Betty Bigombe’s quest to turn war to peace In Uganda

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Betty Bigombe, a former Ugandan politician, a peacemaker and a World Bank official is driven in her quest to talk to Africa’s warlords in a bid to get them to engage in peace talks. Her most iconic so far, has been talking to Africa’s most notorious warlord Joseph Kony.

Her journey to become a peace negotiator began when President Museveni appointed her as a minister in his cabinet when he first came to power in 1986. Uganda had just been liberated from a civil war dubbed the ‘Bush War’ that involved then guerilla leader, Yoweri Museveni fighting against former President Milton Obote’s forces. 

“When President Museveni came into power he looked me up because he knew I had made some contribution” – she had previously smuggled some of his supporters to neighbouring country, Kenya for safety. 

After being a civil servant in the President’s government for one year, he appointed her as minister.

“I was very disappointed when I was appointed because it was just men and all they asked me to do was to sit and read papers. I went to tell President Museveni that I want to resign. I could not be reading only novels and doing crosswords. I wanted work, I was ready to do something. He was shocked that I wanted to resign.”

His response to her request, “African ministers don’t resign, let alone a female African minster.” 

She was not going to resign, so Bigombe came up with an idea and pitched the proposal to President Museveni.

“Uganda had had many wars and each time there was change, that army got disbanded. So I sold the idea to him that he should allow me to find out where Idi Amin’s army is, where Obote’s army is and to find out how they are surviving. He gave me the go ahead to go all over the country with a small team trying to find where they were.”

Museveni appraoched her with a counter-proposal. He suggested she travel to the northern part of Uganda to convince rebels to stop fighting.

“I had never handled war before,” Bigombe thought. “My mandate was never to negotiate with rebels, it was to persuade them to come out, and persuade parents to talk to their children.”

She was told to resign and believed strongly that President Museveni had set out to kill her because the mission he offered to Bigombe was a suicide mission. Friends told her it was not a woman’s job to talk to warlords and that she had no experience that qualified her. 

Despite these views of her new role, she packed up and went to the northern part of the country, anyway.

Upon reaching her destination she was in utter shock and traumatised. 

Bigombe’s orders were to go North and tell rebels to surrender but then she started to think perhaps for a man like Joseph Kony, a different approach would suit the occasion.

African warlord, Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony, traditionally a former altar boy, described himself as God’s messenger who was called to do the Lord’s work with his messianic cult called, the Lord’s Resistance Army 

So, Bigombe used the language he understood best – religion to reach out to him.

And it worked.

But, insulted by the President’s gesture to send a woman to end the war, Kony responded with a death threat. 

“But I stayed, because I desperately wanted to end the war.”

Then a second death threat was delivered to Bigombe by a man dripping in blood. Shaking, he had just been a victim of Joseph Kony.

Eventually, Joseph Kony agreed to meet with Bigombe after several exchanges. It had taken her two years to get to this point and it was a relief.

“I think what touched him was that I wanted to discuss peace and I wanted to talk to him directly.”

Betty Bigombe has been one of the few outsiders and only Ugandan official to meet with Joseph Kony, ready to negotiate peace. 

She earned the Ugandan Woman of Year Award in 1993 and she continued to meet Kony for six more times until he agreed to come out of the bush for peace talks with Museveni.

However, that never happened as President Museveni grew impatient and instead publicly threatened Joseph Kony and his army to either come out of the bush or be hunted. 

Joseph Kony in 2005 was indicted for war crimes and has since evaded capture.

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