Uganda: the wrong transition?

Published: 8 Jun 2012
By: Lucy Hovil

Since the ICC Chief Prosecutor identified Uganda as a situation of concern in 2003, Uganda has become internationally recognised as a country in transition from conflict to peace. And the showpiece of that transition has been the issuing of arrest warrants against Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. The consequent flurry of activity by international human rights advocates, keen to see their new Court test its mandate in the relatively uncontroversial waters of a state referral, ensured that considerable attention was focused on Uganda as a result. More recently, the release of the infamous and much blogged about Kony2012 initiative has not only re-ignited this attention, but has made Kony a media sensation. At the heart of this attention is the assumption that international criminal justice somehow holds the solution to Uganda’s problems: it is key to ensuring an end to the war and generating a meaningful transition to a peaceful future for those in the north.

While undoubtedly there is some veracity in such an assumption, what if, in reality, the focus is on the wrong transition? What if the transition in Uganda that needs to take place is not primarily about moving from conflict to peace but about moving from authoritarian rule to democratic governance – one of the ‘old-style’ transitions that started in the democratic transitions of Latin America and Eastern Europe, and was later transported to Africa? What if the war in northern Uganda (which has now subsided in Uganda but been displaced to neighbouring countries), and its anti-hero, Kony, are the sideshow, not the real event? And, most importantly, what if well-meaning attempts at deploying international criminal justice are not only misguided but are actually detrimental to the broader transition? With so much attention on Kony and the LRA (or what is left of it), it is vital that these wider questions continue to be asked.

It is precisely these concerns that local activists in Uganda have been trying to raise for decades. Long before the ICC or even Invisible Children made Kony an internet sensation, local activists were shouting themselves hoarse trying to get the world to understand not only the appalling impact of the conflict in the north, but its broader context – a context in which President Museveni and his National Resistance Movement have held the country to ransom for almost three decades. Kony is a symptom (albeit a brutal one) of poor governance and the mismanagement of resources over the past decades in which the country has seen over 20 rebel groups operating since Museveni came to power. Yet this context has somehow been overlooked.

While the ICC and its international justice minders have never claimed to be anything more than part of the solution to the war in the north, it is important to recognise that in practice its involvement has fundamentally altered the parameters for promoting both peace and justice. As a result, the basis for the real transition that needs to take place – one that addresses the deeply embedded structural injustices that lay at the root of the conflict – has been somehow occluded by an overwhelming focus on a seemingly demented rebel leader. In reality, the rot that lies at the heart of current Ugandan governance structures has not only remained untouched by the ICC’s course of action, but has become further entrenched.

For sure, the temperature has cooled considerably in northern Uganda: hundreds of thousands of people have returned to their homes and no longer live in constant fear of being attacked by armed combatants. And although Kony and three of his senior commanders are still at large, and the threat of an LRA re-armed by their comrade-in-arms, President Bashir, is ever-present, some of the rawness has gone out of the discussion. Yet many of the root causes of conflict remain unaddressed, overlooked and occluded by a discussion that continues to focus on the wrong villains.

For meaningful and durable justice and peace to be experienced in northern Uganda – and Uganda as a whole – something far bigger and better needs to be envisaged. For sure, the prosecution of Kony and his senior commanders might be part of an overall solution to conflict in the country, but it will only lead to justice if it supports rather than jeopardises the wider pursuit of justice. And let us make no mistake: the kind of sabre-rattling typical of initiatives such as Kony2012 emphasises a military solution that justifies US military presence in Uganda, and fails to recognise that military solutions against the LRA (with or without US help) have not only failed dismally for almost three decades but have led to increased suffering. At best, the root causes of conflict in northern Uganda, and the terrible suffering experienced in northern Uganda and neighbouring states, might be alleviated by the arrest of Kony. But they certainly won’t be resolved. Something far braver needs to take place for that to happen.

Lucy Hovil

(This blog is based on a paper on Uganda civil society engagement with the ICC that is part of a new series by International Refugee Rights Initiative, “Just Justice: Civil Society, International Justice and the Search for Accountability in Africa.” See the Paper: Poison Chalice.)

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Uganda
Type: IRRI Blog