Acholi Opinions of Ongwen’s Arrest

I’ve written a little bit over the last month or so about Dominic Ongwen’s arrest and the charges he faces. There are a pair of recent publications that shed light on the heated debate over his arrest and trial.

For background: Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a young boy and inducted into the rebel group, where he gradually rose in ranks to become a high-level brigade commander. As many have noted, he may be the first conscripted child soldier to be charged with conscripting children, a status that makes his case controversial.

Beyond all of this controversy, many in the Acholi community have long pushed for reconciliation rather than prosecution or military action as a means of ending the war. The radio programs I studied over the last couple of years are just one example of efforts to encourage rebels to demobilize and return home without punishment. The national Amnesty Act is another, and the mato oput traditional reconciliation ceremony is another. There have been numerous efforts at reconciliation that don’t follow the usual retributive justice model. This isn’t to say that these efforts don’t have their own set of critics – they do – but that the question of whether or not Ongwen should face trial at the ICC is complicated.

At the end of January, two pieces were published that speak to the complexity of Ongwen’s arrest on the ground in Acholiland.

First, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith group that was created in northern Uganda to address the LRA conflict, issued a press release on Ongwen’s trial which puts the rest of the world on blast:

The question we all need to ask ourselves, is, how did Ongwen Dominic, in the first place, end up in the hands of the LRA? We have been informed from the most reliable sources that Ongwen Dominic was abducted, by force, at the age of ten years old, by LRA. In this context, we believe that there was, of course, some negligence, on the part of the government of Uganda, which had failed to protect numerous unfortunate children of Northern Uganda for years. On the other hand, the LRA that abducted Ongwen Dominic at tender age, and destroyed his humanity completely, by making him to becoming a mere killing machine in its hands, should be held both accountable and responsible for all that Ongwen Dominic did during the LRA captivity all these years. We also think that the international community did not take immediate action to arrest the unbearable situation of the LRA in time. A lot of mistakes have been made even by the international community, who did not have an eye to see us, as human beings here in Northern Uganda. Instead, we have all become ‘invisible people’ in the eyes of the international community.

The press release also argues for Ongwen to undergo traditional reconciliation in Gulu instead of facing trial at the ICC. This statement includes a strong critique of the retributive justice system:

Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances, should not be punished twice, by humanity. Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances should not be taken to the Hague in the Netherthelands in Europe. As a matter of course, Ongwen Dominic should have been brought back home, in order, to go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (Reconciliation), as a cleansing mechanism to all that he went through during his time in the LRA captivity. The cultural justice system of Mato Oput is pro-life and holistic in every respect in life. Unlike the Court system in the world, it brings restoration of the broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two communities involved into violent conflict.

It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded, by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system. Surprisingly, the Court system, which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides.

A week later, the Refugee Law Project, a think tank affiliated with Makerere University, published a report on Ongwen’s trial and leading perspectives [pdf] in Gulu. It includes similar indictments of the Ugandan government for allowing LRA violence to continue unabated in the north:

Most participants argued that Ongwen is a victim and will remain so because it was the Government that failed in its responsibility to protect him, prior to his abduction. Ongwen was abducted in Gulu in 1990, at the age of 10 while on his way to school. Sheikh Musa Kilil said, “It was the responsibility of government to protect such a child, a pupil who was going to school”. Reflecting on who a victim is in the context of the LRA, a former abductee noted, “Victims in LRA conflict are all those who were abducted, those who lost their property, body parts, their lives, loved ones and others who have been forced to kill”. Another participant argued that Ongwen is a victim because; “Ongwen was abducted, destroyed and ruined. He was made a teacher of a system whose motto value is, kill to survive”

These opinions are just a few more examples of how complicated and potentially divisive this trial, which begins in August, will be.

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The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

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This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.

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