Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rumblings from the north

Word has spread quickly around Uganda about a possible regrouping of former rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda.

An article by Chris Ocowun, a reporter for the government's New Vision newspaper, says that a couple of top former LRA commanders reportedly have been meeting secretly with former rebels.

They are said to be Odong Kao and Santo (Sunday) Otto, and the government fears that they may be gathering for a return to the bush.

Otto came to the attention of Ugandan authorities when he defected in 2007 from the LRA in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Upon his return to Kampala, Otto provided graphic details of LRA leader Joseph Kony's execution of his long-time deputy, Vincent Otti. Otti had long been the man pushing Kony to sign a peace deal, and had clearly convinced at least half or more of the LRA that this was a good thing.

Instead Kony killed Otti, which forced an exodus of many other LRA fighters who had been aligned with Otti, including Sunday Otto.

So now what?

New Vision reported that the Ugandan army spokesman, Capt. Ronald Kakurungu, said: “These two former LRA commanders returned from rebel captivity and benefited from amnesty. However, they have been engaging in suspicious activities, which we, as security agents, are getting concerned about.”

It also reported that in 2006, security operatives netted Odong Kao with two wives of LRA chief Joseph Kony who were trying to return to Garamba, where Kony and his rebels were at the time.

Kakurungu also said the former deputy speaker of Gulu municipal council, Alex Okot Langwen, was recently arrested over security related crimes. He said Langwen was briefly detained at Gulu barracks before he was transferred to Kampala.

This is the second time Langwen is being arrested on allegations that he has connections with the LRA rebels. In 2006, he was arrested and charged with treason before he was released after receiving amnesty.

If nothing else, this could be symptom of the growing resentment in the north against the lack of redevelopment efforts by the government in the north. More and more often one hears comments that unless something is done quickly, another rebellion could begin.

Uganda does not need that.

In another concern, freelance journalist Patrick Otim who worked for the Gulu station Mega FM, was also arrested for unknown reasons and his whereabouts are unknown.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Winds of change

Change promised by President Barack Obama is coming swiftly to Africa.

The change is in focus and approach: focus on finding a solution to festering problems and approaching the issues through collective action -- if possible.

Key areas are Sudan and Darfur.

This past week the State Department announced that U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, will travel to China, Qatar, Britain and France to revive the sagging Darfur peace talks.

China clearly is a key to ending the nearly six-year war between the Khartoum government led by President Omar al-Bashir and the ethnic "African" majority of rebels fighting in Darfur.

Al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with Darfur, depends on the petro-dollars that flow into the country from China and other countries who buy Sudanese oil.

Getting China, which routinely turns a blind eye to Africa's turmoil as long as its investments turn profits, to help pressure Sudan to change its Darfur policy, would be a huge accomplishment. China has long denied responsiblity for arming or financing Sudan's role in the Darfur conflict.

But China is just the first stop.

Gration then meets with counterparts from Russia, Britain, France and the European Union in Doha, Qatar, which has been a broker of the Darfur peace talks.

He then travels to London to reconvene a Sudan diplomatic troika of the United States, Britain and Norway.

In London Gration sits down with the Contact Group on Sudan -- Canada, the European Union, France, Netherlands, Norway, Britain and the United States -- which is following up on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The agreement, as most know, ended 22 years of war between Sudan's north and south, the longest civil war in Africa that led to the deaths of around 2 million people and displaced millions more.

Critical to that deal was the sharing of oil revenues between Khartoum and South Sudan -- a source of conflict between the two entities.

Looming in the background of these talks are Sudanese national elections scheduled for February of next year and an independence referendum for South Sudan in 2011.

Whether either will happen is in doubt. Already the Khartoum government has pushed South Sudanese Dinka tribesmen out of the oil-rich Abyei region and is said to be behind ethnic clashes deeper in South Sudan which have killed at least 700 to 800 people in the past couple of months.

The Contact Group last met in Brussels in December. High on the agenda this time has to be what the international community can and will do to insure that the elections take place -- events that are critical to both peace in Sudan and stability in the region.

