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.
This paper examines the assertion by religious and cultural leaders in northern Uganda that continued extension of amnesty to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels is part of their ‘culture’. The 2005 indictment of the five high level LRA commanders by the then Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was heatedly rejected by the same local leaders, which accused the ICC of imposing Western values and frustrating local peace building efforts. In fact, one of the main reasons for the failure to sign the Juba peace agreements by Joseph Kony was the looming threat of prosecution by the world court. Following the recent re-instatement of blanket Amnesty Act by parliament of Uganda, debates over whether or not to pursue amnesty at the expense of prosecution have been reignited. Examining a personal reflection of ‘everyday life’ in one of the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps where amnesty is granted to former captives and soldiers of the LRA, I consider the traditional coping mechanisms available to victims and the implications of forgiveness in a setting of fear.
‘It’s more rewarding to turn enemies into friends’’
The process of conflict resolution in deeply divided societies requires a major coordination effort, to which many players are involved. The participation of religious leaders in the various phases of conflict in northern Uganda is a good example of how the field of peace building is beginning to recognize their multiple roles. In the year 2000, after several years of failed military attempts to eliminate the threat posed by the LRA in Uganda, the Acholi religious and traditional leaders appealed to the government of Uganda to grant blanket amnesty to lure abducted children to return home without fear of retribution. Blanket amnesty was therefore seen as a tool to conflict resolution at the time.
The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), an interfaith forum constituting (catholic, Muslin, orthodox and Anglican) which was formally inaugurated in 1998 was founded on the principle that the best and most sustainable approach to any conflict resolution is full participation of all stakeholders – ‘wan acel pi kuc’ (we are one for peace). The granting of a blanket amnesty to all former rebels who willfully come back without fear of prosecution was very much a contribution of religious and cultural leaders in northern Uganda. In a memorandum to the government of Uganda, ARLPI declared that LRA should be given total amnesty as opposed to a partial one because it reflected the concerns of the Acholi people. It was seen as based on the principles of Acholi culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. As part of the Act, reconciliation was to be promoted through culturally appropriate mechanisms of war affected populations.
Since its enactment in the year 2000, over 26,000 individuals from over 25-armed groups have abandoned insurgency. The Acholi cultural leaders have played a pertinent role in ensuring that those who return are reintegrated into the community through traditional justice mechanisms of reconciliation. Many combatants continue to seek amnesty to date. However, it should be noted that despite the success of amnesty, the government has over the years adapted a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to bringing the war to an end. In addition to granting amnesty and occasionally participating in peace talks, the government has continued to pursue the LRA militarily. In Dec 2003, three years after passing the amnesty law, the president to the surprise of local religious groups, cultural leaders and civil society groups in Uganda referred the Ugandan situation to the ICC. In 2005 the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the top five LRA commanders despite intense negotiations by religious groups, cultural leaders and civil society groups urging the ICC to give their local approach to peace building a chance. A milieu of debate ensued, with one side (‘the locals’) for peace and the other (‘the outsiders’) for justice.
In 2006 when the LRA entered into negotiations with government of Uganda, the sticking point was how to deal with the pending arrest warrants issued by the ICC. Accountability and Reconciliation became a central dilemma to the Juba talks that lasted two years. Eventually, due to a combination of a military ploy by government of Uganda to launch an attack on the LRA bases amidst the ceasefire truce and the failure to convince LRA leader Joseph Kony over ICC concerns, the final peace agreement wasn’t signed. A joint military offensive involving Uganda, South Sudan and Congo under the intelligence support of the US government was launched against the LRA.
Efforts to combat impunity vs Amnesty
Following the failure of the Juba talks, and subsequent pursuit of LRA leaders by joint military forces of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan, impunity for war criminals in Uganda has became a hot topic. Current military efforts are now centered on eliminating or arresting LRA commanders and bringing them to justice by the ICC or Uganda’s national tribunal – the International Crimes Division (ICD).
In 2008, Uganda established the ICD to try gross human rights violations such as those committed by the LRA leaders. Following this, in March 2009, a mid level commander of the LRA, Thomas Kwoyelo was arrested during a battle between the Uganda army and the LRA combatants in Ukwa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite being eligible to amnesty, Kwoyelo became the first person to be tried by Uganda’s ICD which was set up the in 2009 as part of its efforts to implement the 2008 Juba peace agreements.
