‘Traditional peace mechanisms are not enough!’ Ugandas post-LRA conflict and the struggle of justice.
Northern Uganda has suffered the brunt of the Lords Resistance Army’s (LRA) insurgency. Since the rebel group formed in 1987 till the present day, over 30,000 children from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have been abducted and forced into the lives of child soldiers. These children are kidnapped by militiamen and forced to commit grave crimes under duress. Children are being forced into pillaging, mutilating their communities, murder and all the meanwhile they are deprived of family love and stable safe childhoods. The struggle does not end when they escape. Many children are unable to escape until long into their adulthood. When former child soldiers come out of the bush, they return not as lost children to longing families but as war criminals to the villages they victimised. The local social group ‘Acholi’ in Uganda has practised a method of dispute resolution called Mato Oput for centuries and in early 2005, it was being appropriated to use to reintegrate returning child soldiers. This had its merits indeed, however it came with more risks. This article will lay out why relying on Mato Oput is not sufficient a procedure to achieve either peace or justice to those affected by the Lords’ Resistance Army.
Charities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and expatriates who were sent to embrace the cosmopolitan values of the first postcolonialist century responded to the International Criminal Courts (ICC) indictments of Ugandan war criminals with grave concern. The sentiment was that African crimes being tried in western courts would surely be the pinnacle of neo-imperialism. Influential reports were correct to be adamant that justice cannot be imposed by international decree, and that it must be locally grounded and socially accepted. But despite this need for transitional judicial methods, endorsement of northern Uganda’s institutionalisation of their local accountability procedures with no input or connection to the rest of Uganda or international bodies was an irresponsible and dangerous objective to promote and pursue.
Mato Oput can be translated to mean ‘the drinking of the bitter root’ in Acholi, one of the languages spoken in northern Uganda. As a ceremony, Mato Oput exists to restore relationships between clans or families after crimes such as an immoral killing, sexual misconduct or a resource dispute. A cultural chief oversees the offender asking for forgiveness, the parties negotiating suitable compensation and then the victims accepting and forgiving the accused. Representatives of both sides will kneel together to drink a concoction of the ground oput tree’s roots mixed with a sacrificed sheep’s blood. The bitter taste symbolises the anguish caused by the crime and afterwards the families will sit together for a meal. The Mato Oput ceremony relies on the admittance of guilt by the perpetrator and the genuine forgiveness by the victims. Even before the ICC sent arrest warrants for LRA commanders, communities in northern Uganda were reintegrating former child soldiers to the LRA back into homes via Mato Oput and other similar methods of traditional conflict resolution.
The value of using these traditional methods of peace and justice instead of retributive forms in post-conflict Uganda was undeniable. A former judge to the High Court and member of Uganda’s Supreme Court Francis Ssekandi used the comparison of the Rwandan genocide to example why punitive forms of justice were inappropriate for northern Ugandans. Justice from prosecutions acted as effective deterrents of similar crimes in the future by enforcing the rule of law with consequences for the repression of human rights. The cultural conflict in Rwanda made the Gacaca courts imperative for mass justice because civilians were picking up arms of their own volition. The majority of the members of the LRA were abducted as infants, forced to commit atrocities while under duress and were considered fortunate if they managed to escape. This meant that deterrence had a very limited role to play. Criminal prosecution would have been near impossible considering the demographic. Nearly all of the soldiers seeking amnesty returned still as children or young adults who could not trace their dates of birth. In addition, victims of their crimes typically emanated from the same families, neighbourhoods or villages - collecting credible evidence against them would have been met with efforts from communities seeking to absolve their children of punishment from the country’s capital.
That being said, portraying reified local rites as a form of traditional justice that could legitimately be considered as an alternative to the ICC was a notion that activists fondly oversold with dangers they blatantly under-appreciated. Firstly, Mato Oput in its original form was not created to apply to mass killings, wanton rape or mutilations of enemies in war. Tim Allen is an anthropologist for the London School of Economics and is well known for his challenges to British journalism for over-sensationalising 19th-century cliches of the “dark continent”. In a report written in 2005, Mr Allen even had to acknowledge that those promoting the use of Mato Oput already knew that it was a mechanism used for individual cases, not for collective dispute settlement. Thus, this type of ceremony was never going to be a sufficient mechanism for dealing with the sheer number of LRA atrocities. Another factor problematising the use of Mato Oput is the fact that a ceremony would only be held if the victim’s family knew exactly who had killed or taken their kin, or if the guilty knew precisely whose life they had taken - there were no ceremonies to absolve general penance. Clans rightfully were not willing to don the responsibility of acts by the LRA simply because it was assumed that some of the soldiers hailed from their clan originally.
Ceremonies such as Mato Oput and others were not strictly linked to the virtue of forgiveness. Instead of listening to the misrepresentations and direct translations accepted by journalists, connotations surrounding traditional peace processes reveal meanings of Acholi words stretching as far as formal amnesty but also Christian notions of turning the other cheek. Locals were willing to admit that they were often cajoled into welcoming former abductees with the knowledge of the resettlement pack that they came with.
Lastly, the greatest gap in traditional peace processes was that Mato Oput did not have the capacity to adequately compensate victims. Human rights offices and refugee organisations in Kampala have highlighted the justified feelings of victims who are equally deserving of aid from the government to rebuild after village-raids by the LRA but are not considered within the articles of the Act. In addition, although Mato Oput is designed to compensate the victims with money or cattle, this element of the ceremony is no longer possible because the vast majority of the Acholi population now lives in an impoverished state in the IDP camps or, rebels free themselves from life in the bush with no ability to offer any compensation themselves. This placed unrealistic demands of forgiveness on victims who knew that they would never materially regain what they lost nor spiritually heal due to no formal acknowledgement of guilt from perpetrators.
Up until 2005, people promoted local justice as the viable and politically correct route for northern Ugandans and furthered it when the ICC first appeared on the scene. A broadening of the range of rituals does not constitute the eligibility to create a formal traditional justice system. Listing rituals as if they are codified practices is misleading. Taking popular ceremonies out of their original context and transforming them has indeed great potential for harm but is guaranteed to waste resources reifying systems that cannot legitimately progress post-conflict Uganda. What 2005 southern Uganda was doing by allowing claims about Mato Oput to be exaggerated was othering the Acholi, Langi, Iteso and Madi and isolating them, choosing to believe that they were in some way different. Protecting space for an “African way of doing things” becomes insulting when the actions imply that rural Uganda is so far removed from the western idea of a society that the people can make do without a functioning state and conventional forms of legal protection from those who might oppress them. In addition, informants from the Madi, Iteso and Langi are unsurprisingly disgruntled by the celebration of the Acholi’s Mato Oput - they ask, why, if they had also suffered at the hands of the LRA, should the Acholi alone do all the forgiving? Ultimately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the use of only traditional justice in Uganda further divided the country and implied that the south had nothing to do with and would take no responsibility for the war in the north. The post-conflict picture does not end here, and the International Criminal Court mercifully is unable to retract their warrants. The alternative to a solely western application of justice and the middle ground of an isolated traditional form is Uganda’s decision to pursue their rights to properly prosecute LRA commanders in Uganda’s High Court. We can only hope that in the next decade, Uganda can find peace as a whole nation instead of further dividing fragmented communities.
Shiisa is an International Relations student at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.