The Woman Behind Uganda's Peace Hopes

Betty Bigombe, 53, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, laid the groundwork for reconciliation in Uganda as a minister of state.
Betty Bigombe, 53, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, laid the groundwork for reconciliation in Uganda as a minister of state. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Betty Bigombe plowed her own path as a mediator between two men at war. Her bodyguards addressed her as "Sir," but it was her womanly nurturing side, her wiles and selfless sacrifices that took her where no man had been.

For the better part of two decades, the lonely peacemaker has traveled through war-lacerated northern Uganda in a bid to help end one of Africa's longest-running insurgencies, negotiating with Joseph Kony, the notorious commander of the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Activists who have accompanied Bigombe to northern Uganda described her rock star appeal as she entered squalid camps and toured schools in her native Acholi region.

"Betty Bigombe is one of my heroes in this world. I am captivated," said actor Ryan Gosling, who is working on a film about child soldiers. "When she speaks, everybody listens. She walks into the bush, puts her life on the line and travels even to southern Sudan's no man's land to keep lines of communications open."

Bigombe, 53, is now a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. Sitting in a conference room, at ease in a stylishly flared orange skirt and jacket, she is thousands of miles from the grim wasteland of northern Uganda but never disconnected from it. She is here to share her observations about the craft of conflict mediation.

"In our development of best practices of conflict management and mediation, her knowledge adds something. It is real experience," said Richard H. Solomon, the institute's president. "She is an experienced academic. How does one negotiate in difficult international ethnic and religious conflicts? Betty enriches our understanding as a very respected practitioner."

In April, representatives of Museveni and an Acholi delegation designated by Kony resumed negotiations in Juba, Sudan, to end the 21-year-old war. Late last month, the head of the LRA delegation announced that three segments of the five-phase agreement had been signed. The on-again, off-again peace process had gotten back on track in July 2006 but had broken down after several months.

That the talks restarted at all is testament to Bigombe's personal efforts.

After reading news dispatches of a massacre at a displacement camp in Barloonyo on Feb. 21, 2004, she was jolted into action. Bigombe said she took a leave of absence from a World Bank position in Washington, emptied her bank account, delaying her daughter's university education by a year, and flew to Uganda to jump-start the peace process.

She traveled to Sudan and met with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was providing Kony and his men with sanctuary in the southern part of the country. After seven weeks, Bigombe succeeded in reestablishing ties with one of Kony's chief deputies.

She brought representatives of the government and the LRA to the table in 2004, footing the rebels' costly satellite telephone bills as well as her own to stay in contact, she recalled. She declined help from Museveni's government. Norwegian, Swedish and other grants kept her afloat, but Bigombe found herself bankrupt after talks stalled again in 2005.

She organized meetings in northern Uganda's bush heartland. For the first time, Ugandan government ministers came face to face with Kony's warlords. The ministers of interior and security with a staff of 30 met with an LRA delegation of 11 commanders at the brigadier level, with Bigombe negotiating cease-fire drafts. The last meeting, scheduled for April 20, 2005, which Kony was due to attend, fell through after Ugandan authorities refused to clear it.

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