Friday, January 15, 2016

Acholi needs reconciliation commission to heal

While campaigning in Gulu Town in November, former Makerere University vice chancellor and independent presidential candidate, Prof Venansius Baryamureeba, promised to institute a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate atrocities committed in northern Uganda. Despite the prevailing peace in the region, some questions continue to be asked by victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)-UPDF war if those who committed crimes against them will ever be held accountable.

Unfortunately for the victims, the government of Uganda has been quiet despite several calls from the civil society and politicians that a truth and reconciliation commission be set up to investigate the violations by both the LRA and UPDF and bring perpetrators to justice. Analysts argue that the government is worried about unearthing its own crimes, committed by the UPDF. They point out that the lack of significant steps to understand and heal the past could spiral more violence and conflict in future.

The International Crisis Group has in its 2008 report, criticised the government of Uganda’s lack of commitment to the process of national reconciliation and accountability. The report pointed out that the victimisation and grievances that accumulated during the 20 years of war could only be addressed by a genuine process of reconciliation based on accountability for all crimes, including those committed by the UPDF. They argue that this will also give way for fair reparation to the victims of war.

The Acholi have a proverb that poyo too pe rweny (meaning the scars of death never heal). Memories of the war are still fresh in the minds of many people in northern Uganda. Symptoms of psychological distress and anxiety are still very common. According to David Oketayot, a former child soldier in Amuru District, “after hearing the gun shots, I became very scared, my body was trembling and I did not know what to do”, referring to the incidence where soldiers and the police fired shots in Amuru in September when residents were protesting against opening of land boundary between Adjumani District and Apaa in Amuru.

Over the years, some former LRA rebel commanders have asked for forgiveness from people within the region on various radio stations. But community reconciliation experts have warned that no genuine reconciliation can be achieved unless victims and the perpetrators come face-to-face and there is a confession. Some perpetrators have been criticised for reportedly boasting to their victims that no one could prosecute them because they obtained certificate of amnesty.

Such acts raise doubts on the meaning of the amnesty. The amnesty process has had several weaknesses; it did not, for instance, require the perpetrators to ask for forgiveness in order to get the certificate. 
There has also been a false premise that all victims of the war in northern Uganda have forgiven perpetrators (both UPDF and LRA) or that they believe in traditional justice. It is important that justice options are widened to allow victim participation. The guns may be silent, victims may be smiling, but their grief and bitterness are yet to be resolved.

It is time to reopen the wounds, to start a proper healing process. Government needs to create an impartial and an independent truth and reconciliation commission to investigate all the violations by both UPDF and LRA and bring the perpetrators to meaningful justice. This may be the only way to achieve sustainable reconciliation and meaningful transition in northern Uganda.

