Betty Bigombe: Building peace on her terms

Thursday April 12 2012

Betty Bigombe at parliament last year as Minister of State for Water. Photo by Stephen Wandera

One person who was probably not impressed by the viral internet video about Joseph Kony a few weeks ago is Betty Bigombe. As the world woke up to what used to be (and had in all reality past into the past), the peacemaker must have seen the excitement generated by the video as way off the mark of reality. Because she was there in the thick of things and it was not glossy at all.

Betty Oyella Bigombe is one of the most enduring figures in Uganda’s history in the past 30 years. Having served in the Museveni government as the last chance to keep sanity in the efforts to bring the long Lords Resistance Army rebellion to an end, her influence cannot be ignored in shaping Uganda as we know it today.

Back in the day circa 1993, Bigombe was usually photographed in the media with dark sun glasses, probably because she operated in the harsh region of northern Uganda where the sun was cruel. That is where she was based when she was appointed State Minister for the Pacification of Northern Uganda. The President asked her specifically to help pacify the northern region, which was in a state of unrest especially because many people did not trust the NRM government.

The glasses gave her an image that was sure to stick in many minds; the dashing beautiful lady minister who was taking all the male peacemakers to school on the LRA. She looked the part and acted the part. She had left a good job with the World Bank to help pacify her homeland.

Ms Bigombe, currently the state minister for water, was born in 1954 and grew up in what is now Gulu District. She was the seventh of a family of nine children.

Of all the people involved in the efforts to end the war in northern Uganda, Ms Bigombe, even with a general perception from many that she was an outsider on many levels (victims of the war saw her as a turn-coat for working with the government and the rebels saw her as a mere woman who could not do much), came the closest to engineering the end of the war on her terms – peaceful terms.


Had the different sides in the conflict (a stubborn president, a jittery rebel force and allegedly profiteering generals) agreed to approach the peace talks on her terms in 1994, history would have probably read differently.

Ms Bigombe’s role in building modern Uganda was never easy. During the many meetings she had with the rebels and the victims of the war and the government side, she always had to prove herself. The rebels wrote an angry missive saying by sending a woman to a male domain, President Yoweri Museveni was showing his lack of seriousness. It meant that the government did not really want to end the war.

War seemed to bring out the best in Ms Bigombe even when she is an avowed peacemaker. After the collapse of the peace talks in 1994, she had fallen off the radar. Dropped from government after losing her MP seat in 1996, she had returned to the United States, where she lived with her two daughters, Pauline and Emmanuella. The story is told in different fora of how she got sucked right back into the murky world of negotiating with the LRA on behalf of Acholi’s suffering victims.

The Barlonyo Massacre of 2004 changed her life once again. On February 21, 2004, the world woke up to news that close to 300 people in Lira District had been hacked, chopped or shot to death. Many had disappeared and where not accounted for.

Ms Bigombe was in her flat in the USA planning a trip when an item on the TV caught her attention. The grisly massacre was a CNN breaking news item. The anchor commented that she had been the only person who had come closest to bringing the war to an end through her negotiation skills.

She knew she had to come back to Uganda and try again. This time it was going to be even harder, she knew. She was going mediate between adversaries whose relationship had worsened in the decade since she had left.

This time she had to dig into her own reserves, sometimes to buy food for the rebels, whose supply routes had been cut off. It had to be done though, she knew. It was to involve intense haggling with Joseph Kony, who at least respected her enough to call her ‘Mom,’ and negotiating mined roads into the devil’s lair.

Perhaps this dogged determination was one of the reasons a grateful Uganda had named her Woman of the Year, 1994.

Ms Bigombe was not “just a girl”, as some sought to derisively label her. Long before the world started feeling guilty about ignoring northern Uganda, Betty Bigombe was there with the suffering women and the death threats and the constant explosions. She looked into the eyes of the devil and came away alive.

The Northern Struggle with LRA
The Lord’s Resistance Army has been in the media spotlight in recent weeks, mainly due to the efforts of the American charity, Invisible Children, which made a 30-minutes internet video calling for the arrest of Joseph Kony.

The LRA war, which raged for more than 20 years, had the population of northern Uganda living on tenterhooks. The government, acting on the wisdom that it could do a better job protecting the people if they were in protected camps, caused one of the biggest blights on national consciousness in Uganda’s history.

Rebel fighters seemed to have other-worldly powers when they sneaked past the sentries who guarded the camps and kidnapped children or stole food.

At the height of the war in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was estimated that the war had displaced more than 1.5 million people from their homes.

Many years later, when the government said it was safe to return to their homes, they found a different reality; displacement had turned them into strangers. Land wrangles and dependence on handouts was a norm they had to come to terms with.