This will not be easy, and most likely will be resisted by al-Bashir and his National Congress Party in Khartoum which is loathe to let the south secede, just as they cling to the desire to remake Darfur into a pro-Khartoum ethnic "Arab" province.

A critical stop on the Gration tour will be his stop in Paris to meet not only with senior French officials, but with the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel faction headed by Abdul Wahid Mohammed Nur, self-exiled in France.

As leader of one of the key rebel groups, Nur has refused to engage in peace talks with Sudan unless and until Sudan not only ceases hostilities in Darfur, but withdraws.

Considering the history of Darfur and the ICC charges against al-Bashir and two others in Sudan, a ranking cabinet minister and a janjaweed militia commander, the demands seem reasonable.

One of the major failures of peace talks for Darfur has been the fracturing of the rebels into some 20 groups. This has allowed Sudan to point fingers at the rebels as the primary impediment to peace and deflect blame from themselves.

Uniting or consolidating the rebels would be a major step forward. Gration will try to convince Nur to drop some of his demands and join the peace process.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly described the trip as an effort by the State Department to "align positions" in the international community on the Darfur peace process.

It is an interesting choice of words, but appropriate.

Although the peace mission in Darfur is technically under the 2007 United Nations and African Union joint peacekeeping force called UNAMID, it has languished under a lack of commitment from contributors and leadership, largely from the diplomatic ineptitude of the Bush administration.

Gration is attempting to provide that leadership.

The U.S., the region, and the world have nothing to lose and much to gain. If the international community and the rebels can show something of a united front on Darfur, it might get the begrudging agreement of the Sudanese government to reverse its decision to expel 13 humanitarian organizations from Darfur after the ICC warrants were issued against al-Bashir.

This would be good news for millions of Darfuris stranded by the forced abandonment of the aid groups.

But it also might lay the groundwork for serious efforts to end the six-year conflict that has claimed 300,000 lives and forced more than 2.2 million people to flee.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Saint Abu Garda and the ICC

The surprise and voluntary appearance at the International Criminal Court in The Hague by Sudan's Darfur rebel leader Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, 46, is the best thing that has happened to the court in years.

The arrival and subsequent release of Abu Garda is a public relations coup for the court, which is still struggling to find its sea legs, and could serve to shame the three ranking Sudanese also indicted by the court to cooperate.

The ICC stepped into the international spotlight last year when ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked for genocide charges to be brought against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir for masterminding the Darfur conflict.

In early March, the ICC judges ordered the arrest of al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the first time the court has taken such action against a sitting head of state.

Also indicted by the ICC are two other Sudanese, Ahmad Haroun, a former cabinet minister who just recently was named the governor of Kordofan in Sudan's troubled southern regions, and Ali Kushayb, a commander of the janjaweed Arabic militia responsible for most of the death in Darfur.

Sudan has steadfastly refused to cooperate with the ICC, and like the United States, refuses to acknowledge its authority in Sudan or anywhere.

In the midst of all this, the ICC prosecutor filed charges against rebels who attacked and allegedly killed African Union peace keepers in the fall of 2007.

Abu Garda, member of the Zaghawa tribe of Sudan, has been charged with three war crimes committed in connection with the 29 September attack against the AU base at Haskanita in north Darfur.

During this attack twelve African Mission In Sudan (AMIS) soldiers were killed and eight others were severely wounded.

Reasons behind the attack are unclear. But speculation is that frustration an anger among the Darfur people and the rebels was such that the rebels attacked the inept and inert AU forces -- who some say were cooperating fully with the Sudan forces -- for not protecting them.

The ICC responded by filing charges against Abu Garda and two other rebel commanders, a move that some say was largely intended to diffuse criticism against the ICC for only indicting ranking Sudanese involved in the Darfur fighting.

After appearing in front of the court on Monday and oozing confidence, Abu Garda was allowed to leave the Netherlands, and come back voluntarily for his pre-trial hearing in October.

ICC Judge Cuno Tarfusser thanked him for coming. "The court appreciates very much your voluntary appearance," Tarfusser said. "In doing so, I think you have sent out a very good message."

