For nearly two decades, Betty Bigombe walked a lonely and treacherous path through the war torn jungles of Northern Uganda and the halls of the Ugandan Parliament. Her determination for peace and her life-risking acts of mediation have taken her face to face with one of the most ruthless rebel leaders the world has known. Whether she is cooling the ego of the Ugandan president, chastising his profiteering generals, or coaxing the cult-like rebel leader, Betty has carried power and authority as she lead the way towards sustainable peace.
Betty Oyella Bigombe was born to the Acholi tribe of Northern Uganda in 1957; no one would know how significant this would become in her later life. Her childhood was spent with her mother and her father who was a local nurse, as well as her 10 siblings. Betty focused on her education, walking many miles a day and eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree from Makerere University. In addition to her native Acholi language, Betty is fluent in English and Swahili. After she finished university she married a Ugandan ambassador and moved to Japan where she added Japanese to her linguistic repertoire.
During the Ugandan war which disposed the former dictator Idi Amin, Betty was working on development projects in Uganda. A new leader, Yoweri Museveni, claimed power and asked Betty to help improve relations with her native Acholi tribe (who had been favored under British rule and now, after the civil war, had lost their benefits, privileges and jobs). Originally she declined because the task was seen as suicidal, by herself, her friends and even those within the government. However, after visiting the war torn regions and witnessing the horrible conditions she made the choice to “put a smile on these poor soul’s faces or give them hope for another day.”
Unable to convince any other government members to go with her, including her own aides, Betty Bigombe set off North to hear the Acholi grievances and find a way to bring hope in a hopeless and hurting land. Her journey took her through mined roads, past destroyed military vehicles and deep into the jungles where abducted child soldiers stood guard in the bushes with Ak-47’s. Fearing she would not return alive, she sent letters to her children and the president expressing her last will that her children be given education and care.
The Lords Risistance Army (LRA) is a militaristic rebel group based in northern Uganda. It began during what is now one of Africa’s longest running war and gained support slowly as other rebel groups dissolved. The ruthless leader, Joseph Kony, who claims spiritual guidance from multiple spirits had led the rebel groups to commit widespread murder and massacres, mutilation, sexual enslavement and (with the collapse of support from the Acholi people) the abduction and training of child soldiers. An estimated 30,000 children have been abducted, forced to kill family members, and used as soldiers during the last 24 years. Because of actions on both sides, over 100,000 people have been killed and over 1.8 million have become displaced refugees.
“When you meet somebody who’s a psychopath and so brutal, the first thing you say to yourself is ‘so he actually exists’. You wish you could open up his brain to understand why he does what he does.”
Though Museveni only wanted the various rebel groups to surrender, Betty moved into the displacement camps, building trust with the women and encouraging the community to express their complaints and criticism towards the government. While working for sustainable peace within the camps, she was tipped off by one of her guards about an assassination attempt on her life. She escaped with a crowd of women as the rebels began burning the camp. A few days later she would organize a face to face meeting with the LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony, a first of many that would eventually build trust.
Once considered an insignificant woman by both sides; Betty Bigombe was soon seen as wise and authoritative. As a tribute to her strong determination, unyielding presence in the face of danger as well as her loving and nurturing personality Betty was addressed as “mother Bigombe” by the rebel leaders. In 1994, after a year of peaceful negotiations known as the “Bigombe talks” the date and time for signing a peace agreement was set. However, at the last minute the talks collapsed when President Museveni changed his mind and the region exploded again in war.
Unable to continue with peace talks, Betty took a fellowship award to earn a Masters of Public Policy from the Harvard institute for International Development. She became a senior social scientist with the postconflict unit of the World Bank. Later she became a consultant to the World Bank’s Social Protection and Human Development department.
“People are dying. Children are not going to school– it just can’t go on anymore. So I decided to go right back and take it on.”
Betty Bigombe’s most heroic attempts at peace would come a decade later in February of 2004. While watching the nightly news she viewed footage of the Barlonyo massacre by the LRA. While still in shock she saw her own picture on the screen as the reporter explained that she was the only person in decades who had gotten the rebels and the government close to peace. Betty gave up her paid position with the World Bank and decided to leave her daughter and her safe and comfortable home in the United States to return to Uganda.
Without the authority, support or financial backing the government, Betty began to engineer a new series of peace talks between the LRA and the government. She used thousands of dollars of her own money to finance the logistics, such as paying for transportation and satellite phone bills for talks between the groups. In order to regain trust with the LRA and to protect the local villages from being raided, Betty began supplying the starving LRA with food and basic necessities with her own funds. After months of 20 hour days, sleepless nights and multiple trips behind enemy lines, peace looked promising.
Though being a woman in her culture was originally seen as a disadvantage for mediation between men, Betty used it to her advantage. She calmly listened to the men, demanded to be treated with respect as a woman, and encouraged the egoistic and warmongering men to consider a peaceful future that included more than just a ceasefire. The dream they worked towards would put Ugandans first by including changes to the country’s infrastructure, education, social services and much more.
In the decade she was away, the LRA’s influence and carnage had expanded into the neighboring countries of Sudan, Central African Republic, and Congo. Betty began including outside governments in the talks, and used international pressure to continue the year long cease fire. Near the end of the negotiation process, Joseph Kony and the LRA commanders were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their numerous crimes against humanity. Fearing they would not be able to return to their villages without being arrested, the talks collapsed and fighting broke out again.
“I’m also a very strong believer that military victory will never bring sustainable peace. You can subdue people, you can humiliate them, they feel they have no voice, they’ll go underground– it will resurface.”
Discouraged, Betty returned to the United States, and founded two organizations, one to fight corruption in world governments (like her own in Uganda) and another to benefit children of the war. She is now working as a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Betty’s efforts were not in vain, however, as her efforts for mediation laid the groundwork for various peaceful talks in the years following by Uganda, Sudan and other nations. Betty continues to be consulted often by the Ugandan government as well as LRA representatives.
Because of her selfless sacrifice of her time, safety and money and for her leadership on behalf of peace in a hurting and war torn land, we consider Betty Bigombe as a Moral Hero. May her efforts for peace continue, and may those who learn of her daring actions be inspired to do the same.
[box type=”info”]More Resources:
Bigombe’s Story – CSM[/box]