Published in the Daily Monitor on Friday December 11 2015

Governmant lacks commitment to UPE

Written by Alex Okello Ouma

At Okol primary school in Omot sub-county in Pader, studying under the tree is all but normal to an estimated 300 pupils. According to the head teacher, Mr. Omech Ben Robert, some pupils walk for over 5 kilometers to and fro school every day because of their desire and willingness to learn but quite often get scared away for the harsh and unfriendly school environment. Okol primary school has no class room structure except a tent that was supplied by Unicef. He added that since the start of the first term of 2010, his school has registered an increase in enrolment from 150 to close to 300 children but expressed a big worry over the retention of such children in school.
The case of Okol primary school is but one out of the many schools in northern Uganda that have harsh or hostile learning environments. A recent survey with over 400 children in Kitgum and Pader revealed that corporal punishment in schools, lack of seating facilities, inadequate class rooms, limited playing facilities and lack of lunch at among others largely contribute to pupil drop out from school. Studying under tree exposes the children to several risks and interrupts learning. This typical condition partly justifies the difference in performance between a child who studies at Chadwick Namate in Entebbe, Kampala parents or Bat Valley primary schools in Kampala and a pupil who studies at Okol or Latebe primary schools in Pader and Kitgum respectively.
The inequality in performance between town and village schools, northern and southern schools and the eastern and western schools in the recently released PLE, UCE and UACE results for 2009 only emphasizes the fact that government needs to do a lot to improve performance and attainment of quality and regional education equality.
Uganda is one of the countries that made a pledge in the year 2000 to achieve universal primary education; ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary education. Reports by the government of Uganda and other international development agencies indicate that the country’s education system has been effective and successful over the last five years and that it is serving as a model for many African countries. However, Education practitioners have cited the question of quality and regional inequalities in education as real obstacles that need to be addressed.
The government of Uganda now widely believes that primary education can eradicate poverty, and develop and stabilize the economic positions of Uganda in the long run. However, economist and development experts still strongly disagree citing lack of enough evidence to show case for instance that a UPE graduate can develop sustainable livelihood means and escape poverty and hunger. Secondly, they believe that government has not made enough commitment to uplift the status of rural schools in order to improve performance and quality.
According to The Millennium Development Goals report 2008, achieving Universal Primary Education means more than full enrolment. It also encompasses quality education, meaning that all children who attend school regularly learn basic literacy and numeracy skills and complete primary education on time, the report says. Government should focus on addressing UPE policy gaps; namely on infrastructural development, particularly in conflict or disaster affected regions, lifting of staff ceiling and recruitment of more teachers, capacity building for local authorities, equipping schools with sitting facilities, erecting teacher houses and offering more funding for running school programs.

Published in the Daily Monitor, March 8th, 2010

Friday, February 6, 2015

International Criminal Court (ICC) and Uganda; who should try Dominic Ongwen?

January 10, 2015

Last week, news emerged that one of LRA’s top leaders, Dominic Ogwen, who was indicted and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and war crimes, was captured by Seleka rebels in Central Africa Republic and handed over to US Forces. There were news reports that US Forces would transfer him to Uganda, who have expressed interest in trying him at home. Ongwen’s capture has reignited the debate on International Criminal Justice of the ICC versus Domestic Justice. The questions being asked are: Should Ongwen be tried in Uganda? What compromise can be drawn between the ICC and Uganda Court system that meets both domestic and international demands for justice? Does Uganda’s International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court have the necessary capacity to try Dominic Ongwen or other Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel commanders with fairness and due process? To put this debate into context, it is important to understand what the ICC is and how it works, the LRA situation, and the Uganda justice system.

The International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court (ICC) “is an independent, permanent court that tries persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”. It is governed by the Rome Statute – a result of a diplomatic conference that took place in Rome on 17 July 1998. Since it became into force on 1st July 2002, 123 States have as of January 6 2015 become party to the Statute. The ICC works independently but relies on the cooperation of State parties. State parties are obliged to cooperate in “arresting persons wanted by the ICC, providing evidence for use in proceedings, relocating witnesses, and enforcing sentences of convicted persons”. Uganda is a State party to the ICC and has been very active in promoting works of the Court, including hosting a Review Conference of the Rome Statute in 2010 in Kampala.

Dominic Ongwen, the LRA situation, and ICC indictment
In December of 2003, President Museveni made the first so called “self-referral” of the crimes committed by the LRA in Uganda to the ICC, seeking international support for the arrest and prosecution of LRA’s top leaders. This came after just one and half years that the Rome Statute entered in force. Subsequently, ICC conducted preliminary investigation and arrest warrants were issued for 5 top commanders; Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen, and Raska Lukwiya. With exception of Dominic Ongwen, the four commanders are still at large.

The indictment of Dominic Ogwen contained 7 counts of criminal responsibility; three counts of crimes against humanity (inhuman acts according to the statute includes of; inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering), and four counts of war crimes (murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing attack against civilian population, and pillaging).

