One of Africa’s nastiest rebel movements, the Lord’s Resistance Army , has offered talks with the Ugandan Government to end a 20-year conflict that has left thousands dead or mutilated and forced millions from their homes.
The Government has accepted the offer, but a deal may be thwarted by the International Criminal Court, which last year indicted five LRA leaders for war crimes. That means they must be arrested on sight.
A message from Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, was delivered to Uganda’s President Museveni through Sudanese intermediaries last weekend. Mr Museveni has since promised Mr Kony immunity from prosecution until the end of June while the talks take place.
But Britain and America say the court indictments must be enforced. Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said on Tuesday that Mr Kony and other LRA leaders had to be captured and handed over to the court. “It is a priority of President Bush to get rid of the LRA by the end of this year,” he said.
Hilary Benn, Britain’s Overseas Development Minister, said: “I have made it clear that the warrants for the arrest of the five would need to be enforced. They would need to come to The Hague to be tried.”
The LRA’s offer to talk highlights the dilemma of peace versus justice created by the court. Those indicted lose any motive for negotiating and may be driven to fight to the death.
Two other African rebel movements with records of killing civilians — Renamo in Mozambique in the 1980s and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in the 1990s — were neutralised by being brought into government with British and American support.
Both countries are now at peace.
Mr Kony’s LRA is a cannibalistic cult that has slaughtered whole villages and left its victims without hands, feet or faces. It abducted children, forcing the boys to become killers and the girls to become “wives” of fighters. It often forced them to kill and even eat their relatives to alienate them from society.
The LRA began in Uganda’s Acholi district in 1986 as the Holy Spirit Movement led by another spiritual leader, Alice Lakwena, who taught her followers to smear themselves in butter to protect themselves from bullets. She was defeated in 1987 but her “spirit” allegedly moved to her cousin — Mr Kony — who renamed and restarted the movement.
His LRA combined the weirdness of a cult with terror and an effective military capacity. The Sudan Government gave it weapons and bases to punish Uganda for supporting the Southern Sudanese rebels.
By the mid-1990s the LRA had razed northern Uganda through its night terror tactics, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and live in camps near towns. The Government then ordered the rest of the population into camps where the death rate from disease and malnutrition is among the highest in the world.
Several peace initiatives have led to long ceasefires, but each has broken down. President Museveni has swung between trying to achieve military victory and making peace — once offering Mr Kony complete immunity, a house and money.
Mr Kony is even more erratic, given to violent mood swings and sudden trances. People are terrified of him. One well-educated church worker in northern Uganda said: “If you ever meet him do not look into his eyes. His eyes can kill.”
The 2004 peace agreement between north and south Sudan ended the arms supplies and in desperation the LRA began to create havoc in southern Sudan. But without supplies and with no population to feed off, the movement grew weaker. Mr Kony is now believed to be in eastern Congo with about 300 fighters. Another 200 are thought to be scattered around northern Uganda.
Uganda and Congo have ratified the International Criminal Court agreement but Sudan has not, meaning there could be a deal backed by Uganda which allows Mr Kony to remain peacefully in South Sudan. Whether the US and Britain would allow that remains to be seen.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) began fighting government forces in northern Uganda in 1987 under the leadership of Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed spirit medium and messenger of God
The LRA’s goals are unclear but are believed to centre on the establishment of a state based on Kony’s biblical views
Children make up about 80 per cent of the army, including 20,000 boys and girls abducted from villages and refugee camps. They are forced to fight or are used as porters and sex slaves
40,000 children in at-risk regions leave their homes every night to hide in safer areas
The LRA has been blamed for many atrocities, including forcing children to kill their parents and neighbours
The conflict has displaced 1.6 million people and caused the deaths of around 100,000.