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Betty Bigombe wins French Knighthood for peace

By Joan Akello

Says Northern Uganda needs comprehensive resettlement plan for Kony war survivors  Betty Atiku Oyela Bigombe, the minister of State for Water, was on Mar.4 awarded with France’s highest national distinction, the Legion of Honour at the rank of chevalier (Knight). It is in recognition of her contributions to peace building efforts and human rights defence, especially in northern Uganda where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony waged a 20-year rebellion. The Independent’s Joan Akello interviewed Madam Bigombe (to use her new title) about the award and the situation in Northern Uganda.

What are your feelings after getting this award?

I am humbled. It inspires me on whether we really have peace. Do we have peace? Yes. But peace is not only when guns fall silent. Peace is when you have food security, means of livelihood, and access to basic services.  So we need to look at peace in a broader sense.

Does this medal come with cash and how do you think you will be treated abroad?

This medal is cashless. When I visit France, which will be this April, it is up to the French government whether they want to publicise it or not. Although my visit is connected with work l hope I will have opportunity to thank senior government officials for this recognition.

The Arua District Woman MP, Christine Abia, has said in the media that there were many other people who deserve this award.

I cannot claim this fame alone.  Sometimes I even say that without the drivers and bodyguards how far would I have gone with this exercise?   There was a lot of support. Even Nobel Peace Prize recipients do not say they take all the credit because they have done it alone. There is some leadership somewhere which has been followed by many people and that is the reason I dedicated the award to the many others who may not be here. There are those who paid the ultimate sacrifice; they are dead, there are those who are disabled today, others are carrying children that are products of rape and they gave their support and blessings to this process.

What next after receiving this award?

I am also looking beyond Uganda. I was in South Sudan recently, to look at the peace process and I am hoping to go to Central African Republic (CAR).  We still have hundreds of children and women with Kony in the bush.  Every effort must be made to support the African Union (AU) forces led by our Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) to make sure that they come out.  From time to time I send a recording so that my voice is telecast on the radio in the region to encourage defection. I avoid inflammatory language to encourage Joseph Kony to come out and release women and children and may be other fighters. My heart also goes out to the people of Congo, South Sudan, CAR that that some of them are suffering from a war they do not understand; a war that is totally imported into their country.

When you last met Kony, did he show willingness to come out?

In the first initiative of 1993-1994, the peace talk which aborted, I think Kony had also run out of weapons. We restarted the talks in 2004 and went on to Juba. Now when I look back, you are dealing with somebody who is not fighting a conventional war, somebody who   believes he has supernatural power.  Is this person really sane?  You are dealing with a group of people who have their own beliefs, rituals. One moment they trust you the next moment they tell you the spirits told them ABCD.  I believed Joseph Kony would come out because of the conversations we had.  In 2008 our last conversation was about his security.  This is what he told me:  “Given what I have done, I know I have only two options; one is death, the other one is prison. So why would I come out?”  So he realises that he has committed a lot of atrocities and that scares him. The other thing is that if somebody is used to so much power it is difficult for them to adjust to ordinary life.   I have seen how the senior commanders who have come out have difficulty in adjusting to being ordinary persons without slaves around them. The commanders who are out would decide that you should be killed and killed now; they could decide everybody’s fate under them. Now is he going to come out and be a normal person?  Is Kony ready to relinquish that power where he is treated as a god and come out and be an ordinary person? These are some of the things that make me question whether he really will come out.  I think he is tempted to come out sometimes. But in our last conversation Kony said he will die mysteriously like Hitler; no nobody will probably know how he died, or where his body is and the circumstances under which he died. So maybe it is his spirit and I think that may be one day we will wake up and realise that he is dead.

There are reports that some people who returned in some camps and villages such as Odek are being attacked by spirits.

People who have gone through wars undergo emerging situations and trauma. In 2004 to 2006, people were claiming that fires would just break out and burn entire camps (Internally Displaced Camps) and that was a mystery. Some people are traumatised. There are reports of such incidences but there is no scientific explanation that it is the spirit of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Some people have gone there to try to understand what exactly is going wrong.

Now that guns are silent, what is happening in schools and the communities with returnees?

There is a great school built by the Belgian government that is taking in children, those born in captivity and those that are out.  The school is beautiful but most of the windows are broken because a lot of the children have flashbacks. They need systematic counseling. This has not been conducted to turn them round to be productive. The education they are acquiring is good but without skills and training to fend for themselves. There is a boy in one of the schools that disagreed with a fellow classmate. He said I have killed 83 people and you are going to be the 84th. There is another who threatened his teacher over poor performance. He said, why did you give me poor grade, do you know who I am? I can kill you. So we have many battles to fight that do not involve guns but a comprehensive resettlement plan.

Invisible Children released a report early this year saying the returnees are a time tomb, because there is no proper plan to resettle them within the community. What is your view about this situation?

All these youth who fought in the bush are a time bomb because all they know is violence and use of weapons. No resettlement programmes have been done yet so you find them on the street playing games during the day. They do not know how to cultivate. There is NUSAF (Northern Uganda Social Action Fund) and PRDP (Peace, Recovery and Development Plan) but we need a very comprehensive approach to the problem. Unemployed and uneducated, a crazy person can easily manipulate them to pick up weapons. So we need to look at peace in a broader sense.

What was your resettlement plan during the negotiations?

The Juba Peace Agreement which was not signed by Joseph Kony is comprehensive. It took into consideration all those problems. Government came up with PRDP and NUSAF.   I think the problem with these programmes is the implementation. There is a lot of money but consultation is still limited.

How would you want these programmes implemented?

I think it is still very much a top-down approach. Sometimes we think we know what those people want. We do not involve them. You have to sit with them and ask what their exit strategy is.  You say,  for instance, I am going to support you for two years, show me what you can be able to do that is self-sustaining that you can help your family and everybody. Handouts are not sustainable.

What about the NGOs in the region, are they not helping to solve some of these problems?

They are not coordinated, there is duplication. I am not criticising them. Some of them are doing a great job because the work is overwhelming.

What is the way forward?

We need to learn from other countries on best practices and what they have done. I cannot say that everything is not working. There are some success stories. But how can you replicate these success stories? Secondly, PRDP was designed in 2008.  Dynamics change every day. It is irrelevant now.  It needs to be reviewed and re-designed.

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