The Acholi Traditional Approach to Justice and the War in Northern Uganda

Patrick Tom

August, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


Northern Uganda has experienced armed conflict for nearly two decades. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) under the leadership of Joseph Kony has waged a war against Yoweri Museveni's government. The LRA has been targeting civilians, the majority being their own tribe, the Acholi. The government of Uganda has responded to the conflict by adopting both military and general amnesty strategies. The strategies have not been effective in ending the war. The government of Uganda has referred the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has issued warrants of arrest for Joseph Kony and other four high-ranking LRA commanders accused of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

However, the ICC referral has sparked considerable controversy in Uganda. On the one hand, there are those who argue that Western justice will have a negative impact on the peace process in Northern Uganda. These people prefer traditional justice to the ICC. On the other hand, there are those who view Western justice as a means to ending the war in Northern Uganda. This essay examines this dispute.

More specifically, the aim of this essay is threefold: one, to discuss the nature and impact of the war on civilians in Northern Uganda; two, to examine how the Acholi traditional approach to forgiveness and reconciliation works, and three, to examine whether such an approach works in an extreme situation like the one in Northern Uganda where International Humanitarian Law has been violated. The thesis of the paper is that the Acholi traditional justice and Western justice should not be treated as incompatible, but should be seen as complementing each other.

The Impact of the War in Northern Uganda on Civilians

The underlying cause of the Northern Uganda insurgency can be explained as an attempt by the LRA to regain the political power that Northern Uganda lost after Museveni overthrew the Northern Uganda-led government in 1986. (That government had overthrown Milton Obote in 1985.) Both the Ugandan army and the LRA have been accused of committing egregious human rights violations and also violating international humanitarian law. In Northern Uganda the war has been characterized by great brutality, carried out by the LRA.[1] The severely affected people are the Acholi from Kitgum, Gulu and Pader. The abuses by the LRA include cutting off hands, breasts, lips or ears of individuals perceived to be sympathetic to the government of Uganda, abduction of civilians, including children, and forcing children to be soldiers or sexual slaves for the LRA commanders. The United Nations estimates that over 1.6 million Ugandans have been forced to flee to camps where they live under squalid and overcrowded conditions and about 30,000 children have been abducted.[2] Human Rights Watch points out that, "A Ugandan peace effort, spearheaded by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), has not yet broken through the parties' desire for a military solution."[3]

In March 2002, the Ugandan army launched what it called "Operation Iron Fist," aimed at wiping out the LRA by attacking its bases in Sudan.[4] Although the government of Uganda claimed victory, since Kony no longer has "permanent bases in the area of Southern Sudan near the Ugandan border, from where he can launch attacks onto the territory of Uganda,"[5] the offensive resulted in intolerable suffering to civilians in Northern Uganda. The LRA, which evaded the Ugandan army in Sudan, "moved back into Uganda in June 2002, where it has stepped up its abduction, killing, looting, and destruction aimed at civilians and their property."[6] On the other hand, the Ugandan army responded with "massive forced displacement and increased arrests."[7] This effort by the Ugandan government to bring an end to the war through military means has proved futile, since the war has continued unabated. The government of Uganda has at the same time, declared a general amnesty, even though the conflict has not yet ended. In December 2003, President Yoweri Museveni referred the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four other top commanders of the LRA (Raska Lukwiya, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen) who are accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Uganda since July 2002.[8] This has sparked considerable controversy in Uganda.

International human rights organizations have viewed the indictment as the right move to end impunity in the region. However, the influential Acholi traditional leaders have opposed the indictment of the four LRA top commanders, since they fear that this will prolong the war. This raises the question of the merits of seeking justice in a society where peace still does not exist. Should Uganda rely on methods of traditional justice, rather than international criminal trials? The Acholi traditional leaders have advocated traditional justice that is based on restorative principles. Pham et al and other critics have argued that, "The Acholi people should be allowed to respond to the legacy of past atrocities in their own way and employ means that resonate and accord with local traditions."[9] Can the Acholi traditional justice deal with crimes that involve the violation of International Humanitarian Law?

