuilding work with the Africa Peace Forum through policy development projects on the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan and the creation of a peace and security architecture for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) community that includes Sudan and Uganda. The Uganda-LRA peace talks brokered by the Government of Southern Sudan in Juba provide an important example of regional leadership in solving African problems. Project Ploughshares’ Executive Director, John Siebert, recently visited Kampala and interviewed academic supporters of the peace process.

Snapshot of a conflict

The peace talks centred in Juba, Sudan between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that started in July 2006 offer hope that the violence of the past two decades in northern Uganda may finally end. To succeed, however, the talks will require all parties to work past a series of dead ends in a deadly maze, one of the most significant being the arrest warrants issued against top LRA commanders in October 2005 by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The LRA insurgency represents one in a series of continuing conflicts in the Horn of Africa that start with an insurgency force fighting within a country, but then spill over borders and draw support from regional neighbours, thus effectively creating proxy wars between states. Fortunately, the resolution of these complex conflicts is not constrained by the synthetic construct of a maze, which allows for only a single solution. The dead ends that have bedeviled past peace negotiations in northern Uganda may finally be worked around in the Juba peace talks if the ultimate dead end—resort to a military solution—is avoided.

According to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (2006), “as many as 2 million Ugandans in the North (95 percent of Acholi ethnic identity) have been forced to live in displaced persons camps and close to 30,000 persons—mainly children—have been abducted by the LRA.” Uganda’s President Museveni defeated an Acholi-led Ugandan government and military when he seized power in Kampala in 1986. LRA leaders and members are primarily Acholi.

Led by Joseph Kony and his field commander Vincent Otti, the LRA are often described as religious lunatics who regularly commit atrocities. Estimates of the LRA’s total strength, including fighters, women, and children, go as high as 5,000.1 That this small band of rebels has survived and seemingly prospered over several decades points to the complexity of this conflict and the obstacles faced by those who desperately want the Juba peace talks to end the violence.

The difficult peace talks

The Juba talks are being mediated by Southern Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar and assisted by UN special envoy to northern Uganda, Joachim Chissano, a former president of Mozambique. Various forms of aid to the LRA and diplomatic support for the talks have been provided through the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), to which Canada has been a leading donor. Even as the talks have regularly stalled since their beginning, new incentives and processes have been added with the support of the international community to restart or build momentum.

On 29 August 2006 a “Cessation of Hostilities Agreement” came into effect between the two parties and has subsequently been renewed several times. On 2 May 2007 agreement on comprehensive solutions to the conflict was reached. On 29 June 2007 the agreement on reconciliation and accountability was signed. Still to be negotiated are disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and a ceasefire.

However, there have been unsettling developments since the start of the talks. Some observers noted that during previous peace talks the LRA used the lull in hostilities to rest and restore their fighting capacity, returning to the fray with greater intensity. International Crisis Group (ICG 2007, p. 2) sees the same scenario shaping up now in Garamba, Democratic Republic of Congo, where the LRA is in cantonment; this force “is safer and stronger than when the peace process began and is developing more options.” To date the official release of women and children associated with the LRA, part of the cessation of hostilities agreement, has not taken place (IRIN 2007).

The increasing shakiness of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan (BBC 2007) is giving rise to speculation that Khartoum could once again sponsor the LRA to disrupt northern Uganda and south Sudan. Hostilities could resume if certain dead ends are not circumvented.

Dead end #1: The Government of Uganda may not want to end the fighting

Most political commentators on Uganda point to the political challenge President Museveni would face from a stable, prospering north. Uganda is still, at best, an emerging democracy and Museveni’s political base is in the south. Never publicly acknowledged, a dysfunctional north helps to maintain his regime. “As one opposition politician who represents a riding in northern Uganda [put it]: Museveni knows that the north/Gulu/Acholi is full of opposition. If they were pacified, they would mount serious opposition [to him, politically], so it is much better to keep them disconnected and devastated politically/socially/economically.”2

Museveni’s National Resistance Army, later renamed the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), has been conducting a military counterinsurgency campaign in the north since 1986. In the 1990s, the LRA began to attack Acholi villages. Apparently the LRA interpreted its reduced popular support among the people as a sign that the villagers were collaborating with the UPDF and the Ugandan government.

