Lessons from Ongwen’s conviction

Wednesday February 17 2021
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Dominic Ongwen in court at the ICC in The Hague last year. PHOTO | ICC

By Guest Writer

On 4 February, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted Dominic Ongwen of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and abusing child soldiers. He was a former warlord under the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The objective of this article is to put this tragic episode in a historical context so that we learn from it.

Historical context

The story goes back to Africa’s colonisation at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85. The European imperial powers sat around a table in Berlin with a map of Africa, and chopped up Africa into bits and pieces regardless of people’s ethnic and cultural identities. We all know this. 

But it is important not to forget that this left Africa with a legacy whose bitter fruits continue to sour relations between our countries. One has to go back to 1884 to understand the tense relations between Uganda and its northern neighbours to this day – nearly 150 years down the road. This is the background to the Ongwen tragedy.

Uganda fell within the imperial orbit of the British. The British used the well-known divide-and-rule strategy to conquer Uganda. For example, to put it simply, they favoured the Baganda for administrative work and the Northern “Nilotic” (mainly Acholi, Langi, and Iteso) as soldiers. 

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This has been a source of our difficulties ever since Uganda’s independence.  Obote tried to repair the imbalance by promoting the employment of people from the North in areas of the economy away from the army. But he failed. 

When the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) was in power from April 1979 to May 1980, its leadership tried to disarm the army – which was divided mainly between Obote and Museveni – and replace it with village-based self-defence militia. But Obote and Museveni joined forces to topple the UNLF government.  The December 1980 election was a fraud. Obote ‘won’ and Museveni dashed to the bush to fight Obote.

We know this.  I have briefly summarised our history from colonialism to today for two reasons:

•Without this background, it is not possible to understand the reason why Dominic Ongwen got convicted by the ICC.

•To learn lessons from our past experience in order to respond to the challenges Uganda faces today.

 Resistance greets Museveni takeover

The LRA conflict in the northern region began shortly after Museveni and the National Resistance Army (NRA) took power in January 1986. 

A large part of the officer corps of the NRA was still dominated by people from the north. Museveni wanted to change this.  He moved his troops to the north to replace the “Northern” officers with those from the West.

Not surprisingly, the “northerners” revolted.  This is the beginning of the story of the LRA.  As its name suggests, the LRA was a “resistance” movement against the Museveni government.  Alice Lakwena (the surname means ‘messenger’) of the Holy Spirit Movement launched and led the first rebellion then her cousin Kony-led took over through the LRA.

Both claimed that they were acting as “spirit mediums”, and had knowledge of how to protect their followers from bullets by covering their bodies with shea nut oil, and so they should never take cover or retreat in battle. 

In August 1987, Lakwena’s forces scored several victories on the battlefield and began a march towards Kampala, only to be decisively defeated. The self-proclaimed prophetess fled to Kenya and died in a refugee camp in January 2007.

Kony took over and fought battles mostly in the Acholi region playing on ‘Acholi nationalism’.  We will come to the issue of sub-nationalism.

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Residents of Lukodi in Gulu District listen to the verdict on Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier-turned- commander of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), on February 4. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, convicted him of war crimes and crimes against humanity. PHOTO | AFP

The LRA operated mainly in northern Uganda and made short-lived foray into Teso and Lango and the rebels often ambushed vehicles to and from West Nile. 

LRA had bases in present-day South Sudan and relocated, under UPDF firepower, into Garamba forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2005. 

It was backed by the Sudan.  Uganda, in turn, backed the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), creating a proxy war between Uganda and the Sudan. Thus, it became a regional conflict. The war extended in Uganda beyond Acholiland and spread to Lango, Teso and Karamoja sub-regions.

Karamoja is probably the richest region in Uganda. It has gold, precious stones, oil and diamonds. Global corporations ‘raid’ Karamoja for these resources, encouraged by the government and protected by the UPDF (formerly NRA). 

The UPDF is of no help to the people. On the contrary, it is itself involved in thefts of cattle and arms. (We shall not go into it here, but I have ample evidence of this).

One of the actions the UPDF took was to forcibly remove the civilians and huddle them into camps in the so-called “protected villages”. Its objective was to remove the civilians from the countryside and cut off LRA’s food supply.

