It is Monday morning in Juba, Southern Sudan and in a couple of hours the delegates who attended the Acholi Peace Conference will begin their return home.
This comes after three days of deliberation, discussions and debates that resulted in close to a dozen recommendations for the resumption of the stalled peace talks between the Lordâ€™s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda.
Just before the closing ceremony at which South Sudan Vice-President Dr. Riek Machar spoke, delegates unanimously approved 11 recommendations, including those that called for the immediate resumption of the peace talks in Juba, under the mediation of the government of Southern Sudan.
At the last moment and with some general reluctance, delegates added that the chief mediator should ensure the equal participation of interest groups in the peace talks. The fear to name groups to the peace talks was based on the perception that the talks could easily be derailed by interest groups pushing a particular agenda over the main goal of achieving peace.
For instance, delegates politely, but firmly, turned down the recommendation to allow victim groups special standing at the peace talks, reasoning that everyone had suffered during the 20-year war and that it would be almost impossible to elevate one victim group over another.
The events that happened in Juba in the last three days can only be described as extraordinary, even historic, as described by Machar.
For one, this was the first time a group of Acholi from northern Uganda and Acholi from Southern Sudan sat down together to consider a common issue facing them.
Indeed, Betty Acan Akwaru, the Acholi Member of Parliament in South Sudan, in her welcome address on opening day, joked that the Acholi from Uganda had finally returned home after many years in the wilderness. Just like everyone in the assembly, she used the Luo language throughout the deliberations.
The assembly itself was extraordinary in that delegates from a cross section of Acholi communities in the Diaspora, displaced peopleâ€™s camps, villages, towns and cities throughout Uganda, focused on why the peace process had broken down, and what it would take to get it restarted immediately.
Right from the start, delegates carefully listened to and analysed the issues raised by the LRA before responding to them. There were no attempts to point fingers at the LRA or the Government for being responsible for the breakdown in talks.
Instead, none of the issues raised by the LRA was trivialised. For instance, the LRA had complained about the unequal treatment of their delegates to the peace talks that reduced their standing to second class among equals. One of the examples of the mistreatment was not being given the freedom to move in town after the meetings, while the Government delegates came and went as they pleased.
Knowing that part of the issue of unequal treatment was bureaucratic, delegates delicately recommended that â€œthe Secretariat be strengthened and staffed with competent, professional and accountable personnel to provide effective and equitable services and equal treatment to the parties.â€
Once it became clear that two influential NGOs involved earlier in the peace process may have left Juba in sully moods, delegates, mindful not to tie the hands of the chief mediator, recommended that â€œthe chief mediator should define the roles and responsibilities of NGOs, groups and individuals invited to facilitate, observe or participate in the peace talks.â€ In other words, without appearing to be pushy, presumptuous or dictatorial, the assembly nudged the chief mediator to mend fences where necessary.
What was most surprising was the fact that there were few times when delegates merely spoke in order to be noticed, a particularly serious affliction when a group of Acholi get together for any reason.
There was general impatience in the assembly with verbose and prolonged speeches, and where a delegate rose simply to waste time, he or she was politely drowned out by hubbub rising from the floor.
For me, as for all the delegates, it was an exhausting experience since we had to work very long hours in a very hot, poorly ventilated conference hall on very difficult issues. Yet, as we concluded the assembly on Sunday, there was a sense of jubilation and accomplishment in the air.
After all, we had spoken with a united voice as Acholi on a matter that for 20 years was the exclusive domain of the Government of Uganda and the LRA, as they fought it out.
We had also defied the notion that only the two parties in the peace talks could speak on the issue of peace in northern Uganda. In fact, we collectively threw down the gauntlet to the Government of Uganda and the LRA, daring them to ignore the voice of the Acholi people.
I am certain as I write this line that those who continue to refer to the peace process as â€œJuba peace jokesâ€ are not only insulting the entire Acholi people, but are keen to see the war continue forever. I did not see any jokes anywhere in the three days spent in Juba. What I saw was a group of concerned people who said loud and clearly that they would not take it anymore.
There is nothing to laugh about that.
Acholi take big steps to end northern war