The Road Less Traveled: State actors’ accountability in northern Uganda

Evelyn Akullo Otwili

IN THE COURSE of the conflict in northern Uganda serious crimes of concern to Ugandans as a whole – particularly regular use of torture, murder, abductions and forceful displacement – were perpetuated against civilian populations in places like Palabek, Burcoro, Lukome, Awach, Alero, Acholi Bur, Purongo, and Namukora  in the 1990’s not only by LRA but also by State Actors. As early as the 1990’s, Amnesty International reported inhumane acts by the then National Resistance Army (NRA). A particularly serious set of human rights violations are reported by a several sources to have taken place between 16 and 18 April 1991 in Paicho Sub-County in Gulu District. On these dates people from villages around Burcoro were brought to a temporary NRA camp at Burcoro primary school for “screening”. NRA soldiers rounding people up are alleged to have done so in a violent manner, beating some of those held (see ‘Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army’. Amnesty International. December, 1991). There were also reports of rape, torture and extrajudicial execution. JRP in its work has also come up with similar report on Palabek (see ‘When A Gunman Speaks, You Must Listen’, JRP Field Note XV, August 2012) and Mukura. These treatments of civilians were not only inhumane but seem to portray a pattern of consistent human rights violation across northern Uganda, leaving the people with very many unanswered questions.

In Palabek, charges are yet to be brought on Captain Abiriga. To date, not only has his identity remained a mystery but also the silence surrounding this man and his atrocities in Palabek is unbecoming. While documenting the experiences of the victims in Palabek, we discovered that most of the tortures, beatings, rapes and killings by the NRA soldiers in Palabek in the early 1990’s happened under the mastership of Captain  Abiriga. All the available options seem to exonerate him – he can’t be tried in the ICD nor the ICC. Other than the sound in his name, nothing much seems to be known about him. Should we now say he goes unpunished? The victims feel otherwise.

In Burcoro a similar situation, where countless rape episodes, torture, killings by suffocation, abductions and loot were carried out by the 22nd Battalion of the NRA, allegedly under the command of Ikondere. Much as this was 1991, the brutality and cruelty that these soldiers displayed on unarmed civilians can only be compared to the ravage of beasts. Much as the hurts and ruins inflicted upon this population still stand out up to today, nothing much has been done to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable. Time and again some individuals have attempted to explain that these were a “bunch of foolish boys who went on rampage”. Do we believe that? Do the victims believe that? Shall we ever travel that road to bring justice? It remains nothing but a road less traveled.

 What has been done to remedy these rights violations? Have these NRA commanders ever been held accountable or silently rewarded and promoted? Where are they? Shall we ever travel that road which will see us hold these people accountable and bring justice to the victims in Palabek, Burcoro, Lukome, Awach, Namukora, Mucwini and even Mukura? For the two decades that open violence raged some of those questions were too hard to be asked or the road was too ‘bushy’ to be traveled. A lot of the politicians who drummed this cry such as Zacary Olum, Andrew Adimola and Teberio Atwoma found themselves tortured and imprisoned for allegedly ‘using government fund to wrongly mobilise the masses’ according to Amnesty International. It became extremely difficult for anyone to stand up against this brutal violence lest the same happen to them. When the ‘serious’ Juba peace talk of 2008 finally came, many civilian populations expected part of these questions to be answered. Unfortunately these questions remained more mysterious and eluded all tangible possible answers.

Yes, peace has returned to the region but the question of accountability and possible prosecution of state actors especially has eluded the victims and northern Uganda as a whole.

Instead of providing a viable solution, the Juba Peace Agreement called for the handling of State Actors through other methods such as Court Martial. This has created frustration for the victims in some of the places aforementioned, who bore the wrath of these state actors. None of them can concretely say a court of this nature has happened in relation to their specific sufferings. Many feel that even if there were to be such a court, its outcome would always remain unpredictable because not only are their proceedings closed to the public but they are more often than not conducted by the army leadership. Victim participation in these courts is also unheard of. This makes them feel that the road to hold state actors accountable is yet to be traveled.


Which road should victims travel?

As noted from the experiences of these communities, most of the crimes committed by the NRA were crimes before 2002. The jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court only allows the Court to deal with crimes committed after the 1st of July 2002. Therefore, while peace is here and recovery is underway, where will accountability of State Actors be? Not with the ICC of course.

Can the victims travel the road of the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court – formed as a result of the negotiations between the Government of Uganda and the LRA for trying LRA leaders in Uganda? As much as this would have been another viable option, the timing of the violations makes it less traveled as well.

As I conclude, there is need for state actors to be held accountable in other fora other than the court martial and this can only happen when there is a political will for it.