An Acholi Perspective on Peacemaking
WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic
April 23, 2018
by David Ofumbi
Peace is an elusive subject that costs time, energy, money, and sometimes lives to attain. The news headlines around the world attest to this, and they explicitly call for the need to cultivate a culture of peaceful co-existence in a world yearning for peace. For the Acholi people of northern Uganda, enduring peace depends upon total determination and commitment to uphold the humanity of the other even in circumstances that seem illogical to do so.
I shall argue here that enduring peace does not come from human action per se; it is an overflow of one’s being expressed through one’s corresponding actions toward the other. I am basing this proposition on an understanding that life is relational above all else. The extent to which personal desires are abandoned in order to embrace another person determines someone’s capacity to understand oneself as a human being. It also determines their ability to enjoy life and live in harmony with one another. This does not mean that personal desires and needs are completely disregarded. Rather, it means that a sense of self develops based upon the belief that one cannot exist in isolation. When personal wants and desires are made secondary to the needs and desires of others, (even at personal expense), true humanity is revealed. That is, when people are equipped to respect human dignity, they act humanely. Therefore, how one views and treats the other has far reaching implications for peace.
The aforementioned approach to peace making describes the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution which the international community adopted unanimously as an alternative viable solution to the northern Uganda armed conflicts that have engulfed the Acholi region since 1986. Faced with extinction, the Acholi people resorted to their cultural self-understanding to respond to their plight. Unlike the capitalist theory which premises peace on market exchange because of its power to create social bond among exchange-partners (Rist 1997, 18), the Acholi people premise peace on their understanding of the true nature of humanity.
The Acholi People
Who are the Acholi people? The Acholi people of northern Uganda are part of cattle-keeping Luo-speakers who migrated from their homeland along the Nile River in Southern Sudan in the 16th century and settled in different parts of East Africa (Atkinson 1994, 78). Prior to colonialism, the people known today as the Acholi referred to themselves as An-loco-li, which means “I am a human being,” or “black” (Doom 1999, 10). The label An-loco-li did not have any ethnic delineations or geographical boundaries initially, although the Acholi people had a collective identity encapsulated in cultures and customs that governed their existence for thousands of years. As a result of the Acholi people’s self-understanding as human beings, they embraced peaceful co-existence among themselves and their immediate neighbors (Doom 1999, 11). However, since the colonial period, the Acholi people have developed a distinct ethnic identity that characterizes them as “northerners” or dark people, something that sets them apart from the people in the “South” commonly referred to as southerners.
Armed Conflicts and Their Impact on the Acholi People
The Acholi people have been victims of many armed conflicts. The first conflicts occurred in pre-colonial Acholi, and then came the 1966 Buganda crisis. The second was the 1979 Uganda National Liberation Army/Front (UNLA/F) war of liberation against Idi Amin’s dictatorial regime that led to formation of the UNLF government (1979–1980). The third conflict includes the 1980–1986 National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) war against Dr. Apollo Milton Obote’s second regime (1980–1985) and the Tito Okello-Lutwa’s military junta (1985–1986). Fourth are the northern Uganda armed conflicts that started in 1986 and which have continued to the present. According to Oloya Opiyo, the northern Uganda armed conflicts is rooted in:
the colonial project of classifying and highlighting cultural differences rather than similarities fragmented indigenous people into “bantu,” “nilotes,” “hamitics,” and so forth, thereby planting the seeds of intolerance, suspicion, and present day ethno-cultural conflicts. Concerned only with winning at all cost against the perceived enemy, all sides to the northern Uganda conflict acted with total disregard for the welfare of civilians generally, and especially children (Oloya 2010, 69).
As a result, the Acholi people suffered immensely. According to Martin Owuor, the Commissioner in charge of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees in the Office of Prime Minister in Uganda, the cost of the armed conflicts in northern Uganda is too large to calculate or to attach a figure (Nyongesa 2010). In the eyes of a prominent Acholi who pioneered the peace initiative, Macleod Baker Ochola II, the former Anglican bishop of Kitgum diocese,
Amin’s terror affected the military, the civil servants, but it did not really affect ordinary people. That’s the difference with this government—our cattle, granaries, and houses. The cattle rustling of the Karimojong was the first step in a process that has left the Acholi people deep in the pit of poverty (Leggett 2001, 29).
Overall, the Acholi people experienced unprecedented vices on a wide scale. Some of the vices that both the Uganda government soldiers and the Lord Resistance Army committed are captured in the following paragraphs.
The (worst thing about) the NRA soldiers was having forced sex with women one after the other. Men and women were collected during what they [NRA] called a “screening exercise to flush” out the rebels [LRA] from the community. The men and women were then put in separate groups. Then in the evening, the NRA soldiers started [raping] the women in the compound. One woman could be [raped] by up to six men; and this went on for three days (Buijs 1996, 99).
