Northern Uganda is Ready to Accept and Forgive Ongwen, Says Acholi Prime Minister

The trial of Dominic Ongwen, currently ongoing before the International Criminal Court (ICC), has generated debate regarding whether or not it is the best path to pursue justice for crimes committed during the conflict in northern Uganda. In this interview, conducted by Lino Owor Ogora on behalf of International Justice Monitor, Mr. Ambrose Oola, the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi (KKA), offers his perspectives on the trial. While Oola recognizes the ICC as a highly reputable organization and finds that Ongwen’s trial has been handled efficiently, he also notes that the definition of justice by the ICC differs from Acholi traditional culture.

Ongwen is a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former IDP camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. His trial, which began in 2016, is now in advanced stages, with the defense likely to conclude its presentation of evidence in December 2019.

Below are Oola’s perspectives on Ongwen’s trial.

Lino Owor Ogora (LO): In your opinion,how has Ongwen’s trial has gone so far? What has gone well and what are the shortfalls?

Ambrose Oola (AO): The ICC as an institution consists of highly regarded personalities, systems, and procedures, and they meticulously follow all the steps that are required. Therefore, I do not think they want to leave any loopholes that can undermine the credibility of the ICC itself. Watching and listening to how the trial has been proceeding, I think the trial has gone well, and they [the judges] have granted every opportunity for both sides to present their case. That is very important; that every side is being offered an equal chance. However, that does not mean it will finally translate into justice because the definition of justice to different societies of people is different.

LO: Based on your last comment, do you therefore believe Ongwen’s trial will be perceived as justice in northern Uganda?

AO: The mode of accountability you see in the ICC is alien to us [the Acholi people]. We cannot say because it has gone through the ICC, then it is a form of justice for us. The Acholi do not understand justice that way, and that is why I am saying it many not translate into an understanding of justice to the people. At the moment you may think people are enthusiastic about the trial, but there are a number of other factors that are making them to respond the way they are responding. One of them is that they anticipate some benefits at the end of the trial.

LO: What else is required for justice in northern Uganda in addition to Ongwen’s trial?

AO: Ongwen is one person. Northern Uganda has dealt with over 20,000 LRA ex-combatants, and in the category of Ongwen, there may have been maybe 15 or 20 such individuals. All these individuals have returned to the community, and they are productive. The element of stigmatization is minimal, and nobody even remembers what they did while in the LRA. People know they committed these atrocities, but life must move on. It is very difficult to attribute the bigger problem of justice for crimes committed by the LRA on prosecuting one individual like Ongwen. And, by the way, Ongwen is already far back in the minds of the people.

LO: You seem to imply that Ongwen is only a small fish in the pond. Who do you think should be prosecuted in his place?

AO: The functioning of trials at the ICC is guided by the provisions of the Rome Statute. Whether it solves our need for justice or not, it is more a question of prosecuting the crimes that were committed. It aims to justify the relevance of the Rome Statute.

LO: The aspect of spirituality has come out strongly during the trial. Do you think this is something that must be taken into consideration by the judges?

AO: The war has always had a spiritual dimension, and that is the way that we who have worked in this context will always understand it. Everybody who has related to the aspect of the conflict knows that there was a spiritual dimension. Not just because Joseph Kony claimed to have spiritual powers, but because there was actually a spiritual dimension. And we should remember that in Africa and in many traditional societies of Africa, you cannot execute war without a spiritual dimension. For the LRA, the spiritual dimension was mixed between tradition, Christian dimension, and Islamic fundamentalism. You cannot talk about the LRA war without referring to the spiritual elements of that conflict.

LO: So do you think spirituality is a strong element of Ongwen’s defense?

AO: Yes. You need to study the societal construction of the Acholi where we are all held together in a divine code to an extent that certain things that will happen to us or that we are compelled to do are out of our power and authority. There are people on whom certain spiritual elements are bestowed. That was the case for Kony and Alice Lakwena.

LO: Closely linked to the aspect of spirituality is the question of Ongwen’s mental status, which has also been a subject of debate. What is your comment on this?

AO: I have not studied any report on Ongwen’s mental state. However, people like Ongwen went through a lot of experiences that had extreme impact on their mental faculties. We have worked with so many people who went through trauma. When you have gone through what Ongwen did and you are compelled to do the things he did, you cease to function mentally as a human being. Secondly, Ongwen did not go through all the processes of normal cognitive growth, so that compromises further his mental state. When we ask whether he acted normally or not, given all the compounding factors, I would not say he was normal.

LO: What would you recommend for handling complex people like Ongwen who bear dual victim-perpetrator status?

AO: It is not me [to] say. It is a long, drawn out tradition in Acholi that there are processes and practices to deal with such individuals. We have dealt with such scenarios before, and not in small numbers, but in big numbers. So these processes and practices of rehabilitating people like Ongwen exist, and they continue to work to this day at different levels. I do not think Ongwen’s case is difficult.

LO: Ongwen may one day return to his community either through acquittal or after having served his sentence. What plans does KKA have to reintegrate him?

AO: Just like we have done in many communities and just like every community has processes to handle individuals like Ongwen, there [are] things that need to be done. There are rituals that need to be performed. In addition, there are many social adjustments that Ongwen will require and several other questions, like where he will live and what his entitlements within the community are. All these questions will need to be answered and negotiated. KKA can play a very important role in negotiating his reentry into the community using the traditional understanding of how relationships are constructed and built. We can also work with other organizations and [the] government to see what he needs.

LO: Do you think the community on northern Uganda will accept and forgive Ongwen?

AO: The community has accepted worse people than Ongwen. Even Joseph Kony, if he returned, would have to be accommodated. So there is no way people will reject Ongwen. If they throw him out, it will be because of a new norm that people have taken on and a new understanding that has been created in people. But it is not in Acholi culture to reject people of that nature.

LO: Do you have any other comments regarding Ongwen’s trial?

AO: Regardless of my comments above, we are not saying the ICC is irrelevant. My comments above are specific to the Acholi, so my comments may not apply in many other places in the world where there are fundamentally different societies. The ICC can solve problems in many other parts of the world. 

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