By Samuel Egadu Okiror
The surrender of Dominic Ongwen, one of the top Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel commanders in the Central African Republic, could lead to an end to one of Africa’s longest rebellions.
Ongwen has been haunting Ugandans’ dreams. He commanded the notorious Sinia Brigade, one of the four LRA brigades, and being a member of the “Control Altar”, he directed LRA military strategy. He and his men are accused of being responsible for rape, enslavement, abduction of children, maiming, mutilation, the murder of civilians, torture, inhuman treatment and the burning of villages.
Ongwen diligently executed the orders of his boss, Joseph Kony, and carried out the most sensitive assignments in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Kony should be worried. He knows Ongwen can offer crucial information about his whereabouts and military strength to the African Union and U.S special troops who are hunting him and his cronies in the jungles of the CAR.
But, I believe, Kony isn’t having sleepless nights. He’s seen before how to survive and avoid the “enemy”.
Prosecution or amnesty?
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Ongwen, LRA leader Joseph Kony, deputy Vincent Otti, and two other commanders – Okot Odhiambo and Raska Lukwiya – in June 2005. Lukwiya has since died, and Otti is reported to have been executed on Kony’s orders.
Although his surrender gives hope for justice to the victims of the two-decade-long insurgency in northern Uganda, there is a serious debate about whether he should be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I’m familiar with the arguments about impunity and accountability, but Ongwen – like many other children in northern Uganda – was abducted and forcibly conscripted by Kony. He was captured on his way to school when he was just 10 years old.
Let me ask a question: if Ongwen hadn’t been abducted as a teenager and indoctrinated, would he have joined the rebellion willingly and committed the atrocities and crimes he is being accused of? Like many children still in LRA captivity, he had no choice but to obey and execute orders. If he didn’t, would he still be alive by now?
Ironically, Ongwen became the first person in ICC history to be charged with the same crimes [war crimes and crimes against humanity] of which he is also a victim.
There is confusion about what will happen next to Ongwen. Although LRA commanders are excluded from Uganda’s blanket amnesty for those who surrender, renounce or abandon rebellion, some war victims, local and religious leaders have already asked President Yoweri Museveni to pardon him and ask the ICC to withdraw the charges for reconciliation purposes.
What’s the next step? Will the government transfer him to the ICC or charge him at the country’s High Court Criminal Division? Since its inception in 2008, not a single case has been prosecuted at the High Court.
I see Ongwen remaining in Uganda. President Museveni, who referred the LRA case to the ICC, has lost trust in the Court and has called on other African leaders to pull out of it. He has branded the Court part of the “hegemonic post-colonial agenda” targeting African leaders. If he were to hand over Ongwen, he would risk losing face with his African neighbours.
But for many Ugandans the issue now is: is this the end of the LRA rebellion? Are Kony and his cronies’ days numbered, before their capture, surrender or elimination? Ongwen’s surrender will definitely weaken the LRA. It’s likely to encourage more LRA defections from the vast jungles.
Uganda, the African Union and UN officials should take advantage of his surrender and intensify the ‘come back home’ and amnesty messages for more rebels to abandon the rebellion. Maybe Uganda’s nightmare is over.
Samuel Egadu Okiror is a Ugandan journalist based in the capital, Kampala. He covered the LRA rebellion, peace process and continues to report on international justice. This is personal opinion and reaction.
(Photo: Isaac Kasamani/AFP)