Juba peace talks (2006 – 2008) and establishment of the War Crimes Division of the High Court
The Government of Uganda – LRA peace talks at some point was so successful and many had hoped would bring peace to the region. In fact, some LRA negotiators argued that ICC arrest warrants were the main obstacle to the signing of the peace agreement. This forced the Government of Uganda and other mediators to explore other possibilities including trying the indicted leaders at home and which would make the trial in the ICC inadmissible under Article 17 of the Rome Statute. As a result, the signing of the protocol on accountability and reconciliation gave birth to the establishment of the War Crimes Division (WCD) of the High Court. The High Court has since replaced the WCD with International Crimes Division (ICD) “to try war crimes and crimes against humanity including commanders of the LRA and other rebel groups”. Other crimes considered in the ICD includes genocide, terrorism, human trafficking, and piracy and other international crimes.
Genesis of anti ICC sentiments in Uganda
The origin of anti ICC sentiments in Uganda can be traced to the Juba Peace talks when the question of whether peace or justice comes first was put to a real test. Peace Panelist of the LRA argued that Kony was willing to sign a final peace agreement if the ICC withdrew the warrants. As such peace mediators, local population in Northern Uganda, and in fact some government leaders started looking at the ICC, particularly its timing as the real obstacle to peace. This new anti ICC sentiment was eventually reflected in President Museveni’s consequent public statement when he was reported in the media in March 2008 to have said Uganda referred the LRA matter to the ICC because the notorious group were not within Uganda’s territory. He reasoned, if Kony signed a peace agreement and returned to Uganda’s jurisdiction, it would be Uganda’s responsibility and not the ICC.
Today, the ICC is still widely supported in Uganda but President Museveni has in the recent years come out as a strong critic, accusing the ICC of targeting African leaders – a rhetoric often repeated by some African leaders. While these perceptions are not necessarily true, they are undoubtedly damaging the reputation of the Court which may affect cooperation and support locally for the Court.

Amidst all these, the question now is, where does it leave the trial of Dominic Ogwen? Will it be the ICC or Uganda Court? What compromise can be drawn between the ICC and Uganda Court system that meets both domestic and international demands for justice?

Complementarity and admissibility
It has been stated over and over that the ICC works to complement and not to replace national criminal justice systems. Under the principle of complementarity of the Rome Statute, “certain cases will be inadmissible even though the Court has jurisdiction”. This includes cases being investigated or prosecuted by the State. However, the Court states that a case may be admissible if such proceedings are conducted with intent to “shield the person from criminal responsibility”.

Uganda enacted the International Criminal Court Act in 2010 which will be applied in the ICD. Other laws applicable include; The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995; The Trial on Indictment Act, Cap 23; The Penal Code Act Cap 120; The Evidence Act Cap 6, and the Geneva Conventions Act, Cap. 363. These laws, legal experts recognize makes the ICD capable of implementing the complementarity regime. Conducting Ongwen’s trial in Uganda domestic Court is therefore believed, will mark a significant step in applying ICC’s principle of complementarity. ICC in this case can be on the ground to support harmonization of prosecution with international standards. 
While Uganda has a relatively well functioning criminal justice system, critics wonder if it could operate at a level necessary to support a fair trial to the magnitude that the ICC may entail. In 2005 for example, heavily armed soldiers surrounded the High Court in an attempt to Court-Martial civilians involved in allegations of treason. In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that Thomas Kwoyelo [former LRA commander] qualifies for Amnesty and ordered his release. However, Kwoyelo is reportedly still being detained illegally in a government prison.

Government’s interference in the judicial process, coupled with rampant public distrust of state institutions raises questions on judicial independence in Uganda. Ugandan Court is also accused of corruption, being overwhelmed with cases and understaffed, it therefore faces a huge task to foster public participation and trust in the judicial process. Should the ICC decide that Ongwen be tried in Uganda, they should work closely with, and further strengthen domestication of ‘International Criminal Prosecution’. Uganda has established the necessary laws and set up the ICD but a lot still needs to be done to ensure independence of the judicial process and respect of the rule of law.

