Uganda: peace vs justice?

About the author

Tristan McConnell is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a correspondent for The Times and GlobalPost. He has also written for magazines including Esquire, the New Statesman, New York magazine and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He has lived and worked in Africa since 2004.

The Lord's Resistance Army's twenty-year war in northern Uganda may be ending. Will the cost of peace be impunity for its horrendous crimes? Tristan McConnell reports.

Korina Odur, an elderly lady in northern Uganda, has not sat by the campfire for nine years. At a gathering of displaced people on a bright moonlit night at a village called Opit, she broke down in tears. "This is the first time we have sat together out in the open since 1997 and it is painful to remember what we have missed", she said.

The meeting of Ugandans displaced by the twenty-year war between the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Kampala government took the form of a wang oo, an assembly that draws on the traditions of the Acholi people of this northern region. In the presence of Jan Egeland, the United Nations' humanitarian-affairs chief, Korina Odur added: "I hope the international community will ensure this is the end of the war so that it is the beginning of campfires in Acholi again."

A conflict marked by horrendous atrocity - forced abduction, rape, mutilation and massacre - could be dying in the embers of the Opit fire and dozens like it across northern Uganda. For two months, the hot and dusty south Sudanese capital of Juba has hosted peace talks between the LRA and Yoweri Museveni's Ugandan government. In two decades of war, this is the first time a significant third-party has been heavily involved in attempting to bring peace. South Sudan's vice-president Riek Machar, fresh from the peace agreement that ended Sudan's equally lengthy north-south civil war in July 2005, has been instrumental in pushing both sides to the negotiating table.

A ceasefire signed on 26 August 2006 has strengthened the hopes of Ugandans who, like Odur, have borne the brunt of vicious fighting. Jan Egeland responded by telling her and her fellow-citizens: "We have now the best chance ever to end this war."

Uganda's civil war long ago metamorphosed from an uprising of northern rebels led by Joseph Kony who were unhappy with the southern-based regime installed by Museveni in 1986 into a brutal contest for power over people and territory. The LRA's principal target was not the Ugandan army but northern civilians whom they accused of failing to support their insurgency. As a result, 1.7 million people have been forced into displacement camps where larger numbers die from disease than are killed by rebel bullets. The Ugandan authorities too have been accused of extensive atrocities and human-rights violations in the region.

In December 2003, Museveni invited the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to launch an investigation into the LRA's war crimes; the ICC announced the opening of its investigation in July 2004. In July 2005 the court arraigned Kony and his top four commanders (Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen), and now seeks their arrest and transfer. But this legal process has collided with the regional political one that seeks an end to the war, one that is now underpinned too by a local justice process of which the Opit meeting may be a foretaste.

For different reasons, both combatants in Uganda's war are unenthusiastic about the ICC. Yoweri Museveni announced in July that if the LRA rebels lay down their arms he will protect them from prosecution; Joseph Kony has stated that we will not leave the bush until the indictments are withdrawn. These announcements have had the effect of making the ICC charges increasingly appear to be a barrier to peace. In Akworo camp, Elise Acham summed up the feeling of many northerners: "We don't want the ICC, we want peace so we are asking that court to get away". Another resident, Valentina Opoka, said: "Kony will not come out because of the ICC so to whom shall we attribute our suffering?"

Tristan McConnell is Uganda correspondent for Africa Confidential

He also writes about Uganda for British newspapers including the Independent and the Daily Telegraph

Also by Tristan McConnell in openDemocracy:

"Uganda’s unsettled future"
(27 February 2006)

"The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?"
(28 July 2006)

"DR Congo's dangerous run-off"
(23 August 2006)

Two forms of justice

During his tour of the region, Jan Egeland himself conceded that the indictments have become a stumbling-block. His priorities are clear: "There must be no impunity - but number one is peace, number two is to get the women and children out (of the bush), number three is justice." Indeed, there is a growing consensus - among northern Uganda's people, aid workers and traditional leaders - for the argument that justice should be delayed in the interests of peace. Yet Egeland at least is not prepared to compromise on principle: "Everybody knows that if (the LRA leaders) have been involved in such a gruesome war (they) will be held to account at some time."

The widespread sentiment for peace puts the ICC in a difficult position; how can it (and the wider international community) uphold accountability for crimes against humanity while facilitating a process that allows Ugandans themselves to heal their deep wounds? The answer may be found far from the courtrooms of The Hague, in open-air gatherings resembling in places such as Opit. Here, the Uganda government and others are promoting traditional forms of justice as a "Ugandan solution to Uganda's problems".

Mato oput is one of a repertoire of Acholi rituals designed to heal social divisions through a staged process: the acceptance of wrongdoing by the perpetrator of a crime; payment of compensation; and, finally, the drinking of a cup of sheep's blood mixed with the bitter juice from the root of an oput tree. This "drinking of the bitter juice" is said to exorcise the bitterness caused by conflict.

The head of the government peace delegation, Uganda's interior minister Ruhakana Rugunda said in August 2006: "The concern is impunity - but we have mato oput, a clear alternative system of justice which has worked for centuries in our country in the area of conflict resolution and reconciliation". The analyst Zachary Lomo, director of the Refugee Law Project, echoes this view in outspoken criticism of the ICC, arguing that "to tout trials as a magical panacea is intellectually dishonest".

At the same time, mato oput - a system comparable to the gacaca process introduced in Rwanda eight years after the 1994 genocide - has not been performed since the 1980s and never in relation to murder on such a large scale. Its routine application has been in cases where an individual perpetrator and victim are identified; but in a war where tens of thousands are killed, often by unknown assailants, it is unclear how successfully the ritual can be adapted.

Moreover, Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti have repeatedly denied committing any atrocities, thus refusing the first requirement of the mato oput process. Even if they were to accept responsibility, how could material compensation on the huge scale necessary be funded and administered?

Around the Acholi campfire in Opit, people talk of the ICC, the Juba negotiations, and traditional justice. But their priority is the same as Jan Egeland's: peace, and to be allowed to return to their homes. Milton Munu, a local leader, explains: "If you count all the loss over twenty years it can't account to the same as these five indicted men, so really we don't care what happens to them. We just want peace."