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.