Furthermore, according to Oloya, the NRA subjected men to rape as well:
Meanwhile the rape of a man in front of other men and family had no cultural description or name because of its outrageous and alien nature. To describe the brutality of rape orchestrated by the NRM/A on Acholi men in villages in places like Alero, Amuru, Guruguru, the Acholi developed the phrase tekgungu, meaning as soon as one kneels one is raped from behind (Oloya 2010, 80).
Opposition to the Acholi People’s Resolve on Peace
However, in spite of the aforementioned atrocities and many more that are not captured here, like the suffering in Internally Displaced People’s camps, the Acholi people opted for peaceful conflict resolution against the spirited opposition to it both at home and abroad. Internally, President Museveni Yoweri of Uganda mounted a philosophical obstacle to peaceful conflict resolution until the Acholi people prevailed upon him later on during the armed conflicts. From the beginning of the armed conflicts, President Museveni in particular believed in the supremacy of a military solution over a peaceful solution to political and armed conflicts. The president’s belief in the supremacy of a military solution over a peaceful option was first witnessed in his thesis while still a student at Dar es Salaam University in the early-sixties. Later on, when he lost the 1980 presidential election, he overruled the resolution of the council of his party to pursue legal redress to the alleged election fraud. Instead Museveni opted for a military option that led him to form the NRA to protest the results of the 1980 election (Bidandi 2011). The 1986 success of the NRA guerilla war in the Luwero Triangle led to the northern Uganda armed insurgency. Globally, the International Criminal Court (ICC) represented the international community. On its part, the ICC favored retributive justice as the antidote to impunity. It opposed vehemently the path of restorative justice upon which the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution is built.
Peaceful Conflict Resolution
In this section, I will briefly discuss what makes the Acholi people passionate about peaceful conflict resolution in spite of the suffering and death they experienced for over 20 years. I will also point out the impact of the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution on justice.
Culturally speaking, for the Acholi People just like for most ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, the key word that defines their lives is “connectedness” (Gitari 1982, 119; Tutu 2004, 26). Connectedness describes their relationship as an ethnic group, relationships between humans and God, and relationships with the rest of creation. Human connectedness among the Acholi is generally referred to as Ubuntu or “human beings” (Doom 1999, 10). Ubuntu recognizes that the entire creation is the mental expression of the divine, or the entire creation is a thought in the mind of the creator. It relates to everything transcendent and forms the understanding that a person is a person because he recognizes the humanity of others. Therefore, social harmony is the highest goal of the Acholi community.
In Acholiland, spiritual life permeates the whole of their lives and it expresses itself through rituals, songs, dances, myths, proverbs, stories, and riddles just to mention a few. According to this worldview, the Acholi people derive their identities and their behaviors from their spirituality and in return their identity and their behaviors inform and shape their spirituality (Mbiti 1991, 24). For the Acholi people, the whole of life is a sacred act of expressing and of growing into the image of God. Dallas Willard identifies this kind of spirituality as “embodied spirituality” where faith is not removed from everyday life. It is “the relationship of our embodied selves that has the natural and irrepressible effect of making us alive to the Kingdom of God—here and now in the material world” (Willard 1988, 31). Hence Acholi spirituality is a living spirituality that is written on the lives of its people (Mbiti 1991, 126).
In the Acholi region, being human is being spiritual. Spirituality affirms one’s humanity through humane actions toward other humanity. The central goal in life is to live in harmony in order to develop a true integrated life which is expressed by the famous proverb, “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.” Under this framework, a sense of one’s own integrity empowers one to resist dehumanization of any sort (Tutu 2004, 26). According to Desmond Tutu, “Africans know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were lesser than who they are” (Tutu 2004, 26). I confirmed this for myself when I visited northern Uganda three times in 2002, 2007, and 2008. During my visit to the Internally Displaced People’s camps, the people in camps addressed me as omera which means “brother.” During my entire visit, the hospitality the Acholi people lavished upon me enabled me to experience the true richness of Acholi brotherhood and sisterhood.
According to Desmond Tutu, “Africans know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were lesser than who they are.”
Therefore, according to the above African life-view, the majority of the Acholi people concur that life is relational above anything else. Humans are humans because of other humans (or “I am human because I belong”). Most Acholi people derive their well-being by caring for the well-being of others first. For that matter, the collective physical and material condition of the Acholi people is secondary to their human relationships. Hope and common humanity dictate their actions regardless of the human physical conditions pertaining on the ground. They focus ultimately not so much on either what members are doing to each other or what others are doing to them but rather on what they are becoming in relation to what it means to be human. Their underlying life philosophy is, “I belong therefore I am,” as opposed to other philosophies such as, “I think therefore I am,” or “I possess therefore I am.” The traditional community here means mutual community, and the human need of the other is the criterion of all human behavior in community (Shorter 1980, 27).
