South Sudan casts shadow over Uganda's peace

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The Independent Online

The gods are looking favourably on President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. He has just hosted 36 heads of state or government including Queen Elizabeth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda's capital, Kampala. First, there were rumours within the Commonwealth that the venue might be changed at the last minute, either because Mr Museveni locked up his political rivals or there would be not enough hotel rooms to accommodate the thousands of official visitors. The fears were unfounded. The meeting – though producing no earth-shattering agreements or statements – passed without a hitch.

Second, the horrific 20-year-old war in northern Uganda that has inflicted some of the worst atrocities in modern Africa and killed tens of thousands of people, seems to be finally coming to an end. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) devastated the region, killing, maiming, kidnapping and driving people off their land. Led by a "prophet", a former teacher, Joseph Kony, its inspiration was a mixture of Old Testament fundamentalism and traditional Acholi religion. Its motivation was hatred of Mr Museveni, who drove the previous (Acholi) government from power.

For years, Mr Museveni's army seemed close to delivering the knockout blow to the rebels but never quite managed it. But last year the Sudanese rebel movement which occupies some of the same space as the LRA in southern Sudan and northern Uganda, brought Kony into the limelight and urged him to engage in peace talks.

At the same time, the LRA fighters were forced westwards into eastern Congo and since then the movement has been riven with dissent. In eastern Congo, Kony is unable to use the emotional and spiritual powers of the Acholi homeland to inspire his fighters and is unable to kidnap Acholi boys and force them to fight. The movement seems to have run out of steam. But the Acholi people in the camps are suspicious. Although hardly any attacks have been reported for more than a year, most people choose to remain, corralled in 26 vast camps packed with traditional round thatched huts as they have done for more than a decade. In June an alliance of NGOs reported that of nearly two million people forced from their homes, almost a million were still in the big camps. Only 539,550 had returned. A further 381,000 had left the camps but instead of going back to their scattered farms had established camps modelled on the ones they had come from. People now worry that as long as Kony is free they are not completely safe. Many also find themselves harassed by government troops.

Norbert Mao, the chairman – governor – of the district says: "After one year of peace you can see some prosperity but nothing is trickling down. This is an aid economy. People must have skills and training to look after themselves."

In April last year I flew over the area and could barely make out overgrown fields around the circles of black where homes had been. Driving through the same area last week, I saw hundreds of people walking along the road and fields of sprouting maize and cassava. But the main wealth of the area in former times, cattle, are still scarce.

A whole society has been uprooted and traumatised. Incapable of feeding itself, a whole generation has grown up dependent, born in the camps, seeing food come off the back of a United Nations lorry and not knowing what a hoe is. That generation is huge.

The problems of peace are great but it does seem to have come. The biggest threat is now not in Uganda but in Sudan. Many fear that the agreement which brought peace to South Sudan may fall apart. If that happens, the government in Khartoum might well renew its connection to the LRA to create havoc in south Sudan as well as Uganda.