The Acholi Traditional Approach to Forgiveness and Reconciliation

We have to understand our culture and know what kind of people we are. Are we the kind that are willing to accept other people's mistakes without pointing fingers? Are we the kind of people who can confess truthfully and forgive wholeheartedly?[10]

Afako notes that, "Acholi traditions embody the principles and practices which have been central to the support for reconciliation and amnesty within that community."[11] Forgiveness and reconciliation are said to be at the center of the traditional Acholi culture. Traditionally, the Acholi believe in the world of the "living-dead" and divine spirits. Their belief in this world plays a significant role in shaping how they see justice and reconciliation. The Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Gulu District NGO Forum point out that, "Jok (Gods or divine spirits) and ancestors guide the Acholi moral order, and when a wrong is committed, they send misfortune and illness (cen) until appropriate actions are taken by Elders and the offender."[12] As a result, the Acholi discourage an individual from being a troublemaker since the individual's actions can have grave consequences for his/her whole clan. This "phenomenon of cen illustrates the centrality of relationships between the natural and the supernatural worlds in Acholi, the living and the dead, the normative continuity between an individual and the community."[13] The "living-dead" play an active role and have a lot of influence in the world of the living.

The traditional Acholi culture views justice as means of restoring social relations. In other words, justice in the traditional Acholi culture should be considered as restorative. Paramount Chief Rwot David Onen Acana II pointed out that, "The wounds of war will be healed if the Acholi practice their traditional guiding principles."[14] He pointed out the following as the guiding principles: "Do not be a trouble maker," "Respect," "Sincerity," "Do not steal," "Reconciliation and harmony," "Forgiveness," "Problem solving through discussion," and "Children, women, and the disabled are not to be harmed in war."[15] Most of the principles emphasize the need to live in harmony with others and restoring social relations. This shows that traditionally, the Acholi are a peace-loving people. The Acholi traditional culture encourages individuals to accept their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. It is important to note that an individual does this voluntarily. Individuals are encouraged to forgive and not to seek revenge. One of the mechanisms for forgiveness and reconciliation among the Acholi is the Mato Oput (drinking the bitter herb).

Mato Oput is both a process and ritual ceremony that aims at restoring relationships between clans that would have been affected by either an intentional murder or accidental killing.[16] It helps to bring together the two conflicting parties with the aim of promoting forgiveness and restoration, rather than revenge. The Acholi conduct the Mato Oput ceremony because they believe that after the ceremony the "hearts of the offender and the offended will be free from holding any grudge between them."[17] The Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Gulu District NGO Forum point out that, the Mato Oput ceremony itself has 'various forms across different clans.' However, the common characteristics include, the slaughtering of a sheep (provided by the offender) and a goat (provided by the victim's relatives), the two animals are cut into halves and then exchanged by the two clans, and "the drinking of the bitter herb Oput by both clans to 'wash away bitterness."[18] The drinking of the bitter herb means that the two conflicting parties accept "the bitterness of the past and promise never to taste such bitterness again."[19] The payment of compensation follows the ceremony. The victim or his/her family is compensated for the harm done, for example, in the form of cows or cash. Is such kind of compensation is enough to satisfy people? It is believed by many Acholi that Mato Oput "can bring true healing in a way that formal justice system cannot."[20] It doesn't aim at establishing whether an individual is guilty or not, rather it seeks to restore marred social harmony in the affected community.