In 1996 the Uganda Government moved almost the entire Acholi population into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for their protection, but then failed to protect the camps from savage attacks by the LRA. Since then the IDP in the camps, which lack adequate water and infrastructure, have been almost completely dependent on international food aid. In night raids, the LRA has abducted children, who have been forcefully pressed into service. The UPDF has also been accused of grave and systematic human rights abuses of this same population. There is widespread consensus that both the LRA and UPDF have been guilty of actions that can be construed as war crimes.

Peace in the north could result in increased political opposition to the Museveni regime and might also turn international attention, specifically that of the International Criminal Court, to the actions of the UPDF. For both these reasons, the Ugandan Government might not be eager to achieve success at the peace talks in Juba.

Dead end #2: The LRA as the representative of the north

At times the LRA has represented the only fighting response to the brutality of the UPDF and the marginalization of northern Uganda by the Government. This may have earned the LRA some passive support among the Acholi, at least until the systematic attacks and abductions by the LRA in the 1990s. The LRA has, at times, presented itself as a political voice for northern grievances at the Juba peace talks.

The LRA negotiators at Juba have primarily been from the diaspora. Kony and Otti have not directly joined the talks but have been visited by Ugandan government negotiators and have maintained telephone connections to them (ICG 2007, p. 2).

If the LRA is viewed at the Juba peace talks not only as a deadly insurgency force that needs to lay down its weapons, but as the political force giving voice to northern Ugandan grievances, then the peace talks may go off the rails. The LRA, finally, cannot be the legitimate political representative of the northern Ugandan people it has brutalized for two decades.

Dead end #3: The Acholi desire for peace may result in too many concessions at Juba

The Acholi people have been the principal victims of the LRA and the UPDF. In addition to the explicit violence of the LRA the Acholi have experienced the disruption of their rural agricultural life and the hobbling of cultural practices through prolonged stays in the IDP camps. Now their overwhelming desire for peace appears to inform all their responses to questions about how to conduct and conclude the Juba peace talks, including whether and how the LRA commanders and soldiers are to be held accountable.

A backbone of hopeful leadership has remained alive among women and traditional and religious leaders. Their hope is reinforced by a significant increase in security since the Juba talks began and a government amnesty for LRA fighters came into effect. The IDP camps are “de-congesting.” As of May 2007, 400,000 northern Ugandans had either returned home or started the process of going home, mostly in Lango district.

This understandable desire for peace by the Acholi could result in a short-term peace if too many concessions are given to the LRA, allowing the LRA to subsequently reconstitute itself militarily or redefine itself as a political movement—something it has already hinted at in the context of the Juba talks (ICG 2007, p. 3).

Dead end #4: The ICC LRA arrest warrants

The International Criminal Court indictments of the LRA were requested by the Government of Uganda in 2003 and on their face seem unassailable. The record of LRA atrocities is a gruesome matter of public record. Following an investigation, in October 2005 the ICC unsealed arrest warrants—its first warrants in its first case—against five senior LRA commanders, including Kony and Otti.

The ICC was created “to investigate, prosecute and punish those who commit war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”—many of whom would otherwise escape punishment in their home countries (Foreign Affairs 2007). The ICC was created to complement national justice processes or to step in where these do not exist.

Paradoxically, the ICC arrest warrants are proving to be one of the primary impediments to securing a comprehensive peace agreement with the LRA. Kony has made the withdrawal of the ICC arrest warrants a precondition to the LRA’s laying down of weapons and coming out of the bush. The resulting struggle in the Juba peace talks has been framed as peace pitted against justice: northern Uganda can have peace without justice being brought to bear on Kony and his cohorts, or the ICC can insist on pursuing a particular course of justice—without being able to arrest the LRA commanders—and sacrifice the opportunity for peace at the Juba talks.

Moses Chrispus Okello, Head of Research and Advocacy with the Refugee Law Project in Kampala, recently made a presentation in Nuremberg, Germany, on what he called the false polarization of peace and justice in northern Uganda. Okello (2007, p. 2) argued that justice through the ICC or some other credible mechanism must be properly sequenced: “peace should always come first, and justice later.”

American academic Adam Branch (2007, pp. 183-187) sees many legal and political problems with the ICC indictments. For example, the ICC warrants eviscerate the Ugandan Amnesty Act of 2000, which granted a general amnesty to the LRA, because they remove the protection of amnesty from the leaders, the very people who most need to be enticed out of the bush. As well, the ICC’s temporal jurisdiction goes back only to 2002 but the most atrocious LRA violence took place prior to 2002. Again, the ICC operates under the principle of “complementarity,” in that it should only take cases in which national courts are ‘unable’ or ‘unwilling’ to undertake investigation and prosecution, but the Ugandan judiciary was always able to do the job.