War and peace

On August 26, 2006, the Uganda government and the LRA signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement at peace negotiations in Juba brokered by the government of South Sudan. 

It was to help create an environment conducive to peace talks. But it did not happen. Both sides violated the agreement.

The LRA continued military action in parts of northern Uganda. The people were caught up between the LRA and UPDF.  

The government’s economic, political and social marginalisation of the people in the north added to their insecurity and misery.

A decade down the road, the LRA was reduced from a fighting force to a small band fighting for survival. Its latest acts of violence were in 2008-2009 when it committed large-scale massacres against the Congolese population. 

In November 2011, the African Union (AU) created the Regional Co-operation Initiative (RCI) to try to eliminate the LRA with a combined force of nearly 5,000 troops. 

This was co-ordinated by Uganda (with US military backing), South Sudan, the DRC, and the Central African Republic. It had mixed success.

In early 2017, Uganda stopped military operations against the LRA. This encouraged Kony to revive it. He abducted and forced children to join him – like Ongwen was in his childhood. 

But Kony was no longer effective. Even the Sudanese Armed Forces stopped supporting him.  

He is reportedly hiding in Kafia Kingi, the enclave at South Sudan, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Ongwen took over and continued with Kony’s rapacious activities. Today he is convicted and is likely to be jailed for a long period.

I have focused on the basic essentials of a long, complex story.

Relation with Ongwen conviction

As I stated at the beginning, my objective in this paper is to put Ongwen’s trial and the conviction in a historical context so that we learn from it. Here is a quick summary of the above:

•One has to go back to 1884 - to the Empire’s division of Africa into “nations” that cut across Africa’s ethnic and cultural past.

•The British used the divide-and-rule strategy to conquer Uganda, dividing the “nation” into the Baganda for administrative work and the Northern “Nilotic” for the armed forces. 

•Obote and the UNLF failed to bridge the division of the “North” and the “South”.

•Following his takeover of Uganda in 1986, Museveni moved North to replace the “Northern” officers with those from the West.

•This was the beginning of LRA’s resistance against the centre. Kony fought battles mostly in the Acholi region playing on “Acholi nationalism”.

•This became a regional issue leading to a proxy war between Uganda and the Sudan. In Uganda this went beyond Acholiland and spread to Lango, Teso, and Karamoja. In these districts, suffering from extreme exploitation (especially the Karimojong), people raided cattle and arms from one another. The UPDF was of no help to the people.

•Intermittent peace efforts between the LRA and the the government of Uganda failed. By 2015, Kony had lost. Ongwen replaced him, and continued with his horrifying deeds, abducting and forcing children to join the LRA.

Ongwen is a tragic figure - a product of this “North versus South” historical conflict in Uganda. Whether he should have been convicted is a very complex issue into which I will not go in this paper.

Lesson learned

There is, of course, a lot to learn.  But I will focus on only one issue - that of sectarianism, which has propped its ugly head in the 2021 elections.

Sub-nationalism or Sectarianism?

Let us make one point clear. There is nothing wrong about promoting tribal and sub-national identities.  

I grew up in Karamoja as a child in mid-1940s, and so I know Karamoja better than any other region in Uganda. Pre-colonial Karamoja, unlike Buganda or Bunyoro, had no centralised state. Anthropologists call them “acephalous”. 

People lived in manyattas, in communities, not in nuclear families. Decisions were made through consensus. There were occasional feuds, but there was no spilling of blood. Spilling blood was an anathema. Matters were settled peacefully. And compensation - usually in the form of cattle - was paid to the aggrieved party.

We should take pride in our tribal or ethnic identities, and our ancient culture and civilisation. This applies not just to the Karimojong. It applies to all sub-nationals in Uganda. 

I have lived in Moroto District as a child. But the bulk of my adult life I have spent in Kampala. I have witnessed the pride the Baganda have for their culture and their unique sense of humour. And this applies to all.

Therefore, we should resist the government’s attempt to divide and rule us using the “ethnic excuse.”

The 2021 elections are over.  I have my own views on its conduct, but I’ll wait until the Supreme Court has passed its verdict.  I want to focus on the issue of sectarianism which the Supreme Court is unlikely to address.

