Sudan-Uganda: "The Acholi were provoked" - Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo

RI-KWANGBA, 1 June 2007 (IRIN)

QUESTION: Why did you come to Ri-Kwangba?

ANSWER: Basically because I'm a member of the Acholi community and one of the leading political figures from that sub-region. In the peace process, it has for some time now been considered important to involve the political leaders from the sub-region in this process.

Q:Why do you think so little is known about what has been called one of the 'world's worst humanitarian disasters'?

A: We had a government in Uganda that was so embraced by the West when it came to power, and then when some of these things began to show, particularly the conflict in the north, it was a blemish that many people didn't want to talk about. In that silence, the conflict escalated and became a real humanitarian disaster that should have been addressed much earlier. Eventually it could no longer be hidden and people had to talk about it, and it had to be resolved, but by the time the international community had the courage to talk about it, it had become a terrible disaster for the community in those places.

Q: What is the Ugandan opposition doing about it - or are they preoccupied with the politics of power in Kampala?

A: As the opposition, our aim is that the government should talk to the LRA. That has been our struggle over a long period . all along we have been telling the government, look, this is a political issue, you can best resolve it through dialogue. The biggest role we played was to push government into talking to the LRA. Now we are observers to make sure things go well.

Q: How do you explain the fact that the conflict has gone on for 20 years without a military or political solution?

A: It is tough - we have always insisted the Museveni government had the military mind to go and change governments in [Democratic Republic of] Congo, in Rwanda, and therefore the military explanation was inadequate. All we thought was that either it was deliberate negligence or it was a gross under-estimation of the situation. By the time they realised, it had escalated into a scale of conflict that was shameful for the government. The other element is the resilience of the people in that region. They were able to keep to themselves, keep to their sub-region for so long when they could have all run away to other places and caused a refugee crisis that the international community would have responded to much earlier.

Q: How is the LRA perceived in Uganda?

A: In the beginning there was a gross misrepresentation of this conflict by the government: it was like the Acholis - the bad guys - versus the government. And therefore in the rest of the communities in Uganda, in the southern part, it was, well, if they are suffering, it's good punishment, good riddance. But over time people have realised this is a Ugandan conflict and has to be resolved by the collective response of all Ugandans. So over the last year we have had a tremendous national response - the urging of government to talk peace, and then the urging of everybody who can to provide humanitarian support.

Q: The leader of this movement, Joseph Kony, projects himself as a mystical, shadowy person. What do you think of him?

A: I think, being a scientist myself, I always understood the mysticism as the context within which they could easily operate and implement their agenda. It was nothing tangible. But they used it to influence those around them, even to impose their will on the population.

Since I first talked to Kony on the phone, and then met him - this is probably for the fifth time - I have no doubt he is a very intelligent person who knows how to manage the situation he is in. And who poses on the surface as a character that leads to too many people underestimating his capacity. Me, Kony and Otti, we understand each other . They are just human beings. To some extent I'm beginning to think they are now looking back, reflecting on some of the things that have happened. They are caught in the story of their war; the very many excesses that have been part of that conflict. And you can begin to discern some kind of worry - about their whole well-being, and how it will end for them, as this conflict is resolved. You can now see uncertainty coming in and therefore the human-ness in them begins to get exposed.

Q: But the person who everyone seems to deal with and negotiate with at the meetings is actually Vincent Otti?

A: Yes but it's only in those moments of physical interaction. Now when you talk to Vincent Otti when he's in the bush, Kony is always lurking behind. Otti is like the medium through whom Kony does his thing. It therefore puts Otti in a very central role. And maybe in terms of character, Otti doesn't have the calmness of character to sit back and watch, so he tends to go in and get engaged, because he has become a very prominent figure. Many people have mistaken him as the driving force. But no, it's still Joseph Kony who's driving the whole process.

Q: What do Ugandans feel about the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants, compared with traditional justice mechanisms?

A: When President Museveni turned to the ICC, when they came into Uganda to do the preliminary investigations, we told them, you are entering a trap from which you will not emerge unscathed. The biggest challenge for the ICC now is they have found the traditional process is so strong it is virtually overwhelming their own, on the indictment of the LRA leaders. For them it is now a struggle to save ICC face, maintaining its authority. At the same time they recognise that it's not going to work that way - because the indicted leaders, particularly Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti, are central to delivering peace in northern Uganda. The demand for peace is so strong that the communities affected - particularly ours, the Acholi - are prepared to forgive through the traditional process for the sake of sustainable peace. And this runs counter to the ICC demand for these people to pay through the justice system. We are in a situation where the ICC will have to somehow find a common way of backing out of where they are.

The example we have, in Uganda, is the West Nile conflict under Idi Amin, which pitted the Acholi community and the West Nilers [against each other] in a situation where there was so much murder with impunity. When Amin was overthrown many of the local militia who went to West Nile were Acholi, from Lango, and they did all kinds of atrocious things. At the end of the day, the two communities met and we went through the Mato oput traditional system. Now, between us and the West Nilers, there is not a shred of ill feeling in relation to that past.

