What Thomas Kwoyelo’s trial means for northern Uganda and the LRA
On Monday of last week I spent most of the day at a courthouse in Gulu, northern Uganda, listening with over 100 local residents to the trial of a former commander in the LRA, Thomas Kwoyelo. The courtroom itself was so crowded that we were sitting outside in plastic chairs under a tent watching a live video feed of the proceedings next door.
Kwoyelo commanded an LRA group that operated in northern Uganda in the 2000s before moving to northern Congo, where he was taken into custody following a clash with Ugandan military forces in March 2009. Monday’s proceedings were the second phase of his trial before a division of Uganda’s High Court, the International Crimes Division, on charges that include grave breaches of willful killing, taking hostages, and extensive destruction of property in northern Uganda.
Though the proceedings themselves were actually quite dull, Kwoyelo’s trial is being closely watched in Gulu, as well as across the region, for several reasons. First, he is the first LRA commander to be formally prosecuted by the Ugandan government in over two decades of conflict. This puts him squarely in the middle of moral and legal debates about whether former LRA commanders should be given amnesty (as many other LRA commanders have been given) or formally prosecuted for crimes committed in the bush. Secondly, Kwoyelo is the first person to be tried before the International Crimes Division, which makes this a very visible test case for a division that is designed to combat impunity for crimes against humanity, war crimes, terrorism, and human trafficking, among other things.
Many people I’ve talked to in northern Uganda this week are indifferent or even displeased with the Ugandan government’s decision to try Kwoyelo. Many point out that former LRA commanders who held higher ranks (and even once commanded Kwoyelo) and are responsible for worse crimes have been given amnesty. They think Kwoyelo has been unfairly singled out because he escaped more recently and the Ugandan government needed a commander not yet given amnesty to put on trial in order to show the world that its new International Crimes Division is being put to use.
Another woman I met, who had been mutiliated by LRA attackers and forced to flee her home, was similarly unimpressed by Kwoyelo’s trial. She now lives in an overcrowded neighborhood in Gulu and is barely able to support her four children. For her, justice means the Ugandan government, itself partly responsible for northern Uganda’s suffering during the war, should help families most affected by the conflict to rebuild her lives. The trial and even conviction of Thomas Kwoyelo will do little in that regard.
Kwoyelo’s trial is also being followed in areas of central Africa under threat from the LRA. LRA commanders have followed developments in Kwoyelo’s case in the past year (sometimes on radios looted from local communities), and will likely continue to do so. What happens to Kwoyelo could play an important role in their decisions on whether to continue fighting with the LRA or try to escape and return home. People I’ve talked to in northern Congo and in northern Uganda have said that Kwoyelo’s trial will likely be a deterrent for would-be escapees, and will reinforce LRA propaganda that offers of amnesty by the Ugandan government are a lie.
All this is complicated even more by the fact that the Ugandan government has shaky legal ground for denying Kwoyelo amnesty and prosecuting him. The 2000 Amnesty Act offers amnesty to all Ugandans engaged in acts of rebellion against the Government of Uganda since January 26, 1986. A 2006 amendment to the Act gives the Ugandan Minister of the Internal Affairs the power to disallow individuals from receiving amnesty, but the Minister has yet to compile this list (or submit it to Parliament for necessary approval).
On Monday Kwoyelo’s lawyers objected to his prosecution on exactly those grounds, and for several other reasons (such as his unconstitutional detention by Ugandan security services following his arrest). His case has now been referred to the Constitutional Court, which will decide on these matters. In the meantime, the effects of this supposedly landmark trial on transitional justice in Uganda and on the efforts to stop current LRA violence will remain in limbo.
P.S. For more information, check out an extensive Q&A on the Kwoyelo trial from our partners at Human Rights Watch.