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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Northern Ugandans “Don’t Understand” Dominic Ongwen and Thomas Kwoyelo trials

Courts are currently trying two former child soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Meanwhile, many from the war-affected communities are still waiting for true justice – through truth telling and reconciliation.

Two former child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are currently being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dominic Ongwen is facing the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands, while Thomas Kwoyelo is facing the International Crimes Division (ICD) in Uganda.

As the two cases progress, technicalities are arising which include issues around witness representation and the legality of presiding judges. Meanwhile, many in northern Uganda are voicing a larger concern: the need for alternative justice mechanisms.

Reactions to the proceedings

Lucy Alum, a vendor at Gulu’s main market, believes that the two defendants are victims and should not be prosecuted. Instead the Ugandan government should have protected them in the first place. “They were abducted and forced to kill on orders from their commanders and if they had not obeyed, they would have been killed themselves,” said Alum.

Alum wants the courts to acquit them and instead consider traditional justice mechanisms or a larger amnesty for those affected – as was part of Agenda Item No. 3 on the Juba Peace Agreement that was signed by the LRA and the Ugandan government.

Calling it “selective justice”, Alum says prosecuting certain ranks in the LRA, while leaving the rest, will discourage those still in captivity from returning home. She urges the court to seek for alternative forms of justice such as fostering forgiveness through truth telling. Only then can there be lasting reconciliation.

John Muto-Ono Paljur, a writer in Gulu, agrees and said, “The paradox will not end until the regime changes.”

What went wrong?

Douglas Peter Okao is the Local Government Chairman V for Omoro district. He has been following Kwoyelo’s case from the beginning and has reservations about the witnesses being produced. He says witnesses are needed from both sides of the conflict, and particularly from those communities where these crimes are alleged to have been committed.

The chairman also says the trials are not in line with the Acholi belief in traditional justice mechanisms involving reconciliation, forgiveness, truth telling and cleansing. He questions the extent that the authorities have explored these options. He also urges all stakeholders in the conflict, including those that were involved in the peace process, be consulted.

“We need to advocate for traditional justice while pursuing this case in line with what was resolved in the amnesty act,” said Okao. “And to what extent is the court engaging traditional institutions, religious leaders and those who were instrumental in the Juba Peace Talks?’’

According to Okao, court cases mostly just focus on a few atrocities committed on a few individuals or groups while leaving the bulk of victims without justice. He appeals to the lawyers and the courts to explore all available justice mechanisms.

Many other political, religious and traditional leaders in Acholi also continue to advocate for the use of traditional justice mechanisms as a means to foster justice and accountability. They believe a truth telling and reconciliation process – similar to what was successfully applied in countries such as South Africa and Rwanda – can also work in Acholi.

Candano Jacob, a concerned citizen, also speaks of “selective justice”. He sees it as unfair that these two junior LRA officers are being prosecuted, while senior LRA officers such as Brigadier Kenneth Banya, Brigadier Okunga Adek, former LRA spokesperson Sam Kolo and Major General Caesar Acellam got benefit from the amnesty.

“And what will happen when some evidence begins implicating the high ranking officers who have been given amnesty and are walking freely?” wonders Jacob. “Will they also be brought before court to answer charges?”

We do not understand the working of the courts

According to Okao, local leaders were consulted in the initial stages of establishing the ICD. However, key stakeholders and local government leaders are no longer being consulted – and therefore the court is losing its relevance for the local communities most affected by war.

“At the moment we don’t understand the proceedings because Kwoyelo was already at one time arrested and acquitted. We also don’t understand the charges levelled against him because of several irregularities and the inability to understand the court language which should be localised,” added Okao.

For the court to be relevant to the local people Okao proposes that information on what is happening in the courts should be disseminated to the communities in the region through established networks and forums, such as the Northern Region chapter of the Uganda Local Government Association, the Joint Acholi Leaders Forum, the Women’s Advocacy Network, traditional storytelling around the fireplace known as wang-oo, the various victims associations and the media.

Question of reparations

The victims of atrocities alleged to have been committed by Thomas Kwoyelo and Dominic Ongwen expect reparations and compensation. But do these two former low-ranking soldiers actually have the capacity to pay?

And what about reparations for the victims who are still missing, the relatives of the undocumented dead, those living with bullets in their bodies and all those who are still traumatised?

Despite several government and donor rehabilitation programs such as Peace Recovery and Development Program, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Emergency Plan and many others, the impact of such initiatives among the affected communities remains to be felt.

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