As we ponder accountability for Dominic Ogwen and Justice for thousands of war victims in Northern Uganda, the question of accountability for lower level LRA offenders using the traditional justice mechanisms, and trial of some UPDF soldiers who, Human Rights activists accuse of committing war crimes in Northern Uganda are also yet to be addressed.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Political Tolerance in Uganda is Still a Pipe Dream

When you feel that your voice cannot be heard because you have a different sexual orientation, belong to a certain religion, are from a certain tribe, or support a certain political party, what president Yoweri Museveni said about intolerant leaders of the past may not make sense to you. I refer to the article titled “Intolerant leaders are bad, says Museveni” that appeared in the Daily Monitor of Thursday April 10th 2014. While speaking at the burial of former Transport minister Stanislaus Okurut in Ngoro district, Mr. Museveni reportedly blamed Uganda’s post-independence political turmoil on the intolerance of past leaders. His remark received mixed reaction from some politicians, mainly those in the opposition, as well as from the academia, many of who consider some of our present leaders just as intolerant as those in the past. The English dictionary describes tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality differ from one’s own”. The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance affirms that tolerance is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Uganda has been a member of the UN General Assembly since 1962. In 1996, the UN General Assembly resolution 51/95 established November 16 as an International Day of Tolerance. And in 2005, a World Summit document came into place to further the commitment of Heads of State and Government to advance human welfare, freedom and progress everywhere, as well as to encourage tolerance, respect, dialogue, and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples. Uganda has been a part of this global commitment but the realities on the ground suggests some but little progress. Some political commentators argue that the current government has retreated in many ways on its commitment to tolerance. The lack of commitment to political tolerance in particular continues to undermine the basic constitutional rights such as freedom of expression (and after expression), the right to political association, and the right to fair trial among others. In many parts of Uganda today, there has been real decline in political tolerance especially where the government perceives activities of those in the opposition as a political threat. In the capital Kampala and other major towns, the police is always responding with unjustified hostility and violence to any public protest or political mobilization. Some political commentators also argue that political intolerance could be worse in the ruling NRM party, citing in this case the expulsion of the ‘rebel MPs’ and the fallout between Museveni and his former vice president Mathew Bukenya as examples. NRM party members who oppose president Museveni or do not agree with party positions have accordingly been politically marginalized, harassed or threatened with expulsion from the party. According to the UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, this kind of intolerance breeds intolerance. Further, there is a link between the behaviors of those in government and the vicious cycle of mistrust, hate towards government, and violence in the country. While it is the duty of every citizen to promote tolerance, leaders should live the first examples. As advised by the UN declaration, we should start to ask ourselves: Am I tolerant? Do I disagree with someone but still live in harmony with them? Do I blame my failure on others? It is not until we reflect on these questions and mirror the humanity of others against ours that we shall become tolerant as a nation. Written by Alex Okello Ouma

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What is Joseph Kony saying and why does it matter for National Reconciliation?

