Reconcile with the Living, Not Just the Dead

An Open Letter to President Museveni
December 4, 2005

When does the pursuit of justice turn into revenge-seeking? This question, more than any other, lies at the heart of two issues that bedevil this country: a troubled political succession and the ongoing war in the north. Our response to these issues will shape both your legacy and the political future we bequeath the next generation. If it should seem audacious for an ordinary citizen to set aside normal courtesy and write an open letter to his President, I urge you to think of this letter not as the pursuit of political advantage but as an out-of-the-ordinary response in an extraordinary situation.

Political Succession

The reluctance to hand over power to anyone but close family is a widespread phenomenon in Africa and the Middle East. That those in power should want to hang on to it is not surprising, but their ability to do so is. A reflection of weak political institutions, the refusal to hand over power further weakens these institutions. The result is that even constitutional republics are coming to resemble monarchies.

This is the context in which I suggest we understand both the 'third term' controversy and recent charges brought against the principal opposition leader, Kiiza Besigye. The language of the 'third term' debate is misleading because you, Mr. President, are seeking a sixth - and not a third - consecutive term in office. Similarly, the current focus on whether or not Mr. Besigye committed rape and treason is also misleading. Whereas it is the business of the courts, civil and military, to decide the truth of these allegations, only the political authority has the power to decide whether and when to bring charges to court. Simply put, why has a 1993 charge of rape been brought to the courts 12 years later? And why is intent and preparation to mount a guerrilla struggle being construed as evidence of treason given that the promise to 'return to the bush' has become part of the political vocabulary of those members of Uganda's political elite who, whether presently in government or in opposition, came to power in 1986 through a guerrilla struggle?

After all, was not the more striking fact about the period that followed the disputed election of 2002, an election whose conduct even the courts were reluctant to vindicate, that the opposition - even if it talked of and prepared to go to the bush - did not in fact take to the bush? My point, Mr. President, is that we need to focus on the political rather than the legal issues involved in the matter.

While the courts can settle the truth of these allegations, the public must concern itself with considering the political cost, and thus the political wisdom, of introducing these charges now, against the unquestioned leader of the opposition, a few months before an election that follows a highly controversial constitutional amendment. The point will be clearer if I compare the situation today with that of 20 years ago, when you had just come to power.

I believe history will acknowledge the building of a 'broad base' government after 1986 as a key political contribution of the NRM government. The broad base was a response to a context in which the NRM recognized that it did not have sufficient political support in the country as a whole to demand that those who had resorted to violence for political ends be brought to justice. Instead of taking them to court, the NRM offered them a political deal: give up the recourse to violence without giving up your objectives, and we will give you a share of power or simply the perks of office. How many of those who held positions in the broad-based cabinet could have been charged with accusations the courts would have upheld? What shall we call this: a legally unjustifiable impunity or a politically justifiable reconciliation? The answer is clear: it was the latter.

The lessons of 1986 are hugely relevant for 2006. As in 1986, now too both the political class and the citizenry are deeply divided. The whole point of the electoral system in a divided country, especially one with a recent history of civil war, is to shift the contest from the military to the political field, and thereby to demilitarize political competition. It is this achievement you are risking by insisting on taking Mr. Besigye to the courts - whatever the truth of the allegations levelled against him.

The War in the North

For a long time, the war in the North seemed to simmer as a local affair with local consequences. Even if most people were content to leave its conduct to the government, a growing number wondered why there was no end to it, why every round of peace talks was broken up by war talk, calling for a military victory amidst a military stalemate. The government pointed the finger north, to meddling by the government of Sudan. But now that war has ended even in the south of Sudan, that explanation can no longer suffice. Ugandans are compelled to look internally for an explanation as to why the northern war has continued for a second decade.

The facts are as evident as they are puzzling. First, the LRA guerrillas are estimated in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, with elementary training and rudimentary technology. Second, whereas the LRA preys on civilians, the government has interned most of the population (over a million) in barbed-wire camps, without providing them adequate security, food or medicine. I visited a camp of roughly 15,000 internees two years ago; it was 'protected' by 15 armed soldiers, and periodically raided by the LRA. Recent figures, both official and unofficial, show that the level of excess deaths in the internment camps far exceeds those killed by the LRA. Finally, and not surprisingly, most of the local population seems to have kept a distance from both the LRA and the government. So why does the northern war continue?

Does the answer lie in revenge, a vendetta rationalized as the pursuit of justice? Or does it lie in advantage? The case for both grows with time. First, has not the on going war channelled a growing proportion of the official budget to military uses, and created a vigorous constituency inside the army for a continued war and against a negotiated solution to it? Second, has this constituency not been further reinforced by those civilian leaders who realize that the security budget is relatively immune from scrutiny by outside agencies, such as the IMF? Third, is it not significant that every major regional intervention by Uganda - whether in Rwanda, Congo or Sudan - has been launched from the north, in light of the fact that the northern war provides a theatre for constant military mobilization? Fourth, is not the most evident consequence of the war a brutalization of the society in the north - particularly the million plus interned - and a militarized distortion of its politics? Fifth, is there not a corresponding political advantage gained by holding up 'Kony' as an alternative in the wings, a threat to the population should it demand that the government resolve Uganda's own local 'war on terror' politically? And, finally, has not the continuation of this 'war on terror' in the north secured for your government a place as a front-line state in the global 'war on terror,' thereby assuring it the uncritical protection of an American political umbrella?

No one can answer these questions for sure, but no one can afford to ignore them. For one thing is certain: whether intended or not, each of the above outcomes spells out the rising cost of the war in the north for all of us.

The Issue is not Impunity, but Reconciliation

The conduct of the northern war has become more complicated by the entry of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was created to hold governments accountable, especially concerning large-scale atrocities against civilians, defined in law as 'crimes against humanity.' This is why the internment of a million plus civilians in armed camps in the north, without adequate provision of security or food or medicine, should have been a matter of prime concern for the ICC.

But the ICC has chosen to focus its apparatus of justice on just one side of the conflict, the LRA. By providing impunity for the government while seeking to bring rebels to justice, the ICC is contributing to the continuation of the northern war, rather than to its resolution. No wonder the ICC is politically isolated in the country. Inexperienced and under great pressure to perform, the ICC needs to recognize that its involvement in northern Uganda is fast turning into a political and legal travesty, one from which it needs to step back if it is to avoid the first spectacular failure in its short career.

Mr. President, I was among many who were heartened when you talked of the need for reconciliation in the days that followed the death of former President Obote. I urge you, Mr. President, to fulfill the promise of 1986 - not just to reserve reconciliation for the dead, but to extend it to the living. Specifically, I suggest two measures: one a national reconciliation whose provisions are broad enough to apply to both Dr. Besigye and to the leadership of the LRA and, two, a disbanding of internment camps in the north as a first step to restoring normal civilian life there.

This is the prime requisite for building both a sustainable political community and a viable rule of law in today's Uganda.

Yours truly,

Mahmood Mamdani