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Northern Uganda - The Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative: local mediation with the Lord’s Resistance Army

Rt. Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola and James O. Latigo review the efforts of the ARLPI to reach out to the LRA. These led to mediated dialogue between the LRA and the Ugandan government. The article identifies the key points of influence the ARLPI was able to leverage with both the LRA and with national political actors, and explores how the LRA responded to the initiative – from reducing its use of violence, to agreeing to take part in peace talks. It also highlights the challenges of engagement when there are high levels of state and non-state violence, and the approaches that were developed to minimise risks. 

Background to the Lord's Resistance Army conflict

For two decades, northern Uganda was ravaged by war between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative (ARLPI) – an inter-denominational religious network – evolved to support community peace mobilisation. This article traces the development of the ARLPI from its grassroots beginnings to its role as a credible intermediary between LRA commanders in the bush and the government. In the absence of sustained formal peace efforts, the lack of credible intermediaries and the frenzied violence perpetrated by the LRA and state armed forces, the group became an important voice for peace.

The LRA emerged in the years after the overthrow of the military junta in Uganda in 1986 by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA). In Acholiland, northern Uganda, a number of armed groups formed to resist the new regime, including the Ugandan People’s Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A), and the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) led by the charismatic Alice Auma. The HSM suffered a major defeat in 1987 and the UPDM/A eventually concluded a settlement with the government, but disaffected remnants of both groups came together from 1987 in what would later become known as the LRA, led by Joseph Kony. The LRA claimed it was fighting against economic mismanagement and undemocratic governance by the new government, and the widespread human rights violations committed by the army in Acholiland. This was accompanied by spiritual belief: LRA fighters saw their struggle as a divine cause guided by God through his prophet Kony.

Initial resistance to the NRA was widely supported by the Acholi population. As conflict escalated between the Ugandan Army (the Uganda People’s Defence Force – UPDF) and the LRA, both directed their operations as much against local populations as each other, exposing civilians to brutal violence and fracturing Acholi society; thousands were mutilated, raped and killed.

In 1991, the government initiated a policy of forced displacement of the population into “protected camps” as part of its Operation North counter-insurgency campaign. This effectively sealed off much of the north from the rest of the country – although the camps had in fact been established unofficially since 1986. The LRA became increasingly reliant on the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which used it as a means to destabilise southern Sudan. Kony resorted to the forced recruitment of children, both girls and boys, from Acholi populations, abducting an estimated 30,000 minors by 2006.

The formation of the ARLPI

Early peace efforts were unsuccessful. The most significant initiative came in 1994, when the State Minister for Northern Uganda, Betty Bigombe (an Acholi), embarked on negotiations with the LRA on behalf of the government. However, talks collapsed when President Museveni asserted that the LRA was using them as cover to re-arm in Sudan and issued an ultimatum for the rebels to “surrender or be crushed”.

In 1997, a number of religious leaders, many of whom had been personally affected by the conflict, came together to speak out against the violence. They included the then Anglican Bishop of Kitgum Diocese, Macleod Baker Ochola II; the Catholic Archbishop of Gulu, Archdiocese of Northern Uganda, John Baptist Odama; the Episcopal Vicar of the Catholic Church, Monsignor Matthew Ojara; Fr. Carlos Ludigrie; and Fr. Joseph Genna. The ARLPI, an inter-denominational body, brought together Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Seventh-day Adventists and Born-Again Faith Federation worshippers under one umbrella.

In 1998, the ARLPI held its first official public event. Bedo Piny pi Kuc (sitting down for peace) drew over 150 Acholis, including parents of abducted children, traditional chiefs and community elders, local council leaders, teachers and community workers, to discuss the effects of the conflict on the community and strategies to overcome it. Their main concerns included the inability of government forces to protect them, forced displacement, LRA and UPDF atrocities and looting, and the return of abducted children.

There was a general sense of anger that the government had undermined Betty Bigombe’s peace efforts. Despite a decline in support for the LRA, participants were frustrated that the government was not addressing the political issues raised by the rebels. The humanitarian crisis also required urgent attention. Concerned mothers in particular made an emotive plea to be given the opportunity to talk to rebel leaders. A consensus emerged that the war could not be won through military action, that the community should demand a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and that the conflict parties should be brought together in mediated dialogue.