 I begin with expressing my shock at especially three things:

•The divide-and-rule tactics used by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government just like the colonial powers did;

•The violence inflicted by the security forces on the common folk; and

•The ruling regime’s description of its opponents as maadui (enemies).

 All these have raised the spectre of sectarianism, fuelled by NRM’s defeat in Buganda, and a resurgence of Buganda sub-nationalism under NUP’s red wave.  

What is undeniable is that if our nation does not move away from sectarianism and the employment of the military to crush the maadui, demons will stalk Uganda day and night until this curse is lifted.

Way forward

This will require great effort on the part of our political leaders – not limited to those in state power.

This is a challenging question. We have an obligation to the nation to try and help cool down the media rhetoric and the discussion on sectarianism etcetera that blow ill-wind for the nation’s future.

I offer a couple of ideas on how to move forward.

•I’ll begin with the President.

I have known President Museveni for close to 50 years. I must say that he has not lived up to his own role model defined in his book Sowing the Mustard Seed. 

In it he defined imperialism as the “principal” enemy, and differences amongst us as “secondary”. In my book, Common People’s Uganda and Chapter 8 titled, The Prince of Sowing the Mustard Seed, I raise the question: Can we bring Museveni back to his ‘Princely’ past?  I hope so, but I am not sure.

•Start the national dialogue again.

Let us be clear about our condition as a neo-colony of the Euro-American Empire. The institutions of global economic governance - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - dictate the terms of engagement with them, and thus effectively control the political economy of the nation, and our government’s policies.

Dialogue

In 2018, Frederick Juuko and Sam Tindifa wrote an excellent treatise: ‘A People’s Dialogue: Political Settlements in Uganda and The Quest for a National Conference’.  The authors’ analysis is along the lines of my above statement. They write:

 “… market fundamentalism of the Washington Consensus presents an existential threat to the Ugandan state itself and opens up all issues on the future of Uganda.”

What can be more challenging than something that poses an existential threat to the Ugandan state itself? Juuko and Tindifa raise an issue that requires a systemic transformation.  I have addressed this issue in my book, Common People’s Uganda.

This essay is limited to what we can do here and now.  I suggest that we take the practical suggestions offered in A People’s Dialogue.

The idea of dialogue was backed by the government and supported by the people. In 2019 I attended a meeting on it at Makerere where the speakers (I was one of them) backed the idea enthusiastically. People offered donations from their pocket to help proceed with the dialogue. But it never took off. 

The idea just petered out into the dark clouds of coronavirus and the impending elections.  (By the way, I wonder what has happened to that money that people offered at Makerere University, as well as the money promised by the government!)

At this time, we need a national dialogue more than ever. Let us go back to the proposal by Juuko and Tindifa.  In the present climate of hostility between the Museveni’s NRM and the Opposition parties, the dialogue will not get Museveni’s backing. And yet this is what is needed. 

We need, urgently, to address the issues arising out of the 2021 elections - such as state violence and sectarianism. 

Therefore, concerned citizens - led by our elders from all the districts – might seriously consider setting up a task force to lay grounds for a Dialogue during the course of this year.

It can be done. It has to be done.

Let us pray for peace for the nation and justice for the people.

On sectarianism

I grew up in Karamoja as a child in mid-1940s, and so I know Karamoja better than any other region in Uganda. Pre-colonial Karamoja, unlike Buganda or Bunyoro, had no centralised state. Anthropologists call them “acephalous”. 

People lived in manyattas, in communities, not in nuclear families. Decisions were made through consensus. There were occasional feuds, but there was no spilling of blood. Spilling blood was an anathema. Matters were settled peacefully. And compensation - usually in the form of cattle - was paid to the aggrieved party.

We should take pride in our tribal or ethnic identities, and our ancient culture and civilisation. This applies not just to the Karimojong. It applies to all sub-nationals in Uganda. 

I have lived in Moroto District as a child. But the bulk of my adult life I have spent in Kampala. I have witnessed the pride the Baganda have for their culture and their unique sense of humour. And this applies to all.

Therefore, we should resist the government’s attempt to divide and rule us using the “ethnic excuse.”

Written by Yash Tandon

The writer is the author of the book, Common People’s Uganda.



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