Friday December 11 2015

Acholi needs reconciliation commission to heal

By Alex Okello Ouma

While campaigning in Gulu Town in November, former Makerere University vice chancellor and independent presidential candidate, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, promised to institute a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate atrocities committed in northern Uganda. Despite the prevailing peace in the region, some questions continue to be asked by victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-UPDF war if those who committed crimes against them will ever be held accountable.

Unfortunately for the victims, the government of Uganda has been quiet despite several calls from the civil society and politicians that a truth and reconciliation commission be set up to investigate the violations by both the LRA and UPDF and bring perpetrators to justice. Analysts argue that the government is worried about unearthing its own crimes, committed by the UPDF. They point out that the lack of significant steps to understand and heal the past could spiral more violence and conflict in future.

The International Crisis Group has in its 2008 report, criticised the government of Uganda’s lack of commitment to the process of national reconciliation and accountability. The report pointed out that the victimisation and grievances that accumulated during the 20 years of war could only be addressed by a genuine process of reconciliation based on accountability for all crimes, including those committed by the UPDF. They argue that this will also give way for fair reparation to the victims of war.

The Acholi have a proverb that poyo too pe rweny (meaning the scars of death never heal). Memories of the war are still fresh in the minds of many people in northern Uganda. Symptoms of psychological distress and anxiety are still very common. According to David Oketayot, a former child soldier in Amuru District, “after hearing the gun shots, I became very scared, my body was trembling and I did not know what to do”, referring to the incidence where soldiers and the police fired shots in Amuru in September when residents were protesting against opening of land boundary between Adjumani District and Apaa in Amuru.

Over the years, some former LRA rebel commanders have asked for forgiveness from people within the region on various radio stations. But community reconciliation experts have warned that no genuine reconciliation can be achieved unless victims and the perpetrators come face-to-face and there is a confession. Some perpetrators have been criticised for reportedly boasting to their victims that no one could prosecute them because they obtained certificate of amnesty.

Such acts raise doubts on the meaning of the amnesty. The amnesty process has had several weaknesses; it did not, for instance, require the perpetrators to ask for forgiveness in order to get the certificate.
There has also been a false premise that all victims of the war in northern Uganda have forgiven perpetrators (both UPDF and LRA) or that they believe in traditional justice. It is important that justice options are widened to allow victim participation. The guns may be silent, victims may be smiling, but their grief and bitterness are yet to be resolved.

It is time to reopen the wounds, to start a proper healing process. Government needs to create an impartial and an independent truth and reconciliation commission to investigate all the violations by both UPDF and LRA and bring the perpetrators to meaningful justice. This may be the only way to achieve sustainable reconciliation and meaningful transition in northern Uganda.

Mr Ouma has interest in peace and justice.