Congo Watch: Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu's account of an attempt by a phoney LRA linkman to set him up

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu's account of an attempt by a phoney LRA linkman to set him up

From Sunday Monitor 18 January 2009 by Yasiin Mugerwa:
‘The LRA liar who loved me’

The Uganda People’s Defence Forces has entered month II of its Operation Lightning Thunder against Joseph Kony’s rebels in the Garamba Forest of northeastern DR Congo.  In this in-depth look at the long road to the peace process in Northern Uganda, Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu, narrates to Yasiin Mugerwa his riveting account of an attempt by a phoney Lord’s Resistance Army linkman to set him up.

“It was some time in March 2002 when UPDF launched its South Sudan military offensive on the LRA’s rear bases in Operation Iron Fist I.

As leaders from northern Uganda, prior to the 2002 events, we had fought so heard to have a negotiated peaceful settlement to this conflict to no avail. At this time, it was extremely dangerous to us to welcome Operation Iron Fist because the abducted children [being held by the rebels] were going to be crushed in captivity. This was our major concern.

Operation Iron Fist was decided behind the backs of Acholi leaders. We were indeed surprised to see heavy weapons, tanks and sophisticated missiles being transported to Sudan via Gulu, Palabek, Kitgum Road, taking the Juba Road and Patiko areas.

The people became worried and indeed deeply concerned and became apprehensive that something was about to happen and they put us under pressure to explain the plight of their abducted children.

“I went to the Gulu [4] Division Commander then, Col. Geoffrey Muhesi seeking for information about what was going on. I also demanded that they should speak to the people about this operation.

Col Muhesi’s explanation was simple, “we are also concerned and we want to end this war once and for all by fighting inside where these people (the enemy) are and we want your support for this war must come to an end because our people have suffered enough.

But to Acholi people their feeling was that their children in captivity were going to be massacred in the process if the government goes for war under the Operation Iron Fist.

As Acholi leaders, we took a unanimous decision to go to the then Minister of State for Defence, Amama Mbabazi for more explanation about what was going on.

“In that meeting, Mr Mbabazi said; ‘Please, we know sometimes the statements you make demoralises the forces and yet you make them in good faith, but we want to promise you that we shall brief you at every stage of the conflict and we request that you trust us.’

When we asked whether Operation Iron Fist was an offensive or a rescue mission, he said it was a rescue mission. However, they had already ferried heavy weapons and it was clear that Mr Mbabazi was telling us lies because the government had already planned this war.

After our meeting with Mr Mbabazi, we agreed to keep quiet and wait for the first attack inside Sudan. For me, I was not convinced because they had not even identified the spots where these people were and how long the rescue mission would take them.

Mr Mbabazi casually said; ‘UPDF is a well-built army and we have capacity to handle the situation and we are ready to handle this rescue mission successfully.’

For us as Acholi leaders, we gave government the benefit of the doubt and we decided to play the game of wait and see, but there was pressure from the population, we explained without success and at the same time they continued seeing these heavy weapons bypassing them.

“They kept asking us; ‘Why are you quiet when these weapons are moving to Sudan?’ Personally, I was in a dilemma because the government had smartly done its mobilisation. They had mobilised all the development partners such that even the diplomatic community in Kampala was convinced that indeed, Operation Irion Fist was the only solution that would bring peace to northern Uganda. But they were wrong.

“This was not what we wanted; we wanted to end this fighting not by guns but by talking peace even though some people labelled some of us rebel corroborators in the process. But this was a price we were ready to pay for peace, even if it meant death.

Whichever angle we tried to reach out to the diplomatic community in our quest to block Operation Iron Fist, the idea/response was that ‘what else could the government do, let us wait and see. To us as development partners these rebels should be defeated militarily’.

People in Acholi looked at us, especially myself and Norbert Mao (former Gulu Municipality MP and now Gulu LC5 Chairperson), as their true voice and we could not fail them because their problem was our problem. They looked at us as their hope; they looked at us as people who don’t fear to speak for them in times of need and desperation.

“Although the government had convinced the diplomatic community that the UPDF was aware of the abducted women and children, the civil society was restless and complemented our endless struggle for a peaceful settlement to the conflict rather than war.

After a period of about three months, I received a call from a satellite phone from a stranger, I picked and told the caller to call me later because I was driving.

It was quite interesting, the fellow talked softly and composed, he introduced himself as Lt. Col. Johnson Onen and said ; ‘I am speaking from the Altar Command headquarters’ - Kony’s backyard.

He said Kony was trying to reach my number and other leaders without success. He said for them (LRA) they don’t mind about fighting, they can fight but they have so many children and women too and would like them to be released and that for the sake of stopping bloodshed, they would wish to surrender the captives because the UPDF was closing in on them day-by-day.

“The message to me was that ‘we want you to help us to reach out to government, to negotiate where we can surrender the children and there is no need for war’, this message sounded very positive to me. I was excited and immediately asked him “where are you?” The man said he had been sent on a mission and couldn’t tell his location until further notice.

The way in which he talked sounded as if he had already crossed the Sudanese border into Uganda. I was thrilled because as Acholi leaders we had got a second chance to stop the bloody Operation Iron Fist; to end the massacre and to rescue the children, then, we would have offered leadership at the right moment.

“I agreed with the stranger that he comes and meets me in Kampala. He said he would be calling me using the satellite phone. The next day he called me and said he was in a suburb of Kampala.

But I was scared, I started asking myself, “What if I am nabbed by government security agencies for dealing with rebels, they would now say ‘Okumu is a rebel corroborator’. I was afraid and at the same time brave because I was doing the right thing and I was not a rebel corroborator in anyway.

“I met this ‘rebel envoy’ at Parliament and he reiterated that Kony wants to talk to me because they want to initiate talks with government. He also told me that they were ready to hand over women and children to the UN because they could not trust government.

The fellow looked like a rebel and I believed him. He came with a brand new satellite phone and left it with me, claiming that they have been struggling to get in touch with me since my number is sometimes on and off. So, for easy communication he told me that he had strict instructions to give me a satellite phone.

“We agreed to meet again; I immediately contacted the American Embassy requesting for an appointment but without any success because the diplomatic community had been clearly briefed by the government that the only solution to the conflict was Operation Iron Fist.

Next Sunday, shifty meetings in Kampala before a wild goose chase to Nairobi and back.

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