The politics of the struggle to resolve the conflict in uganda: westerners pushing their legal approach versus ugandans insisting on their mato oput.

Author:Bangura, Abdul Karim


After combing through many different definitions of politics, ranging from the simple to the complex, and varying from the profound to the obvious, James Barnes, Marshall Carter and Max Skidmore assert that "the key idea that underlies them all is that politics somehow involves the fundamental values of a community.... In ranking their values, people establish priorities for action" (1984:4). Thus, as can be gleaned from the title of this essay, the purpose here is to examine the competing values proffered by Westerners and Ugandans in the struggle to resolve the conflict in Uganda.

On March 12, 2008, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni rejected the call for a Hague trial of the top three surviving Lord Resistance Army (LRA) officials who face prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The LRA insists that the war crimes indictments be lifted before signing a peace agreement to end the 22-year rebellion in northern Uganda that has left thousands dead and nearly two million displaced. Government and LRA representatives have been engaged in peace talks for the past 18 months in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Fearing arrest, LRA leader Joseph Kony has sent his representatives to the talks and refused to attend them himself. He remains in a forest hideout in the remote north-east section of the Democratic Republic of Congo ( 7921274.stm).

Museveni stated in London that local leaders had asked for indigenous justice (Mato Oput) to be applied, rather than a trial at the ICC in The Hague. As he put it, "What we have agreed with our people is that they should face traditional justice, which is more compensatory than a retributive system." He then asked: "If that's what the community wants, then why would we insist" on a trial in The Hague? ( africa/7921274.stm).

The Ugandan president does not have the power to make the ICC withdraw the arrest warrants, although they were issued at his request before peace negotiations began. LRA officials are currently at The Hague trying to get the warrants lifted. But as of this writing, the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has refused to meet the LRA representatives and said that the indictments will remain in place. In 2005, the ICC charged five LRA commanders, including Kony, with war crimes and crimes against humanity; two of the commanders have since been killed. Museveni's decision puts the ICC in an awkward position, for if it decides to drop the arrest warrants it could be accused of bowing to political pressure ( Nonetheless, since the ICC has no plans or the means to wage war against the LRA and capture their leaders and fighters, something the Ugandan government has not been able to do in 22 years, the ICC's insistence on its legal approach appears reckless and might encourage renewed hostilities in Uganda. MorenoOcampo's refusal to meet with LRA officials and insistence that the indictments remain can be interpreted as the actions of someone who only cares about safeguarding his job.

But even before Museveni's recent statement on The Hague alternative, on May 30, 2007, the Ugandan government urged donors and human rights groups to accept traditional clan-based justice systems as an alternative to jail sentences for dealing with rebel war crimes. After two decades of a bloody civil war, the government and the LRA are engaged in peace talks aimed at ending the bloodshed. LRA members said that they will not sign any deal unless the ICC drops indictments against their four top commanders at the time. That prompted government officials to suggest reconciliation rituals as an alternative. The head of the government's peace team, Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, told journalists that he wants critics to take the proposal more seriously. As he put it, "Our traditions have sustained our societies for centuries. Instead of abandoning them ... and jumping into Western solutions, Uganda may decide to stick with our traditions," adding that traditional approaches had "resolved conflicts in the past" (Cocks 2007).

Traditional leaders from the LRA's Acholi ethnic group--who have been the main victims of attacks by both the government and LRA troops, including the abduction of their children as recruits--want LRA leader Kony and his fighters to undergo Mato Oput justice. The ritual involves a murderer facing relatives of the victim and admitting his crime before the murderer and the relatives drink a bitter brew made from a tree root mixed with sheep's blood. But human rights groups are not convinced that this traditional approach is adequate.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), for instance, said that any alternative to the Hague-based ICC would have to reflect the gravity of the crimes committed by the LRA. In the words of the HRW, "Fair and credible prosecutions with appropriate penalties will tell would-be perpetrators that no one is above the law," warning that only hefty prison sentences would achieve this (Cocks 2007).