The trial of Thomas Kwoyelo raised a number of debates around whether or not he was eligible to receive amnesty having been abducted as a child. Civil Society, religious and traditional leaders challenged the moral implication of his trial on the basis of an existing amnesty law and the willingness of the local community to forgive. Owing to public opinion and loopholes in the law, Kwoyelo’s lawyers challenged the legality of his trial in the constitutional court of Uganda. As a result, his trial has been halted due to the court ruling that he is eligible to blanket amnesty under the Uganda’s Amnesty Law. The case therefore raises a dilemma as to whether government of Uganda should continue to pay too much attention to LRA accountability at the expense of broader local initiatives to local peace building and reconciliation.
Moreover, religious and traditional leaders continue to insist that blanket amnesty is the best alternative to peace and reconciliation in the LRA affected areas. This has increased tension between advocates for peace on the one hand and those in support for justice on the other. Religious and traditional leaders have argued that denial of amnesty undermines efforts to lure child soldiers to denounce rebellion and return to their communities. They want former combatants to return back home without fear of retribution and participate in traditional justice processes that promote reconciliation. Blanket amnesty is therefore considered as the best alternative to regional peace and stability for LRA affected regions of Uganda, Central African Republic, Congo and Sudan.
Personal Reflection and Connections
In my work at the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), I have had the privilege to support religious and traditional leaders in their local initiatives to peace building in northern Uganda. Since 2004, I have undertaken participated in various forms of dialogues and undertaken grassroots research in trying to understand and assert the claims of the local communities that forgiveness is a central theme to conflict resolution and peace building. I have done so, amidst growing claim that forgiveness undermines global efforts to fight impunity. I do not condone impunity, but neither do I belief that prosecution of criminals is the only option to achieving peace. For the case of northern Uganda, I belief that we need to engage in a continuous process to explore a ‘middle ground’ where the notions of accountability and reconciliation begin to complement rather than serve as alternative to the other.
In advancing the concept of forgiveness, I demonstrate the complexity of life in an IDP camp I have lived and researched in 2007. I argue that the Acholi ‘culture of forgiveness’ does not necessarily condone crime per se. I wish to contribute my little understanding of this context to the growing body of academic literature that’s beginning to realize that forgiveness is crucial for peace building. According to Philpott, ‘to forgive is not to cease to oppose unjust structures or acts of violence… He further asserts that … forgiveness does not condone evil neither does it forget it but rather starts by recalling it’.  Wolterstorff on the other hand argues that forgiveness is ‘…not only morally tenable but obligatory, that it is the sort of thing a state can do, and that sometimes it is desirable for the state to forgive’.
In 2007 while taking lead in one community dialogue in Kalongo IDP camp, the resounding message I got from the elders was, ‘Amnesty is our culture’. Along with my colleagues at the Justice and Reconciliation Project, our investigation into local, ‘every day’ perceptions of the amnesty process had taken us to Kalongo IDP camp, where we recruited a research assistant to spend two years as a camp focal person monitoring our projects in the region. We spent the better part of our time meeting and speaking with camp persons, local leaders and former LRA captives and soldiers. What we found was a populace gripped with fear, living amidst warring parties in a highly militarized setting where they could be a random target of either side – the LRA or the Ugandan army.
The following testimony of a young girl who had returned from captivity with a child born of rape helps elaborate the social context of Kalongo:
I was taking my child to the hospital and was on my way to the night commuter shelter when I remembered I had forgotten my blanket. I went home and on my way back soldiers stopped me at the gate.  They asked me ‘why are you arriving so late?’ I told them my child had been in the hospital. They asked ‘why would you take a child from the bush to the hospital, you should have let your child die, he is a rebel’. They began to beat me with the butt of their guns. I pleaded with them, ‘but I wasn’t the one who wanted to go to the bush, I didn’t want to have this child in the bush. This could be your child.’ One of the soldiers picked up a wire lock and swung it at me. It hit my baby and injured him seriously. I began to scream and a local administrator came to our rescue. He mediated. The soldier agreed to pay the medical bills for my child, but later swore he would take revenge on me because it was the rebels who had killed his parents.
