Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Can Traditional Rituals Bring Justice to Northern Uganda?

Local justice offers an alternative to formal trials, but applying unwritten tribal codes may not be enough to bring closure to Uganda’s brutal conflict.
By Julius Ocen
As peace talks on ending northern Uganda's 21 year civil war reach a critical stage, there is a growing debate inside the country and beyond about how best to achieve lasting peace and justice.

Formal peace talks are due to resume on July 31 in Juba in the south of Sudan in an effort to end the prolonged insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which has seen some 100,000 people killed since 1986, around 1.7 million people displaced from their homes and at least 20,000 children abducted by the rebels to become child soldiers, sex slaves and porters.

Four different processes for justice and reconciliation are on the table, and at present it is not known which one will prevail - or whether an amalgam of all of them could be the blueprint for harmony.

First, there is Uganda’s formal legal and judicial system, which could be used to try war crimes suspects.

There is also an international justice process in train – the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for four top LRA figures including the movement's leader Joseph Kony.

Then there is the Ugandan state’s Amnesty Act of 2000, which allows the rebels come out of the bush voluntarily if they renounce violence.

Finally, there are the traditional systems of justice used by northern Uganda’s ethnic groups, including the Acholi, the people to which Kony belongs and which has borne the brunt of the fighting.

The debate is a complex one, but comes down to a choice between the retributive, western system of justice of the ICC, involving punishment for crimes, and customary African practices which emphasise restorative justice and reconciliation.


Ahead of the July 31 resumption of the peace negotiations in Sudan, everyone is scrutinising a document agreed at the last session which covered "reconciliation and accountability".

The 11-page document contains a formula for a domestic judicial process that would cover crimes committed during the conflict. On the one hand, it suggests Uganda’s judicial system could be harnessed to try cases – perhaps imposing softer penalties than those normally applied to crimes of such gravity. And on the other, it also outlined possible "alternative justice mechanisms" as a way of promoting reconciliation.

Since the Ugandan government and the rebels began negotiating in August 2006, the LRA has consistently argued that Uganda’s own justice system would be a more appropriate mechanism than sending people to The Hague, and has made it a condition of a final peace deal that the ICC must drop the charges.

Although it was the Ugandan government that invited international prosecutors to look into the northern Ugandan conflict in the first place, it has recently shown signs that it would prefer a peace settlement to an ICC trial if it had to choose between the two. The wording of the June 29 accord only goes as far as committing the government to "address conscientiously the question of the ICC arrest warrants relating to the leaders of the LRA", but the unspoken implication is that if an adequate domestic legal process can be agreed, ICC prosecutions would become irrelevant and unnecessary.

The precise nature of the alternative justice methods that might be employed has not been spelled out, but the document says, "Traditional justice mechanisms, such as Culo Kwor, Mato Oput, Kayo Cuk, Ailuc and Tonu ci Koka and others as practised in the communities affected by the conflict shall be promoted, with necessary modifications, as a central part of the framework for accountability and reconciliation."

These models of justice are rituals specific to various northern ethnic groups, and predate British colonial rule and Ugandan independence. They seek to obtain justice, reconciliation, harmony and the reintegration of offenders following disputes between and within communities.

"Restorative justice sees greater value in educating and rehabilitating an offender than in simply incarcerating him and forgetting about him," said Dr Lucy Hovil of Uganda's Refugee Law Project.

The Reverend Baker Ochola, the retired Anglican bishop of Kitgum and formerly vice-chair of the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative, is one of the leading advocates of traditional methods as opposed to the ICC process as the best way of achieving peace and justice. Offenders, he said, "ask forgiveness of their community and pay reparations - sometimes in the form of a goat or a cow - to those they have wronged. Finally, they rejoin their community without cruelty or victimisation".

A recent article in the New York-based human rights magazine IntheFray entitlted "The Difficulties of Ending a War" quoted, Bishop Ochola, who lost his wife to an LRA landmine, as saying, "Real justice is not punishment. Real justice is not killing someone because someone has killed your child, because now you're becoming a killer just like him or her.”

Traditional justice, he said, offers a different route, “We are not going to kill you. We're going to give you back your life. That's the difference. Truth, mercy, justice and peace must stand together."

Bishop Ochola said he believes the ICC is only concerned with international legitimacy, not with healing a traumatised population.


Not everyone agrees that community justice will work. The same IntheFray article quoted Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, as warning that "Kony and the leaders of the LRA ... could get away with murder”.

"The question is, do people want peace without any justice? And do they understand what exactly the ICC is? Do they understand that it's not the rank-and-file [LRA guerrillas] who will be prosecuted, but the top LRA leaders?" he said in the piece.

