By Patrick Nicholson in Kampala
Sometimes scripts write themselves. As delegates at a peacebuilding conference for Uganda spoke about the need to seek reconciliation, gunfire cracked outside and the black smoke from burning tires blew past the window.
Riots had broken out in Kampala. The cause seemed to be trivial compared to the consequences. The government had banned a representative of the traditional leader, the King, from visiting some of his people. But it underlined a key message of the peace meeting: Uganda is a tinderbox and action is needed to stop an explosion.
The Conference on Sustainable National Reconciliation, Justice and Peace had been organized by Caritas Uganda and the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda to bring religious, traditional and political leaders together. The first day was given over to religious leaders, and the hall with about 400 delegates was a mix bishops, priests, sheikhs, nuns, and peace workers.
Trocaire (Caritas Ireland), CAFOD (Caritas in England and Wales), and CRS (a Caritas member in the US) were sponsors.
Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala and president of Caritas Africa started off the meeting with a call for peace secured through dialogue, stressing the role religious leaders could play in ensuring political and traditional leaders talk to each other. At that stage, little did he know that he be on the mobile most of the day speaking to those very same leaders to try and calm the situation down.
The Metropolitan Bishop of Uganda Jonah Lwanga (Orthodox) said there was a need to address the root causes of violence in the country and only then could we move towards sustainable development.
A message from Sheikh Mubaje, the country’s top Muslim, said a lack of tolerance had meant blood had been spilled.
Archbishop Henry Orombi, head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, said that conflicts in the North with the Lords Resistance Army and in other areas such as with the tribal warriors of Karamoja could have been avoided if action had been taken quickly. He said military solutions only provided “win-lose” while dialogue provides “win-win”.
Archbishop John Odama is from Gulu in the North East, where a two decades long civil war came to an end in 2006. The Church and Caritas were key players in bringing that conflict to an end. He said that it was important to acknowledge the past, that perpetrators of violence must be prepared to apologize, there must be a willingness of victims to let go, that there must be a commitment to repent and pay for damages, and that all sides of the conflict must move forward with mutual understanding.
Archbishop Odama said that we must reconcile with our faith, our selves, our neighbours, and with nature. On the last point, he highlighted the environmental damage being carried out in Uganda, such as deforestation, and urged for a return to a balance with nature. He said, “Reconciliation is a must if humanity is to survive.” He urged for religious leaders to do more.
Archbishop Odama spoke about the leader of the LRA rebel group Joseph Kony, an indicted war criminal still operating out of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic. “What can we offer him?” said the Archbishop.
Kony, the Archbishop said, know his crimes and their consequences. Kony’s need was for salvation and “saving the sinner” is what the church can offer.
By then, the riots had broken out. “Events, dear boy, events” were taking over the schedule. By teatime, delegates were ducking on the terrace as the noise of shooting got to close, a convoy of church leaders had to return to the conference centre after running into rioters, and many slept on the floors unable to leave. Today, the traditional leaders including the King at the centre of dispute are expected here. As a write, more gunfire can be heard outside and the tires are already on fire. Peacebuilding has never felt more urgent.