Q: But is it possible for the traditional justice system to deal with atrocities on such a mass scale - of abduction, rape, mutilations and killings? Mato oput was not designed to cope with that, was it?

A: Actually, it is not true that it deals with small-scale killings only. It is the principle that you must accept that when killings take place, you cannot reverse the deaths, and you cannot cling to it at the expense of the future. Therefore, we have the mechanism where we accept what has happened as having happened and we forge a common future. That is the basic principle, regardless of the scale. When applied, it works. What we anticipate is the LRA on the one side and our communities in the north on the other side together saying, look, this has happened - we cannot change what has happened. But for the sake of the future we must accept it; those who were responsible must accept the responsibility, we who were victims must forgive them. Then we say we must start with a clean slate. That's the basis. The scale is immaterial.

Q: One of the extraordinary features of this conflict is the child abductions. How do you forgive that?

A: It is just acceptance of the fact they happened, and that it can't be changed. The focus is now on the society trying to craft some future out of those who have been victims of this process. We are not going to focus, not in my community, on those who did it because it is a waste of time. In the end we can't change them; we must focus on the victims, make sure that they live some kind of normal life, that's where the traditional justice system comes in. Even when there is one single killing, the individual who is involved ceases to hold responsibility - it is his or her community, whether it is a household, a sub-clan or a clan, who then accept the responsibility for what happened. The individuals involved, they play no role.

Q: How did the LRA come to mobilise a young and traumatised army of children - can that be explained culturally?

A: When you try to explain this conflict, you need to go very far into the Acholi community. It can best be explained by the post-independence experiences of that community. Under Amin, they were very brutally murdered, extensively. When a change took place the initial reaction was, ok, let's see what happens. But when people started getting picked [arrested], they said this time, we are not going to be killed like before. And the community rose up with arms. Now in that confusion, those who had the cunning to understand the minds of the people, their vulnerability, took advantage and started moving towards building around them their own power bases, their own agenda for action. That's where people like Joseph Kony came in. That's where [Alice] Lakwena came in.

I must also say that when you look closely at the government of President Museveni, the Acholi community was easily provoked; they were easily made excitable. It was easy to draw them into a fight where you could get rid of many of the fighting forces within those communities - because it was a real threat that if the whole military structure that came out of Tito Okello's [he ousted Milton Obote in 1985 and was himself overthrown six months later by Museveni] government remained and regrouped and reorganised, it could have been a real political and military threat to the government. So they moved very early to get rid of that potential power base. As a consequence it generated a situation that became like cancer out of control.

Now that's what we see. When the LRA could no longer recruit, they had to abduct. And their strategy was abducting the kids - because the kids, after a few miles, would get completely lost, wouldn't know where they were, and had the capacity to withstand some of the pressures. They would get molded into the kind of fighting force wanted, more than the adults. And it was a strategy that worked very well for Joseph Kony. Too many of the kids who got abducted got absorbed completely into his system. They became real killing machines that made no distinction between relatives, between the communities they came from, and any other target to which they were directed.

Q: Are they motivated by any ideology, or just by fear?

A: Yes, it is fear, discipline - and excitement at what they were doing. They were not conscious of the moral ills behind what they were doing. It is exciting, you know, moving from Sudan, attacking. If you sit with them, they start telling you their stories. They tell you with relish - how they attacked this place, how such a big person came, and they shot at them, you know. For the kids, it's adventure. They wanted nothing. They didn't understand power; they didn't understand material gains; so it was adventure. And therefore they became the best instruments of Kony.

Q: The LRA espouses a return to Acholi traditions and the Ten Commandments as its ideological platform. What does that mean to the community?

A: They've used that very well, to maintain coherence in their group. For example, the group don't drink, they don't smoke; casual sex is out of the question. And that means the key elements that are the diversion to a military force were cut off. It ensured that Kony had a focused force. Even when they are young and small in number, you can send three of them from deep inside Sudan to do an operation in Uganda, and they will walk 500-600km and go and do that operation, and come back. It allowed them to survive, and that explains why they've survived for 20 years despite the military strength [of the Ugandan authorities]. And the Acholi community is very religious, and probably a large number of us believe in the Ten Commandments from our religious perspective, whether Catholics or Anglican.

Q: Even if the peace talks work, resettling the children will be a major humanitarian challenge.

A: Actually, the biggest fear for some of us is the post-conflict period. Because without conflict the international attention is quickly drawn elsewhere, and the efforts they put in terms of resources will not be there. Secondly, the challenge of reintegrating people into their normal community lives is so great. As soon as the blemish of IDP camps is gone, and the international community driving in or flying in and criticising the government is gone, the government will think its work is done, and that's going to be a big challenge.

IRIN In-Depth: "Living with the LRA"