Ongwen’s Trial Continues to Generate Debate on the Causes and Effects of the Northern Uganda Conflict

The root causes of the northern Uganda conflict, including atrocities committed by the parties involved, has long been a subject of intense debate in Uganda. As a result, many pundits have in the past called for an official inquiry into the past to establish the facts behind the conflict. With the start of the defense’s case on September 18, 2018, the trial of Dominic Ongwen before the International Criminal Court (ICC) now seems to be achieving this objective by exploring the history of the northern Uganda conflict and atrocities committed by Ugandan government soldiers. While this history sounds fascinating, many also question its relevance to Ongwen’s defense.

Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander 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. Ongwen’s trial before the ICC started in December 2016. The prosecution called 69 witnesses who testified over 142 days through May 2018. On September 18, 2018, Ongwen’s defense lawyers began presenting their case.

During the prosecution’s presentation of their case, discussions on the root causes of the northern Uganda conflict and atrocities committed by Ugandan government soldiers did not feature strongly. In fact, one key prosecution witness, the Director of Legal Services at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence in Uganda, Lieutenant Colonel Kanyogonya, went as far as denying knowledge of allegations of these atrocities, a factor that drew strong reactions from the public in northern Uganda.

But with the defense now having an opportunity to present their side of the story, the debate around the root causes of the conflict in northern Uganda—and atrocities allegedly committed by Ugandan government forces—is being revisited.

In his opening statements on September 18, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead defense lawyer, dwelled on the subject, and played several video clips in which prominent Ugandan officials such as General David Sejusa and Dr. Kizza Besigye blamed the Ugandan government for the two decades insurgency in northern Uganda. Both had previously served in the National Resistance Army (NRA) and gave harrowing testimonies of how Ugandan government soldiers allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity while flushing out the LRA.

Although it was not the first time that war crimes in Uganda were discussed in a public forum, the fact that the information was revealed in the context of a trial of a former LRA fighter drew the attention of the public in Uganda, as seen by the reactions that followed.

Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu District chairperson, issued a press statement calling for an apology from the two top army officials whose videos were played during the defense’s opening statements. His call for an apology was in line with what he described as “confession” made by the concerned officials.

“What they stated were clear testimonies of the atrocities committed by the NRA soldiers against the people of northern Uganda,” said Mapenduzi while addressing the press in Gulu Town. “These testimonies should kick-start the process of truth telling and national reconciliation for the good of the country,” Mapenduzi added.

The defense has also guided the testimonies of its first witnesses towards exploring the subject in detail, thereby fueling the debate.

On his first day of testimony, the defense’s first witness, Yusuf Adek Okwonga, testified about the background to the conflict, explaining that many Acholi in northern Uganda “went to the bush” because they were angry at being mistreated by the Ugandan army. He also narrated in detail various atrocities committed by the Ugandan army. On the second day of his testimony, Adek testified about the creation of IDP camps in northern Uganda, and key turning points in the conflict such as Operation Iron Fist.

Subsequent witnesses such as James Acama, a former primary school teacher, and Nathan Emory, a former officer in the Uganda People Front/Army (UPF/UPA), also testified about the formation of the Holy Spirit Movement [now LRA] and crimes committed by the Ugandan Army.

As the trial moves forward, the subject continues to come up in public discussions in Uganda. At a community outreach held in Gulu town on October 29, 2018, community members expressed more opinions in this regard.

“Community members feel there are some parties to the LRA conflict being left out of the justice process” said Geoffrey Okello, a civil society representative. “Therefore, for justice to be realized in Uganda, some government officials should be held accountable for what they did,” Okello added.

At the same forum, another civil society representative called Ocaka Michael asked, “Who killed who during the LRA conflict? When you speak to members in the community, a section of them allege that some government troops were involved in committing some of the crimes that Ongwen is being charged with. In my opinion, a truth and reconciliation commission is of utmost importance in a country grappling with its dark past.”

However, the question remains pending on what the defense hopes to achieve by dwelling on the subject, and more importantly, whether the information will be useful in the acquittal of Ongwen.

Komakech Henry Kilama, a legal practitioner in northern Uganda, thinks it could be relevant.

“From a legal point of view, they are trying to show that the ICC was biased in not charging the UPDF. They are also trying to demonstrate that some of the crimes were committed by the UPDF and blamed on the LRA. It might be relevant for Ongwen’s case,” he said.

For Mapenduzi, it is all boils down to the question of an incomplete story in the narrative about northern Uganda

“The information which is coming out is vital because there has been total silence,” he said. “Actually, there has been deliberate silence to cover up whatever atrocities that were committed against the people of northern Uganda. The true story of northern Uganda has to be told and someday people will have to account for their actions. I do not want to talk about the relevance because for me I think they are just trying to tell their complete story. I only wait to see how it is connected to Ongwen’s situation.”

The prosecution has thus far chosen not to cross-examine the defense witnesses on this topic, a factor that leaves room for more speculation on where it is all leading. That, however, remains a question to be answered as the trial progresses.

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 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.