Ugandan rebels emerge from the undergrowth

For decades known mainly to the outside world for their dreadlocks, gumboots and kidnapping of children, Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army has been Africa’s most mysterious rebel movement.

But in recent weeks, the group has ventured out of jungle hideouts in an unprecedented bid to paint itself as a liberation movement and deny accusations of mass torture, murder and sexual enslavement.

That has led to peace talks seen as the best chance of ending a devastating insurgency, and finally shone light on a mentality and outlook forged during many years in the bush.

Notorious for cutting off the lips or ears of supposed government collaborators, the LRA has since its emergence in 1987 seldom sought contact with outsiders and seemed incapable of articulating any coherent political vision for Uganda.

That is gradually changing.

The rebels’ top commanders appeared on video from camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and agreed to send a team to peace talks that began in neighbouring southern Sudan on Sunday.

They have come with ambitious demands including regional power-sharing and the scrapping of Uganda’s military, which they say supports only President Yoweri Museveni, a southerner who seized power in 1986 overthrowing a string of northerners.

The LRA rebellion is the last of several triggered by his victory, and many in the north have never lost the sense of marginalisation. Analysts say most still feel trapped between the sadistic rebels and a suspicious government.

”Educated northerners have faced an insolvable dilemma,” United States-based Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani wrote last week.

”Their only meaningful political choice has been between different forms of militarism,” he added.

The conventional view of the LRA had centred on its atrocities and its self-proclaimed prophet leader Joseph Kony. He has claimed to speak to ”angels” and once said he wanted to rule Uganda according to the Biblical 10 Commandments.

The ‘devil’s choice’

But in a rare interview, published last month, Kony called himself a liberator and rejected International Criminal Court (ICC) charges he had committed war crimes.

Only a handful of old photographs of Kony were known to exist — sporting dreadlocks and beaded braids and wearing the trademark cheap green rubber boots of the LRA rebels. So the interview and recordings of his meetings with mediators in May and June finally put a face to both Kony and his insurgency.

On Sunday, his representatives handed mediators in Juba a 15-page document of LRA demands.

”[The LRA’s] failure to express its political agenda loudly in intellectual form does not mean the lack of it. Until now we have been speaking through action,” they said.

It blamed the start of the insurgency on abuses by Museveni’s troops 20 years ago, particularly the theft of huge herds of cattle that once roamed up to the Sudanese border.

”Able-bodied men were left with the devil’s choice and formed themselves into armed opposition,” the LRA said, blaming the government for propaganda against them since then.

They did, however, admit to carrying out some killings.

In doing so they revealed a particularly sore point: that some in their Acholi tribe who initially urged them to fight Museveni had later betrayed them. ”Some notorious allies and spies … had to be eliminated,” the document said.

The LRA also revealed the tribal divisions underpinning their outlook.

”How could people who had [long] … been employed as our herdsmen begin calling us names?” it asked, referring to Museveni’s Bahima ethnic group. ”How could we be insulted by people we know, by their communal sexual and other habits, to be most socially backward?”

It demanded a national power-sharing deal, and called on international donors to monitor any ceasefire, help empty the displaced people’s camps, fund and run a compensation scheme and supervise the creation of a new Ugandan army.

But the top LRA leaders have not so far joined the talks.

Last week Kony underlined his unpredictability when he kept south Sudan’s Vice-President and chief mediator Riek Machar waiting four days in a mud hut near the DRC border, before failing to emerge from the undergrowth to meet him.

Few observers think the LRA are moved by humanitarian concern to take part in talks.

”Armed groups don’t normally ask for talks because of goodwill,” said Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic priest involved in many LRA peace efforts. ”Most rebel leaders I have come across could not care less about people’s suffering.” – Reuters

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