‘Maj Gen’ Ongwen: Unmasking the LRA victim turned monster

Sunday January 11 2015

Maj Gen Dominic Ongwen (Insert) and LRA rebels

Maj Gen Dominic Ongwen (L) and LRA rebels in their camp DR Congo. FILE PHOTO  


The world wanted him so badly. He gave himself up unexpectedly. Now, his hunters are back to the drawing board on what they should do with him.
One thing is certain though; Dominic Ongwen’s career as a senior Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, and as one of Africa’s most wanted war criminals is almost over. Details of his surrender are still scanty but for some reason, right now, that is immaterial.

The focus is on the bigger picture - Justice- for which he was even indicted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) in July 2005 on seven counts of crimes against humanity. The US president Barack Obama administration had also placed a Shs13 billion ($5 million) bounty on his head for information leading to his arrest, transfer or conviction.

The LRA’s rap sheet is very dark and stained, for which, Ongwen is undeniably answerable. An estimated death toll of 100,000 people, more than 20,000 children abducted and close to two million displaced.

How will justice be served? The answer to the question might take a little longer. May be yes. May be not. But the public court of opinion is divided; one group wants him tried at home, another wants him forwarded to The Hague.

Any decision will definitely stir debate or rather crack open another Pandora’s box of politicking–at home, where he is both a son, victim and culprit and on the international stage where his picture is painted that of a monster wanted for seven graver counts of crimes against humanity.

Born in 1980 to two school teachers, Alexy Acayo and Ronald Owiya, in Paibona village, Awach Sub-county in Gulu District, the fourth born of eight children was aged six when the insurrection in northern Uganda exploded, and at 10 years old he was abducted on his way from school in 1990.


In captivity, he was placed under the mentorship of Vincent Otti, a senior LRA commander at the time, who coached him in terror. From a feeble, innocent and horrified looking juvenile, like many who were conscripted, evolved a man of steel who rose through the ranks; at 14, he moved to Sudan where he oversaw field operations, went for training in Khartoum.

At 18, he was Major in rank and by early 20s, he was a Brigadier, and one of the leaders of the LRA units in charge of military strategy.

The defection
He was a ‘Brigadier’ at the time of defection. Available information indicates he slipped into the hands of the Seleka rebel outfit in the Central African Republic (CAR) who forwarded him to the American troops fighting alongside the Uganda army to down the LRA to the last man.

Ongwen is said to have commanded the Sinia brigade unit that conducted numerous attack missions in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2004.

According to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a campaign group of two NGOs -- Invisible Children and Resolve -- which monitor the rebel group’s activities in CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda, Ongwen had developed a bond with Otti, his devotee and was the only commander who pleaded with Kony to spare his [Otti’s] life, a move that weakened his influence within the LRA.

Kony ordered for the elimination of Otti, his closest deputy in 2007.

The website adds that Kony actually spared Ongwen from the subsequent purge of Otti proponents due to determination and skills, especially the aptitude to lead troops on daring missions.
This tenacity, could explain why he was among the five top brass that were indicted by the ICC. Uganda had, after Parliament ratified the Rome Statute establishing the court in 2002, made referral of the group in 2003.

Others were Otti himself, Kony, Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odhiambo. The referral was also the first in the court’s history.

The court has jurisdiction over four major international crimes; war crimes, genocide, aggression and crimes against humanity.
So, he become the first LRA commander indicted to be netted.

In October 2005, after one of the fierce combats, the UPDF reported him dead, a claim that was acquiesced by other LRA commanders after they failed to locate his whereabouts. A genetic fingerprinting of the body collected and cross examined with DNA of his known relatives did not match, an indication that Ongwen was still alive.

Reports filtered in quickly that he was hiding somewhere in the Equatorial Province, present day South Sudan, attempting to regroup with the large force commanded by Kony in the Garamba Province in DRC.

The elimination of his ‘godfather’ Otti dispirited him. The LRA crisis tracker further notes that Ongwen was not only opposed to the deed, he had also stated publicly during the “Juba negotiations that he would kill Kony if the LRA boss failed to secure favourable provisions for his commanders and fighters during the negotiations.

The negotiations collapsed between 2006 and 2007and they moved backwards to DRC. Ongwen was among the LRA commanders who met with the UPDF.

After a few months of lull, he picked up the pieces in 2008 and in June he led a raid on a South Sudanese military garrison in Nabanga in which several rebels died. As a result, he refused to join other senior LRA commanders in CAR for most of 2009 and 2010, despite being frequently ordered to do so by Kony.
The website adds that in May 2009, Kony received reports that Ongwen was communicating with Ugandan officials with the intention of surrendering alongside his 60 fighters.

Kony sent a large force of loyal troops to intercept Ongwen’s group, which at that time operated alongside the Duru River in DRC, while frequently crossing into South Sudan to raid civilians.

“They split up Ongwen’s group and replaced key members with fighters from Kony’s loyalist Central Brigade. Kony reportedly also demoted Ongwen and gave Lt Col Binany command of LRA forces in Congo, though Ongwen remained an influential commander,” reports Invisible Children’s website.

Despite all the reported insubordination – which would have likely resulted in execution for any other commander – Kony persisted in trying to convince Ongwen to join him in CAR.

By the summer of 2011, Ongwen’s force had reportedly dwindled to half a dozen fighters operating between DRC and South Sudan along the Duru River, and he was eventually brought to see Kony in CAR.