In the Daily Monitor of January 27 2014, it was reported that Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader Joseph Kony wrote to Ugandans seeking forgiveness and resumption of peace talks. This comes amidst unconfirmed media reports that Kony’s health is deteriorating. Joseph Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, he has since been on the run and divining his intention is very difficult. He has disappointed Ugandans in a number of peace talks with the latest being in 2008 when he refused to sign the final peace deal after a long period of negotiation. Many Ugandans will not take Kony’s new peace talk demands seriously. In his attempt to show his innocence, Kony purportedly claimed that some of the massacres in Northern Uganda were committed by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) to spoil his name. Vague as it may sound, this latest accusation is similar to a narrative shared by a number of victims of the war that lasted for more than a decade in Northern Uganda. Ofwono Opondo’s defence of Museveni and the UPDF goes against this wide, well collected narrative in Northern Uganda that the UPDF also committed serious violation of human rights and international law during the war. This narrative is further reinforced by the belief that the UPDF deliberately prolonged the war by “sabotaging” the many peace initiatives. A 2011 field research report of the International Center for Transitional Justice on Memory and Memorialization in Northern Uganda revealed that a number of people in Northern Uganda believe the strategy of forced displacement into camps in 1996 was a deliberate policy of cultural and economic destruction and the UPDF’s failure to protect displaced civilians in those camps is cited as an example. Unfortunately, the government of Uganda has been laidback in addressing these accusations. Where they have admitted doing wrongs, the government has done it with scorn. Findings of a 2007 population-based survey on attitudes about peace, justice and social reconstruction in northern Uganda written by Phuong Pham and others, further confirmed this narrative. Out of 2,875 people interviewed from 8 districts of northern Uganda, six percent of respondents reported being beaten by the UPDF, four percent reported having a family member killed by government soldiers, fourteen percent said UPDF verbally abused them while nine percent reported that the UPDF destroyed their property. Seventy percent of the respondents said the UPDF committed war crimes and human rights abuse and fifty five percent favoured their trials. Many northerners are aggrieved and look at those in government with enemy images. Since independence, Uganda has had many wars and these wars often pitted tribes against each other. There are accusations that Obote’s soldiers [mainly Acholi and Langi] killed many ‘Southerners’ and ‘Westerners’. There are also accusations that the NRA [mainly ‘Southerners’ and ‘Westerners’] killed many ‘Northerners’ when they took over power in 1986. People from West Nile have also been accused of killing many innocent Ugandans during Idi Amin’s reign or terror. Drawing on this uneasy history, the government of Uganda should commit to a national reconciliation process, it is part of nation building. In this respect, Ofwono Opondo and others should refrain from denying UPDF’s crimes in northern Uganda. People of northern Uganda are willing to forgive and forget but they need to know the truth about killed them. Debates on what happened in northern Uganda and elsewhere should be encouraged, more so, truth telling, forgiveness and reconciliation. For northern Uganda, the guns may be silent but memories of LRA and UPDF brutalities are still fresh. It is time to reopen the old wounds to allow them heal properly. Written by Alex Okello Ouma Published in the Daily Monitor on Monday February 10, 2014, Available online at;

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The international community should consider LRA peace talks

In December 2003, the government of Uganda, a state party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), referred the situation concerning the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) of murder, rape, violence and crimes against humanity to the Prosecutor of ICC. The prosecutor opened investigations into this matter in 2004 and issued an international arrest warrants for five leaders of LRA alleging crimes against humanity. Kony is still on the run and has been the biggest war criminal talked about in 2012. He was particularly made popular by the Invisible Children movie KONY 2012. This movie was viewed over 93 million times on YouTube and an estimated 4 million people reportedly pledged their support for efforts to arrest Kony and bring him to justice. Many including the first prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo believed by the end of 2012, the LRA leader would have been captured. However, more than a year since the US President Barack Obama deployed US Special Forces to support local troops in the region to arrest Kony, the notorious rebel leader is still on the run. Analysts say the challenge with arresting Kony and his LRA group is the nature of their operation; they move in dense jungle areas where neither Uganda’s UPDF nor African Union soldiers can dare. UPDF spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye once admitted difficulty in isolating the LRA leader. He noted that the presence of other militias and cattle keepers in the jungles of DRC and Central Africa Republic made it difficult to pursue Kony. A re-known Political Science Professor and researcher at San Diego State University, Adam Branch, in one of his publications noted that the ICC intervention would make the war more difficult to resolve. The ICC warrants of arrest have in fact removed the LRA incentives to leave the bush, which have made peace talks difficult. In 2009 for example, the signing of the Final Peace Agreement between the government of Uganda and the LRA stalled, with the LRA citing the arrest warrants issued by the ICC as the main obstacle. ICC’s main focus is to investigate and punish those guilty of grave violation of human rights and crimes against humanity. In the case of Uganda, it became evident that the Amnesty Act 2000 would not work when ICC issued arrest warrants for the leaders of the LRA and the government of Uganda amended the Amnesty Act to exclude the leaders of the LRA. The Amnesty Act had granted a general amnesty to the LRA, including its top leaders in a bid to encourage them to abandon rebel activities and return to normal life. A dilemma for the International Community is perhaps whether peace or justice should reign first. In my opinion, Peace and Justice should be inseparable. However, the meaning of justice needs to be broadened. Retributive justice is not the only concept of justice. The choice of justice at the national level should be prioritised with the choice of justice of the victims or those who have experienced violation. Indeed, the Acholi people of northern Uganda who were the first victims of the LRA have widely spoken about their traditional justice of “MatoOput” which some people believe would have derailed the LRA from fighting and ensured long lasting peace in the region. With the failure of the International Community to arrest Kony and LRA’s continued violence in Congo and Central Africa Republic, it can be argued that ICC work has caused further militarisation of the LRA and violence and has derailed peace in the region. The International Community should explore the Peace Talk option with LRA even though it appears impossible. By Alex Okello Ouma Posted Thursday, January 10 2013 at 02:00. Daily monitor