These decisions were influenced by the traditional values and norms of the Acholi people, which emphasised reconciliation and restorative approaches rather than acts of revenge. The ARLPI stressed the importance of non-violence and alleviating the suffering of the people, and argued that most of the rebel fighters did not go to the bush of their own volition and that there was therefore a moral imperative to safeguard the lives of these abducted girls and boys. The ARLPI’s work was key to changing the way the community spoke about the LRA: rather than simply being perpetrators of violence, some were seen as the victims of abduction whom the government had failed to protect.

The ARLPI and other community leaders began to organise peace rallies and prayers. These provided a source of support for communities affected by violence, but were also intended to demonstrate communities’ need and desire for peace to the government and the LRA. Various attempts were also made to build links with LRA fighters in the bush, including by putting peace messages in newspapers and on posters in markets that LRA members were known to frequent. Programmes on the state-run Radio Freedom, and later Mega FM, provided a forum for people to voice their views and raise issues directly with both the LRA (whose members were known to tune in) and state security forces.

The ARLPI also wrote pastoral letters – open letters in the press – to the LRA and the government. The letters highlighted the urgent need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and spoke out strongly against forced displacement and the poor conditions within displacement camps. The messages also encouraged the LRA to come to church on holy days, where it was hoped they could be encouraged to return to their communities. 

Reaching out to the LRA

Many ARLPI figures were known to the LRA and many traditional leaders maintained informal contacts with LRA cadres, in particular abductees with kinship ties to communities. Kony himself had been a choirboy and had respect and affinity for Catholic Priests. Yet, direct contact with the LRA high command was difficult, especially after the main leadership shifted to southern Sudan. It was also dangerous: the LRA had killed three traditional leaders who, prior to Bigombe’s efforts, had sought to convince it to engage in peace talks.

The enactment of the 1999 Amnesty Law, and the subsequent establishment of an Amnesty Commission, strengthened the ARLPI’s position. It gave them the legal and political space to pursue dialogue and reinforced the moral imperative of forgiveness to those who had been abducted. Members of the diaspora were integral to providing an international spotlight on the amnesty issue in order to convince the Ugandan government. Acholi parliamentarians were also instrumental in ensuring the Act was pushed through the legislature despite reluctance from the government, while broad popular support within the Acholi population further facilitated the process.

The ARLPI tried to connect to the LRA through traditional leaders in Uganda and certain individuals in Nairobi who claimed to have access to Kony. A breakthrough came in October 1999 when a message was delivered to the then Anglican Bishop, Nelson Onono-Onweng, through Yusuf Adek, a close adviser to Kony. The bishop was taken alone to an unknown location to meet with LRA commanders. Subsequent harassment and surveillance by the UPDF delayed further contact. Eventually, in April 2001, other religious and traditional leaders were able to meet face-to-face with high-level LRA officers. The main focus of talks was the implementation of the 1999 Amnesty Law, which allowed combatants to report to religious leaders.

However, a massive military offensive launched by the government in March 2002, Operation Iron Fist, pushed the LRA back into northern Uganda. Abductions and attacks on civilians intensified as the LRA extended its reach beyond Acholiland into the Lango and Teso sub-regions. Communities, unconvinced by ARLPI calls for negotiations, rallied into self-defence groups called Arrow Brigades, to join with the UPDF in fighting the LRA. This trend was compounded by ethnic tensions as Langi populations attributed atrocities to the “Acholi” LRA.

Yet, opportunities for dialogue still emerged amid the violence and discord. Archbishop Odama received a direct call from the LRA’s second in command, Vincent Otti, who asked religious leaders to mediate between the government and the LRA. ARLPI leaders took advantage of this show of trust to begin dialogue. Selected ARLPI members and traditional leaders trekked unescorted into the bush and met with the LRA for three days. Discussions took place with high-level commanders but not with Kony: the emissaries thought it would be difficult to extract clear commitments from the unpredictable leader, and that it would be more productive to speak with second-rank personnel.