Kony demoted him on the spot and threatened to have him executed. In August 2012, Ongwen reportedly crossed the Chinko River and moved further north into CAR. Due to this long history of disharmony, Kony feared that he would detect.

A month later, the UPDF reported attacking Ongwen’s group southwest of the CAR town of Djemah, and in 2013 defectors indicated he may have been promoted back to senior leadership.

Ongwen loosely means a “person born in the time of white ants.” Little was heard of him or his top boss in 2014, except the occasional attacks in civilian villages in CAR and DRC and stealing food supplies and medicine, and sometimes near the UPDF/US bases. But just like a white ant, there he appeared, and bam-into custody.

A spokesperson of the US state department said a man claiming to be Ongwen had introduced himself as a senior LRA commander to the American troops when he defected. The UPDF gained access to and positively identified him as the man, one of them they were looking for.

But the status quo is messy; he was abducted, as many other children were, and was trained to dispense horror. Yet there are many laws that would protect him if he were under 18, right now he cannot be seen as a victim. Will the justice system draw a line in his life as victim and as a culprit?

“What happens next to Ongwen is not a political calculation. It is about due process of law and previously-agreed to obligations,” says Maria Burnett, of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“The best way forward for both the LRA’s victims and for him is to be transferred to The Hague. With legal assistance, he can understand his legal situation and lawyers can begin to work on the best strategies for his defence, especially how to address his status as a former child abductee.”

A trial at the ICC, despite Uganda’s relationship with the court, would certainly yield sustainable peace for the victims. President Museveni, once a proponent of international justice, now claims the court is undermining African states and has referred to it as a “tool to target” the continent, specifically by Western nations.

He has in fact, while speaking last year during Kenya’s independence celebrations, promised to lead a mass exodus of African states from the Rome Statute and create an African Union Court to handle such matters.

Uganda in 2010 similarly invoked the statute that allowed the establishment of a local court- the International Crimes Division of the High Court to try the ICC-kind of suspects. A few LRA returnees (not wanted by ICC) such as Thomas Kwoyelo and Caesar Acellam have been tried here before.

And indeed the trial of Ongwen in Uganda would be a victory for Mr Museveni to show the world that ICC matters less-or with or without it justice can still be served to wanted criminals.

But Ms Burnett avers that: “Transferring Ongwen to the ICC now doesn’t make a domestic trial impossible, but it’s the correct procedure given Uganda requested the ICC to come and investigate crimes in northern Uganda years ago and the ICC issued warrants.

If Ugandan authorities believe they can now hold a fair trial, they have the ability to present evidence of that before ICC judges for a determination.”

The Hague trial would be symbolic for the court. Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensounda has said before that investigations in atrocities in northern Uganda are ongoing and therefore putting Ongwen to the stand would be a milestone.

The big question is on whether Uganda would hand him over to The Hague or not.

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) law professor, Richard Steinberg, argues that: “it is not clear that justice would be done by trying Ongwen in Uganda only, instead of the international venue.”

Uganda’s Foreign Affairs permanent secretary James Mugume says consultations with the court are ongoing. He said: “Our legal team will have consultative mechanisms with parties concerned and decide.

But we also have duly constituted courts that can try him.”
But in any case, Uganda is not willing to do so; Ongwen is currently in the hands of the US army. So where is the US willing to deliver him?

The public affairs officer at the US embassy Daniel Travis said talks are ongoing with the African Union’s Regional Counter-LRA Task Force (AU-RTF) on the next course of action, and the common goal of all parties currently is to seek justice, so “it would be irresponsible to prematurely speculate about the outcome of these discussions”.

But Ongwen himself could find the trial at home uncomfortable.

Former CNDP rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda grew apprehensive that the future would be rather muddy if he were to ever be caught in the Congo jungles and justice for him served in Kinshasa.

In an unlikely fashion, knowing that ICC wanted him, he walked to the US embassy in Kigali and asked to be “transferred” to The Hague. That may not happen for Ongwen!

But Prof Steinberg says, it is also “difficult to predict what the US government will do with Ongwen. Several factors will go into that decision, including US legal limitations on cooperating with the ICC; the resolution of internal US political tension between human rights groups and conservatives who oppose the ICC; the extent to which the US believes there is dependable rule of law (instead of politics operating) in the Ugandan judicial system; and the overall state of US-Uganda relations”.

Whatever the outcomes will be from the ongoing deliberations, for now, the erstwhile LRA commander will serve as an intelligence mine on Kony’s whereabouts.


Abducted by gunmen as a 10-year-old boy on his way to school, Dominic Ongwen rose to become one of the most feared commanders of the LRA.

Ongwen, now in his mid-30s, surrendered this week in Central African Republic to US special forces, and may face trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The son of school teachers, he was abducted as a child before being forced into the rebel army and becoming a willing perpetrator of violence.

He then rose swiftly through the LRA’s ranks, quickly being singled out for his murderous loyalty and tactical ability and taking command of one of the LRA’s four brigades.

Ongwen led quick and lethal raids -- carrying out massacres, rapes, mutilations and abductions -- before disappearing into the bush.

Ongwen’s men -- with trademark dreadlocks, mismatched uniforms and AK-47 rifles fitted with bayonets -- carried out thousands of abductions of children. Boys were taken to be soldiers or porters, girls were taken as sex slaves.

They also excelled in punishment raids where they would slice the lips and ears off victims as a grim calling card.

Under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony, the LRA is accused of kidnapping tens of thousands of children during its nearly three-decade long insurgency.