On 2 May 2016, Thomas Kwoyelo, will be tried in Gulu, Northern Uganda, a first case against former LRA fighters in Uganda. Much has been written about Kwoyelo’s illegal stay in prison, the refusal by the Ugandan authorities to grant him amnesty and his legal battles (I am particularly partial to the writing of Alexis Okeowo here.)
Little is known however about Kwoyelo’s life in the LRA and most importantly, perhaps, Kwoyelo’s entanglement in Northern Uganda’s internal politics – which might explain his continued detention.
Kwoyelo was captured by the Ugandan army in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in March 2009. Pictures of him, in a really bad shape (see here and also read a good piece by Rosebell Kagumire), emerging out a Ugandan army helicopter were broadcast throughout the world, usually accompanied with commentary by Ugandan army officers that Kwoyelo was a top LRA commander. There was even a claim that Kwoyelo was fourth in command.
But Kwoyelo was at best a mid-level commander and his prosecution, while real top level commanders have been granted amnesty, makes little sense if command responsibility is indeed the rationale behind the legal case.
Kwoyelo was a low level fighter when he was captured in 2009. He had been a private since November 2007 after Kony accused him of having conspired with Vincent Otti – then Kony’s deputy – to have Kony killed. Kony gave orders to execute Vincent Otti and his loyalists and demoted Kwoyelo from Lieutenant Colonel to private. He was put under house arrest and was released, according to former LRA members, late in 2008 just before the Ugandan army offensive against LRA bases in DRC’s Garamba Park. Given the events of November 2007, it is ironic that in 2008 Kwoyelo was described as a top commander.
Even earlier in his life in the LRA, Kwoyelo was never one of the top LRA commanders. He led a small group throughout the early 2000s, operating in Corner Kilak (120 miles north of Kampala) that often doubled as a sick bay for wounded fighters. Kwoyelo and Ongwen were the last two commanders who left Uganda in 2006 for DRC. Their relative continuing presence in Northern Uganda made them known to the people and local authorities.
Kwoyelo was already known in Northern Uganda in September 2002 when the army rounded up 21 people, mostly Democratic Party (opposition party) youth members, and imprisoned them in Gulu Central Prison. On the night of 16 September 2002 Ugandan soldiers under the lead of the local military intelligence chief turned up at the prison and demanded to transfer the 21 prisoners to the army barracks in Gulu. Reportedly, army officer claimed that the feared LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo had threatened to attack the prison, thus the move to the army barracks was for the prisoners’ own safety. During the transfer, a prisoner by the name of Oloya Peter, known as Yumbe was shot dead by the soldiers. Accounts differ but subsequent inquires found the intelligence chief responsible for Yumbe’s death.
Yumbe’s death is related to a different legal case with a clear political backdrop, involving the killing in February 2002 of LC3 chairman (a local official) Alfred Bongomin, a member of the NRM (party in power). State prosecutors tried to implicate two popular opposition Members of Parliament, – including Ronald Reagan Okumu – the chair of the Acholi Parliamentary Group, in Bongomin’s death. The prosecution claimed that the MPs gave orders to Kwoyelo to have Bongomin killed. The case dragged for four years – a known tactic to harass opposition members – and was subsequently thrown out of court. As the judge stated, “A close study of evidence shows clearly that it was a crude and amateur attempt at creative work.” At least two people, former Democratic Party youth members, out of the 21 prisoners transferred to the Gulu Army Barracks the fateful night of Yumbe’s death were key prosecution witnesses in the case of the MPs (many claim the two were traumatized and ‘turned’ by the army). The judge claimed their testimonies were not “worthy of belief.”
It is unclear if Kwoyelo’s trial will shed light on the deaths of Bongomin or Yumbe but Kwoyelo’s case has already been used by Kony to deter active fighters from leaving the LRA. It is a refrain I have heard often from former LRA combatants in the last five years. Kwoyelo’s case is also referenced by many former fighters, who don’t necessarily understand the difference between ICC and Ugandan legal authorities, to question statements from International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors that only Kony will be prosecuted (by the ICC). As former commander fighter and commander O.S. said to me last month, “If they are going after Kwoyelo, no one is safe [from prosecution].”