Next Steps in Northern Uganda
The roller coaster that is the Juba Peace Talks between the Government of Uganda (GOU) and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) carries on this week. Since the Peace Talks began in August, northern Uganda has become a battleground for discussion on different approaches to transitional justice and reconciliation. Last week, Refugee Law Project (RLP) published To Look Forward, We Must Look Back, the first position paper on the issue. The paper is an excellent starting point for the debate. RLP writes:
We believe that local reconciliation methods such as Mato Oput are important at a local level and should be validated, supported and strengthened. We also believe that the truth-telling elements embedded in Mato Oput and many other Ugandan cultural reconciliation mechanisms should be emulated and adapted into a wider process.
However, we recognize and stress that the current emphasis on local mechanisms cannot address the needs of the country as a whole, whether it be the north-south divide, or tensions between east and west. Equally, we recognize that international justice mechanisms- such as the ICC- are structurally incapable of handling anything more than the most visible perpetrators of abuses; while they address a particular dimension of impunity, they are not suited for dealing with the wider psychosocial and political consequences of decades of conflict.
Important points. Nearly everyone agrees that traditional justice practices and the ICC must be part of a larger transitional justice picture. Here is where divergent opinion begins:
In support of the efforts of other actors working on these issues, we therefore urge Government, Civil Society Actors, Religious Bodies and political parties, to fully investigate the multiple options for establishing a national truth and reconciliation process.
RLP is on target. Anyone with a sense of history recognizes that President Museveni has the opportunity to make one of the boldest and bravest moves in Uganda's short history. A national truth and reconciliation process that addresses the vast gulfs of mistrust and conflict that have separated the many nations that exist within the Ugandan state would do much to end the deeply ingrained culture of nepotism.
There are two very hard questions that RLP does not address.
(i) Is there political will to make national truth and reconciliation a reality?
The answer lies only with Museveni. There is reason to be hopeful. He is increasingly interested in his legacy, especially relating to East African unity. He must know that this cannot happen unless his own house is in order. There are also economic reasons. Stability of Southern Sudan, with Juba as its capital, makes for enormous economic opportunity. Anything material going to Juba will surely come from the Mombasa Port via Kampala and Gulu. Uganda loses much needed income if the north is unstable. Even political adversaries like Gulu LC V Chairman Norbert Mao have acknowledged that Museveni has become significantly more open-minded about resolving the northern question. However, it will take a heroic effort for him to transcend the political culture of neo-patrimonialism that has pervaded Uganda.
(ii) What would a national truth and reconciliation process look like?
The details of this plan are beyond the scope of this post, but the process should be served by the careful balancing of two disparate principles. First, all parties should recognize that the process of 'acknowledgement' is central to the Ugandan sense of justice. While punitive justice would be a Sisyphisean task considered the twenty-two armed conflicts in the last twenty years, public acknowledgement of wrongs would go a long way towards reconciliation.
Second is Rosiland Shaw's concept of 'social forgetting.' Shaw is a Tufts University anthropologist whose work in Sierra Leone showed that truth commissions, which are the international norm in transitional justice, are not always therapeutic. Shaw showed that religious or traditional based approaches to dealing with the past can often be more appropriate and effective.
Uganda must strike a careful balance between a national process that fosters unity and a series of local processes that encourage healing.