Counsel Cryspus Odongo Ayina, Dominic Ongwen’s lawyer speaking to Black Star News.
Ugandans are questioning whether a purported letter from Lord’s Resistance Leader Joseph Kony to President Yoweri Museveni seeking peace talks is authentic or a ruse by the government to curry favor in Acholi region ahead of next year’s elections.
There is a provision in the Rome Statute which says if any country agrees to negotiate with a rebel group, arrest warrants and the proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) can be suspended for one year, and can be extended if the negotiation is moving on well.
A lawyer for Dominic Ongwen, a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader, wants the Ugandan government to ask that the indictment of the LRA’s top leader Joseph Kony be suspended. Counsel Cryspus Odongo Ayina, the defense lawyer of Ongwen made the appeal following a letter that was purportedly written by Kony asking for the resumption of peace talks.
Ayina wants the Ugandan government to ask the United Nations Security Council to lift the indictment against Kony for at least one year to give room for the traditional justice system to take its course. “There is a provision in the Rome Statute which says if there is any country which agrees to negotiate with a rebel group, arrest warrants and the proceedings at the ICC has to be removed for one year but can be extended if the negotiation is moving on well”, says Ayina in an interview with Black Star News.
The Rome Statute is the legal instrument that created the ICC. “I now appeal to the government that if Kony wants to come for peace talk, it should accept to go the UN security council so that the council lifts the indictment against him for at least one year to give time for the traditional justice system to take its course.”
If there is any resumption of peace talk, the delegates should be carefully selected from both sides and should include Kony’s son Salim Saleh, who is the top commanding officer of the rebel group, according to Ayina. He also asked Joseph Kony to be mindful of the young ones in the bush and surrender. “If Kony would surrender, we are there to defend him because the murders that were committed in this part of the country and the fact that Kony revealed that he acts under the guidance of the spirit, that would be part of his defense,” Ayina said. “Religious and cultural leaders are here to testify in his defense because he was an altar boy in the church and these people could testify to Kony’s good character before he was possessed. If Kony could surrender, all those things are his defense. If I’m still there, Kony should not be afraid, we can defend him.”
Ayina also discussed his client Dominic Ongwen’s trial at the ICC in The Hague. He said Ongwen’s sentence will likely determine whether LRA rebels in the bush surrender or not. “If Dominic Ongwen is sentenced to life imprisonment, people like Joseph Kony are not stupid to say that he will go to the ICC. One way that I want to encourage Joseph Kony is that ICC is not a slaughter house.”
The news about Kony’s letter to President Yoweri Museveni was first revealed by Andrew Mwenda, the chief executive officer of the weekly, The Independent Magazine, in a tweet on Oct. 8. It then went viral on social and mainstream media, sparking discussions. Sheikh Musa Khelil, the Acholi District Muslim Khadi and the member of the governing council of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (RLPI) is doubtful about the authenticity of the letter.
“There is no smoke without fire,” he however, noted, referring to an African proverb. “Andrew Mwenda is a well-known journalist in Uganda, he has to be asked the source of the letter, how authentic the letter is, and whether he can reply whoever sent the letter. But still, there is need for negotiation,” he said.
Khelil who was one of the observers of the Juba Peace Talk between the LRA and the Museveni government revealed that all the issues had been agreed upon during those negotiations and the remaining step had been signing an agreement. “The first Agenda item was the comprehensive peace agreement that was signed and Dr. Riek Machar was our peace mediator. There was government delegation led by the current Uganda Prime Minister Dr. Ruhakana Rhugunda, while on the rebel side, they kept on changing their chairpersons. However, the last one was Dr. [David] Masanga,” Khelil told The New Vision.
Machar is today a vice president of South Sudan. Matsanga is a communications consultant. “And thank God that the second agenda item was cessation of hostility, the third was accountability and reconciliation, the fourth was cease fire and the one that followed was DDRT-disarmament, demobilization. It was only the final peace agreement that was to be signed.” One of the stumbling blocks in concluding the agreement in Juba was Kony’s fear that he could be arrested so long as the ICC indictment and the arrest warrant were still active.
“To the International Community, the United Nation and the Ugandan government, if there is at all any means to apply for stay of arrest through the United Nation Security Council and the final peace agreement is signed and our children come back home, I believe he will release our children to come back home. This is our hope,” Khelil said. Lucy Lapoti, a veteran journalist who is an independent candidate contesting for the Gulu District Woman Member of Parliament seat said the letter could be a fabrication by the government to win favor from people in the northern part of Uganda as the country approaches the 2020 general elections.
“We are going towards election and northern Uganda, especially Acholi sub–region is a region full of opposition so government would want to bring in something that would entice us to give the president votes,” she said. “It could be that if such news breaks and the president responds positively, then we shall be like ‘that is great! oh, this is the kind of president we want! if we send him back, he will put Kony in some position, so we shall be represented.’”
Jolly Laker Okot, the former Country Director of Invisible Children, an NGO that helped the vulnerable children during the war between the LRA and the Museveni government said resumption of the peace talk is very important since total peace still doesn’t prevail in the northern part of Uganda. (Invisible Children was later exposed as a partisan organization that worked with the U.S. government to promote deployment of American troops in Uganda).
“I still think that we are sitting on a time bomb and I stand here as a witness because when I went to the Central African Republic and I passed via Cameroon, I found a girl who speaks Acholi because she was abducted by the LRA. So the issue of LRA went all the way from East Africa to the West Africa,” she said. “So if this really this message is from Joseph Kony that we need to sit down and sign the final peace agreement or open another peace talk, let that opportunity be given but my challenge is the source of that letter and the direction it came from.”
Hon. Reagan Okumu, Member of Parliament for Aswa County in Gulu District, the longest serving legislature from Acholi sub-region, the news about Kony’s letter did not surprise him. “If people have been following the war and the trend of movement of the LRA all the way to the Central African Republic bordering Darfur and Chad, one would not be surprised with the development now taking place especially after the overthrow of Omar al Bashir and then the eventual resumptions of talks between the interim government and the pressure that has been put by the International community so that the whole of that region can be stabilized,” Okumu said. “So the world wants to see absolute peace in that region and it would not be surprising to see a filler raising direct contact from the LRA because these are the people who have been involved with the LRA along the Darfur–Central African Republic boarder.”
Bashir was the president of Sudan, who was deposed following a popular uprising. Stella Angel Lanam, a former LRA abductee and the Director of War Victim Children Networking, a community based organization in Gulu city, said the first time she heard that news, she questioned the letter’s authenticity and the timing of its leak.
“For 25 years, we the children in northern Uganda went through a lot of brutalities and we don’t want any other conflict to happen again. Our education and future were ruined and we feel so bad about it,” she said. “We as the war victims want to understand who Kony gave the letter to, and for what reason. And what type of peace talk is he calling for? Is it the one that brings everlasting peace, or the type that flopped last time?” Patrick Ocen Odinga, a young man who was born in the bush during the insurgency, is optimistic and said that peace would allow families to be re-united.
“I know for sure that most of them are still alive though some died. The only way to make them come back home is through the peace talk, because the war in northern Uganda just stopped temporality since even Kony and his other top commanders are still at large.” He added: “Any time, the war can still spark off. I agree if Kony is serious on peace talk this time round, he should be given the attention so that my brothers and sisters who are suffering the bush return home.”