Initial meetings were dependent on LRA communication. The LRA would contact a particular person through a letter or personal message – often traditional leader Rwot Oywak of Pader District or Fr. Carlos Rodriguez – who in turn would inform the other religious and traditional leaders. The LRA would choose the time, place and the persons who should attend. Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Sheik Musa Khalil, Bishop Ochola II, and Fr. Carlos Rodriguez were those most frequently called upon to meet with senior LRA commanders.

At each meeting, the community leaders appealed to the LRA not to kill civilians, to allow the return of abductees and to pursue peace and reconciliation. The LRA representatives adamantly refused, arguing that they were defending themselves against UPDF attacks and should not be condemned. It was difficult to understand this argument since they were killing innocent people in villages, instead of attacking the military barracks in the Acholi sub-region. 

Maintaining impartiality despite insecurity

The situation was pervaded by mistrust. The population as a whole faced suspicion from both sides: the government accused civilians of being “rebel collaborators”, while the LRA accused the same civilians of divulging information to government forces about their positions and food supply. Joseph Kony viewed the community as “rebellious” for refusing to support him. The religious leaders themselves were mistrusted by the LRA, which accused them of using the LRA to solicit funding from the international community for their own personal benefit. The LRA tested the ARLPI by allowing the return of girl abductees who had borne children in the bush. The religious leaders reinforced their credibility by taking care of all those released and their children.

The religious leaders also came under pressure from government forces to accept “escort and protection”, but the LRA drew a line on the map beyond which government forces were not allowed to proceed. As a result, the government accused the religious leaders of being “rebel collaborators”. In March 2002, Uganda passed an Anti-Terrorism Act making membership of the LRA a criminal offence, a year after the US State Department had put the LRA on its “B-list” of “other terrorist organisations”. This exposed the ARLPI to charges of treason.

The status of ARLPI founders as religious leaders and their links to church networks have been crucial. Christian churches in particular are formidable institutions in Uganda and can transcend ethnic, geographic and political divisions. Because of their power base, it became hard for the government to either ignore the religious leaders or throw them in jail.

Archbishop Odama and Bishop Ochola II met with President Museveni in April 2002 to obtain official permission for religious and traditional leaders to talk to the LRA. This was granted on condition that the bishops would report to government security operatives after each meeting with the LRA. 

The ARLPI sought to highlight its impartiality as a “bridge for peace” between the LRA and the government. In meetings with the LRA it asked that all demands and commitments be written down and signed to avoid accusations of inventing or changing the positions of the LRA or the government. The ARLPI had more than 24 meetings with the LRA, with minutes of all meetings recorded and hard copies given to both the Ugandan President and the LRA for transparency and consistency.

However, from the outset, meetings between community leaders and the LRA came under attack from government forces. The second meeting in April 2001, near Pajule, was violently interrupted by the UPDF, and a cultural leader was injured. The fifth round of meetings in Pajule in April 2003 was abruptly halted as a result of direct and heavy bombardment by UPDF troops lasting three days. After the bombing stopped, the three priests present were arrested and briefly held. The army contended that its field operations force had not been informed of the meeting, even though the army senior command had been kept appraised of ongoing dialogue attempts.

The LRA in turn accused the ARLPI of acting as bait for the government. Kony ordered his commanders to kill any religious leaders who attempted to contact the LRA again. Amid increasing violence, the ARLPI sought to clarify its position, arguing that it could not have been complicit, since its own leaders were in the bush to mediate and would not sacrifice their fellow religious leaders, let alone condone any act of violence. 

The road to Juba

As fighting continued, formal attempts to facilitate talks between the Presidential Peace Teams and the LRA faltered in 2003, with the LRA refusing calls to assemble in “safe zones” without wider safeguards. But the ARLPI was able to resume its dialogue role, delivering letters of exchange and liaising with the government through key Acholi members of parliament and religious networks. The LRA began to respond to demands to release captives, although atrocities against civilians were still being committed. The release of abductees one day might be followed by the capture of another group of children the next.

