In November 1987, Museveni signalled to Maj. Gen. Salim Saleh, his younger brother and the NRA's Chief of Combat and Operations, to start talking to the UPDM/A. Saleh contacted the UPDA soldiers through civilian ‘coordinators’.
It took four months, from November 1987 to March 1988, for the parties to consult and build enough mutual trust, through sporadic contacts and correspondence, to establish mechanisms for negotiations. However, this period was not without its mishaps. For instance, Lt Steven Obote, one of two UPDM/A officers co-ordinating the peace efforts with the NRA, was ‘accidentally’ killed by the NRA in March 1988, as he tried to organise a meeting between senior UPDM/A officers and NRA commanders. His relatives believe he was killed deliberately, and that if top UPDM/A commanders had been present they would all have been killed. Obote’s death, however, did not ultimately impede the talks.
A notable feature of the process was that it was driven by army-to-army negotiations. NRM government officials and the external political wing of the UPDM were both left out, apparently because the soldiers believed that the politicians, known for their uncompromising attitudes, might obstruct the negotiations. The NRA and UPDM/A considered themselves field men who had seen the human suffering behind the conflict: disease, hunger, death and destruction. They were determined to end the bloodshed and the enormous human suffering.
Communication between the UPDM/A on the ground and its external wing was very limited. When Charles Alai, UPDM Chairman in Gulu, was asked at a conference of Acholis in Kampala on 16 April why the external wing of the UPDM was not involved, he declared that they had ‘no room for opportunists’. For their part, the leadership in exile felt excluded from the negotiation process and therefore opposed it. These divisions created unfinished business for the peace process.
Part of the reason the UPDM/A had so little respect for their exiled political leadership was that the military wing directed the military campaign and controlled the organisation. The politicians were seen as only talking from abroad over the BBC from the comfort of their London homes. With some exceptions they gave little material support to the UPDM/A on the ground. The open split between the UPDA soldiers and the UPDM politicians in exile was an obvious weakness which the NRM exploited. Several times in March-April 1988, Museveni claimed that he was not a politician, but an intellectual. He also averted anger and impatience among the NRA by showing the public that he was in favour of peace talks.
Peace talks between the NRA and the UPDM/A opened on 17 March 1988, at the Acholi Inn in Gulu, with the joint declaration of a ceasefire. At the first meeting, elder Vincent Olanya chaired the talks, with elder Eliya Obita as secretary. The NRA team was led by Salim Saleh. The UPDM/A delegation was led by Lt Col John Angelo Okello, Commander of UPDA Division One in Gulu, accompanied by Maj. Mike Kilama and Charles Alai. Significantly, the UPDA's overall commander, Brigadier Justine Odong Latek, was absent, although the negotiators said that he backed the talks. The UPDM/A said they had been forced to take up arms against the government because of human rights abuses committed by NRA soldiers. Additionally, some fled and joined the insurrection because of false reports by local government collaborators who accused them of having concealed caches of arms and of being involved in anti-government activities.
NRA commanders Col Pecos Kuteesa and Lt Col Julius Aine conceded that violations may have occurred, but stressed that these were not government policy. Major Gen. Saleh observed that there were ‘bad elements’ within the NRA who committed atrocities and that ‘this reflected badly on the NRA, which was a decent and disciplined army.’
The delegates produced what Saleh described as a ‘draft agreement’ that required ratification by both high commands. This first meeting focused on jobs for ex-combatants, and the promotion and integration of UPDA soldiers into the NRA. The second round of talks was held the next afternoon in a closed environment and further talks took place on 20–21 March 1988. In this round the elders were excluded because the UPDM/A and the NRA both believed they were too closely associated with the ‘old politicians who would seek to confuse them’. The UPDM/A and some sections of Acholi civil society, represented by certain elders, were divided on their views on the insurgency and how to achieve peace. Those closely allied to the government through the local Resistance Council structures had campaigned for a surrender, whereas the UPDM/A wanted to stop fighting under a peace agreement. Saleh later blamed the then information minister, Abubakar Mayanja, for sounding an alarm over Radio Uganda and Uganda Television that ‘amnesty is expiring on 31 March. Run, run for your life’. Saleh said that this could have jeopardised the peace process.
At the end of the negotiations, on 21 March, Kilama and Saleh emerged from the Acholi Inn boardroom visibly pleased with developments at the negotiation table. ‘The NRA and the former armies are united,’ commented Saleh. ‘We shall not allow politicians to confuse us. We agreed that the army should stay outside politics. We had been formerly misused and we had been the losers.’ Saleh said later, however, that the two armies hoped that the politicians would join them at a later stage after the soldiers had resolved their differences.
These talks resulted in agreement on several principles. First, there would be an immediate ceasefire and UPDA troops would receive cash ration allowances – to signal the start of integration. Recruitment into the NRA would be open to all UPDA soldiers without any form of victimisation so as to create one national army. Appointments to military rank made by any Ugandan head of state would be retained – subject to confirmation by Museveni and after scrutiny of the individual soldiers. Together they would tackle the Holy Spirit Movement alliance (HSM) fighters of Joseph Kony and Severino Lukoya – who were by then fighting both the NRA and the UPDM/A – and the problem of Karamajong cattle rustling. According to Kilama, ‘We are coming out fully to join government but not as those who have surrendered. We are coming to join hands with the NRA to work and rebuild our nation.’
As news of the negotiations spread, sharp – but mostly private – criticism was voiced by politicians who seemed to resent the army’s move. Many doubted that Museveni and other NRM leaders had approved the talks. Some, in southern Uganda in particular, believed that the UPDA should surrender unconditionally. Some in the UPDM/A wanted to continue the struggle for a military victory, arguing that the failure of the 1985 Nairobi agreement showed that the NRM could not be trusted. UPDA overall commander Odong Latek reportedly denied authorising the negotiations and reaffirmed the military campaign. Despite this, many ordinary civilians and soldiers seemed encouraged at the prospect of peace in Acholiland.