With regard to conflict, the Acholi people believe that violence mars human identity, which destroys the capacity to create the harmony required to build a mutual community.The famous Acholi mindset concerning nonviolence for example is summarized in the following statement:
If you have harmed my child, it is because something has gone wrong with you to such an extent that you could do that. That which has gone wrong for you is now harming my life. It means I cannot be the kind of human being I want to be because you are no longer human. So it is in my interest – my interest – as the victim, to assist you to get your humanity back so that I can become human again (Allen 2006, 137).
This is a fundamentally different way of looking at relationships in a community and what to do with evil. According to this mindset, the worst evil is to live in complete disregard of the humanity of others. It is built upon a sense of a moral universe, which is predicated upon God’s love and power to transform the worst of the human situation to the best of what it should be despite all the evidences that seem to be to the contrary. According to the Acholi people, neither evil nor injustice nor oppression nor lies have the last word (Tutu 2004, 2). This mindset endears the Acholi people to see others as humans who are capable of being human no matter what their condition might be. According to the above analysis, the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution is holistic, communal, proactive, participatory, and restorative among other things. These values have informed and have shaped the Acholi people’s response to their plight in the armed conflicts that have lasted for over 20 years.
The Impact of the Acholi Traditional System of Conflict Resolution on Justice
The Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution demands fair justice—justice for those who seek justice. This is occasioned by a belief that human life is sacred and it is inherently redeemable. The underlying assumption is that humans should preoccupy themselves with: 1) preserving human dignity under all circumstances and at all cost; 2) redeeming human dignity where it is impaired; and 3) protecting it through means which uphold that dignity when it is under imminent threat. Therefore, for the Acholi, people should respond to all life situations by faith, love, and living hope rather than fear, hatred, and despair.
The failure to understand the underlying assumptions that govern the Acholi people’s response to life situations has always led people to make wrong assumptions about the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution. For example, the assertion that the Acholi people are opposed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) trials of the master-minds of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is misplaced (Allen 2006, 136). The Acholi argument is rather that if there must be criminal prosecution of the master-minds of the armed conflicts in northern Uganda, then the ICC must prosecute all the people who perpetrated human rights violations in northern Uganda (Human Rights Watch 2004). Since they are the victims of injustices in northern Uganda, the Acholi people rather than the Uganda government should determine who the defendants are. The trial of Kony and his henchmen serves the Uganda government rather than the Acholi people. If the ICC fails to investigate and to prosecute the perpetrators of human rights violations on the side of the Uganda government, then no one on the Kony side deserves prosecution. For the Acholi people, such a process only benefits those who administer justice, not those who seek it (Allen 2006, 99). Justice that placates the Uganda government (the dispenser of justice) at the expense of the Acholi people (who are the primary victims of the northern Uganda armed conflicts) is inhumane and thus injustice. The Acholi people contend that justice is just and humane only when it preserves, protects, and restores the human dignity of victims without jeopardizing the redemption of the victimizers.
Further, the Acholi people contend that justice that establishes peace is not merely judicial; justice by essence is comprehensive. The injustices meted out in northern Uganda by both the Uganda government soldiers and LRA rebels require more than simplistic judicial remedies. There are many factors to take into account: legal and moral guilt; political and socio-economic disenfranchisements that are systemic; incalculable holistic losses that are irreparable, and above all, core values that are threatened by the judicial process envisaged by the ICC. Mere legal remedies cannot heal the Acholi community let alone transform it. For example, remedying the historic north/south divide will certainly require effective spiritual, political, social, and economic initiatives aimed at building northern Uganda’s stake in the central government, while at the same time, enhancing the framework for local decision-making and participation alongside the government. In the absence of such a process, the Acholi people consider the ICC judicial trials as a government strategy to hoodwink them. After all, it has since been fully established that the Uganda government only wanted the ICC trials as way to gain victory in the war rather than to settle the armed conflicts in northern Uganda and deal with the long-term problems there (Allen 2006, 82).
In conclusion, the Acholi traditional system of conflict resolution points out clearly that human immediate and apparent concerns have deeper roots, which lie in the realm of human identity, dignity, and relationships. For instance, the armed conflicts in northern Uganda and the humanitarian consequences are rooted in Uganda’s violent political history since the colonial days. The violence is in turn rooted in human marred identity, dignity, and unjust relationships at individual, ethnic, national, international, and cosmic levels. It is extremely difficult to solve the current crisis without referring to all the encompassing factors that fed into the northern Uganda armed conflicts.
The northern Uganda armed conflicts call for a clearer differentiation of the primary issues from secondary issues to avoid the dangers of being held captive to the prioritization of secondary causes over primary causes and the resultant false worldviews, priorities, and prescriptions.
Therefore, for the Acholi people, retribution in this case belongs to the past, which should define neither their present nor their future. The Acholi people want to secure their future through forgiveness and reparation, which offers hope for reconciliation, healing, and a fresh start for the Acholi people and Uganda at large. This is because the Acholi people derive self-confidence for self-determination and self-actualization from their spirituality, which is deeply rooted in their culture. In this regard, the Acholi self-understanding as An-loco-li (I am a human being) is a cornerstone for peacemaking.
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