The prosecution began laying the foundation of their case against Dominic Ongwen, a former leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), by calling their first witness. The expert witness told the International Criminal Court (ICC) about the history of Uganda and the LRA.
Tim Allen, a professor at the London School of Economics, testified on January 16 about a report he wrote for the prosecution explaining how the conflict in northern Uganda began and the Lord’s Resistance Army’s role in that conflict. Allen was called as an expert witness because he has been researching the LRA and northern Uganda since the 1980s.
Ongwen is on trial for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for people displaced by conflict in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He is also on trial for allegedly forcing seven women into marriage when they were girls and sexual crimes against them. In addition, Ongwen has been charged with forcibly recruiting child soldiers. In total, Ongwen faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Allen told the court on Monday the people of northern Uganda and those of southern Uganda have had grievances against each other from the time the country’s independence leader was overthrown in 1971. Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962 and Milton Obote, who was a member of the Lango, one of the ethnic groups in northern Uganda, became the country’s first leader.*
Allen said by the time Obote was overthrown by Uganda’s military in 1971 he had lost public support and many Ugandans welcomed the coup against him. However, Obote’s replacement, Idi Amin, became a ruthless and brutal leader and eventually lost any support he initially had, Allen said.
Neighboring Tanzania sent in its troops to oust Amin, with the help of Ugandan rebel groups. Obote was reinstated as leader of Uganda in 1980, but Obote gained a reputation for brutality. He again lost public support when allegations emerged of mass graves in an area of central Uganda called Luwero. Obote was again overthrown in the mid-1980s by Uganda’s military. The leader of the coup, Tito Okello, was an Acholi, said Allen.
The witness testified that the bodies found in mass graves in Luwero were of people mainly from southern Uganda. Allen said Okello was overthrown in 1985 by a rebel group led by a southerner, Yoweri Museveni, and once in power, soldiers from southern Uganda retaliated the killings that happened under Obote by targeting people in northern Uganda. Allen said that at the same time a number of officers and soldiers from northern Uganda were discharged from the military.
Allen explained that in response to the retaliation, northerners formed rebel groups to challenge Museveni, who became president in 1986 and continues to hold office to date. Allen told the court that these groups had a military objective but were also steeped in the spiritual beliefs of the Acholi. He explained that this included the concept of someone being possessed of a spirit. Such a person was called agwaka in Acholi.
The most prominent rebel leader at the time was called Alice Auma, who it was believed was possessed by several spirits, said Allen. The dominant spirit was one called Lakwena, or messenger in Acholi. Alice Auma’s group became known as the Holy Spirit Movement, and she became better known as Alice Lakwena.
Allen told the court that in 1987 the Holy Spirit Movement was believed to have as many as 8,000 fighters with whom Alice Auma attempted to march to the capital, Kampala, which is in central Uganda. Allen said she failed in her mission, and sometime after this she disappeared and was later found living in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya.
Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, followed a similar path, saying he was possessed by spirits, Allen told the court. He said Kony’s LRA did not have as many fighters as Alice Auma’s group. He also said the LRA had a number of former military officers in its ranks in its early days.
Allen will continue to testify on Tuesday.
*This sentence has been updated. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Milton Obote was a member of the Acholi.