All movement within Kalongo was heavily monitored during this time. People could not move freely outside of the camp. If caught by the UPDF, they could be accused of being rebels, interrogated and even killed. Even within the camp, movement was restricted after curfew. Just as the young mother recalled above, persons moving in the camp after hours were subject to questioning. If they are formerly abducted persons or LRA soldiers, they are often harassed, sometimes violently, by UPDF soldiers. Although UPDF are under strict orders to treat LRA and former LRA well under the policy of an amnesty, individual grievances, such as that of the young soldier above, are unchecked during the dark of night at military checkpoints. Former LRA respondents we met reported a variety of harassments they encountered, such as UPDF tearing up their Amnesty Cards, beating them with the butt of their guns, or stating they planned to round them up after the war (and policy of amnesty) was over.
The only recourse for the girl is to appeal to common refrains she learned in the rehabilitation centre that appeal to the logic of the amnesty. ‘This could be your child’ she tells the soldier. ‘I wasn’t the one who wanted to go to the bush’. The soldier does not know that the rebels also killed the parents of the young mother, five years before she had been abducted.
As this story illustrates, people have lost so much and yet who is responsible for the loss is difficult to disentangle in the day-to-day interactions of persons in the camp. Both the young mother and soldier are victims of circumstance, and both view the other as perpetrators of violence. For civilians that have not known combat, the web of social relations within communities is equally as tenuous and strained. Many continue to blame their circumstances on both ‘the government’ and LRA, stigmatizing and even fearing either side. Yet, still, their elders insisted, amnesty was the best means forward for their people.
In the local language Luo, amnesty is translated as timo kica which literally means, ‘an act of forgiveness’. ‘Timo’ – is an act while Kica is forgiveness. This word in Acholi has simultaneously meant amnesty and forgiveness. To the Acholi elders in this region as well as other parts of Acholi, the conflation of process, cultural beliefs and end result is seamless and unproblematic. A tension therefore exists between the local leaders who wish to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict through dialogue and the shifting policies of the Government of Uganda, which has favored military action, and the ICC simultaneously. The pre-occupation with wanting to end the war has led both local leaders and the Government to focus on drawing LRA out of the bush with the promise of forgiveness. The elders in Acholi then face the enormously challenging task of moving beyond the rhetoric of amnesty, to the address the realities of those who have lived in decades of fear and vengeance. A unique approach to the problem is necessary.
‘Forgiveness is our culture’
During subsequent visits to Kalongo between 2007 and 2008, elders would spend a good deal of time explaining to us how ‘timo kica’ (amnesty/forgiveness) was part of their culture while local religious leaders would echo the same appeal, urging that timo kica is part of human existence. Forgiveness, they explained, might take place at interpersonal, intercommunity or intertribal levels depending on the magnitude of the offences committed.
At an individual level, if a person wrongs another, he/she might either choose to forgive or not. However, for the sake of amicable co-existence and to minimize the risk of revenge, most individuals are under moral obligation to forgive, given their role in fostering societal harmony. Where interpersonal feuds get worse, mediators (often elders of close acquaintances) and parents or relatives intervene to resolve the conflict before it goes worse. Forgiveness and reconciliation is often encouraged. And as asserted by Wolterstorff in his analysis of forgiveness, ‘forgiveness of the wrong doer is not contingent on the remorse or repentance of the wrong doer’. However, in the case of the Acholi community, ‘the end one hoped to achieve by forgiving may well be frustrated by lack of remorse’. In this case most often the wronged party forgives so that there is reconciliation between him/her and the person who wronged.
