Painted portrait of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (Flickr/home_of_chaos)

Should Uganda celebrate Dominic Ongwen's transfer and trial?

13 January 2015 by Samuel Egadu Okiror, Kampala (Uganda)

The Ugandan military on Tuesday announced that notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen would be handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“Dominic Ongwen will be tried at the ICC in The Hague. Ongwen will be conveyed to The Hague by CAR authorities,” said Paddy Ankunda, Uganda’s military spokesman, in a statement.

The news comes as a surprise to many Ugandans who had thought it unlikely that President Yoweri Museveni, who has been critical of the court, would allow one of the country's most wanted men be transferred there. Serious negotiations between Uganda, regional governments, the African Union and the UN had ensued after Ogwen reportedly surrendered himself last week in the Central African Republic (CAR).

What prompted the decision?

Uganda could have pushed the issue of complementarity. It has its own International Crimes Division to prosecute LRA top commanders [IJT 164]. The ICC is only meant to intervene when a state party is either unwilling or unable to investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It could be that Museveni was forced to swallow his pride in order to appease his Western allies.

Perhaps the president felt he had no choice but to agree to hand over Ongwen. After all, the former LRA commander was in the hands of United States special forces helping hunt for LRA rebels in the jungles of the CAR.

“The president has no prerogative and does not claim to have it to pardon terrorists who have abused the sanctity of human life,” said Linda Nabusayi Wamboka, the president’s deputy press secretary on Tuesday. She went on to recall that Ongwen led the LRA’s Sinia Brigade, which has been accused of some of the “worst atrocities” including rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and torture.

Surprise

But no one may be more shocked by the handover than Ongwen himself. Just Monday he could be heard in an audio recording played on local TV, calling on his former comrades to abandon the rebellion, explaining that Museveni had pardoned him.

“I am now a free man despite the ICC case against me,” he said. “Even the president has agreed to forgive me since I have surrendered on my own.”

Had Ongwen been made forced to make the statement in a bid to encourage other rebels still in the bush to abandon the fight? Or did he think that by such a proclamation could force Museveni's hand?

Ongwen was one of five LRA commanders Uganda referred to the ICC in 2003. The others are top henchman Joseph Kony, deputy Vincent Otti, senior leader Okot Odhiambo and another senior leader, the late Raska Lukwiya. The court issued its first-ever arrest warrants against the men in 2005.

Debate

A lot of political hoopla surrounds Ongwen's move to surrender. For now, Museveni has emerged the winner. But it remains a gamble. The recent ICC fiasco in which victims in the Kenya cases were allegedly threatened and killed could influence Ugandans. Will war victims in northern Uganda ultimately be happy that Ongwen has been sent to The Hague?

The case is an important development in the pursuit of peace, justice and reconciliation in Uganda. Let's see what lawyers will make of this man who is himself a former abductee, conscripted by force into the rebellion. Ongwen’s could be one of the most complicated and interesting trials at the ICC.