On October 3, the director of legal services at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Nabaasa Kanyogonya, denied knowledge of allegations that military commanders of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) committed atrocities in northern Uganda. This was in response to a question by Krispus Ayena Odongo, the lead lawyer for Dominic Ongwen, asking him to “confirm to the court whether there were hues and cries about incidents of indiscipline of UPDF officers in the prosecution of the war against the LRA.” Kanyogonya responded, “I do not know of any commanders of the UPDF committing atrocities in the war against the LRA.” This article presents reactions to Kanyogonya’s testimony in the community in northern Uganda.
Kanyogonya made the comments while testifying at the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes. Ongwen’s trial started in December 2016 and is still ongoing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Kanyogonya’s testimony drew strong reactions from community members who were present during the conflict in northern Uganda. Those who expressed their views were not pleased that he denied knowledge of atrocities by government forces in northern Uganda, citing the extensive documentation of such atrocities, though views differed on the reasons for his denial.
James, a CSO representative from Teso in eastern Uganda said, “I rebuke that witness. Maybe he was not physically present in the war-affected areas during that time. He might have been in Kampala. If he had been there during the war that wouldn’t have been his testimony. Both the government and the LRA soldiers committed atrocities.”
Denis, a community member living in Lamogi, speculated that Kanyogonya probably based his testimony on the period before 2002. “The ICC’s jurisdiction only considers crimes that were committed after 2002 because the ICC was not yet established before then,” said Denis.
Pamela, a CSO representative from Gulu, thought that the witness was probably afraid of speaking out against the government he serves. “To me, all this dwells around witness protection. I think the witness does not feel protected to speak against the government because he would have problems on return to Uganda. A question I would ask the witness is whether he is aware of the documentation of crimes committed by government soldiers, and how well informed he is of the impacts of war.”
In the opinion of Geoffrey, another CSO representative in Gulu, the government could have committed the crimes accidentally in the course of trying to protect civilians. “In the process of fighting the LRA, many errors might have happened, leading to the death of civilians. Because of their mandate, the government soldiers cannot say they did not commit any crimes against civilians. The only defense they could have is that while they were doing their duty, they happened to harm people who were caught in the crossfire.”
Calvin, a teacher in Omoro District, draws attention to the fact that rebellions by the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) and the LRA sprang up in response to atrocities committed by government soldiers. “The UPDF committed very many atrocities in northern Uganda, even long before the LRA rebels started their activities. In the late 1980s, when the UPDF was still called the National Resistance Army (NRA), they were already committing crimes and their actions led to the rise of the HSM led by Alice Lakwena, and later the LRA led by Joseph Kony.”
According to Louis, a community member: “The atrocities in northern Uganda were committed by both UPDF soldiers and LRA rebels, but to my dismay, all these atrocities have been blamed on the LRA. Those who say that the government soldiers did not commit any crimes in northern Uganda are those who are seeking favor from the government. There are people whose relatives were killed by government soldiers so Kanyogonya cannot deny that the government committed atrocities.”
Asked to cite examples of crimes committed by government soldiers that they are aware of, community members and CSO representatives mentioned many incidents ranging from extrajudicial killings and massacres, to sexual and gender-based crimes.
James said, “In Teso there are areas where military commanders and soldiers erred. For example, on July 9, 2003, a helicopter gunship killed ten civilians in Angica B village, Alito Parish, Obalanga Sub-County, after mistaking them for rebels. The rebels had no helicopters, so it was definitely government soldiers. There were also incidents of gang raping of women and young girls.”
Denis vividly recalled crimes committed by government soldiers in Lamogi. “There were many crimes committed by government soldiers. For example in Lamogi Sub-County, the NRA, as the UPDF was known at that time, killed about 30 people before the civilians went to IDP camps,” he said.
In Pamela’s opinion, government atrocities in northern Uganda were not limited to acts of commission, but also included acts of omission. “When we talk of government atrocities, we should not only look at what government soldiers did, but also what they failed to do. There were many incidents where government soldiers failed to give protection, because even when people were in IDP camps, there were still abductions by the LRA. A lot of people died in attacks and ambushes by the rebels, and yet the UPDF was in a position to stop all these from happening,” said Pamela.
Louis concurs with Pamela. “There were massacres in Omot, Lukodi, Atiak, and Awach. All these happened when the soldiers were around. There were cases of robberies and looting of property by UPDF soldiers who claimed to be protecting them. A lot of ambushes and attacks along the highways resulted in people being killed and buses being burnt as the UPDF looked on. People were shot dead by UPDF soldiers. People were dragged forcefully to the IDP camps by government soldiers.”
“There are so many examples of crimes by government soldiers,” said Geoffrey. “There is the case of Burcoro where the soldiers conducted sodomy, cruel punishments, and beatings. While hunting for the LRA, the soldiers killed many people whom they suspected of being collaborators.”
Calvin recounts, “Shooting people in firing squads, especially those civilians who were believed to be collaborating with the LRA, rape of innocent women, especially during the night patrols, and the arrest and torture of civilians on allegations that they were rebel collaborators are some of the atrocities I remember.”
As one respondent noted, several documentation and research projects have been conducted on abuses by government forces. These include the Burcoro massacre of 1991, the Namokora massacre of 1986, and the Mukura massacre of 1989. Furthermore, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has, on several occasions, apologized for the actions of Ugandan government soldiers in northern Uganda. In 2012, the president apologized on behalf of the army saying, “The NRA/NRM [National Resistance Army/National Resistance Movement] has [made] mistakes but also has the capacity to correct those mistakes.” In 2014, he publicly stated that he was “ashamed of” the way the NRA fought rebels in northern Uganda.
Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the co-founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local non-governmental organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in northern Uganda.