“Amnesty is the price northern Uganda paid for peace in the region,” Daily Monitor, 4 Oct 2011
By Lino Owor Ogora
On September 22, the Constitutional Court ruled that ex- LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo, was entitled to amnesty in line with Uganda’s Amnesty Act 2000. This ruling attracted mixed reactions from various sections of the public.
The question of whether or not to offer war criminals amnesty has always been controversial. It is a question that peacemakers around the world have had to grapple with. Many peace processes have been successful because of amnesty offered to perpetrators. In South Africa for example, amnesty was pivotal in ensuring that the leaders of the apartheid regime negotiated with and eventually handed over power to the African National Congress. It also encouraged many perpetrators who had committed war crimes to confess, which in some instances even led to the recovery of human remains which had been secretly buried. In West Nile, amnesty proved a critical factor in determining the surrender of the West Nile Bank Front II.
Likewise, in northern Uganda, amnesty is the price we have had to pay for peace. Amnesty in northern Uganda was so effective that it led to the surrender of many top commanders. According to the Amnesty Commission’s records, over 10,000 LRA combatants abandoned rebellion and were granted amnesty. Amnesty was even more critical given that the majority of the LRA army was composed of children abducted and turned into rebels. Kwoyelo falls into this category, having been abducted when he was only 15 years old.
But for many people, this part of Kwoyelo’s history does not matter. They feel he has to be punished for what he is now. While I agree that Kwoyelo must be held accountable, we should also keep in mind the circumstances surrounding him. The case of Kwoyelo is critical in ensuring that not all LRA fighters are viewed as a homogenous group of killers, which will enable us devise means of handling them on a case by case basis, a factor which was missing in Kwoyelo’s trial.
If it were not for amnesty, millions of people would still be living within IDP camps. Thousands more children would have been abducted, and even the Juba peace talks which ushered in the prevailing peace in northern Uganda would not have taken place.
It is not surprising that most of the people baying for Kwoyelo’s blood are those who live in comfort and safety outside northern Uganda. While such people may sympathise with victims, they do not understand the situation on the ground. If you lived in northern Uganda during the period of the insurgency, you would understand and appreciate the prioritisation of ‘peace first justice later’. It is because of this prioritisation that northern Ugandans were at the forefront of advocating amnesty as a crucial factor in ending the conflict.
Lino Owor Ogora,
Justice & Reconciliation Project, Gulu District