To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will until October 9, 2012 be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities that have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOEL OGWANG brings you Betty Bigombe, the minister who staged the peace talks with LRA leader Kony to end the two-decades war
IT was a dare-devil feat; how many mortals would dare Joseph Kony and his LRA rebels into ending the over two-decade civil war bordered on religious fundamentalism right at his fortress? Yet a humble, selfl ess, motherly, lion-hearted and patriotic Ugandan dared to trudge a path no mortal had. Betty Bigombe did what many feared to do.
Road to Kony peace talks
Bigombe’s real involvement in pacifying the north started in 1986 when, as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s office, President Museveni placed her directly in charge of assessing donor-aided projects.
At the time, the European Union (EU) had developed a Disarmament, Demobilisation and Resettlement (DDR) programme, but came short on implementing it. Bigombe picked interest in finding out what happened to disbanded soldiers after successive coups that punctuated post-independence Uganda change of governments. “I sold the idea to the President and he bought it.
I also got fi ve trucks, soldiers and social scientists to go around Uganda for three months,” she says. One day, however, Museveni asked her to persuade parents of the children who had joined rebel groups in the north to peacefully end the insurgency.
The groups included Odong Latek’s Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) and Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement whose remnants formed the LRA. A fierce battle at Opit in Gulu followed when the National Resistance Army engaged Lakwena, living many rebels’ dead. However, the victims were never rescued as she considered them evil.
“If a bullet hit a fi ghter, it was because he or she was considered a sinner, Lakwena believed “They would not be touched,” says Bigombe. Meeting with Lakwena After the Opit battle, Bigombe visited Lakwena’s camp. “I found a big map of Uganda drawn on the ground and a big drum containing dead frogs, tortoises and chameleons in its midst,” Bigombe says.
“They believed that fi ltered water from the dead creatures cured ailments, which wasn’t true!” When NRA finally defeated Lakwena’s force at Magamaga, Jinja, as they advanced to Kampala, she went into exile in northern Kenya, but sent emissaries to Bigombe. Soon, the duo started communicating via telephone.
However Lakwena made ‘unrealistic demands’ of a compensation of $500, 000, a house and a farm in Opit to return to Uganda on top of the $50, 000 Museveni had given her. The Government never yielded. The self-proclaimed Prophetess died in exile in northern Kenya on January 18, 2007.
From Lakwena to Kony
Lakwena’s followers regrouped and formed the LRA, led by her cousin, Kony. Bigombe embarked on persuading parents who provided their husbands and child-fi ghters under LRA with food, medication and humanitarian to abandon the rebellion.
“I organised a demonstration where women dressed like they were mourning at a funeral and encouraged them to desist from supporting the war,” says Bigombe.
In 1992, she met senior LRA fighters, including the late Otti Lagony and late George Omona at Tegot Ajulu on May 9 to assess their perception of the war and how to apply for amnesty.
“Lagony and Omona convinced me that I should not rush, but make it a slow process until we started corresponding with time. I started sending emissaries to Kony,” Bigombe says.
Kony realised he was losing support and embarked on cutting off lips and limbs of abductees to scare away fi ghters
who planned to escape. It is then that Bigombe convinced Museveni into peace talks which he accepted. As time wore-on, Bigombe got in touch with Kony and started talking to him on radio calls on a daily basis.
“As time went by, we started exchanging letters and Kony even sent his wife, Cecilia, to give birth at Lacor Hospital.”
Encounter with Kony
Soon, Kony and Bigombe agreed to meet in the Padik jungle on October 14, 1993. Kony asked Bigombe to go with six unarmed civilians. She chose Catholic, Christian and Muslim religious leaders but, when she sent the leaders a vehicle to pick them for the meeting, two opted out.
“The third leader developed diarrhoea. I could see their fear, looking at all the brutal killings Kony had committed,” she says While Kony’s child-fi ghters were armed with guns and pangas, he did not turn-up. “They poured sheer butter oil from a calabash on me, and one rebel grabbed me by the neck.
This was to neutralise me if I had any ill intentions,” Bigombe narrates. “I had decided that should the worst come, I would grab a gun from a child soldier so they kill me, without torturing me first. I was ready to die!”
On the third day, October 17, Kony showed up with heavily armed rebels. “I couldn’t believe he existed until I saw him,” Bigombe says. “When he saw me, he shouted mummy....mummy... and asked to talk to me alone. I was excited at last he wanted to end the war.”
Since then, Bigombe physically spoke to Kony four times. But, Kony kept asking for time. However advisors to the president convinced him that Kony was not serious about the talks and wanted to buy time to regroup.
In a last attempt at peace talks with Bigombe in 1994, Kony sent his advance team a week earlier to secure his arrival, but NRA attacked the venue, forcing the rebel chief to declare it was the last time he engaged in talks.
He vowed to do ‘something’ that would shock the world! And indeed, in April 20, 1995, Kony and his rebels attacked unsuspecting Atiak residents, killing 300 of them. “I knew the war was back!” says Bigombe, as she watched the news on CNN.
And, while at the World Bank offi ces in Washington DC, she learnt that the Government had cancelled the peace talks. “I was devastated and, instead, went for my Master’s degree.”
Sudan started backing Kony militarily. US President, Jimmy Carter asked Bigombe to offer technical support so that Museveni and Omar El Bashir can hold talks to end the rebel insurgency in their countries.
Still, this wasn’t helpful and soon, LRA attacked Barlonyo camp in Lira, murdering 300 people and burning their homes on February 21, 2004. Bigombe took on the last peace talks with Kony in November 28, 2008 which was also futile. “Kony said he would die like Adolf Hitler and nobody will ever see his body.
He is a strange man, but sometimes says things that make sense,” says Bigombe Why the talks failed Bigombe blames the failure of Kony talks on the proliferation of mediators with each undermining the other.
NGOs funded from abroad as well as elements in the UPDF, didn’t want the war to end because of the donor fundings. Kony bases were attacked needlessly which was the same case at the failed Juba peace talks for which Bigombe only offered technical support when Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda led the Government emissaries.
“I was devastated not to have ended the war. I don’t think Kony will surrender. One day he will be killed because he is no longer a Ugandan problem, but international. My hope is that we should not make another Kony, ever!” says Bigombe, now the water state minister
Seventh child in a family of 10, born to Jekeri and Susan Ochan in Gulu hospital
Attended and Bubulo Girls School Mbale, Gayaza high school for O’ and A’ Level (1966-72) Makerere University, Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Literature
Married Ugandan Ambassador to Japan, Samson Bigombe in Tokyo.
Master’s degree in Public Administration at Harvard University.
Bigombe: The woman who dared Kony