Ending Uganda’s terror

2008-04-24 00:00

Sharing a bitter drink from a calabash is a far cry from the formalities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. This traditional reconciliation ritual known as mato oput involves truth telling, acceptance of responsibility, forgiveness and reparation; and has already been widely used as a way of bringing an end to the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda.

The architect of the region’s mayhem is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a messianic figure and one-time Catholic altar boy whose supposed ambition was to liberate the Acholi people and rule Uganda according to the Ten Commandments. He claims to have been guided by angels, but has tried to achieve his aims through terror.

One hundred thousand people have died, 80 000 (nearly half of them minors) abducted and nearly two million displaced into protected camps. The local economy has been destroyed, resulting in dependence upon food aid.

The most chilling aspect of the conflict was the use of rape and the abduction of children as weapons of war. Kony’s speciality was to force children to kill their parents so that they had no homes to which to escape. Held in effective slavery, women and children were worked to death as porters, and used as soldiers, often as decoys.

The LRA has largely run out of steam, but it may still have 2 000 fighters, the most intransigent of whom are holding out with Kony against signing a peace agreement. They are thought to be in the Central African Republic, also beset by a northern rebellion, and probably supported by Sudan as part of its regional strategy.

The ICC, originally at the request of the Ugandan government, laid 33 charges against Kony including murder, rape and sexual enslavement, kidnapping, and offences against children. A few of his lieutenants were similarly charged but one was killed in combat and another, Vincent Otti, was murdered on Kony’s orders.

The nature and scale of LRA atrocities deserve serious international attention, all the more so because they have spilled over into neighbouring countries. The continent frequently complains that the rest of the world fails to take it seriously and treats black African lives as if they are of little value. This is valid criticism as the Rwandan genocide of 1994 showed.

But Kony refuses to sign a peace deal until international charges are dropped. The Ugandan government says it will consider this after a peace agreement has been finalised.

The ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, is adamant that he will pursue Kony and that indictments for war crimes cannot be brushed aside as a bargaining chip. But many others argue that if a new approach to Kony’s case is the price for the restoration of security and stability for hundreds of thousands of northern Ugandans, perhaps it should be paid.

Mato oput may well be an appropriate way of reintegrating LRA foot soldiers into the community and burying past bitterness in the interests of social harmony. Locally, it is seen as ending a dispute between tribal brothers, many of whom were forced into a life of violence. It also has the enormous advantage of reasserting the dignity of the victims and re-empowering them. There is clear sense in the argument that a more formal, legalistic system of meting out justice could simply prolong divisions in a community that has to look to the future. But it is surely impossible to argue that the evil represented by Kony can be dealt with by a symbolic drink or other rituals such as the bending of spears.

That is why the ICC prosecutor is determined that Kony and his two surviving war crimes indictees should be arrested and tried. Some African commentators have suggested that international law creates an adversarial situation unsuited to local conditions. But this means acceptance of Africa as a special case, a place where human rights abusers can act with extreme brutality and retire with an amnesty.

International law needs to operate alongside traditional, indigenous remedies. This will send a message to reprobate governments, like that of Sudan, which cynically use killers in pursuit of their strategic aims, and to the Ugandan authorities who, some suggest, have treated ICC charges for war crimes as a political tool rather than a means of achieving justice.

South Africa had to think long and hard about appropriate restorative justice, as Uganda is now doing. If there is indeed justice in this world, the next candidate must be Zimbabwe.

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