Reintegration of Formerly Abducted Persons (FAPs)

Formerly Abducted Persons have been reintegrated in the community through the traditional methods of forgiveness and reconciliation. Marc Lacey notes that:

The other day, an assembly of Acholi chiefs put the notion of forgiveness into action. As they looked on, 28 young men and women who had recently defected from the rebels lined up according to rank on a hilltop overlooking this war-scared regional capital, with a one-legged lieutenant colonel in the lead and some adolescent privates bringing up the rear. They had killed and maimed together. They had raped and pillaged. One after the other, they stuck their bare right feet in a freshly cracked egg, with the lieutenant colonel, who lost his right leg to a bomb, inserting his right crutch in the egg instead. The egg symbolizes innocent life, according to local custom, and by dabbing themselves in it the killers are restoring themselves to the way they used to be. Next, the former fighters brushed against the branch of a pobo tree, which symbolically cleansed them. By stepping over a pole, they were welcomed back into the community by Mr. Acana and the other chiefs. "I ask for your forgiveness," said Charles Otim, 34, the rebel lieutenant colonel, who had been abducted by the rebels himself, at the age of 16, early in the war. "We have wronged you."[21]

The Acholi elders consider the FAPs as their sons and daughters, hence the need for them to undergo the forgiving and reconciliation process after returning from the bush.

However, it should be noted that returnees also face difficulties such as resentment and stigmatization, thus making some of the ex-combatants feel that the process of forgiveness is superficial. For example, Jacqueline Auma, 14, said that, "We go through the ceremony and we are told we have been forgiven. But the truth is people can never forget what we have done. People still call me a killer, and few of my peers will even talk to me."[22] This raises the question: can we then talk of reconciliation and forgiveness in this case? Reconciliation aims at re-establishing love and understanding between two or more conflicting parties. It requires that the two or more conflicting parties mutually forgive each other.

It seems that the FAPs go through a process of reconciliation without later on paying compensation, since in most cases they are not aware of their victims. If this is true, the resentment and stigmatization may be a result of the fact that victims are frustrated by this lack of compensation. Or maybe the victims are finding it difficult to forget, given the seriousness of the crimes committed and also the conflict has not yet ended. If it is the case that the FAPs are forgiven and reconciled to the community without compensation, then we have a model of reconciliation without justice in Northern Uganda.

Can such a model work in the long run? The Zimbabwean case has shown that reconciliation without justice does not work. In 1980, at Zimbabwe's independence eve, the then Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, called all Zimbabweans to forgive and reconcile in order to rebuild Zimbabwe. This was done without addressing the historical injustices. Eighteen years later disgruntled villagers began to occupy white owned commercial farms.

How can reconciliation with justice be achieved when thousands of civilians both Acholi and non-Acholi have been killed and maimed, and when it's most likely, given the nature and scale of the war, that the FAPs do not know most of their victims? Can reconciliation work when the war is not yet over? Can the Acholi traditional methods of reconciliation and forgiveness deal with actions that, according to Walzer, "shock the conscience of humankind"[23] -especially since these actions are still being carried out?

The Liu Institute for Global Issues and Gulu District NGO Forum note that the majority of the elders and rwodis (chiefs) they interviewed noted the difficulties associated with adapting Mato Oput straightforwardly to play a role in achieving justice in the current situation. Two reasons were given with regard to this: "1) reconciliation cannot be fostered until the conflict ends; and 2) the specific requirements of Mato Oput do not immediately translate to the scope and scale of the present conflict."[24] There is need to end the conflict in order to promote reconciliation. The LRA commanders should also be prepared to accept responsibility if reconciliation is to be fostered.

Since the war involves the violation of International Humanitarian Law, it becomes imperative for institutions that deal with international law such as the ICC to be involved. The crimes committed by the LRA leaders are crimes against the entire international community, which should not be left to the traditional approach to justice alone. The fact that the ICC is targeting rebel leaders, rather than the rank and file, may encourage those who are not being targeted to surrender. If this happens, then the war will not be prolonged. What is important is to make sure that the foot soldiers are fully informed that the ICC is targeting their leader,s since this may encourage them to surrender.


