A bitter drink known as mato oput by the Acholi people of northern Ugandan may have the ingredients for peace between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Mato oput is the ritual climax of an Acholi justice process for bringing reconciliation in the wake of a homicide within the community.
This ceremony was placed on the agenda of peace talks held in the southern Sudanese capital, Juba, reflecting the earnest search for alternatives to address the grave crimes which have characterised two decades of war in northern Uganda.
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Apart from the killings, abductions, rapes and sexual enslavement of children, the war has inflicted a humanitarian disaster on the region, with more than a million huddled into the squalor and degradation of camps.
Having seen the LRA escape to neighbouring DR Congo and UN troops abort a mission to arrest suspects – including LRA leader Joseph Kony – Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has said the LRA should instead acknowledge their crimes to victims and subject themselves to traditional justice within Uganda.
Uganda’s Amnesty Act, introduced six years ago, provides a legal framework for this. It recognises traditional justice mechanisms like mato oput, and promotes community reconciliation.
Reparation to victims
Under the act, rebels must genuinely abandon and renounce their crimes. Over 17,000 have already done so and are being reintegrated into their communities.
Like many African communities, the Acholi believe that deep social rifts are caused by killings and require elaborate reconciliation mechanisms to restore fractured relations.
Mato oput is performed after a mediated process has brought together two families and clans.
The offender accepts responsibility, asks for forgiveness and must make reparation to the victims.
The perpetrator and the victim’s family then share the root drink from a calabash, to recall and bury the bitterness of the soured relations.
Another Acholi ritual, gomo tong – the bending of spears – symbolises the ending of hostilities between groups and is also preceded by discussion and truth-telling.
Other cleansing rituals are already used to welcome former LRA combatants into the communities.
This option, however, is threatened by the war crimes indictments issued by International Criminal Court for four senior LRA commanders.
After the disempowerment and indignity inflicted by war, Ugandans are now seeking an active role in resolving this conflict which has torn apart the fabric of their lives and reduced them to observers of their own fate.
In opting for participatory local justice within their communities they are re-asserting lost dignity.
None of these are perfect processes, and neither are they beyond improvement.
Everywhere tradition is adapted to answer more complex modern needs; this affirms Africa’s confidence in her ingenuity and rich heritage.
But there are increasing signs that Africans are confidently re-visiting their past.
In Uganda, human rights violations have been credibly attributed to the army and auxiliaries operating in the war zones as well as to the rebels.
However, thorough investigations and timely, fair prosecutions have been all too rare.
Beyond individual violations, the Ugandan government’s policies also bear direct political responsibility for the long failure to end the war.
While mato oput can address individual offences of non-state actors, it is not a suitable vehicle for probing the state’s failures and violations.
Ugandans want to see these national issues addressed publicly within the country, not only in Juba.
For too long conflicts have held back African hopes. Victims have been helpless to stop abusive armies and warlords.
Ending war is an absolute priority for today’s victims and for future generations. Yet insisting on formal justice could easily thwart peace efforts.
Uganda should demonstrate that ideological and procedural tensions between international criminal justice and the continent’s aspirations for local solutions to its problems can be resolved without condoning impunity.