The ARLPI helped to bring national and international attention to the conflict, in opposition to Ugandan government attempts to contain the situation by presenting it as a domestic problem requiring an exclusively domestic solution. In late 2003, ARLPI Chair Archbishop Odama led a ten-person team on an advocacy tour of the United States, Canada and Europe, promoting a research report by the Afrika Study Centre and Human Rights and Peace Centre, Makerere University,The Hidden War, the Forgotten People: War in Acholiland and its Ramifications for Peace and Security in Uganda.

The ARLPI also benefited from international state and non-state support and advocacy, which played an important role in highlighting the issue internationally and putting pressure on the Ugandan government.

For years, young children in northern Uganda trekked long distances to town centres and spent the night in the streets for fear of abduction. They became derogatively called “night commuters”. In 2003 religious leaders led by Archbishop Odama communed with the children and spent four nights sleeping with them in the bus park in Gulu. This attracted mass national and international media attention and spurred many humanitarian agencies and governments to respond and provide support to ease the plight of the suffering children.

The government eventually called a seven-day ceasefire in late 2004 to enable Betty Bigombe to pursue talks with support from the US, the UK and the Netherlands, but hostilities continued.

As the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army edged towards signing a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the LRA’s position in Sudan was becoming more vulnerable. The CPA, signed in 2005, gave southern Sudan semi-autonomous status under the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The Netherlands-based NGO IKV Pax Christi facilitated contact with the Vice‑President of GoSS, Dr. Riek Machar, who was able to undertake a mediatory role between the Ugandan government and LRA. Numerous trips were made by delegations, including the ARLPI, to Kony’s new bases in the Garamba forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to communicate mutual concerns and positions. These were viewed as instrumental in persuading the LRA leadership to pursue the peace talks that began in Juba, southern Sudan, in 2006 and which would last for nearly two years.

ARLPI members were invited to the Juba talks as observers. On several occasions during the negotiations, both the LRA and government negotiation team reverted to ARLPI members to clarify certain issues pertaining to the negotiating agenda. The ARLPI also played a key role in keeping communities informed, thereby encouraging public support for the peace process.

Five agreements were signed in Juba covering justice and accountability and demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration. But Kony failed to show up twice to sign the Final Peace Agreement, citing dissatisfaction with the handling of reintegration and the welfare of his troops, and the refusal of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to withdraw arrest warrants. The UPDF and US military concluded that the LRA had been using the period of talks to regroup, and in December 2008 Operation Lightening Thunder was launched against LRA bases in Garamba forest, dashing further hopes for a peaceful resolution.

Since Juba, the ARLPI has remained a viable channel for communication with the LRA. In an environment where conflict parties have favoured military options, and regional and international influence have been weighty, the ARLPI’s ability to move between armed groups, communities and national and international actors has been important.

Since 2008 there have been three calls from purported LRA representatives seeking to revitalise talks, but there has remained a persistent lack of credible contact. LRA operations and bases are now scattered between Western Equatoria in South Sudan, the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the volatile Darfur region of Sudan. The possibility that the Ugandan government has modern monitoring technology supplied by US advisers has probably made the group wary of using communications devices.

The ARLPI, together with sister churches and traditional organisations in Uganda, South Sudan, DRC and CAR, have formed a Regional Taskforce on the LRA, supported by international NGOs [see Regional community peacebuilding: a conversation with John Baptist Odama, in Accord 22, 2011]. This meets regularly to review the LRA situation and continues to seek contact and the possible resumption of peace talks. 


The ARLPI has faced many challenges in its attempts to dialogue with the LRA and promote peace within the community and more broadly. It has encountered suspicion from opposing sides and operated in often volatile conditions. Communities are divided and sometimes resistant to the peace efforts.

A large part of the ARLPI’s work has involved supporting traditional Acholi reconciliation processes (Mato Oput), preparing the community to receive former combatants, and promoting the Amnesty Law through translating and distributing Luo versions. This has involved overcoming differences in opinion and denomination within the ARLPI, and in-depth and heated discussion on issues of accountability, including the role of the ICC and of traditional justice mechanisms such as truth-telling processes and reparations. While outreach to the LRA has had varied results, perhaps the most significant part of ARLPI’s work has been in strengthening community resilience and unity in the face of extreme violence, and building people’s confidence and willingness to support peacebuilding activities.