By Patrick Nicholson
Religious, political and cultural leaders met for the first time together to discuss peace and reconciliation in Kampala 10-12 September. The “Conference on Sustainable Reconciliation, Justice and Peace” was organized by the Interreligious Council of Uganda and Caritas Uganda, and supported by Caritas members in Ireland, the UK, and the USA (Trocaire, Cafod, and CRS).
The theme was to “search for sustainable development.” And conference convener, Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala, President of Caritas Africa, said, “It is the very first time people of different faiths have come together. Let us work together to find a way forward.”
The importance of hosting such a meeting was dramatically underlined in the bloody violence that erupted when rioters and police clashed on the streets of Kampala, including in the neighbourhood of the conference centre. The dispute was between the government and the traditional king, or kabake, of the central area of Uganda.
As events unfolded outside the windows, there was added urgency as government and opposition politicians, army chiefs, religious leaders from Christian and Muslim faiths, representatives of the traditional, cultural leaders thrashed out how to bring peace to a country that has been “rife with bloodshed” for much of its history since independence.
They looked at the causes of the conflict, such as colonialism, regional disenfranchisement from the central government, tribal tensions, competition over resources, land rights and extreme poverty.
Domestic violence, a real but often unspoken issue, also was discussed and the importance of including women in the peacebuilding process received floor space.
On the first day, religious leaders held in depth discussions on their ability to promote peace within the communities they work in and how their faith can act as an inspiration.
By the evening of the first day and the second day itself, the riots risked overtaking the agenda.
The religious leaders made a concerted effort to bring about immediate peace by contacting government and the traditional leader, urging calmness, and offering the conference itself as an example that another alternative was possible, one based on dialogue. A representative of the kabake at the centre of the confrontation arrived, and echoed the message of urging an end to the mayhem by seeking peace through dialogue.
Central Kampala was calm by morning, though clashes were reported in outlying areas. But the scorched tarmac from burned out tires were a visible sign that the search for peace is fraught with challenges.
The last day included politicians from the government and opposition party, as well as the religious and cultural leaders. Again issues around exclusion, poor governance, mismanagement of resources, enduring poverty were raised.
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said in the closing address that safeguarding the basic rights of people including security, health, education, employment, livelihoods, culture, and religion, should be the first step towards establishing “justice, reconciliation and peace” in that order.
Uganda is set for elections in 2011 with the long-running president seeking another term in office after over two decades in the post, following a change to the constitution. The importance of those elections for peace in Uganda will be critical, with the debacles in Zimbabwe and Kenya and their ensuing violence casting a shadow over the political process here.
As Kamugisha Marsiale of the Uganda Catholic Secretariat put it: “One the greatest challenges for the country is the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power. With removal of mechanisms such as term limits of the Presidency the prospects of violence as a means of regime change is likely heightened”.
The human and financial cost of a return to instability is well known by Ugandans. The 20 year war in the north that ended in 2006 left over a million homeless, the abduction of 38,000 children, and a US$ I.3 billion hole in the budget.
The success of the conference was that it happened in the first place and that when riots erupted; the organizers stuck it out and made it work. A group of key people who have huge influence over their communities, have aired the issues, sought resolutions, and pledged to seek peace more actively.
The final resolutions were, in brief:
– a legal framework enacted by Parliament for a peace inistitute of religious, cultural, and political leaders (which received the immediate support of President Museveni),
– A truth and reconciliation commission to deal with past and present
– reform of the electoral commission ahead of the 2011 elections,
– political parties to show they are working together,
– progress on the government’s war against corruption,
– a nationwide stakeholder forum to discuss political, economic and social issues.
The Interreligious Council of Uganda committed to raise awareness, offer themselves as mediators, do more to tackle corruption, mobilise communities to improve their livelihoods, and to hold a similar peace conference every year.
So delegates left agreeing much more needs to be done and the search for peace in Uganda will be a long and painful journey. But, as one participant said, the longest journeys begin with a first step. Perhaps this was it.