The Republic of Uganda gained its independence in 1962 with Edward Muteesa as President and Milton Obote as Prime Minister. Four years later in 1966 Obote deposed Muteesa in a coup d’état. Obote was then overthrown by his Chief of the Army, Idi Amin in 1971. During the rule of Idi Amin over 300,000 Ugandans were killed or disappeared and he was eventually defeated in 1979 when Tanzania invaded Uganda to eliminate Amin. Obote then came back to power and ruled Uganda until another coup d’état in 1985 by General Tito Okello, who ruled for six months. Okello’s forces were defeated by the National Resistance Army led by Yoweri Museveni, who assumed the leadership of Uganda in January of 1986 (TRIAL, 2012). Museveni has since won several elections, the latest in 2011 despite claims of election fraud, and remains in power in 2012 (BBC, 2011). Rebel groups, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), have fought Museveni since 1987 and are still actively pursued by Ugandan military forces (Chinko, 2012).
The violent changes of power in Uganda and thousands of lives lost in wars and under brutal regimes have necessitated some form of transitional justice to account for the violence and to seek some form of accountability. Uganda has conducted two truth commissions, the first in 1974 under Idi Amin, and a second in 1986 under Yoweri Museveni. Other attempts at transitional justice include the 2000 Amnesty Act and some forms of traditional reconciliation.
1974 Truth Commission
The “Commission of Inquiry into ‘Disappearances’ of People in Uganda Since the 25th of January, 1971” was founded by Idi Amin in June 1974 to investigate accusations of disappearances conducted by military forces during the initial years of the Amin government. The commission held generally public hearings and recorded testimony from 545 witnesses and was able to document 308 disappearances (Hayner, p. 612). A Pakistani expatriate judge, two police commissioners, and an army officer headed the commission. The commission was authorized to compel witnesses to testify and call for evidence from official sources, however it encountered persistent opposition and refusals to cooperate. The police provided 90 case files of previous disappearances, but only one file was provided by the military police, and no files were provided by military intelligence. The commissioners emphasized that they were not conducting a military trial but still did not achieve much cooperation, as it was likely that the only witnesses to disappearances would be coconspirators (Carver, p. 399). Investigations by the commission were complicated by the fact that they were investigating the current government, police, and military organizations that were still in power and committing abuses (Hayner, p. 613).
The commission issued an 836-page report with multiple appendices that detailed all the testimonies, witnesses, and correlated multiple accusations against individuals. The report recommended charges against specific individuals by name for implications of disappeared persons (Uganda 1974, p. 787) and recommended government assistance or allotments to families who had no visible means of subsistence as a result of the disappearances (ibid, p. 799). The commission also stated in the report “everything possible must be done to re-organize the Police Force” and recommended the “summary dismissal” of implicated officers (ibid, p. 800). The report further recommended the reorganization of the Public Safety Unit and included pages of specific recommendations for changes to police and military procedures. For example, on page 809 the commission stated “intelligence officers who have worked together for long in one station, like the trio in Gulu, should be split up and be transferred separately to other places and should always be strictly supervised by their Commanding Officer. In no case should they be allowed to stay in one place for more than twenty four months.”
The government ignored the results of the commission and the official report was not distributed to the public. The commission’s conclusions were distorted in reports on the government-owned radio and disappearances attributed to guerilla actions or individuals fleeing into other countries. A few of the security officers mentioned in the report stood trial before a military tribunal but were acquitted, partly because the chair of the tribunal was also implicated in the report and was an associate of the defendants (Carver, p. 399). The biggest impact the report had were reprisals on the commissioners who authored the report as one was fired, another framed for murder and sentenced to death, and a third fled Uganda to avoid arrest (Hayner, p. 612). While the report was not widely distributed, it did document abuses by the government and slightly diminish the occurrences of abuses while the commission was conducting its investigation. However, abuses soon escalated again and continued unabated until Amin was toppled in 1979 (Carver, p. 400). After Amin, Obote was elected to a second term in power, often referred to as Obote II, and many of the same violent practices and abuses continued TRIAL, 2012).
1986 Truth Commission
The Commissions of Inquiry Act (Legal Notice No. 5) of May 1986 created a five-member commission to “inquire into all aspects of violation of human rights, breaches of the rule of law and excessive abuses of power, committed against persons in Uganda by the regimes in government, their servants, agents or agencies whatsoever called, during the period form the 9th day of October, 1962 to the 25th day of January, 1986 and possible ways of preventing the recurrence of the aforesaid matters.” This commission of inquiry in violations of human rights (CIVHR) was also directed to inquire into “mass murders,” “arbitrary arrests, consequent detentions without trial, arbitrary imprisonment,” denial of trials, torture, abuse by law enforcement agents, “massive displacement of persons,” discrimination, or anything similar. The commission was given authority to call witnesses and evidence and required to work within Uganda and directed to start work right away (Uganda, 1986).
Commission hearings were generally held in public with some broadcast on television or radio (USIP, Truth Commission: Uganda 86). During the course of the commission 608 witnesses were interviewed in hearings held in 17 districts and recorded in an 18-volume set. The final report exceeded 720 pages of testimony, lists of victims, analysis, and recommendations by the commission (Quinn 2004, p. 407).
