Mark Kersten at Justice in Conflict has put together a symposium on the ICC case of Ongwen with some fantastic pieces, ranging from a description of the history of the conflict to a discussion of the legal implications of Ongwen’s past as a child soldier, in his sentencing.
I wrote one of the articles in the symposium, focusing on Ongwen’s life inside the LRA. See here. My main arguments are: 1) Ongwen was indeed forced to commit crimes in his early days with the rebels, 2) He understood that survival in the LRA was directly related to ability to obey commanders and that chances of survival increased with promotion to officer ranks, 3) As he got older, Ongwen grew wiser and saw Kony for what he was – an opportunist exploiting young Ugandans for his own benefit – but he felt trapped, and, 4) Ongwen tried to leave the LRA many times but the ICC indictment and fear of being prosecuted and/or persecuted kept him in the bush.
I touch upon the political ideology of the LRA, particularly in the early days of the LRA when Ongwen was taken. Kony and other commanders taught young abductees such as Ongwen that the LRA cause was just and that Kony fought for the rights of the Acholi people, who were abused by the new army of President Museveni. There was ample evidence of abuses in Northern Uganda to prove Kony’s case (but not perhaps his ultimate intentions). It is not difficult to imagine that Ongwen and thousands in his positions, truly believed that their fight was right, even if the manner in which they became part of the fight was wrong. By denying him agency and ideological conviction, Ongwen’s defense in the pre-trial hearings did a disservice to Ongwen as well as to the history of the conflict.
The following two paragraphs, which were taken out of the original piece for the sake of space and overall argument, explain further the importance of ideology.
“It is impossible to understand Ongwen’s decision making as a rebel soldier by ignoring the ideology and modus operandi of the LRA kept together by the potent mixture of Acholi traditional beliefs and variants of Christianity. By claiming that Ongwen did everything under duress, his defense team is making the crucial mistake of taking away Ogwen’s agency – something that he would never allow outside of the courtroom – and denying the LRA its ideological raison d’etre.
It might be easy to dismiss its ideology or political nature now that the rebel group has become a survival mechanism for Kony, but during Ongwen’s formative years in the LRA, there was consistent messaging addressed at the abductees that their fight was just, even if the manner in which they were forced to the battlefront was loathsome. As many former combatants have consistently said over the years, the LRA fought to avenge well-documented and known abuses by the Ugandan army against civilians in Northern Uganda in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”