In Acholi tradition, whenever conflicts arise, there are different levels of mediation. At the family level (often but not always extended families), mediation is handled by the family head (s) often the father known as won ot (singular for family head) or won odi (plural). Mediation at the household level is carried out by won gang who is the head of a collection of families related by blood. The Rwot Kweri mediates disputes arising from tensions among groups of households living in one area of jurisdiction known as sub clans. Rwot Kweri falls under the jurisdictions of Atekere who are involved in mediation among sub-clans. A collection of sub-clans form a clan that is headed by hereditary chief known as Rwot who is responsible for mediations involving major disputes at the clan level. Todate, there are over 50 clans in Acholi-land. All the 50 clans fall under the leadership of one paramount chief known as Lawirwodi. He mediates conflict between Acholi and its neighboring or distant tribes. Besides conflict mediation, all facets of Acholi culture are structured under the above levels.
Lasting peace in Acholi however is not just a matter of structures and mechanisms as explained above. It rests on the adoption of a style of human coexistence marked by mutual acceptance and a capacity to forgive. According to Finnstrom, reconciliation does not necessarily mean that there needs to be consensus about the past or even the future, but it does mean ‘sharing a present, a present that is non repetitive’. To facilitate this, he ‘focuses on the role of the “third party” and argues for cultivation “practices of listening” after a violent conflict’ Acholi culture is based on principles of social harmony and co-existence. The pain of losing a child or parents during conflict is believed to lead to the total closing of oneself to others. Over two decades of LRA war in northern Uganda has meant that only the warmth of people’s relationships and acceptance can help them overcome such feelings. Such warmth has been inspired by the elders’ and religious leaders’ teachings on forgiveness, reminding people that it is a part of their culture and humanity.
A strong reference is always made to Acholi traditional ritual of Mato Oput, an inter clan cultural ritual where an offender is able to re-establish relationship with his/her perceived enemies when crime involving death is committed. Put forward by Acholi leaders as the ‘model’ Acholi traditional justice mechanism, mato oput has been practiced since time immemorial. The ritual is part of Acholi culture that has received a varying degree of negative and positive criticisms internationally. However, elders continue to insist that Mato Oput is an embodiment of Acholi justice based on mediation, truth telling, atonement, compensation and symbolic reconciliation ceremonies. Here, conceptually we come to a key question – how does forgiveness also include justice or accountability. Is someone who committed forgiven without any responsibility? Is the truth of what they did confessed, or told publicly?
Truth telling in Acholi justice is the very foundation upon which subsequent steps in building social harmony can be pursued. Without truth, reconciliation is often difficult and the process of Mato Oput cannot be continued. As observed by John Paul Lederach,
‘People need opportunity and space to express to and with one another the trauma of loss and their grief at that loss, and the anger that accompanies the pain and the memory of injustices experienced. Acknowledgment is decisive in the reconciliation dynamic. It is one thing to know; it is yet a very different social phenomenon to acknowledge. Acknowledgment through hearing one another's stories validates experience and feelings and represents the first step toward restoration of the person and the relationship’.
Once truth is established, the process of seeking closure and forgiveness becomes possible. Studies in northern Uganda have revealed that an overwhelming number of elders in Acholi prefer that amnesty be granted only to those who have publicly admitted to participating in crimes committed during the conflict. They believe that conditional truth can go a long way in restoring relations between victims and perpetrators in Acholiland. Therefore, through creating an avenue for closure and forgiveness, the community is engaged in designing a future they all cherish.
In his book, Lederach identifies four major concepts: Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace. He explains that Truth is the ‘longing for acknowledgment of wrong and the validation of painful loss and experiences’. As for the Acholi elders and religious leaders, reconciliation only comes after acknowledgement of full account. After one has revealed the truth, mercy becomes necessary. In the words of Lederach, ‘Mercy articulates the need for acceptance, letting go, and a new beginning’. His book further refers to Justice as, ‘the search for individual and group rights, for social restructuring, and for restitution, but it is linked with Peace, which underscores the need for interdependence, well being, and security’.
Finally for Acholi justice, symbolic compensation and reconciliation ceremonies are strongly valued to unify the victims and perpetrators. Compensation inform of livestock is believed to replace life lost where the livestock is used by the boys in the clan to marry and have children who are named after those who died. Elders therefore argue that there is no contradiction between forgiveness and justice. Forgiveness, seeks to promote the same ordeals which justice requires by reintegrating individuals into the community. Therefore, unless we learn to live with one another in forgiveness and peace, the true meaning of justice will never be achieved, because we shall not be able to sit down and even discuss it.
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