This is a far cry from the way the ICC has handled cases in the past, when indictees are arrested and swiftly taken into custody, just as three Congolese militia leaders are currently, along with former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

If nothing else, the court's soft treatment of Abu Garda could be a signal to the other Sudanese, in particular President al-Bashir, that the court might be willing to make some accommodations if the Sudanese cooperate.

With Saint Abu Garda free to come and go as he pleases -- which includes being able to return to Darfur and presumably lead his splinter rebel group into battle -- one can only wonder how the Sudanese will react.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kony deja-vu?

It's been quiet on the Kony front, but not completely.

A couple of weeks ago, the Ugandan army revealed that it was investigating a couple of Belgian citizens who had been stopped in South Sudan for supposedly trying to re-arm and re-supply Kony.


Little is known about these Belgians, who they are, or what they were doing as part of a convoy of supplies traveling from Yambio, South Sudan, deep into the jungles where Kony is supposedly still licking his wounds.

When contacted, the Belgian embassy said that it didn't know anything about the arrest or that it has been splashed across the daily newspapers in Kampala.

A couple of days later, the military attache in the Belgian embassy admitted that the embassy was cooperating with the Ugandans.

Then, just a few days ago, the Ugandan government, on a Ugandan website called quoted a government official as saying that the Ugandan military suspected that Kony might launch an attack on northern Uganda.

Whether this is serious or nonsense is hard to determine. But the lack of news about Kony or his whereabouts makes one wonder. Kony's return to northern Uganda is very unlikely, however.

He has been severely hurt by the December-March military action against him in northeastern DR Congo. What made it possible for him to escape the assault on his camps last year was the remoteness of his location. Returning to northern Uganda would be like sticking his head in the jaws of the lion.

That being said, however, we can't forget that the Ugandan army could not kill or capture Kony who operated there from 1986 to 2006.

Those who follow the seemingly endless story of Joseph Kony should note a very detailed story in Newsweek magazine this week about Kony, titled "Hard Target: The Hunt for Africa's Last Warlord."


While the story is largely a "catch-up" on Kony since the magazine's last article about him a LONG time ago, it has a couple of interesting quotes from U.S. military advisers.

"We have some hints where he might be now, but nothing like we had before the strike," says a senior U.S. military-intelligence official who was intimately involved with the operation's planning and execution, but is not authorized to speak on the record about it. "Kony has virtually disappeared from the face of the earth."

While Kony has obviously not disappeared, many are wondering what is going on. I suspect Kony is wondering the same thing, because he has few options and is in desperate need of supplies and arms, which might explain the still mysterious attempt to re-supply him.

Then, later in the story, we read:

Kony has been lying low since then, but U.S. officials believe he's preparing his next move. Ugandan forces have mostly pulled back from their forward operating bases in Congo, leaving their pathetically underequipped, ill-trained Congolese colleagues to continue the hunt. "I'm sure Kony is seeing an opportunity to pull his operation back together," says one AfriCom official who can't speak on the record about the ongoing military situation.

If there is anything positive to be taken from these remarks, it is that finally, after 23 years, the world, and in particular the U.S. and its African Command (AfriCom) is finally watching Kony closely.

I apologize for the one-month absence from my blog, but I've been on the road now for more than three months promoting my book, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army.

On April 25, I participated in the Los Angeles event organized by the filmmakers of "Invisible Children," a documentary that exposed the horrible realities of Kony and his army of child soldiers for what is probably millions of young college students and what appears to be a new generation of social activists.

I addressed the event briefly, which was in conjunction with the release of a new documentary on Kony called "The Rescue," in which the film makers joined with several hundred people who went to the jungle last year to witness Kony signing a final peace deal that would have ended his war.

Rather than signing and releasing the hundreds of child soldiers he still has, Kony disappeared, and we all know about Kony's bloody rampage against some 1,000 Congolese after he was attacked last December 14.

Earlier this month, I was in Cape Town, South Africa, for a conference on international justice and the rule of law sponsored by the American Bar Association.