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

Kampala Faces Odhiambo Dilemma

If the rebel leader surrenders will he be tried in Uganda or sent to the ICC?
The reported pending defection and surrender of deputy commander of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, Okot Odhiambo, could put Uganda at odds with the International Criminal Court, ICC, which wants to try him for war crimes, say observers.

The commander is reportedly negotiating the terms of his defection and surrender along with some 45 of his men and a handful of captives.

Odhiambo, along with LRA leader Joseph Kony and another deputy commander, Dominic Ongwen, are wanted by the ICC in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kony alone faces 33 counts.

Uganda asked the ICC for help in dealing with Kony and the LRA in late 2003, and after extensive investigation, issued indictments against Kony and four other commanders in 2005. Two of the five are now presumed dead.

However, in a draft peace deal with the LRA which Kony has repeatedly failed to sign Uganda has agreed to put the rebel commanders on trial before a special Ugandan court, which has not yet been established.

Odhiambo, who was reportedly the mastermind behind some of the LRA’s most bloody massacres, is demanding an assurance that he won’t be sent to the ICC. Instead, he wants an amnesty, which has already been granted to thousands of former LRA fighters.

His offer to surrender comes after he was wounded in clashes with Ugandan forces – now in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC – which were seeking to destroy the LRA.

“The issue of Odhiambo surrendering is very positive and welcome,” Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for international relations, told IWPR.

Okello, however, refused to discuss the matter of Odhiambo’s ICC indictment until the suspect was in custody.

“Once he hands himself, then we shall deal with all issues regarding the International Criminal Court indictments and the amnesty that he is demanding,” said Okello.

“We can’t begin talking about ICC or amnesty when the bird [Odhiambo] is still in the bush. We shall discuss about ICC [and] amnesty when we have the bird in our hands.”

The ICC, which has not commented on Odhiambo’s defection, has asked Uganda to outline its position on its negotiated peace agreement with the LRA.

Meanwhile, other top officials have indicated that Uganda plans to try Odhiambo.

Stephen Kagoda of the internal affairs ministry, who helped negotiate the peace deal, insisted that Odhiambo would face trial in the country – as was outlined in the agreement.

“The agreement we signed in Juba is clear,” Kagoda told the New Vision newspaper in Kampala. “It stated that those accused would face the [national] courts and we stand by that.”

Military spokesman Major Felise Kulaigye said it was too early to comment on whether the indicted LRA commanders would be tried in Uganda or The Hague.

The Ugandan military, which first struck at Kony’s camps in the DRC’s Garamba National Park on December 14, was encouraged by the pending surrender, said Kulaigye.

“It’s a positive step [towards rescuing] innocent people who are still in the hands of the LRA,” said Kulaigye.

“As far as the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) is concerned, we cannot continue to coexist with tigers in Garamba.”

Since the attack, the LRA has gone on a bloody rampage in the DRC, killing an estimated 700 to 800 people. One hundred villagers were killed in the most recent incident some 10 days ago, according to the United Nations.

The latest killing spree is similar to attacks by the LRA on northern Uganda during the civil war of the last 20 years, and has prompted many Ugandans to call for Odhiambo to be turned over to the ICC.

“This is a time for accountability,” said Sam Odongo, a victim of LRA war in Oyam, northwest of Lira. “The government should surrender any top commanders of the LRA to the ICC. We don’t want to hear [the] story that the rebels [have been] arrested and killed before [they] admit their guilt and then pay compensation for our lost dear ones.”

Patience Aber of Gulu agreed.

“I don’t support this issue of forgiving the LRA. The indicted LRA commanders have to face the [ICC] for the atrocities and crimes they committed in northern Uganda for the past two decades,” said Aber.

“He [Odhiambo] has to go to The Hague and face the court. He must answer for all the people he murdered.”

Those in the north belonging to Kony’s ethnic Acholi group were opposed to Odhiambo being sent to The Hague.

“If [Odhiambo] surrenders, he should not be handed to ICC,” said Emmanuel Mwaka Lukutumoi, spokesman for the Acholi Cultural Institution.

“If he is handed to The Hague for trials, this will scare other top LRA commanders who want to come out of the bush and surrender.”

Some in the region thought Odhiambo’s surrender could help restore peace.

“We are very sure of our security now because Odhiambo was the brains behind the massive killings in Abia, Barlonyo and Amononeno where nearly 500 people lost their lives,” said Moses Opio, who lost two children to the LRA.

“We hope the arrest of Odhiambo will bring peace and justice to northern Ugandans,” said David Livingstone Okwir, an elder who also lost two of his children in rebel attacks.

Anthony Okello, a resident of the Apac district, said Odhiambo’s possible surrender meant that the LRA’s days were numbered. “We are tired of [Kony]. We want him killed if he [surrenders] like his deputy,” Okello told IWPR.

Bill Oketch, Patrick Okino, and Samuel Okiror Egadu are IWPR-trained reporters.