Current Views and Perceptions of Truth-Telling in Northern Uganda

By Andres Jimenez

On Tuesday 18th July 2012, the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) released its long awaited study on traditional justice and truth-telling. The one day launch event took place at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala. The report contained findings of a study on traditional justice mechanisms of tribes all over Northern Uganda, and truth-telling mechanisms. The report made policy recommendations on adoption of a national policy on truth-telling and traditional justice.

Following the launch of this report, JRP’s Community Documentation department decided to conduct a brief situational analysis on truth-telling within local communities, to analyse local perceptions and opinions on the subject. 

THE PUBLICATION in July this year by Uganda’s Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) of a report on traditional justice, truth-telling and national reconciliation issues in the context of war atrocities committed in different parts of Uganda motivated JRP’s Documentation Department to conduct a brief analysis of the issues of truth-telling and its current perceptions specifically within communities in the north of the country. Interviews were carried out from the 31st of July until the 3rd of August, 2012 in the communities of Awach and Lukodi (Gulu District), and Koch Goma (Nwoya District), as well as in Gulu town.

The objective of this quick study was to gauge the current perceptions and relevance of truth-telling within many war-torn communities in Northern Uganda, which would then be complied into a brief report. The study was particularly focused on documenting what the current understandings of truth-telling or truth-seeking processes are within these communities, what relevance these types of mechanisms currently have in terms of solidifying the reconciliation and healing process of victims and perpetrators in Northern Uganda and what challenges exist. 

From what we were able to determine, the opinions with regards to the current relevance of truth-telling processes are widespread and fairly diverse; nonetheless, there does seem to be an overwhelming support among many communities for some form of truth-telling process to take place. This support seems to mostly revolve around the issue of former rebel fighters and their struggle for reintegration and acceptance back into their communities.

Acholi traditional values and the community’s awareness of the victim/perpetrator duality that characterises the overwhelming majority of rebel fighters still supports a general view that unconditional forgiveness must be given regardless of the former rebel’s actions during his or her time in the bush. However, full reintegration and acceptance back into the community is not without its significant challenges. Animosity, resentment, fear, mistrust and stigmatisation are all issues that community members and former rebel soldiers often struggle with long after their return. It seems that despite the traditional Acholi views and attitudes towards forgiveness, complete integrations and acceptance by most community members requires an active engagement between the community and the returnee. A significant amount of community members thus consider truth-telling or truth-seeking processes as a highly relevant mechanisms which can cement the relationship healing process between former combatants and their communities.

Traditional Acholi cleansing or reconciliation ceremonies seem to still be considered as the preferred approach to any reintegration process of former rebel soldiers, and generally some form of truth-telling is involved in these processes. However, great debate still remains as to the extent to which this is the case. For this reason mixed opinions are still present amongst most respondents on whether truth-telling processes are already sufficiently covered within traditional cleansing or reconciliation ceremonies or whether there is a need for them to be carried out as separate complementary processes.

It is important to note nonetheless, that the acceptance and desire to engage in truth-telling processes in many communities in Northern Uganda is certainly not a view universally shared by all. There are community members that consider such processes as problematic and highly undesirable because of their capacity to resurface painful memories and the increase possibility of renewal of tensions within the community if such discussion were to take place. It would seem then, that any effort to carry out any type of broader truth-telling process thus needs to recognize and take into consideration the sensitivity of this issue.

Following its publication, the full report was shared at a conference organised by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and in Kampala on the 17 of August 2012. This conference was organised with the intent to have a consultative meeting focused on the drafting of policy recommendations on traditional justice mechanisms, truth-telling and national reconciliation policies. This report was then shared and discussed with representatives from the Justice Law and Order Sector as well as other civil society organisations. ▪

 Andres Jimenez is an intern with the Community Documentation Department of JRP.