Branch believes that the ICC failed to do a proper political analysis of the situation in northern Uganda and the potentially negative impact of prosecuting only the LRA while ignoring the human rights abuses committed by the UPDF. And, while Branch notes that the ICC has responded to some criticisms, he is not impressed by this response by ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Campo on the issue of indicting only one side: “Crimes committed by the LRA were much more numerous and of much higher gravity than the alleged crimes committed by the UPDF. We therefore started with an investigation of the LRA” (quoted in Branch 2007, p. 188).

The ICC, with the weight of international western jurisprudence behind it and upright intentions, has sought to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice. Tragically the ICC indictments have become another barrier to success at the Juba peace talks.

Dead end #5: Traditional justice in Acholi-land

In a survey of 1,143 internally displaced persons in northern Uganda, 97.5 per cent responded “yes” to the question “Should the truth about what happened during the conflict be known?” (Justice and Reconciliation Project 2007, p. 3). In several studies using different methodologies the vast majority of people in northern Uganda have indicated support for an approach of forgiveness and a truth and reconciliation process to deal with the fallout of the violence. A frequently mentioned approach, “Mato Oput,” “refers to the traditional rituals performed by the Acholi to reconcile parties formerly in conflict, after full accountability” (Government of Uganda and LRA 2007).3

The debate on the use of traditional, restorative justice methods has been central in one phase of the Juba peace talks. The July 2007 agreement between the Ugandan Government and the LRA on Accountability and Reconciliation states: “Traditional justice mechanisms…as practiced in the communities affected by the conflict shall be promoted, with necessary modifications, as a central part of the framework for accountability and reconciliation.”

Questions about using traditional forms of justice go beyond the issue of whether they are a substitute, an addition, or an evasion of the retributive justice embodied in the ICC indictments. Advocates and critics have identified many practical concerns:

  • Abducted children who committed atrocities are both victims and perpetrators. How should they be treated?
  • How are former LRA soldiers to be reintegrated into communities after the ceremonies? Insufficient infrastructure and social supports exist, particularly in communities heavily disrupted by displacements to IDP camps.
  • How can ceremonies designed for individual cases at a relatively small community level be adapted for the mass atrocities committed by the LRA and the UPDF?
  • Can traditional justice work both for formerly abducted children who became LRA fighters under duress and for LRA commanders and those who enlisted voluntarily?
  • How are women and girls to be dealt with? They are excluded from some traditional ceremonies but are also victims and in some cases perpetrators.
  • Traditional ceremonies are very private, but the northern Ugandan violence has been widespread and is well known. How can the need for public processes of acknowledgement and punishment be met?

Advocates of the ICC also point out that Uganda’s substitution of a traditional domestic process could encourage other states such as Sudan to set up weak or showcase processes for officials and military officers indicted by the ICC for atrocities in Darfur.

Not everyone is convinced that all the civilian victims of LRA violence want traditional ceremonies. Dr. Tim Allen of the London School of Economics (2005, p. 66) writes: “The current consensus about customary Acholi conceptions of justice has largely emerged from the aid-funded collaboration” between Acholi traditional male elders and the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Despite the argument for sequencing peace before justice, the Juba peace talks are already dealing with the question of what justice system might be applied. If traditional approaches are being advocated now to secure a peace deal, will the civilian victims be satisfied with that level of justice later? Traditional justice may be a short-term solution to an ongoing conundrum in northern Uganda.

Workarounds: Tackling the dead ends

The dead ends now being faced in the Juba peace talks cannot be lightly passed over. Two previous sets of peace talks (1993-4 and 2004-5) between the Government of Uganda and the LRA foundered precisely because no solutions to these obstacles were found. Is this the fate of the Juba talks as well?

Fortunately the dilemmas in even the most complex violent conflicts are amenable to compromises and alternatives if the peace negotiation process is allowed to constructively run its course and all sides are dissuaded from resorting to military options. The workarounds for the five identified dead ends are already in sight. This conflict is not stuck in a maze.

