Uganda traditional justice mechanisms must triumph over western interventionism

We should not deny Ugandans the chance to bring a man who has committed horrific crimes to justice. However we must be careful that our moral greed does not inadvertently force Ugandan reconciliation backwards.

Matthew Vickery
27 March 2012

For the over 100 million people who have watched KONY 2012 online since its release on March 5th by the American based charity Invisible Children, the hunt to bring Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army to justice has begun.

However now the dust has settled does this sudden outpouring of idealism threaten justice in Northern Uganda rather than support it?

There has been a lively and thought-provoking debate on openDemocracy around the viral internet video, it’s effects and the way in which Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army should be dealt with. Examples include the interesting critique of the criticism directed at KONY 2012, and the thoughtful discussion on the responsibility to protect doctrine by Jasmine-Kim Westendorf; or indeed Kennedy Tumutegyereize’s article which focuses much less on the role of the international community in bringing an end to Joseph Kony and the LRA, but instead highlights the importance of local spheres of influence and grassroots movements. It is this latter focus, the role of local Ugandan communities (and, in this article, grassroots tribal judicial mechanisms) that I believe carries most weight.

In essence KONY 2012 hints at the idea of Western intervention in order to apprehend Joseph Kony, almost encouraging this as the only solution to allow Ugandan communities affected by Kony and the LRA to find peace. This however is a rather simplistic, almost condescending approach to justice in the region.

 In fact Uganda’s ‘Amnesty Act’ already provides a legal framework for bringing those who have committed crimes under the umbrella of the LRA to justice.

The Amnesty Act was introduced in 2006, the same year the LRA left Uganda, and draws upon traditional Acholi tribal justice methods, most notably ‘mato oput’, to create reconciliation between communities and the families of victim and perpetrator.

Reconciliation through mato oput requires a former LRA rebel to put down arms and reject violence. The next stage is to bring the families of the perpetrator and victim together, where the former must ask for forgiveness. If this act is seen as genuine and the offender is regarded as truly repentant for crimes committed, compensation will then be mediated between the two families. Finally the two parties will share a drink made from the bitter Calabash root, the bitterness representing the crime committed and the effect it had upon the community.

Within a year of the introduction of the Act, 20,000 former LRA rebels had been reintegrated into their local communities through such reconciliation. These communities had suffered rape, murder, child abduction and theft at the hands of the LRA.

However KONY 2012 has the potential to threaten these local justice systems used by the Acholi communities in Northern Uganda. The Acholi have created a traditional justice system which serves a remarkable and highly successful purpose in a complex environment, where many LRA rebels were themselves child abductees and forced to terrorise the communities in which they were raised. This is a justice system that has been in place six years prior to the release of KONY 2012, and has required no Western intervention to have been a success.

Rituals like mato oput not only provide reconciliation for communities, they also provide a sense of closure, and a renewal of lost dignity and pride through empowering communities ravished by violence and poverty.

It is through traditional systems of justice that have worked so well since 2006 that LRA rebels should be brought to justice. Mato oput has even recently successfully reintegrated senior LRA commanders back into the Acholi community.

Although KONY 2012 advocates just the arrest of Joseph Kony, this should be an arrest made by Ugandans. Successful Western intervention would almost certainly involve the arrest of many LRA rebels along with Kony himself, rebels who themselves could be successfully settled in to their former communities in the future, bringing the benefits of community reconciliation with them.

I am certainly not advocating a traditional justice mechanism such as mato oput to bring Joseph Kony to justice, nor am I advocating Western intervention in order to apprehend him. Ugandans have already shown great courage and dignity by facing those who have committed crimes, and having the ability to show forgiveness in order to mend their own communities. Ugandans have managed to forge a role for themselves in the justice process and this should be admired, even if one happens to disagree with the use of traditional justice methods in some cases.

And so the fate of Joseph Kony should be left to the Ugandan people. Yet KONY 2012 has created such an emotive stir in the West, the fear is that nothing less than dragging Joseph Kony and senior LRA rebels in front of The Hague would be good enough for citizens of the West.

We should not deny Ugandans the chance to bring a man who has committed horrific crimes to justice; we should also not deny those LRA rebels, many of whom are child abductees, the chance to face traditional justice methods if their own communities deem this satisfactory.

The response to KONY 2012 shows a renewal of interest for the plight of those caught in conflict, even if this interest is rather idealistic. However we must be careful that our moral greed, our want to create a solution viewed through a Western-orientated outlook on justice, does not inadvertently force Ugandan reconciliation backwards.

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