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Where do war crimes come from?

Native Intelligence

Where do war crimes come from?

While tribunals such as the International Criminal Court seek to punish those accused of war crimes, little is being done to discover how individuals ended up committing such heinous acts in the first place. By Kalundi Serumaga

“War,” a German thinker once said, “is politics by other means”. Today’s history is yesterday’s politics. So, when a court sits on War Crimes, should it not also judge history?

Dominic Ongwen, a now 43-year-old man from the north of Uganda, stands accused of war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he has been held for nearly four years. He was an officer in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which gained global notoriety during its decade-long activities. 

From 1987 to 2006, much of northern Uganda was the site of a civil war, in itself a follow-on from the earlier 1981-1986 one in mainly the south, that ended when the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebel group seized power, and its head, Yoweri Museveni took the national presidency.

“Treason,” said another European statesman, “is a matter of dates.” So are war crimes, apparently. Many of the charges Ongwen faces are also applicable to the NRA from 1981, when it began the war that brought it to power, and for the full decade after taking power.

The only difference is the dates. The ICC was only fully instituted in 1998.

How can one build a case on war crimes without a proper narrative of the political crimes that caused the war in the first place? Where is the line between acts of collective political recklessness and individual criminal acts, often dissected as sterile exhibits in court?

A virulent metaphor

The war in northern Uganda has never been properly acknowledged as a failure of Ugandan politics. The LRA, which was the third historical leadership on the rebel side, is simply its most virulent metaphor.

The proceedings against Ongwen first establish beyond doubt that some heinous act did indeed take place, and then work to forensically link it to him by using testimony from government army signallers, civilian eyewitnesses, satellite communication records, other former LRA fighters and the like.

Much as criminal law, by its nature, must focus on specifics, this approach offers the NRA, and its British and American backers, an escape hatch from an obligation to account for their historical role in creating the conditions that created the Ongwens of this world.

The conflict had a single, simple cause: political exclusion which in Uganda, has always translated into physical persecution.

The northern side was an amalgamation of political, community and military interests coping with the consequences of the ending of the General Tito Okello junta which lasted from July 1985 to January 1986. The soldiers were also determined to recover their standing and the politicians were determined to retrieve their positions. Together, they offered the means of resistance for the ordinary people caught up in trying to survive the new ‘government’ army’s viciousness, while cynically doing little to explain its possible causes.

The first historical leadership was the Uganda People’s Democratic Movement (UPDM), headed by one Eric Otema Allimadi, who had been Prime Minister of Milton Obote’s 1980-1985 government. The southern side, beyond being held together by a shared victimisation by the army that had backed the 1980-1985 second Obote dictatorship, and bitterness towards it, had no real collective politics. It was the northern camp’s rush to war that held the southern military coalition together. These trajectories collided, devastating northern villages – and the rebellion, which could not match the NRA’s appetite for blood and bones, begin to splinter.

In mid-1998, Otema Allimadi hastily convened a public meeting in London to announce that he had arrived at an arrangement with the NRA government, ending his involvement.

Dangerous new spiritualism

This was around the time some rebels had turned to methods later associated with the second historical leadership: Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, comparable to the ‘Ghost dancers’ of 1890s Native American armed resistance to the advancing European settlers. After the shock of devastating massacres and evictions, many fighters in indigenous nations resorted to a new spiritualism.

This is a resistance after defeat: desperate, but still there.

Many questions quickly followed Allimadi’s reading of a formal statement, which amounted to him saying that he was pulling out because internal weaknesses meant that the war was not going according to plan. He had no real answers.

Allimadi’s political pedigree lay in that charmed circle of politicians who arrived late to the anti-colonial struggle, but were to feature prominently in the resultant independence. The main impact of his withdrawal was to take respectable leadership away from the rebels’ side. This did not remove the reasons for the rebellion in the first place, and was to go on to create a most degenerate politics – spawning second wave, less conventional rebel armies with less comprehensible goals, that could maintain damaging, low-intensity conflicts, while losing interest in state power.

In one particular intervention, a man claiming to have recently participated in the fighting dismissed Allimadi’s reasons, stating that the rest of them “would have nothing to do with your so-called peace agreement”. This may have been one of the first public statements from those who were to go on to form what became the Lord’s Resistance Army, in which Joseph Kony, a hitherto peripheral figure in the fighting, becomes significant.

The NRA leadership then recognised two things: the rebellion no longer posed an existential threat, but also that continued rebel activity had other uses: it became a pretext for the militarising Ugandan public life; a scarecrow to be raised during elections with the wholesale demonisation of northern politicians; an early and lucrative channel for grand corruption, leading to the most infamous military procurement scandals of the 1990s; and an early opportunity to raise cash from US ‘anti-terrorism’ budgets.

NRA’s focus then shifted to simply managing the war, not ending it. Eventually, public discontent and disgusted donors that had been then financing roughly half the country’s annual budget, brought the gravy train to a halt.

The LRA case, it can be argued, was therefore not handed to the ICC in a quest for justice for its victims. Rather, it was cynically offloaded onto The Hague once those feeding off it in Kampala saw that the tap had run dry.   

A fuller accounting is needed.

Is there not a case for a wider focus on general criminal negligence by a government under whose watch this state of affairs festered for so long that children forced into it grew into adulthood while rising through the ranks? NA   

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