Dead end #1: Whether or not President Museveni is served politically by an insecure and impoverished northern Uganda, he and his government are proceeding with the Juba peace talks. International pressure will be needed to ensure his genuine participation until negotiations are successfully completed. The same is true for LRA participation. The workaround for Museveni’s reluctance to share political power lies in addressing the underlying grievances of political and economic marginalization, which includes the future possibility of Museveni’s being replaced by political means if the people of Uganda are given a genuine choice through democratic means.

Dead end #2: To replace the LRA as a political player, other northern groups must assume this role. This solution is really a corollary of the previous point. Genuine participation in democratic processes will be required for responsible political parties and individuals to represent and address northern grievances and marginalization over time.

Dead end #3: The deep and understandable desire for peace by the Acholi and other northerners cannot be allowed to fuel a peace accord that provides the LRA with options to reconstitute militarily or become a movement or political force. It is better to have peace talks that go on for years than a peace accord that quickly unravels.

Dead end #4: A way around the ICC indictments appears to be in sight. In the reconciliation and accountability agreement the LRA and Ugandan Government agreed that both formal justice procedures and traditional ceremonies would play a role. This might satisfy ICC concerns about impunity and convince the ICC that arrests under international auspices were not necessary. In late August the Government of Uganda declared that it was seeking legal advice on setting up its own war crimes court, effectively reassuming responsibility for the case it sent to the ICC. While dealing with the other three remaining LRA commanders4 might be managed, Joseph Kony is a special case. John Prendergast (2007, p. 5), writing for ENOUGH—the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity—offers this solution: “it remains highly doubtful that Kony will trust Museveni enough to submit to a trial in Uganda, and third country asylum in a country that is not a signatory to the Rome Statute [establishing the ICC] may be the most realistic option.”

Dead end #5: The way around the ICC is linked to the solution on traditional justice. A mixture of retributive and restorative justice responses will need to be tailored to the particular offenders and the communities where their offenses are processed.
What cannot be contemplated when confronting any or all of these obstacles is recourse by the UPDF or the international community to military attacks on the LRA.

No military solution

The Ugandan Government maintains that peace talks are not the only option and that the LRA can be dealt with militarily, if necessary. Typical of this approach is the statement of Gulu Resident District Commissioner Walter Ochora: “No one wants the talks to fail, but in the event that they fail, there must be an alternative. We will have to use the military option because everybody wants peace in northern Uganda” (Oluka 2007b). The US has publicly stated its willingness to assist in a military campaign against the LRA (Oluka 2007a).
If the LRA can be defeated militarily, why has the Ugandan government not done so until now? The possibility that President Museveni has not wanted to defeat the LRA has already been raised. The UPDF’s ineffective and slow response to LRA attacks on IDP camps has been attributed to rampant corruption among senior officers that has resulted in a lack of adequate equipment and personnel, nonexistent soldiers existing on paper for the illegal collection of pay by commanders, the selling off of army petrol and parts from army trucks, and the selling of government rations and uniforms to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (Ochieng 2007, p. III).

The LRA was assisted with military supplies and intelligence by the National Islamic Front Government of Sudan during Khartoum’s war against the SPLA (1982-2005) and returned the favour by conducting raids in south Sudan. Unfortunately, Khartoum probably does not want the LRA to disappear completely in case the CPA unravels and civil war in Sudan restarts.

The nature of the LRA as a fighting force also explains their endurance. LRA combatants have demonstrated their abilities again and again, most having been trained from childhood under extreme coercion. Ironically, this has benefited the UPDF when it has been successful in luring LRA combatants out of the bush. “The Ugandan army has a long and successful history of incorporating former rebel fighters…. UPDF officers say that the LRA make remarkably good soldiers, and are extremely disciplined—perhaps because they are used to following military orders on pain of death” (Borzello 2007, p. 405).

Add to all these factors the immense, underdeveloped, often inhospitable geography and porous borders. The current location of the LRA in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not a mystery. According to the ceasefire agreement signed in Juba, the LRA was to congregate in specific staging areas with assurances of protection. “LRA fighters are largely based within a 15km radius of Ri-Kwangba, as required by the cessation of hostilities agreement, but are not technically in compliance because they remain on the Congolese side of the border” (ICG 2007, p. 5). Kony and most of the LRA fighters were at a jungle base in Garamba National Park in Congo as of June 2007.