The 1986 CIVHR encountered a number of problems that affected its ability to complete its mandate. Some Ugandans saw Museveni’s talk about democracy, given that he had just taken power in a coup, and the creation of a commission to investigate crimes by past regimes as nothing more than “window-dressing” and insincere (Quinn 2004, p. 406). Political will to support the commission was limited “to the extent that it might appease internal opposition and curry favour with foreigners who might…provide additional funding” (Quinn 2004, p. 411). The process and commission had no significant impact on Uganda and few recommendations were implemented. Another problem for CIVHR was the wide scope of the mandate to cover abuses over 25 years that had hundreds of thousands of victims at the hands of multiple brutal dictators. Each dictator had its supporters who often exacted revenge upon the supporters of the previous leader and often based on ethnic differences, which influenced testimony. One issue the commission encountered was that people were not aware of what constituted a human rights abuse or what their rights were. Also recorded evidence disappeared from CIVHR and commission members were provided with bodyguards and police escorts (Quinn 2004, p. 413).
The commission’s work took longer than expected due to funding issues (USIP, Truth Commission: Uganda 86). CIVHR offices were moved several times and lacked sufficient storage facilities. When the commission was established no provision was made for its funding and on occasion witnesses were asked “to provide their own paper and pen in order for the testimony to be recorded” (Quinn 2004, p. 414). Without adequate funding the commission had periods of stoppage while they awaited funding. The Ford Foundation in 1987 donated $93,000 to continue CIVHR’s work and was later augmented by further funding from the Swedish International Development Agency, the Danish International Development Agency, the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Government of Australia (Quinn 2004, p. 415). Despite foreign aid, financial problems continued to plague the commission resulting in another complete stoppage in February 1991 (Hayner, p. 619).
The length of time to complete the commission may have resulted in the loss of evidence and potential witnesses, but also contributed to the rise of rebel groups such as the Holy Spirit Movement and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda (Quinn 2004, p. 415). The CIVHR spent only four days in Northern Uganda, and only accessed the area five years after the founding of the commission as rebels controlled the region and the CIVHR was seen as an extension of Museveni (Quinn 2004, p. 421).
The CIVHR also competed with several other commissions in operation including the 1986 Commission of inquiry into Local Government, the 1988 Interim Electoral Commission, the 1991 Constitutional Commission, and the 2001 Amnesty Commission. The Amnesty Commission also investigated past abuses but offered amnesty in exchange for testimony (Quinn 2004, p. 419).
The truth commission of 1986 has largely been forgotten by the conclusion of the commission and the report was not widely circulated. A pamphlet was produced by CIVHR that summarized the results of the commission but was also not circulated due to budget concerns and lack of interest (Quinn 2003, p.21). Commission members retained some of the only copies of the report and emphasized that no one was concerned about their investigation or report. Museveni remains in power and “has emphasized that Uganda should not dwell on the past” (Quinn 2004, p. 424).
One thing the CIVHR did accomplish was contributing to the numeration of human rights in the 1995 Constitution of Uganda (Quinn 2004, p. 419). The commission also urged the creation of a permanent human rights commission in Uganda and the ratification of the International Covenant for Civilian and Political Rights (Bakayana, p. 11). However, overall the commission was considered a failure and many believed the government had no intentions to follow up on the report or implement the commission’s recommendations (Quinn 2003, p. 17).
2000 Amnesty Act
In 2000 the government of Uganda established an Amnesty Commission to explore providing amnesty to rebels who laid down their arms and returned to their villages. Religious groups like the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), worked with the Amnesty Commission to ensure it applied to all rebel groups (Apuuli, p. 122). The Act provided amnesty for “any Ugandan who has at any time since the 26th day of January, 1986, engaged in or is engaging in war or armed rebellion against the government of the Republic of Uganda.” The amnesty provided was that the person “shall not be prosecuted or subjected to any form of punishment for the participation in the war or rebellion for any crime committed in the cause of the war or armed rebellion.” In order to qualify for amnesty the person, referred to in the document as a “reporter,” would have to report to a government official, renounce and abandon “involvement in the war or armed rebellion,” surrender immediately any weapons, and in return would be issued a “certificate of amnesty.” If the reporter was already in jail or in custody they could still apply for and would be granted the same amnesty, however they could still be held for crimes outside of the scope of the amnesty. The Amnesty Act also created the Amnesty Commission and directed it to monitor programs for the demobilization, reintegration, and resettlement (DDR) of reporters, as well as public information and dialogue (Uganda, 2000).
The World Bank Multi-country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP) provided a $4.2 million grant for a reintegration program that began in January 2005 and provided resettlement packages of household items and agricultural tools. As of May 2006 when the last group received its resettlement packages from Amnesty Commission, 12,950 former rebels had been reintegrated through the program. (MDRP, 2006).