Many Ugandans in the war-torn north who are weary of a conflict that has killed thousands of their family members and forced two million of them into miserable camps, however, see the ICC as an obstacle to peace. In response, the ICC insists that it is being made a scapegoat. But according to Uganda's Foreign Affairs Minister, Oryem Okello, "The most important thing is the acceptance of the justice system by the victims," adding that "Most Acholis want Kony to be forgiven after going through Mato Oput" (Cocks 2007).

In light of this stalemate, the major question that emerges and addressed in this essay is the following: Is there evidence to support the insistence by Ugandans that Mato Oput, and not the Western legal approach, will lead to lasting peace in their country? To answer this question, the rest of this essay is divided into two major sections. The first section examines lessons from a Western and an African approach that have been used to resolve conflicts in Uganda. The second section discusses examples of successful African approaches used elsewhere on the continent to resolve very bloody and long-lasting conflicts. In the end, conclusion is drawn.

Lessons from a Western and an African Approach Used in Uganda

As I have written elsewhere (Bangura 2007:60), a principal argument of the Western legal approach is that it will deter would be perpetrators of crime. But what is the evidence of this? Although proponents of this approach have offered convincing arguments for their position, there does not appear to be any decrease in crimes where the approach is used. It seems, then, that the fear of legal consequences fails to act as a powerful deterrent of crime. Why? There appear to be two main reasons. The first reason is that most crimes are rarely premeditated. In cases where crime is premeditated, the offenders obviously do not expect to get caught or punished. The second reason the approach often fails to deter crime is that, as presently applied, punishments are less swift or less certain (the very expensive, inefficient and divisive international tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone are examples). And many times, the victims themselves do not pursue legal recourse for economic, social, or cultural reasons. Decisions via the legal approach, then, are not really about deterrence; they are about retribution--about society's revenge on a person who is caught engaging in crime.

As Bethuel Kiplagat (n.d.) narrates the story, he had the privilege in 1985 of being directly involved in the Ugandan Peace Talks between the military government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni, now President of Uganda. When Milton Obote won Uganda's 1984 national elections, Museveni rejected the results and went to the bush and launched a rebellion against the central government. After the overthrow of Obote by Generals Tito Okello and Basilio Okello, the rebellion spread to the western and central regions and significantly weakened the central authority. The warring parties were ready to talk.

The Ugandan peace talks were started in mid-1985. They lasted for four months, resulting in the signing of a peace accord. Kenya handled the mediation. The parties chose their representatives of their negotiation teams. The negotiations were conducted in secret, and participation was restricted only to invited persons. The talks turned into a bargaining session where each party made every effort to score points. After four frustrating months, participants came out with an agreement signed in the glare of the press and the public. After meeting with Museveni's commanders and explaining the agreement to them, however, Kiplagat realized that their intention was not to accept it (Kiplagat n.d.).

The agreement was never implemented, as Museveni and his men continued their offensive and finally overthrew the Okellos, seizing power on January 26, 1986. After that, rebellions sprung up in the west, the northwest and the north. As Kiplagat laments, the method used had no traditional input or binding force. Thus, he concludes that perhaps, certain styles of mediation could be alien and therefore ineffective in Africa (Kiplagat n.d.).

The Karamoja peace initiative of 1996, on the other hand, was predicated on an indigenous conflict resolution approach. As Michael Quam tells the story, Karomoja is a 27,200 square kilometer area of semi-arid savannah, bush and mountains in the northeastern part of Uganda. Karamoja was a single district from 1911 to 1971; but in 1971, it was divided into two administrative districts--Northern Karamoja and Southern Karamoja, later renamed Kotido District and Moroto District, respectively. As a semi-arid area, it may get short rains during April and a longer rainy season from July to early September. This pattern, however, is not reliable; and in many years, the rains have been sparse...

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