If the UPDF has proven in the past to be unwilling, or inept and corrupt, what are the prospects of its defeating the LRA if bolstered by international troops under the UN or by a superpower such as the US? A useful historical illustration of what could happen comes from the January 2006 military operation that involved a UN force in Garamba National Park, near the border with Sudan. “One senior U.N. official, who asked not to be named, said the contingent of 80 Guatemalan special forces troops were trying to capture or kill the LRA’s deputy commander, Vincent Otti, after locating his suspected camp. ‘It was an operation that went wrong,’ he told Reuters.… ‘They attacked but the LRA were dug in and more organized than people thought’” (Lewis 2006). Eight special forces soldiers were killed.

While it makes some sense to use military pressure to encourage the LRA to participate in the Juba peace talks, a military solution to the problem of the LRA cannot succeed. A multinational attack on the LRA in Garamba would inevitably result in the dispersal of fighters throughout Uganda and Southern Sudan.


While all the dead ends in northern Uganda have potential workarounds, the end of a violent conflict only presages the difficulties of post-conflict reconstruction. Peace will be difficult to maintain. Northern Uganda will remain well-armed. The resettlement phase of the DDR process will be crucial. International financial and other support for reconstruction will be necessary.

But now the most immediate concern is that the Juba peace talks may founder on the impatience of the parties or international actors who view a quick completion of negotiations as highly desirable and recourse to the military option as necessary if the LRA drag their feet.



  1. Food aid is apparently being provided to the LRA at Ri-Kwangba on the Uganda/DRC border by Caritas International based on 5,000 combatants, women, and children (ICG 2007, p. 5). The numbers have not been independently verified.
  2. Confidential interview with opposition politician, 3 November 2004, Kampala, Uganda (Quinn 2006, p. 28).
  3. The agreement signed on 2 July 2007 between the Ugandan Government and the LRA (2007) on Accountability and Reconciliation provides a list of traditional ceremonies used in different areas of northern Uganda, all to be performed “after full accountability”: “Ailuc” performed by the Iteso; “Culo Kwor” performed by the Acholi and Lango; “Kayo Cuk” performed by the Langi; “Mato Oput” performed by the Acholi; and “Tonu ci Koka” performed by the Madi.
  4. Rumours of Otti’s death began to circulate in October 2007, but have not been confirmed.


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BBC. 2007. Restraint urged after Sudan split. 12 October.

Borzello, Anna. 2007. The challenge of DDR in Northern Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army. Conflict, Security & Development 7:3, October, pp. 387-415.

Branch, Adam. 2007. Uganda’s civil war and the politics of ICC intervention. Ethics and International Affairs, 21.2, pp. 179-198.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 2006. Canada–Uganda relations. 8 December.

———. 2007. Canada and the International Criminal Court.

Government of Uganda and LRA. 2007. Govt, LRA Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation. Kampala, 2 July.

International Crisis Group. 2007. Northern Uganda Peace Process: The Need to Maintain Momentum. Africa Briefing No. 46, 14 September.

IRIN. 2007. Uganda: Juba talks paying off as IDPs return home. 16 July.

Justice and Reconciliation Project. 2007. The Cooling of Hearts: Community Truth-Telling in Acholi-land. Gulu District NGO Forum, Liu Institute for Global Issues, Special Report: July.

Lewis, David. 2006. Guatemalan blue helmet deaths stir Congo debate. Reuters Foundation, 31 January.

Ochieng, Zachary. 2007. Bigombe: A peacemaker’s lonely battle. The EastAfrican Magazine, 10-16 September 2007, pp. I-III.

Okello, Moses Chrispus. 2007. The false polarisation of peace and justice in Uganda. Expert paper “Workshop 2—Justice in Situations of Ongoing Conflict.” Organized by International Center for Transitional Justice. Nuremberg, Germany, June.

Oluka, Benon Herbert. 2007a. Make peace quickly or we’ll be coming after you, US tells Kony. The EastAfrican. 10-16 September, p. 1.
———. 2007b. Marines will hunt down LRA rebels if talks fail. The EastAfrican, 10-16 September, p. 3.

Prendergast, John. 2007. Let’s Make a Deal: Leverage needed in Northern Uganda Peace Talks. ENOUGH Strategy Paper #6, August.

Quinn, Joanna R. 2006. Comparing formal and informal mechanisms of acknowledgement in Uganda. Working Paper, March.

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