“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”: The Unfinished Business of the Lord’s Resistance Army, by David-Ngendo Tshimba

It was recently reported in one of Uganda’s daily newspapers (Daily Monitor) that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader, Joseph Kony, had written to Ugandans seeking forgiveness and a resumption of peace talks to end the insurgency. Kony’s letter, dispatched by Mission Okello, reads in part: “I want to assure the people of Uganda that, we [LRA] are committed to a sustainable peaceful political settlement of our long war with the government of (President) Museveni…. We are willing and ready to forgive and seek forgiveness, and continue to seek peaceful means to end this war which has cut across a swathe of Africa for the people of the Great Lakes and the Nile-Congo Basin to find peace.”[1] Allegedly, Kony further noted that he did not go to war as an aggressor but in self-defense. In response to this letter allegedly authored by Kony, Government of Uganda (GoU) Media Centre chief Ofwono Opondo dismissed Kony’s plea for fresh talks, saying he wasted the opportunity to hold peace talks. Instead, Opondo advised Kony to surrender to government armed forces or apply for amnesty and denounce rebellion before time runs out.

Futile peace talks

The Juba peace talks between the GoU and the LRA, which began on July 14, 2006 and were mediated by the then recently instituted quasi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), were initially presaged as the best hope to end this armed conflict since it began. In particular, these talks were considered crucial to both the GoSS and the LRA (whose commanders feared International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants issued against them in October 2005 and saw these peace talks as a possible way to evade arrest. However, Ronald Atkinson argued that even though the ICC warrants surfaced as an issue for the LRA during the Juba peace talks, there is little evidence that they were a major factor in the LRA’s decision to enter talks, for it had increasingly become part of accepted wisdom from a range of people inside and outside Uganda to secure LRA cooperation in order to end the war, at the expense of ICC prosecution. Hence, both the GoSS and the LRA were unwavering in their commitment to the peace process in the face of often expressed skepticism by the GoU and the international community; shockingly, “hopes were reinforced when the talks produced relatively quickly a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) Agreement on August 26, 2006”— the first ever formal bilateral accord signed by representatives of both the LRA and the GoU.[2]

Furthermore, on  June 29, 2007, the two sides signed what Atkinson termed “the even more wide-ranging” agenda on accountability and reconciliation in a bid to identify and/or establish a combination of local and national justice mechanisms designed to promote reconciliation and address issues of accountability for wrongs committed by both LRA fighters and the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), “with hints that this combination of mechanisms might satisfy the ICC”.[3] Nonetheless, following frequent hiatuses resulting from divisions between the two sides over mediation procedures and more especially from instigated dissensions within the LRA delegation and fighters, LRA leader Kony—who was scheduled on April 10, 2008 to add his signature to the Final Peace Agreement (FPA), with President Museveni to sign four days later—did not sign, ostensibly because he wanted further clarification about the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) of LRA fighters and the mix of “traditional” and “formal” legal proceedings that he and his fighters faced, including the role of the ICC.  Given the unresolved dispute over issues of restorative and retributive justice, coupled with the deep-seated commitment of one party to the conflict (GoU together with its regional and international supporters) to end this conflict militarily, the Juba peace process—which had yet produced landmarked agreements—was relegated to futility.

Learning from the Juba peace talks

Impediments to peace differ in different contexts, but it is no exaggeration to state that peaceful communities have many things in common. By and large, avoiding the dangers of othering would be one of the most promising ways to secure durable peace in the aftermath of violent conflict. The rationale for avoidance of othering—searching for characterization in terms of some “us” as opposed to some “other”—is that othering tends to bestow social acceptability on a call for retribution or punishment to members of the “out-group” (considered offenders) as opposed to those of the “in-group” (considered victims) following a convoluted manifestation of violence. In fact, throughout this two-decade armed conflict, hegemonic discursive structures by one party to the conflict (GoU) have either caused compliance or inhibited disagreement with perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors that eventually rendered and continue to render military offensives against the other party to the conflict (LRA) a legitimate form of action in the search for peace.

Perhaps Oresteia—the celebrated classical trilogy of plays by ancient Greek writer Aeschylus in which the author narrates three tales that focus on the events following the Trojan War—subtly reiterates the need to reconsider the notion of lex talionis  (an eye for an eye) in the quest for righting past wrongs. Movingly, Suren Pillay recapitulated Aeschylus’ lesson in the following words:

The first story commences with the Greek King Agamemnon’s victorious return from the battle for Troy along with his prize, the Princess Cassandra, and the unfortunate chain of events that this sets off. It is a compelling tale that sets out in staged dramatic form the generational intrigues that destroy the House of Atreus. In this famous story successive acts of injustice beget new acts of injustice and unleash a cycle of turmoil unforeseen by the central protagonists when they began their original quest for justice. The central lesson for Aeschylus is that the manner in which we right wrongs may impact on the future in ways that we might not have intended or desired.[4]