The Acholi traditional approach to justice is inadequate in dealing with cases that involve the violation of International Humanitarian Law. On the other hand, the ICC is not helpful in restoring relationships. Although earlier on I have pointed out some of the limitations of the Acholi traditional approach to justice in relation to the current circumstances, it still plays a significant role in the reintegration of the returnees. In this case, the traditional and western approaches to justice should not be viewed as being incompatible to each other, rather as complementing each other.

[1]See Human Rights Watch, "Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda," Vol. 15, No. 12 (A), July 2003

[2]See United Nations, "Child Soldiers at Centre of Mounting Humanitarian Crisis," available: stories/story.asp?storyID=100 [accessed, 02-23-06]

[3]Ibid 3

[4]Apuuli, K, P. (2005), "The International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) Insurgency in Northern Uganda," Criminal Law Forum (2004), 15: 391-409

[5]Ibid 395

[6]Human Rights Watch, "Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda," Vol. 15, No. 12 (A), July 2003, 3


[8]see The International Criminal Court, "Warrant of Arrest Unsealed Against Five LRA Commanders," ICC-20051014-110-En, October 14, 2005, available: http://www.icc, [accessed 02-24-06], for more information on the nature of the allegedly crimes committed by the LRA commanders see the ICC report on the investigations: "The Investigation in Northern Uganda", October 14, 2005, available: http://www.icc-cpi .int/library/organs/otp/Uganda-_PPpresentation.pdf, [accessed 02-24-05]

[9] Pham, P. et al (2005), "Forgotten Voices: A Population-based Survey on Attitudes about Peace and Justice in Northern Uganda," International Center for Transitional Justice and Human Rights Center, University of California Berkeley, available: http://www.relie, [accessed 02-22-06]

[10] Paramount Chief, David Onen Acana, cited in Liu Institute for Global Issues and Gulu District NGO Forum, "Roco Wati Acoli: Restoring Relations in Acholi-land Traditional Approaches to Reintegration and Justice," September 2005, available:, [accessed 02-22-06], 1

[11] Afako, B. (2002), "Reconciliation and Justice: 'Mato Oput' and the Amnesty Act," Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiatives, Issue 1

[12]Liu Institute for Global Issues and Gulu District NGO Forum, "Roco Wati Acoli: Restoring Relations in Acholi-land Traditional Approaches to Reintegration and Justice", September 2005, available:, [accessed 02-22-06], 10

[13]ibid, 72

[14]Paramount Chief Rwot David Onen Acana II cited in USAID (2005) report on "Acholi Youths and Chiefs Addressing Practices of the Acholi Culture of Reconciliation," available: http://www.nupi.or .ug/pdf/Youth-ChiefConferenceReport15-6-05.pdf, [accessed 02-23-05], 4


[16]Ibid, 73, also see Liu Institute for Global Issues and Gulu District NGO Forum, "Roco Wati Acoli: Restoring Relations in Acholi-land Traditional Approaches to Reintegration and Justice", September 2005, available:

[17]ibid, 10

[18]ibid, 30

[19]IRIN, "Uganda: Traditional Ritual Heals Communities Torn Apart by War," June 9, 2005, available: .asp?ReportID=47574, [accessed March 1, 2006]

[20]Afako, B. (2002), "Reconciliation and Justice: 'Mato Oput' and the Amnesty Act," Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiatives, Issue 11, 67

[21]Lacey Marc, "Atrocity Victims in Uganda Choose to Forgive", New York Times, April 18, 2005, available: http://w 03f538f39e24&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss, [accessed February 27, 2005]

[22]IRIN, "Uganda: Traditional Ritual Heals Communities Torn Apart by War," June 9, 2005, available: .asp?ReportID=47574, [accessed March 1, 2006]

[23]See Walzer, M. (2000) (3rd edition), Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations, New York, Basic Books; Walzer, M. (2004), Arguing About War, New Haven, Yale University Press

[24]Liu Institute for Global Issues and Gulu District NGO Forum, "Roco Wati Acoli: Restoring Relations in Acholi-land Traditional Approaches to Reintegration and Justice", September 2005, available:, 66