Almost seven years after Uganda gave the names of the top Lord’s Resistance Army commanders to the International Criminal Court, the country remains divided as to which path should be taken towards justice. Some Ugandan public figures are again calling for the formation of a truth and reconciliation body.
By Leiuh Asuman Wakida and Priscilla Nadunga, Kampala
“What I prefer is a truth and reconciliation commission, like that in South Africa, to allow us to decide who did what during the conflict,” says Norbert Mao, chairman of the Democratic Party. “The truth and reconciliation commission approach to address human rights abuses during the Northern war conflict will allow Ugandans to tell the truth and be addressed accordingly.”
In January 2004, the Ugandan government reported the top five LRA commanders to the ICC over human rights abuses committed by the rebels during the two decade long conflict that has left thousands dead and millions homeless.
The ICC issued warrants in 2005 for chief commander Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Oket Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Otti died in 2007, while the other four are still at large. They are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and enlisting child soldiers.
The LRA was ejected from northern Uganda in 2005, and has since roamed the remote jungle straddling the borders of Sudan, DR Congo and the Central African Republic.
“I believe we as Ugandans can address the human rights abuses committed during the conflict, and that is the best way to go,” says Mao.
He points out that since the ICC is situated in The Hague, it would be virtually impossible for the mostly poor victims to attend court sessions. He added that the great distance between Uganda and the ICC is not merely geographical. “The ICC is alien to us, and many people don’t understand its process.”
Sultan Kasimu Opio, an LRA victim, concurs with Mao. He speaks of atrocities that have left permanent scars on him.
“My sister was abducted by the LRA rebels from the Aboke Girls’ secondary school and she appeared after several years of captivity with one boy, and was also pregnant,” said a tearful Opio.
Opio’s uncle was abducted by the same rebels, who produced him in pieces a month later. Opio fled his home and now lives in poverty in the Kireka region. “We were dispersed, and most of my relatives never made it to safety as they were either killed by the rebels or angry residents who mistook them for rebels,” Opio recalls. He claims he never attended their burials, which is a key traditional ritual in Uganda.
Opio, like many other victims of the northern conflict, says he prefers reconciliation to criminal proceedings. He describes a traditional justice system known as ‘Mato oput,’ which involves parties reconciling with each other. “Both parties present a sheep and the blood from these animals is mixed with the top most ‘oput’ tree leaves and brewed. Then they take the brew, symbolizing the bitterness in their hearts,” Opio explains.
The parties forgive each other and swear publicly never to go to war again with each other, completing the reconciliation process. Opio: “What we need today is reconciliation between us and the perpetrators, and not the criminal proceedings against them.”
Fredrick Golooba of the Makerere institute of social research contends that the issue of dragging LRA rebels to ICC is a matter of debate. “We in the south don’t understand the gravity of the LRA war on the northern part of the country. If people in the north are saying a truth and reconciliation commission is what will solve the problem, then why do we insist on the ICC?” he says.
Golooba also points out that only one side of the conflicting parties has been implicated so far. “The government of president Museveni can’t say authoritatively that it did not commit any crime during the conflict. It’s really a complex issue given the history of Uganda. All sides have committed crimes during the war, the UPDF (the Ugandan military) notwithstanding. This is why the people in the north are calling for a truth and reconciliation commission that will heal the wounds of both parties.”