The ICC Blockbuster Dominic Ongwen Movie

In the Hollywood masterpiece, a dark-skinned African rebel dubbed Mr. D with dreadlocks and a cold look in his eyes commands his troupe of cigarette smoking machete wielding teenagers to the internally displaced camp of Aboke. They quickly defeat the ill-equipped soldiers protecting the camp, before unleashing all forms of horror on the camp dwellers; rape, slaughter, arson, etc. The movie also features Min Santa, a young wife to a former village leader whose husband was slaughtered in a previous attack in her home village before she and her village mates were driven into Aboke Camp. While there, she gave birth to Santa who was now one-year-old. The movie reaches its intriguing peak when Min Santa who had thus far successfully hidden behind a shrub is betrayed by the cries of her confused child. Min Santa is trapped as the rebels quickly react yelling and hitting her before raping her and adding her to the queue of the gloomy new recruits. A few meters into the departure, the rebels decide that Santa is too much trouble, they tear him apart from his wrestling mother before asking a newly recruited boy to slaughter him or get slaughtered himself. He does the inevitable and is asked to repeat the same on Min Santa whose cries had now become a headache to the lot. His hit must have been amateur because a few hours later, a deserted Min Santa regained her consciousness and crawled to her ‘now ash’ former home. The movie ends with a smitten and glowing Min Santa years later watching the reading of her former torturer Mr. D’s crimes in court on a tv set up in a village hall with her friends to which she breaks a half-smile.

The audience walks out in total hate of Mr. D and noticing this, the movie producers in part 2, which is about the trial, decide to punish Mr. D with a hefty to appeal to the crowd’s emotions.
This animated story is summary of depictions by ICC of who Dominic Ongwen was between 2002-2005 (the movie time). The problem is that the reduced timeframe reduces the pursuit of justice by convicting Ongwen to only entertainment value. True justice cannot work in such narrow timeframes because of the complex nature of issues involved.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that despite the closure of the ‘ICC movie’ in the 4th February judgement, the multitude of the problem of justice to the broad spectrum of the population in Acholi affected and afflicted by the conflict still does exist because the timeframe considered in the case 2002-2005 is too short in the context of the 20+ years of conflict that persisted in Acholi, a lot was left out that happened in the years outside this time bracket. For Dominic Ongwen for instance it leaves out all the circumstances of his background and how he found himself within the ranks of the LRA and only concentrates on the time he was an adult and responsible for his actions. The finality of justice cannot be defined within such a narrow spectrum in a wide context, in Acholi this principle is denoted in the saying “Alii pe ki ngwaro omyero ki yeny kama alii tye iye”. Outside the four animated attacks in the judgement, even more serious atrocities like that in Atiak where 200+ people were killed, Lamwo where 400+ people were killed, Mucwini where 52 people were killed, Lira Palwo/Omot where a multitude of people were killed and some cooked and people forced to eat and many other attacks. It is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their lives during this war, this should help us put in context how small a fraction Ongwen’s case is!

The second issue that leaves us with bigger questions than answers is that over the years of the conflict, traditional justice and the Amnesty law in Uganda processed my ex-fighters including senior commanders of the LRA who participated in orchestrating even worse atrocities and other heinous acts against the population. These people have been forgiven and resettled in the community and are engaged in various useful activities. What is the implication of this judgement on these people? On the other hand, isn’t there a sense of unfairness on Dominic Ongwen by this seemingly selective application of the law. What qualitative assessment criteria was used to designate Ongwen for international courts besides the mere fact of his rank?

Thirdly, while the court dismissed the defense of spiritual duress, the war notoriously constituted elements of spirituality. The rebels had renown initiation hills and accounts of former abductees depict the role of spiritual obsession in LRA operations. The people of Acholi are in many ways also a spiritual community who live by a divine code. Such complex issues were clearly out of the reach of ICC and yet are key to the justice and healing process. Once again, elimination of spirituality from the ICC script does not render this an inexistent dimension.

This analogy helps us assess whether ICC provides real and lasting justice solutions that the Acholi people need and with such inadequacy from the ICC as adduced, it is clear that the Dominic Ongwen Case was but an exhibitionist show. This does not take away the deterrent value it might have because of its blockbuster status. The rigorous work, resources and curation of accounts by ICC also deserves credit, however to effect justice on issues from the LRA war, it must swallow its ego and collaborate with the proven societal systems particularly traditional justice and allow the people to take lead in healing their communities. Similar collaborations were highly successful in post genocide Rwanda with gacaca and in post-apartheid South Africa with the Truth Commission. Traditional justice played a remarkable role in healing the people Acholiland in the late 2000s. Therefore, integrating ICC resources and infrastructure supported by state political will with traditional justice will hugely complement the common endeavor to achieving justice in Acholi.

Okot Olaa is a Co-founder and commentator at the Economic Misfit.