By Susan Kendi
Defence cross-examination of the first prosecution witness threatened to open the can of worms that is the intricate relationships surrounding the 30-year conflict between the Uganda government and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Prosecution expert witness Tim Allen retorted to a question by Dominic Ongwen’s lawyer that the latter, Kryspus Ayena Odongo, was better placed to explain what happened at the Juba peace talks between the government at the LRA. Odongo, who is the sitting Member of Parliament for Oyam North, was the LRA’s legal expert at the failed talks to end hostilities in northern Uganda.
Tim Allen, who was testifying for the second day in the Ongwen crimes against humanity trial at the International Criminal Court, replied, “I can’t say. We recognize that the Juba peace talks involved different groups claiming to represent the LRA. All sorts of confusions.”
Odongo, who cross-examined Allen for the whole day Tuesday, also asked if the expert had heard that Ongwen was ever in contact with Museveni’s brother, General Salim Saleh. He also asked if an “activist” associated with Forum for Restoration of Democracy and four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye had joined the LRA but Allen said he could not speak about it.
Allen said in response: “It was an intimate kind of war, most people knew each other too well since childhood and there was a lot of communication ongoing since Vincent Otti at times rung up people asking for credit. Odongo remarked that it was strange Kony was using a communication system and gadgets in Gulu in 2004 such as satellite and mobile phones.
“Otti was communicating with outsiders and took great pride in his design of the LRA album,” Allen added. Kony later executed Otti over alleged money issues because he was seen as a threat. At the time, the Madi chief was with Kony, trying to find out where the abducted Madi people were but later found out that they had all been killed.
“It was an intimate kind of war, most people knew each other too well since childhood and there was a lot of communication ongoing since Vincent Otti at times rung up people asking for credit,” Allen said.
He added that he couldn’t speak to provenance of reports about an incident in which elders blessed LRA members to represent the Acholi people.
Allen, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, said some of the LRA abductees who were lucky to come back feared being killed by Museveni’s soldiers, whom they thought were evil. Most of them described events in an extremely detailed manner without making a value judgment on them.
Ongwen’s lawyer played a video of LRA commander Joseph Kony’s 2006 interview in which he says “We want people of Uganda Free and Tim Allen goes ahead to expound the context of Kony’s statements in the video saying that “There was a feeling that the government had come to power by force.
“Would it be fair to say that the emergence of the LRA was a spontaneous reaction to the security situation?” Odongo asked.
“I put it to you that you may have missed a link in your research. In your time amongst the Acholi, did you ever hear the term “laloyo maber?” asked Odongo.
He also challenged Allen’s understanding of the chieftaincy system in neighbouring ethnic groups, the Lango and Madi, saying the scholar knew a lot about the Madi but did not mention the Lango.
Allen said he didn’t know about all these chieftaincies until he came across a doctoral thesis, whose findings were subsequently confirmed during research in 2004. He added that it was likely that if the LRA had not existed, another rebel group of its kind would have emerged. The Holy Spirit Movement created a model in whose wake other groups like the LRA sprung up.
Responding to Odongo’s cross-examination, Allen said that Kony was an Ajwaka (spirit medium) and that he had witnessed children whose behaviour was explained as being possessed by cen (spirits in Acholi).
The scholar said cen is not a malicious spirit but a kind that possesses those who have experienced violence. The mythology surrounding Kony was that some people thought that he could see inside their minds and thought that his aura was always around them.
Asked whether Kony would act in a way that would always respect the authority of his senior commanders, Allen said it was not necessarily so. When the spirits were not possessing Kony, he was reportedly a friendly and funny person and had close friends, but when he was possessed, he got violent and his treatment of people would vary to a big extent.
Ongwen, a feared former LRA commander has been charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity, which include rape, torture, sexual slavery, and abduction of children under the age of 15 years among others, which occurred between 2002 to 2005 in the Sinai Brigade, which he led. Ongwen himself was reportedly abducted in 1988 when he was 14 years old as he walked to Koro Abili Primary School.