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

NRM is not helping poor Ugandans

NRM’s loss in the hotly contested Jinja East constituency by election to Forum for Democratic Change’s Paul Mwiru, Kyadondo East Member of Parliament, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda reportedly referred to the NRM as “a dead government that needed a successor”. Kahinda Otafiire, a prominent NRM party member, also Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs reportedly said support for his ruling NRM party is fading, citing poor leadership, corruption and patronage in the government. These political remarks are not entirely new to most Ugandans. Over the last few years, Uganda has been confronted with several challenges, among them are; high inflation rates, soaring oil prices, lack of food, poverty and not to mention, corruption and embezzlement. In light of all these challenges, many Ugandans have questioned whether President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party have done enough to make life better for common Ugandans. The NRM has ruled Uganda for over 26 years but critics argue that there is very little the NRM can boast of. There is increasing criticism of NRM’s poor governance from both within and outside the party prompting some to refer to it as a “Cartel’’ whose main goal is to profit its members using State resources. Since NRM came to power in 1986, it has changed in many ways; very little respect for constitutionalism or other laid down government policies and procedures, widespread corruption, restriction of the media and freedom of expression and intimidation of opposition parties. Hitherto, it has become the dominant party and evolved into a “cartel” like organization. According to a recent report on political parties in Africa by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), dominant political party systems impede competitive politics, which leads to political apathy. Such parties dominate the legislature and monopolize law-making processes to promote their own economic and social interest, the government is less accountable to the legislature or the opposition and is irresponsible to citizen demands. NRM has not been any different from what this report describes. Some people may ask, is the NRM a “cartel political party” or a political party that is struggling with leadership and governance issues? According to some scholars, NRM has similar characteristics with a cartel political party. Cartel political parties are characterized by; excessive control and monopoly over State organs and functions, weak grass root branches but very strong party in the central office, most party income is from State subventions and the party has the generosity to offer resources or gifts in exchange for votes during elections and exert strong control over the media. The IDEA report noted that a cartel party uses State machinery to acquire financial resources for the party, sometimes through bribes from individuals or companies with private interest. NRM critics cite the suspected bribery in the oil sector involving Hillary Onek, Amama Mbabazi and Sam Kutesa as a classical example. The opposition political parties in Uganda have accused NRM for its symbiotic relationship with the State. They argue NRM largely depends on State resources for its survival. The opposition parties have cited the corruption in the regime as a way through which NRM party elites connive to guarantee themselves and their party reliable flows of State resources. These critics argue that there is an organized infiltration of State institutions by the party and allocation of favors through the State. Whether these allegations are true or not, at least they point to the level of distrust and suspicion on the NRM by Ugandans. NRM needs to conform to new realities and deliver to Ugandans the promises they have failed to do for the past 26 years and president Yoweri Museveni needs to respect the will of Ugandans. Ugandans expect a political party that forms a government to fight corruption, develop good infrastructures, improve on social service delivery and create economic opportunities and wealth in the hands of poor people. These expectations are yet to be met by the current NRM regime.

Alex Okello Ouma
The writer is a development professional and political analyst based in the north of Uganda