On January 7, US forces took into custody Dominic Ongwen, a commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), after his capture in the Central African Republic (CAR) by rebel forces.
Though details of his arrest are still emerging, Ongwen’s capture is good news for citizens in northern Uganda, CAR, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan, who have been terrorized by the LRA for more than three decades. It is also a vindication of a US policy that enjoyed broad bipartisan support (US military advisers have been on the ground since 2011 in support of the Joint African Union Regional Task Force in CAR).
It is unclear, however, how much Ongwen’s capture will hurt the LRA, as US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki suggested it would at a January 6 press briefing. Ongwen—while simultaneously respected and feared by many LRA rank-and-file members—was increasingly kept at arm’s length by leader Joseph Kony. As researcher Ledio Cakaj writes, Ongwen was nearly executed for disobedience twice, and was recently demoted from brigadier to private, a common Kony strategy to consolidate and centralize power around himself.
While Ongwen’s marginalization may mean that his arrest has little impact on the LRA’s capabilities, his capture follows a decline in LRA strength over the past few years. The group is currently thought to have only three hundred fighters left, according to an Enough Project calculation. While many fighters have escaped or defected, their safety assured by a blanket amnesty instituted by the Ugandan government in 2000 and again in 2013, other LRA commanders—including the famously elusive Kony—remain at large. Still, authorities are optimistic that Ongwen may be able to provide actionable intelligence on his whereabouts.
At ten years old, Ongwen was among more than 30,000 other children in northern Uganda abducted by the LRA between 1988 and 2004. He was conscripted as a fighter and forced to participate in brutal attacks on civilians; he quickly became known for his bravery in battle and was promoted to major, then brigadier.
At Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s request, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005 charged Ongwen with seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder and “intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population.”
Now, Ongwen’s future is uncertain: on Monday, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Asuman Kiyingi announced that Uganda has “the capacity” to try Ongwen in the national International Crimes Division court, as Uganda has attempted—unsuccessfully, thus far—with other LRA fighters. Yesterday, Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda said that Ongwen will be transferred to the Hague for trial by the ICC.
Despite initially seeking ICC help to try Kony, Museveni in recent months has railed against the court, accusing it of “oppressing Africa” and even advocating for African nations to withdraw from it altogether. If Ankunda’s statement is to be taken seriously, it is unclear why Museveni is suddenly bowing to the ICC’s authority.
If Uganda reverts to its position to try Ongwen in a national court, proceedings will be complicated by its previous legal battles with LRA commanders. While the Ugandan government’s blanket amnesty for LRA fighters attempts to balance the need for ex-combatant reintegration with an end of impunity, it has also provoked criticism, particularly from those who claim that amnesty is given arbitrarily and is politically-motivated.
Thomas Kwoyelo, captured in 2009, was the first LRA fighter to be brought before Uganda’s ICD. His trial was stopped after the Constitutional Court found that the amnesty law was unfairly applied; the Court ordered his release, though he remains in prison pending an appeal. A second LRA member, Caesar Achellam, claimed similar unfair treatment under the amnesty law. He has not been heard from since he was taken into custody in May 2012, though a local Ugandan paper reported in 2013 that he was under the “protection” of the Ugandan army and potentially cooperating with the authorities.
Neither Kwoyelo nor Achellam were ever indicted by the ICC, so the current questions over jurisdiction were irrelevant—though the Ugandan justice system’s bungling of the cases may haunt any attempt to try Ongwen locally.
If Uganda does turn over Ongwen to the ICC, the case may breathe new life into the embattled court which recently admitted defeat in its high-profile pursuit of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. But if, as some statements have suggested, Ongwen is tried in Uganda, is the ICD this time prepared to mete out justice?
Lilley is an Assistant Director in the Africa Center. You can find her on Twitter at @KelseyDegen.