Spiritualism in the Trial of Dominic Ongwen: Myth or Reality?

On September 18, 2018, defense lawyers in the case of Dominic Ongwen began presenting their case before the International Criminal Court (ICC). From the start, it was clear that the lawyers intended to rely on the aspect of spiritualism as a key tenet and strategy in the defense of Ongwen. Whether spiritualism within the LRA was myth or reality, the judges presiding over the trial are now left with no choice but to pronounce themselves on the matter.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. Among the 70 counts are charges of sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. His trial started in December 2016. Four defense witnesses have so far testified, and the next witness is scheduled to appear on October 22.

Ever since its formation in 1987, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has had strong linkages to and connotations with spiritualism. LRA leader Joseph Kony is alleged to possess spiritual powers that enabled him to exert undue influence over his subordinates and even foresee the future.

From the battlefields of northern Uganda, to the courtrooms of The Hague, spiritualism now appears to be taking center stage in the trial of Dominic Ongwen.

During an outreach event in northern Uganda in August 2018, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, remarked that Ongwen followed Kony’s orders because he believed Kony possessed spiritual powers. “Kony perfected his spiritualism so much that he was almost believed to be a God by the other rebels,” said Ayena. “He was able to know what was going to happen.”

One month later, during his opening statement on September 18, Ayena again made several references to the influence of spiritualism within the LRA. “Ongwen was gripped by the Stockholm Syndrome and he felt he owed his life to Joseph Kony,” he said. “Ongwen spent 27 years under the vicious grip of the LRA…. The chamber will need to determine whether the accused, like many of his peers, believed in Kony’s spiritualism. Did it leave him with the presence of mind to act independently … even upon attaining physical adulthood?”

Ayena’s counterpart, Charles Acheleke Taku, another of Ongwen’s defense lawyers summed it up in his opening statement when he said, “Joseph Kony’s Spirit is present in this courtroom right now.”

By successfully arguing that Ongwen was under the spiritual influence of Kony, Ongwen’s lawyers hope to convince the court that he did not know what he was doing and cannot therefore be held culpable for his crimes. The first witnesses who have appeared for the defense have all referred to spiritualism within the LRA.

On October 1, Yusuf Adek Okwonga, the first defense witness, told the court that Kony revealed to him that he was gifted in receiving visits from spirits.

After Adek’s testimony, the defense presented two witnesses who both claimed to be spirit mediums, also referred to as ajwaka in the Acholi language, with the ability to communicate with the spirit world.

Witness D-150 told the court he had three spirits he communicated with. He also told the court he treated people with herbs, some of which the spirits helped him identify. D-150 also answered questions about whether Kony was also an ajwaka and what powers spirits had. He also identified some ailments and herbal treatments for those ailments on a page of a hand-written LRA prescription book.

Harriet Adong, another defense witness, also testified about her experience as an ajwaka. She said she became one in 1987. Adong said she was in primary school when spirits started “disturbing” her to become an ajwaka. Adong said she dropped out of school because her parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees and because of the spirits. Adong said she had five spirits, and each served a different purpose. She said she treated people using herbs and at times performed exorcisms.

James Okot Ojwiya, the fourth defense witness to testify, also explained to the court Acholi terms involving reconciliation, compensation, and good and bad spirits.

The prosecution chose not to question any of the witnesses on the topic of spiritualism. In fact, the prosecution decided not to question the last three witnesses at all. It is therefore not clear how the prosecution intends to counter the defense’s arguments on spiritualism, given that more witnesses are likely to testify on the subject.

Indicators in northern Uganda however show that many former LRA abductees and community members believe in the aspect of spiritualism.

In reaction to the defense’s opening statements and reference to spiritualism, one community member said, “If Kony was my commander I would have done what he commanded. I would not have done what I wanted. Even if the ICC says that it was Ongwen’s own decision to kill people, it is wrong. He had a commander and he was obeying him. I believe that Ongwen was also chosen by a spirit and he was doing what the spirit was telling him to do.”

In a similar measure, several people in northern Uganda also continue to doubt the existence of spiritualism.

One community member said, “I feel ashamed to hear that the defense is presenting a witchdoctor as a witness,” said a councilor from Lukodi. “It is really shaming. If this matter is ruled in favor of Ongwen then the ICC is useless because for us we do not use witch doctors. What Ayena the lawyer is saying is a lie.”

Although their role has diminished tremendously in modern Acholi society, ajwaka, or spirit mediums, still play a significant role in healthcare and religious spheres in northern Uganda. Despite the absence of official statistics regarding their numbers, and the increased reliance on scientific health facilities, many people in northern Uganda still rely on spirt mediums for solutions that they consider supernatural.

In northern Uganda, hundreds of children who escaped LRA captivity and were said to be suffering from spiritual complications were reportedly rehabilitated by spiritual mediums.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda and South Sudan since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda