Trial Fatigue: Is the Public Still Interested in Following Ongwen’s Case?

When Dominic Ongwen’s trial started in December 2016 at the International Criminal Court (ICC), public interest in following the case was high because it was the first case involving a former high-ranking commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). However, as time went on, public interest in following the case appears to have dropped due to a number of factors. Now that Ongwen’s defense team is presenting their case, this article examines the current state of public interest in the trial.

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. With the prosecution’s presentation of evidence having concluded in April 2018, Ongwen’s defense started presenting their case in September last year.

As Ongwen’s trial progresses, many community members in northern Uganda believe that public interest in following the trial has dropped and explain why this has happened.

“I think it could be due to lack access to different media alternatives for following the trial, such [as] television, newspaper, and social media. For this reason, those who are in the rural areas may find it very difficult to follow the trial. I have personally not been following since the time when Ongwen’s witnesses went to testify,” said James Engemu, a civil society representative from Eastern Uganda.

Chris Ongom, another CSO representative supported James. “I am following the trial although I think public interest is not high. I think the challenge in my opinion is the difficulty for victims to balance between what the defense is saying and their expectations. At the early stages people were interested in knowing what they would get in terms of reparations. However, when the defense phase started, a perception grew that Ongwen can win the case. This fear was reinforced when [Jean-Pierre] Bemba from the Democratic Republic of Congo was acquitted.”

A former LRA abductee, concurred with Chris in his observation about lack of access to information. “People are interested in following the trial,” she said. “However, many do not have access to media channels, such as television and the internet. People want to know exactly what is going on and what happened. However, only people with access to information and those who can go to public viewing centers are following,” she said.

Steven, a radio presenter in Gulu Town, agreed that public interest had gone down and also blamed it on lack of access to information channels.

“I follow the trial once in a while through email updates but not as much as I used to do in the past,” Steven noted. “I think when the prosecution was presenting, people were very interested and following. I think this was due to the fact that the trial had just started and also due to the fact that there was a lot of community outreach. However, this interest has now gone down. I do not know what the ICC and other CSOs are doing to address this. People do not know where to get information. What is clear is that discussions around the trial are not as intense as they used to be.”

Jackson, a civil society representative in Gulu Town, attributed the cause of waning public interest to lack of engagement by CSOs to complement the work of the ICC in conducting outreach.

“The problem is that CSOs are not keeping the momentum of the trial strong for reasons I do not know, probably funding is a problem. However, the interest to follow the trial is there. I think also that interest in following Ongwen’s trial is being influenced by Kwoyelo’s trial, which is happening domestically. Kwoyelo’s case could be making people to lose interest in following Ongwen’s trial. This is because people always compare the two, and one of them is progressing steadily while the other [Kwolyelo] is dragging.”

Hellen Acam, a civil society representative from Eastern Uganda also agreed that public interest had been affected. Unlike other views presented above, however, she attributed the lack of interest to the defense’s approach on certain issues.

“I have been following the trial, although not on a full time basis,” said Hellen. “Public interest is not as high as it was when the prosecution was presenting evidence. This is because some of the issues being brought out by the defense, such as spirituality and witchcraft, are putting off people who do not believe in such things. Some defense witnesses, for example, were comparing Joseph Kony to being a spirit. This makes people like born again Christians feel that the trial is on the wrong track hence some people prefer not to follow it anymore.”

Many of the above opinions were solicited from people living outside the case locations of Odek, Abok, Lukodi, and Pajule where Ongwen is accused of committing crimes. However, within the case locations themselves, public interest in following the trial seems to remain high.

Geoffrey, a community member from Odek, believed that public interest was still strong.

“The public is following the defense’s case just as they did for the prosecution,” he said. “We are receiving regular updates from the ICC through community screenings. The prosecution presented, and now the defense is presenting so let us wait and see what the outcome is. The prosecution did a good job, but we do not know what the defense will bring out.”

Innocent, a community leader from Abok, Vincent from Lukodi, and Opoka from Pajule all agreed with Geoffrey and attributed it to the presence of public screenings conducted by the ICC field outreach office.

Innocent noted, “People are still interested because we have public screenings here in Abok, and they are following the defense’s side of the arguments as much as they did. The community members are following Ongwen’s defense because we are curious to know how his lawyers will respond to all the charges. Already there has been a request from Ongwen’s lawyers to dismiss some of the charges, so we want to follow the case and know what happens.”

Innocent also said that an issue of concern with the defense’s case remains the possibility that Ongwen could be acquitted. “The only issue is that people were shaken by what happened in the case of Laurent Gbagbo, which made people to fear that the scenario could recur in Ongwen’s case. However, as a leader I always tell them to be strong and to remember that the two cases are different,” he said.

“In Lukodi, people are still following the trial and are very interested because we want to hear what will happen on the side of the defense. People still come for the community screenings in large numbers because they want to get updates. This month we have a screening, and I am sure people will be there. People want to know how the defense will react,” said Vincent.

“In Pajule we had the last community screening … in December last year when a witch doctor testified. His testimony was interesting,” said Geoffrey. “So people are waiting to hear what other witnesses that Ongwen’s lawyers intend to call will say. People were also taken up by some of Krispus Ayena’s information, such as a history of the conflict in northern Uganda since 1986, and actually some people believed him. This shows how opinions change during the trial. So public interest is still high.”

As demonstrated above, the level of public interest in following Ongwen’s trial varies greatly between the case locations where Ongwen is accused of having committed crimes and the other parts of Uganda. This could probably be due to the fact that the ICC is organizing screenings in the case locations, which makes it easy for community members to follow. As the trial progresses towards conclusion, it remains unpredictable whether these mixed levels of interest will remain constant or shift.

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