Expert Witness Testifies about Possible Reasons Northern Uganda Conflict Lasted for 20 Years

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HAGUE, Netherlands

An expert witness testified at the International Criminal Court (ICC) about research on the reasons why the conflict in northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan military went on for about 20 years.

Adam Branch told the court on Monday, May 27, there was research that alleged corruption in the Ugandan military as one explanation for why the conflict lasted so long. Branch said there was other research that alleged the Ugandan government used the conflict as a way of containing Acholi opposition to it by letting the conflict continue but restricted to northern Uganda.

Branch testified as a defense expert witness in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Branch teaches African politics at the University of Cambridge, and he is also director of the university’s Center of African Studies.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The LRA fought the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) in northern Uganda between 1987 and 2008. The conflict in northern Uganda ended in 2008 after peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government collapsed, and the LRA dispersed to neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central Africa Republic, and Sudan.

Branch’s testimony on Monday was based on a report he wrote for the defense. That report was entered into evidence under Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence.

This provision requires that the person who produced the report be in court and available for questioning by lawyers and judges and that person agree for their report to be entered into evidence. When asked by one of Ongwen’s lawyers, Thomas Obhof, Branch said he agreed to his report being admitted as evidence in the trial.

The report Branch wrote was based on research he conducted in the area of Gulu between February and June 2003. He said during that period he spent time at the Pabo camp for internally displaced people (IDP) and informally interviewed its residents and observed them in their daily routines. He said the report was also based on research and articles by other academics; reports by human rights organizations; and several books on the northern Uganda conflict.

In response to a question Obhof asked, Branch said research showed that there was what he called “economic ends” to the conflict in northern Uganda.

“So, there’s been a significant debate for a long time over whether or not the war was serving the ends of the government or sections of the military. There were accusations made that the government was profiting from the war economically … The war enabled some looting of natural resources, efforts of grabbing land. The ghost soldiers scandal revealed to the wider public that certain economic interests had become incorporated into the war,” said Branch.

Later in his testimony, Branch elaborated further on the issue of ghost soldiers, that is, people who were listed as UPDF soldiers but who did not exist. He said this information was mainly in an article by Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan investigative journalist, that was published in a book edited by Tim Allen called LRA Myth and Reality. Allen testified as a prosecution expert witness in 2017 on January 16 and January 17.

Branch said Mwenda wrote that after 2002 between one-third and two-thirds of the soldiers listed as deployed to northern Uganda were ghost soldiers. He said Mwenda wrote the issue of ghost soldiers contributed to low morale in the UPDF deployed to northern Uganda and the units there being undermanned and undertrained.

“I think you could probably trace the ghost soldier phenomenon to some of the protection issues of people living in the camps,” said Branch. He added a caveat that this depended on if the evidence on ghost soldiers “is correct.”

Obhof asked Branch about the grasshopper theory he wrote about in his report. Branch explained the theory was that if several grasshoppers were kept in a bottle or closed space, “they will eventually eat each other.” He said there were people who saw the conflict in northern Uganda in similar terms.

“And so, this theory maintained the government was letting the war continue because it was a way of both punishing the Acholi and, in a sense, letting the Acholi kill each other off,” said Branch. He said some of the people he talked to during his research in 2003 told him this. Branch said Acholi leaders particularly in the diaspora also said this.

The Acholi are one of the ethnic groups in northern Uganda, and many of the people who became LRA members are Acholi, including the group’s leader, Joseph Kony.