Inthe final part of JFJ’s three-part interview Chapter Four Uganda activist and former Kwoyelo lawyer Nicholas Opiyo explains that Ugandans have not been numbed by the atrocities in their country but have instead learnt to survive.
JFJ: What would be some of the recommendations of what needs to be done in relation to the ICD, the Kwoyelo trial, the Dominic Ongwen case and the situation in Kasese?
Opiyo:One, we must begin to hold to account perpetrators of mass violence and heinous human rights violations regardless of their rank, regardless of their position, whether they were government forces or non-state actors. The absence of accountability or even just investigations on Kasese and indeed of other crimes by government forces across the country is heartbreaking to say the least. I think we must commit to proper transparent public investigations of crimes committed by government forces and non-state actors. Two, when we commit to a justice process, can we at least pretend to have a fair process? Clear rules, clear systems with the interest of pursuing justice not a political end. Can we have a permanent ICD with permanent judges because you can’t keep moving a judge from the commercial division of the High Court, a family division of the High Court, to come to the ICD. The ICD is a specialized court that needs permanent judges to be able to be consistent, to be able to develop the expertise necessary to try the kind of crimes they’re supposed to try. In the absence of a permanent court we are going to have a weak, perhaps ineffective, court unable to meet the expectations of the people. Those three are enough.
JFJ: What do you feel is the level of public participation in the ongoing Dominic Ongwen trial at the ICC?
Opiyo:Participation was very intense at the beginning, when there was excitement about the case and because this was the first case from Uganda. But I think that ever since, the interest has dissipated and only a few people are following the process. I think that one, people don’t understand the process; we, large parts of the country, thought that the case would be handled quickly but to see the guy turn up in a suit in the court as the case drags on for long, in a process they don’t understand, people have since lost interest. They don’t see that trial as connected to their own plight. They see that trial as removed from their reality and not so many people are keen on it, it’s been left to NGOs and few people.
JFJ: Uganda has witnessed many atrocities. Do you think Ugandans have grown numb?
Opiyo:I don’t think we have become numb, we are just aware of the political reality. That we are in a state in which the government is not afraid to unleash violence on its population when you attempt to seek justice, hold it to account or attempt to exercise your right in a way that would threaten their hold in power. People are acutely aware of that, and so people are in self-preservation mode. We are bottling anger, we are bottling discontent and historical injustice. If you want to demonstrate against this government on the street, chances are you might end up dead, or severely injured, you know, dismembered or shot or tear gassed. So people are acutely aware of the propensity for violence by the state and their willingness to unleash it without hesitation.
As such, people withdraw to their on spaces not because they are numb but because they are just aware of the dangers of trying to hold government to account. I think it’s just a matter of time before this explodes. I think that with every change of government has come bloodshed so in the absence of a possibility for peaceful transfer of power, the possibility for mass violence arising from historical injustice remains very high. In 2009, when there were demonstrations in the city about an attempt by the state to give away Mabira Forest to a sugar factory for cane growing, (Ugandans) who were outraged held a large demonstration.
In the process, people didn’t just demonstrate against the giver of the forest but went after the Indians: the Indian community was targeted because of the [perceived] historical injustice and the privilege that this community [seen to have had] in this country such that its members had to take refuge in police stations to avoid being killed. In 2009 again, there were demonstrations when the Buganda king was denied access to a part of his kingdom. That sparked a week of demonstrations in the city but instead of protesting against the king being banned from visiting part of his kingdom, people went after Banyankole from the west of Buganda. I cite these cases to show that there are historical injustices and feelings in the country that are just being bottled. They are waiting for an opportunity to explode. I think that as long as we don’t have a peaceful transfer of power or the possibility of transfer of power of sorts, this remains an ever-present threat in the country.
JFJ: What are some of the reconciliation mechanisms put in place to prevent future atrocities in Uganda?
Opiyo:In northern Uganda we have a very prominent role for traditional justice systems to try and build broken relationships, between the people of the region, or say the Acholi sub region which was the epicenter of the conflicts, and the neighboring communities that have historical injustices and issues as well because the LRA committed crimes in Lango sub region, in Teso, in Karamoja and those communities felt as though the Acholi people had attacked them. So traditional justice mechanisms that promote reconciliation, restitution as opposed to punishment have been revived and they are being applied. I think that the state has also now appreciated the importance of that kind of justice system and has embarked on a process to develop a transitional justice policy to try and help bridge relationships.
So traditional mechanism are being applied but also the state is trying to cope and draw a national policy on transitional justice. Secondly, I think that the overarching objective of the Amnesty Act was to ensure reconciliation and non-recurrence of violence. So you have the Amnesty Act, the Amnesty Commission and people have been given amnesty. These are all processes that are being put in place to ensure non-recurrence of violence. Thirdly, communities that are disadvantaged, at least the government we can argue about its effectiveness, but they are government projects that are being put in place, to rebuild, reconstruct those communities to avoid recurrence of violence because sometimes violence is a result of economic exclusion, economic hardship. So you have had large World Bank projects in northern Uganda, large projects in the Luwero Triangle, which was the epicenter of conflict, so these things are being done to ensure non-recurrence of violence in the future.
Fact-box: Uganda’s troubled transitions
Uganda has had eight presidents since the official declaration of independence from the British in 1962. The first president, King Edward Mutesa II, ruled from October 1963 until 1966 when he was deposed by Prime Minister Milton Obote. Nine years into Obote’s ruling, an army commander Idi Amin Dada took power through a coup d’état and declared himself president. He was reputed as one of the most brutal African dictators and ordered an attack on Tanzania that broke into war in 1978. Tanzania President Julius Nyerere’s forces attacked Uganda and forced Amin out of power and into exile.
Yusuf Kironde Lule was named president and served for 68 days before the National Consultative Commission (NCC) removed him from power through a coup d’état for purportedly making appointments in government without consulting them. Later Godfrey Binaisa replaced him but his rule was short lived and Paulo Muwanga became president and later vice president from 1981 to 1985 during Milton Obote’s second regime. Obote was deposed in a coup d’état led by General Tito Okello, who then held the presidency from July 1985 until January 26, 1986. The National Resistance Movement, led by Yoweri Museveni, deposed Gen Okello after a successful five-year guerrilla war in the Luwero Triangle.