Mbarara University Grants Office

Mbarara University of Science and Technology
Grants Office

Country and region (within the country) of the project
Project title

An Assessment of Traditional Justice and Reconciliation in Uganda: Experiences and Lessons from West Nile, Acholi, and Teso sub-regions of Uganda

Local Promoter: Tom Ogwang,

Mbarara University of Science and Technology,

Co-promoter, Dr. Robert Esuruku,

Makerere university.

Flemish Promoter: Prof dr. Stephan Parmentier,

Co-promoter, Dr. Monica Aciru, KU Leuven.

Team members: Dr Jimmy Ssentongo, Uganda Martyrs university.

In September 2014, the Uganda Transitional Justice Working group released the draft national transitional Justice (TJ) policy which identified traditional justice mechanisms as one of the key approaches to dealing with large scale human rights violations. However, prior to the draft policy, traditional justice mechanisms had already been employed among the local communities in Northern Uganda to facilitate reintegration and reconciliation despite criticisms concerning its application and impact. The Juba Peace agreement (2007) and the draft National TJ Policy served to validate the significance of traditional justice approaches in addressing the complex justice needs. Despite a strong case for the traditional mechanisms, it still faces the challenges of being formally recognised and regulated with its role in the justice toolkit remaining largely unclear. This project therefore focuses on linking the traditional practices to the justice needs. It will undertake a qualitative inquiry into the experiences from three regions in Uganda emphasising its application for contemporary justice needs.
Context analysis

Uganda has in the post-colonial era, witnessed a variety of conflicts stemming partly from the consequences of colonisation as well as from post-independence struggles. The most prominent of these has been the war led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. Stretching for over two decades under the leadership of Joseph Kony, it targeted both civilians and the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF).

         The government’s response to the LRA war was to employ military and general amnesty strategies. These strategies, however, were not effective in ending the war. The Government of Uganda therefore referred the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2006 which later issued a warrant of arrest for Joseph Kony and four other top commanders all of whom were accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

         On the other hand, traditional justice practices were employed as central mechanisms in the pursuit of accountability and reconciliation. The role of these practices was formally recognized by clauses 3.1 and 5.3 of Agenda Item 3 of the Juba Peace Agreement (Juba Peace Agreement 2007). Additionally, the draft National Transitional Justice Policy recognises the significance of Traditional Justice practices.

         The draft policy however identifies the lack of formal recognition and regulation as critical challenges to its use. It consequently proposes two recommendations; the development of legislation to guide traditional justice mechanisms and the empowerment and building the capacity of traditional leaders and institutions.

         The role of the traditional justice practices nevertheless remains unclear. This project will therefore focus on linking the traditional practices to the justice needs following conflicts and human rights violations. Strengthening access to justice in northern Uganda is at present a key constituent to peace building in the region. Ensuring justice under the law whilst developing access to justice in these areas has therefore become a priority in the peace building efforts. However, in order for effective justice institutions to be meaningful, traditional justice practices should be integrated into mainstream justice processes. Agenda Item No.3 of the Juba peace agreement for instance is clear as regards the application of the traditional justice system and its subsequent protocol. The draft Transitional Justice Policy framework further reiterates the importance of traditional justice mechanisms towards meeting comprehensive justice needs. Any effective sustainable peace process in Uganda therefore, should integrate the aspects of the formal justice system as well as those that resonate with local community’s sense of justice.

         The post-war period in northern Uganda provides an opportunity to interrogate traditional justice practices and explore its place and relevance in responding to community’s sense of justice. This project will therefore explore the ways in which the legacies of violent internal conflicts in post-independent west Nile, Teso and northern Uganda have been tackled by different local and (inter)national stakeholders and actors. Drawing on the data collected, the project will examine to what extent the respective methods including trials at both local and international levels, traditional justice practices and memorialisation projects have contributed to reconciliation processes and promoted sustainable political changes to achieve social justice.

         Within this scope it will also analyse how formations of historical memory are intertwined with politics of forgetting and denial. In this respect, one important point of the evaluation will include questions concerning the local coping strategies of protracted violence. In order to grasp the differences and similarities of the practices and strategies of coping with the aftermath of mass violence in post-colonial African contexts, references to the transition processes in other African contexts will be made.

         While traditional justice mechanisms in Uganda have been in practice for a long period of time, extensive and systematic evaluation and documentation of these processes has been lacking. More so, a concerted and long term academic interest has not been shown.

         The role of academics in ensuring the successful implementation of traditional justice practices as part of the Transitional justice processes in Uganda has been highlighted by the TJ policy framework to include undertaking applied research and dissemination of research findings. It is therefore in line with this that the project will involve a network of academics from three different institutions in Uganda (Uganda Martyrs University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology and Makerere University and the KU Leuven (Research Line on Human Rights and Transitional Justice) in Belgium to undertake the study. This collaboration will involve academic exchanges to discuss the findings of the project.

         It is further expected that this project will be significant in streamlining the past and on-going efforts concerning the justice needs and practices following large-scale human rights abuses in Uganda by establishing a focal and accessible point for the research and documentation of traditional and transitional justice practices in Uganda.

Project strategy

The general objective of this project is to contribute to and improve the government policy on Transitional Justice and post-conflict peace-building in Uganda. It will focus on linking the traditional justice mechanisms to the justice needs following conflicts and human rights violations. In the last 10-15 years, the issue of transitional justice has been debated and tested in different contexts. The Juba peace agreement (2007) called for the establishment of both “formal and non formal institutions and measures for ensuring justice and reconciliation” (article 2.1) while in 2014, a draft National Transitional justice Policy was released. In both frameworks, the traditional justice mechanisms have continued to remain controversial in both theory and practice despite their continued use at the local levels. On the whole, the role of the traditional justice practices remains unclear. We argue that there are still considerable knowledge gaps in the perceptions and understanding of the local population and the government as far as transitional and traditional justice and its applicability is concerned. Additionally, there has not been a concerted effort by the local academics to rigorously assess and disseminate these practices and influence policy.

           Consequently, we identify two specific objectives: First, to ensure that the role of traditional justice is understood and is adapted for contemporary application. This will be addressed by an elaboration of the following themes:

  1. Establish the types of abuses traditional justice practices can address;
  2. Assess how traditional justice practices should be adapted for contemporary application;
  3. Determine the appropriate institutional frameworks traditional justice practices can be adaptable to;
  4. Assess the use of traditional justice practices in addressing inter-ethnic issues.

         The second objective of the project is to establish a platform of expertise on transitional justice and related topics in Uganda. This will be addressed in the following means

  1. Formally document and disseminate literature on traditional dispute resolution and justice practices

We will therefore undertake an assessment of the different traditional justice practices in West Nile, Acholi, and Teso sub regions respectively, to examine what makes the different traditional justice practices work (or not work) and their applications.



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