Gauging Public Interest (Part Two): Why 44% of Community Members in Northern Uganda Are Not Following Ongwen’s Trial

Last week, the International Justice Monitor published the first part of a three part series presenting results from a rapid assessment conducted in September 2017. The assessment involved 50 community members and civil society representatives in northern Uganda and set out to measure the level of public interest in following the trial of Dominic Ongwen. While 56% of the respondents consulted said they were following the trial, many of them also admitted that they were only following occasionally or on an irregular basis. The remaining 44% of the respondents said they were not following the trial at all. This second post in the series examines views from the participants who said they were not following the trial, and in particular, the reasons for their lack of interest.

Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. His trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened on December 6, 2016, and is still ongoing in The Hague, Netherlands.

For some respondents, the reason they were not following Ongwen’s trial was a sheer lack of interest in the trial proceedings. “I have not been following because I do not have an interest in the proceedings. I have only been reading in the newspapers when something is published, but I have never taken time to follow it,” said Christine, a resident of Gulu Town.

For others, their busy schedules prevented them from following the trial closely. “I am not following the trial because I am always so busy. I only heard from people saying they have arrested Dominic Ongwen,” said Sally, a civil society organization (CSO) worker in Gulu.

Others cited difficulty in accessing information using media such as radio, newspapers, and television.

Grace, a former LRA abductee, said, “I am not following the trial because I do not have a television or even a radio, so I have no source of information.”

“I don’t have access to information about the court proceedings. I only heard that Ongwen is being tried by the ICC,” added Brenda, another resident of Gulu Town.

Others cited the lack of frequent updates as a reason for their loss of interest in the trial.

“I always hear on the radio that the trial is ongoing, but I am not following, because even the radio does not bring out clearly the details of what transpired in the courtroom. So if you ask me where the trial has reached, I can’t tell you,” said Innocent, a resident in Gulu town.

“Updates about the case are very occasional. Sometimes it is on and sometimes it is quiet and so I tend to forget the existence of the trial,” added Beatrice, a CSO worker in Gulu town.

Robert, another CSO worker said, “I sometimes forget that the case is ongoing because of the slowness in getting updates and because the trial itself is taking so long. This makes me feel reluctant to follow the trial.”

Despite the fact that Ongwen’s trial only started in December 2016, many respondents felt the trial was proceeding too slowly, and cited that as one of the reasons for their lack of interest.

Douglas, a trader in Gulu town, lamented, “The biggest problem is that the trial is so delayed. If something is to be interesting for the public, then it should not take too long. This trial has now taken almost a year, but it seems like it is just at the beginning.”

“The case of Ongwen is taking quite a long time, so people are losing interest in following it. If only the process could be faster, then more people might become interested,” suggested Patrick, a resident of Gulu Town.

Other respondents felt detached from the trial, partly because it is taking place far away from Uganda. Others complained that, in addition to the Court being far away, some of the lawyers were not knowledgeable about Uganda, a factor that made them feel further detached.

“The lawyers being used in the court hearings are very green about Uganda. For example, the names of the places are being pronounced wrongly and this is very irritating. I would wish that lawyers who know the geography of the place and who have experienced the harsh rebel attacks handle the case,” said Douglas.

“The reason people do not have an interest in the trial is it is a long way to The Hague, a place so many people don’t even know. If this case were in Uganda or a nearby country then it would be of much public interest,” said Richard, a resident of Gulu Town.

Innocent, a boda-boda rider (motorcycle taxi operator) in Gulu town said, “The problem is that this case is now too international. I would say there is some politics here, because even the way the witnesses are chosen, we do not know. Maybe they should come and explain to us.”

“The trial has been taken very far away [to The Hague] and this makes it hard for the majority of people to follow. But if it was to be conducted from Gulu, some of us would go and follow it because we would be interested in seeing and hearing from Ongwen directly,” said Nancy.

“I am not following because the trial is taking place far away from Uganda where the crimes have not been committed. I would feel interested to follow this case if I had access to the court itself. Ongwen’s trial should have been in Uganda. The court could have come and held the hearings in Uganda to enable the victims to have access,” said Joyce.

For others, especially victims of the conflict, there was no clear benefit to be gained from participating in the trial.

“If people talking about Dominic are not motivated or supported financially, they can decide to forget about Dominic since he is just one person. A person would not be happy to talk about Dominic Ongwen when there is no benefit resulting from the trial. The question they will ask is, ‘how will participating in the trial of Dominic Ongwen help me?’” said Pamela.

“People do not know how they will benefit because whether Dominic wins or loses the case, the fact will still remain that the people suffered a lot of pain during this war. The end results and benefits of the trial should be well defined and all people should know. But all that seems to be a secret and that is why people are not interested in following the trial anymore,” said Christine.

It has been a commonly held view in northern Uganda that the pursuit of accountability is biased against the LRA, as the ICC has not made an effort to prosecute any perpetrators from the Ugandan government. Some respondents cited this as the reason for their lack of interest in the trial.

“People do not have an interest because the trial seems biased. Why is it only Dominic and not the government or other rebel leaders?” asked Richard.

“I have not been following [the trial] because it has stopped making sense.… Instead of the ICC prosecuting the government, it is prosecuting Ongwen, who could not protect himself from the LRA. Dominic has no idea what to say or not to say in order to be proved innocent, because while the lawyers were at school studying, he was in the bush fighting, and now the ICC expects him to face and challenge the professional lawyers,” said Nicholas, a resident of Gulu.

For others, the trial evoked bad memories of the suffering they underwent and that is why they were not following it.

As Lilly, a community member, said, “I am not following the Ongwen trial because it keeps on ‘pressing past wounds’ and causing me more pain when I hear about those rebels. Even if I follow his trial, it will not bring back the many people he has killed.”

“It is very surprising that people are not following this trial. I think the problem is that the trial keeps on reminding people about the tragic moments they went through,” added Richard, another community member.

Respondents cited various factors that are hindering them from following the Ongwen trial, or causing them to lose interest altogether. While many of the factors may be beyond the control of the ICC, there is, nonetheless, a need to move toward resolving others. The ICC Field Outreach in Uganda has already tried to address some of the concerns, such as information flow, by organizing public screenings of the trial in Gulu Town and in conflict-affected communities.

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.