Against all odds so far registered in bringing this protracted armed conflict to a definitive end, dialogue in lieu of further confrontation ought to be reconsidered as a key option to address the deep-seated forces that continue to fuel this armed conflict beyond the confines of Uganda. Agreeing to dialogue with diverse histories and circumstances, memories and experiences, views and beliefs, could widen the horizons of those who have been a party to the conflict—whether involved directly (LRA and GoU) or indirectly (South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo)—beyond protractedness.  Even more insightfully, Paulo Freire’s notion of dialogical relations underpinned this possibility:

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world…dialogue is thus an existential necessity. And since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the daloguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants…Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others.[5]

Pillay finally underscored that if justice and reconciliation are in tension, then the balance between the two is best judged according to the criteria of what most effectively creates lasting peace and stability in a divided political community.[6] By and large, the demands of justice in today’s LRA-affected region go far beyond what any retributive endeavor—whether under the auspices of the ICC or otherwise—can deliver. Assuredly, the less conspicuous but more pertinent concern for the majority of vulnerable members from the LRA-affected region consists of a fuller restoration of their psychosocial as well as economic tissues torn apart by this armed conflict. Away from the need for a military victory and/or internationalized criminal prosecution against the LRA (now operating as armed rebels beyond Uganda), a context-specific restorative justice has huge potential for building lasting peace by addressing both the material discrepancies and psychological legacies of conflict. The main objective of such pursuit of justice should consist of creating a fresh political community from a fractured historical experience. Only then can a more nuanced understanding, as well as a much more appropriate application of justice with peace, be achieved. Does such nuanced understanding of justice not begin with the imploration of “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”?

David-Ngendo Tshimba (ISSRPL 2009, 2012, EPA 2012) is Assistant Lecturer at Uganda Martyrs University and a Research Fellow with International Alert.


[1] Waseka, A., “Kony asks for mercy, blames Museveni for S. Sudan woes” Daily Monitor, 27 January 2014. Available online at http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Kony-asks-for-mercy–blames-Museveni-for-S–Sudan-woes/-/688334/2161498/-/8ivihg/-/index.html (viewed on 27 February 2014).

[2] Atkinson, R. R. “From Uganda to the Congo and Beyond: Pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army” International Peace Institute (IPI) Publications, December 2009. New York: IPI, 11. Available online at www.ipinst.org, accessed April 25, 2014.

[3] Atkinson 2009, p.12.

[4] Pillay, S. “Conclusion” in C. Sriram & S. Pillay (eds.) (2010) Peace vs Justice? The Dilemma of Transitional Justice in Africa. Durban: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press, p.348.

[5] Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. [Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos] London: Penguin Books, pp. 69-70.

[6] Pillay (2010).

2 responses on ““Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”: The Unfinished Business of the Lord’s Resistance Army, by David-Ngendo Tshimba

  1. Howard Sumka

    As strong a believer in dialogue and reconciliation, sometimes we have to recognize evil in the world and deal with it. Joseph Kony and the LRA clearly fall into that category, which he shares with Serb leaders Mladic and Karadic, among others. He needs to be brought to justice, not to the dialogue process. Then we can begin to address the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of his fighters.

    1. David N. Tshimba

      Dear Howard,

      I dearly sympathise with your deep-seated concern, which is shared with many indeed. But here is my point: Kony and his LRA deeds can best be understood as manifestation of political violence at a larger scale. His was not just a bunch of crimes committed for which he can simply assume individual criminal liability (not unimportant an issue), but rather a display of mass violence animated by and framed within political forces. There is not only a qualitative but also a quantitative distinction between criminal and political violence. Mahmood Mamdani (2015) has argued that, qualitatively, political violence requires more than just criminal agency; it needs a political constituency. That constituency, in turn, is held together and mobilized by an issue. More than criminal violence, political violence is issue-driven. Quantitatively, the distinction is that of sheer scale. The larger its scale, the more the likelihood that the violence is either unleashed by the state or is part of an anti-state mobilization, i.e. civil war or an insurgency, or both. [See M. Mamdani “Beyond Nuremberg: The Historical Significance of the Post-apartheid Transition in South Africa.” In Politics & Society, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2015, pp. 61-88.]

      Undoubtedly, the notion of justice per se has been ascribed a plethora of different meanings, more so in the aftermath of violent scenarios. Yet, what is even more challenging is to agree on the implementation of a working definition of justice in a context of past evil which has affected not a few but a myriad of people. It seems to me that the most pertinent concern is not about whether ‘some justice’ is or can be better than ‘no justice’; rather, a more worthwhile concern and most hotly debated question is about whether the interests of “justice” (as accountability for past wrongdoing) can remain complementary to—let alone compatible with—the pursuit of “peace” (as amnesty for reconciliation) in the context of a post-violence society. It is precisely against this backdrop that I argue for restorative justice in the bid to bring this three-decade long conflict to a peaceful end. Restorative justice is called so simply because it is centrally concerned with restoration: restoration of the victim, restoration of the offender to a law-abiding life, restoration of the damage caused by the crime to the community. As such, restoration is not solely backward-looking; it is equally, if not more, concerned with the construction of a better society in the present and the future.

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