In conjunction with the 2000 Amnesty Act, traditional methods of reconciliation have the potential to resolve conflicts in Uganda. Mato oput or the bitter drink is a ceremony where former offended parties share a bitter drink after a resolution has been negotiated. Gomo tong or the bending of spears is another ritual that symbolizes the termination of conflict between groups that takes place after discussion and truth telling (Afako, 2006). Nyouo tong gweno is another ceremony used to welcome back child soldiers by stepping on an egg on an opobo twig. A number of other cleansing rituals are used by different groups in order to reintegrate former combatants back into the community. Other Ugandan customs and practices to resolve conflict include “arbitration, social teaching, reconciliation, and compensation” (Quinn 2007, p. 398).
LRA Truth Commission?
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from the primarily Acholi regions of Northern Uganda has maintained its fight against the Museveni government since 1987 and has a horrendous record of human rights abuses. The LRA became famous for its use of child soldiers among other war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 to prosecute gross violations of human rights and in 2003 Museveni referred the LRA case to the ICC for prosecution. The ICC issued arrest warrants for the five primary leaders of the LRA in 2005, which complicated attempts to negotiate with the LRA to end the conflict peacefully (Finnstrom, p. 135). Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA and his commanders were charged with “crimes against humanity, including inter alia sexual enslavement, rape, and murder; and war crimes including inter alia enlisting children, pillaging, and murder (Apuuli, p. 117). The Ugandan parliament had passed a blanket amnesty law in 1999, under which other rebel groups such as the Allied Democratic Front and West Bank Nile Front surrendered as well as some senior LRA rebels (Finnstrom, p. 137). However, with the ICC arrest warrants LRA leaders do not want to surrender for fear of trial at the ICC and some have vowed to fight to the death (Finnstrom, p. 150).
Peace talks between the LRA and government of Uganda took place in 2006 in Juba, South Sudan but failed as the LRA refused to sign the peace accord. The LRA argued that it would not sign a peace deal while the ICC warrants were still active and the government of Uganda argued that it could talk to the ICC about the warrants after the peace deal was signed (Apuuli, p. 117). Acholi leaders and the ARLPI have called for the withdrawal of the ICC indictments in order to foster the peace process, but the ICC has persisted, arguing for accountability for the LRA and against amnesty (Apuuli, p. 125).
Since the failed peace talks in 2006, there have been increased calls by religious leaders for a new truth and reconciliation commission for Northern Uganda to address atrocities committed by both the LRA and government forces. Many northerners fear future retributions and continued conflict if all involved do not “confess their wrongs” in an effort to reach reconciliation. However, Museveni has told “religious leaders to stay out of politics and governance” (Makumbi & Eriku, 2011). In 2006, Miria Obote, President of Uganda People’s Congress and widow of former two-leader of Uganda Milton Obote, sent an open letter to Museveni demanding a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate all war crimes from 1962 to the date of the commission. In the letter she accused Museveni of atrocities in Uganda and demanded his accountability for the invasions of Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She argued, “only a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be able to ferret out the facts and lead to a healing process” and concluded “failure to urgently act will…exacerbate tension and conflict in Uganda” (Obote, 2006).
Efforts at conflict resolution and transitional justice in Uganda have not been successful in reconciliation and allowing the country to move on. Uganda has passed through a violent history of leadership transition by combat with leaders coming to power by ousting those before him. Ethnic or tribal allegiances have been used to pit groups against each other as leaders influenced groups to support them, which have turned into reprisals as new groups came to power. Since Museveni came to power in 1986 there has been 26 years of relative peace or at least absence of a violent transition of power. However, underlying ethnic tensions remain as some groups are favored over others.
Uganda has attempted to address in the past some issues through the truth commissions of 1974 and 1986 but the recommendations of both were ignored and the general public did not see any results or change. The first of 1974 was a sham that resulted only in reprisals against the commission. The second commission in 1986 was more of a publicity act to gain influence with the outside world and appease donors. The 2000 Amnesty Act and commission even undercut the 1986 commission by offering amnesty to all who would lay down their arms and renounce armed rebellion. The constant financial problems also demonstrated that the 1986 commission was not a priority to the Museveni government. However, the Amnesty Act may have had the most success in reintegrating former combatants as nearly 13,000 completed the DDR process. Local tribal and reconciliation rituals have allowed former combatants to reintegrate into society.Interestingly, or perhaps due to the general populations lack of knowledge about the two previous truth commissions, there has been a growing call for a new truth commission to resolve the continuing conflicts involving rebel groups in northern Uganda. Religious and other leaders have determined that after 25 years of military efforts to exterminate the LRA that a military solution will be difficult to achieve and are strengthening the call for a negotiated solution and peaceful reconciliation. However, the ICC arrest warrants instigated by Museveni have proven to be an effective barrier to a peace agreement. Museveni has also recently escalated the fight against the LRA, who have fled Uganda and are now operating in the border regions between Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and the DRC by convincing US leaders to commit US soldiers to find Kony (Chinko, 2012). If Ugandan troops are able to capture or kill the LRA leadership the tensions in Uganda will persist because the underlying issues still have not been resolved. Some sort of reconciliation is necessary for peace and progress in Uganda.