The most widely publicised of the local conflict-resolution ceremonies is Mato Oput, performed by the Acholi people. Its name translates roughly as "drinking a bitter potion made from the leaves of the oput tree". At the end of lengthy ceremonies conducted by clan elders, victim and persecutor drink the brew to demonstrate that they admit the past was bitter and pledge not to taste such bitterness again.

Support for Mato Oput as a solution is widespread among the Acholi, who long for peace after more than two decades of warfare.

But apart from the question of whether LRA commanders would effectively be granted with impunity for serious crimes simply by submitting to healing ceremonies, there are other issues that will make it far from easy to institutionalise this kind of local practice.

First, it is debatable whether an unwritten set of laws will work for a conflict so major and so violent as the one in northern Uganda.

Kathambi Kinoti, a Nairobi-based lawyer who works for the international Association for Women's Rights in Development, sees potential pitfalls in applying traditional models of justice to a modern conflict.

"Traditional African laws are for the most part unwritten," she said. "That means it is not always clear what the laws are, as their interpretation can be ad hoc and modified to suit the occasion."

According to a substantial investigative report from September 2005 entitled "Restoring Relationships in Acholi‐Land", funded by the Dutch government and the MacArthur Foundation, said that most of the elders interviewed felt that “some of the current war crimes are unprecedented within Acholi-land, and pose a significant challenge to traditional justice based on restorative principles”.

The report continued, "For instance, LRA massacres, mass rape, abduction, arson and mutilation are not crimes Acholi elders are familiar with in the history of the region. Although variants of such crimes have existed in Acholi history (raids by northern Nubians and Arab slave traders), the modern scale and devastation on the population have not been witnessed before."

Another complicating factor is that Mato Oput is not the tradition of other northern groups affected by the, notably the Langi, Madi and Iteso, which have their own distinct reconciliation and justice ceremonies. The Langi have Kayo Cuk, which involves slaughtering a bull, the Iteso also kill a bull and smear its blood on the contending parties, while the Madi have the Tolu rite which includes cleansing ceremonies akin to those of Judaism. The Madi used to kill a human being rather than a bull in their "bending of the spear" ceremonies, although the practice has long been abandoned.

It is far from clear whether these ethnic groups would be willing to accept the Acholis' Mato Oput as some kind of universal "traditional" rite, or whether the different systems could be harmonised.

Colonel Walter Ocora, the district commissioner of Gulu, the main Acholi area, has suggested that the national parliament in Kampala in the south of Uganda, might need to pass some law blending the different ethnic reconciliation ceremonies into one.

Furthermore, time and circumstance have dictated that the spirit of communalism that characterised traditional life in the past, and which for example for the bedrock of Mato Oput, has been replaced with a more individualistic approach.

As one Acholi proverb puts it, “Oyo man ki wino doge” – “Each rat with its own whiskers.”


Another problem with Mato Oput is that its ceremonies assign a minimal role to women, who have arguably been worse affected by the conflict than men.

As Kinoti pointed out, peace processes have limited hope of winning popular support if they "leave out half the population".

She explained, "As they [women] are rarely involved in decision-making within the traditional justice structures, there is the danger that they would be excluded from making a meaningful contribution towards justice and reconciliation.

"International human rights and criminal justice standards have provided substantial gains for women's rights, such as bringing rape during war within the ambit of war crimes and crimes against humanity. To be just, application of traditional mechanisms would have to incorporate modern international human rights standards."


Rape and the exploitation of abducted women and girls as sex slaves were common features of the conflict, and dealing with such crimes within a traditional framework could be difficult given the taboos surrounding women.

In the case of Madi women, participants in seminars have said that although rape happens in their society, women have been "socialised" not to make allegations of rape against Madi men.

In its findings, the "Restoring Relationships in Acholi‐Land" report said a few community elders had argued that the modern expansion of women's rights "threatened and prevented them from carrying out their 'traditional roles’”, which included disciplining women through beatings.

The report said that while such views were not held by the majority of community leaders, “it does raise the concern that not all cultural norms or practices should be revived”.

It noted that as Acholi women are “valued almost exclusively because of their fertility, the fact that women who were raped in the bush are accused of being barren has a significant impact; this strips them of their womanhood and social status of being wives or mothers.

"Barren women are considered ‘dead’ in Acholi culture, and alienat[ed] from social life as such. There is no equivalent cleansing or accompanying shame for men who committed the crime.”

Julius Ocen is an IWPR contributor in Uganda.

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