4 April 2019

Uganda: 'We Are Tired of Asking for the Same Thing With No Feedback - ' Uganda's 'Ocampo of West Nile' Passes Away

Hajji Sebbi Longa was popularly known as 'Ocampo' in Uganda's transitional justice circles. This was due to his work with conflict survivors in Uganda, an undertaking that earned him the nickname 'Ocampo of West Nile' in reference to Louis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Coincidentally, Hajji Sebbi had a scraggly beard just like Moreno Ocampo. After a short illness, Hajji Sebbi Longa passed away on March 26 this year.

Hajji coordinated and supported most of the transitional justice activities in the West Nile Region of Uganda. At the time of his death, he had just been elected by victims in the region as the Chairperson of their Victims and Survivors' Regional Network under the Uganda Victims' Foundation, an umbrella association of victims of conflict in northern Uganda. Hajji was the Chairperson of the Moyo War Victims' Association, a loose group of Madi victims from the West Nile Region, which he established in 2005. Another prominent association also engaged in the fight for victims' justice in the region is the West Nile Kony Rebel War Victims Association.

A series of conflicts, including indiscriminate killings between government of Uganda soldiers and multiple armed rebel groups that operated in the West Nile, characterized the post-Idi Amin era in the region. This explains the Moyo War Victims' Association's decision to extend its membership beyond the victims of the Lord's Resistance Army, the armed rebel group which left behind a legacy of suffering in Greater northern Uganda including the West Nile Region.

An Overlooked Region

When being interviewed by Ugandan researchers last year for recommendations on how victim associations established in the aftermath of conflict could be supported by NGOs and the government, Hajji responded: "We are tired of asking for the same thing with no feedback." His statement speaks to the frustrations of victims who have spoken out in a number of forums about the failure of the government to protect them during the conflict, their desperate search for compensation, and the closed doors they have encountered. For communities in the West Nile Region, where Moyo district is located, there is limited documented information on the impact of the conflict between the LRA and the government, which compounds the challenges. The focus of NGOs, government, and international actors - including the ICC and donors - has largely been on the armed group's activities in the Acholi, Lango, and, to a certain extent, the Teso sub-region.

In her statement during the opening of the Dominic Ongwen trial in December 2016, current ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda provided a historical narrative of the conflict in northern Uganda. This narrative, however, did not mention the West Nile Region. A 2014 compendium of conflicts across Uganda published by the Refugee Law Project, a leading research organization, also did not comprehensively cover this aspect of the conflict. The LRA victims of these crimes in West Nile, therefore, remain without recognition or redress for the harm they suffered.

A Quest for Recognition

This failure to acknowledge the atrocities in the West Nile Region by both the government and international actors did not deter or discourage Hajji Sebbi Longa from his mission to bring justice to the thousands of victims in West Nile. He made it a point to remind all of us about the unaddressed plight of the people of West Nile at every opportunity he got and emphasized the need to include the local communities there in every discussion on peace, justice, and accountability. So passionate was he about the plight of victims in West Nile that he volunteered to present the ICC Outreach monthly radio talk show called Justice Matters on Radio Amani and Trans-Nile Broadcasting Services (TBS), located in Moyo and Ajdumani districts respectively. He utilized these platforms to project the voices and concerns of victims from West Nile, as well as emphasize their rights before the ICC.

He was, however, not blind to the suffering of victims in the other sub-regions, and he was a passionate advocate for justice for all victims in the country. In his interview with the Ugandan researchers, Hajji spoke about his future plans, which included going into refugee camps in the West Nile Region to talk about the need for community dialogues and peace, underscoring the role of civil society in ensuring sustainable peace.

Unlike other communities targeted by the LRA, a number of people from the West Nile Region suffered the brunt of the conflict when they were in transit to either Gulu, Kampala, or other neighboring districts. The LRA killed and abducted many on those treacherous bus journeys. There has been minimal effort to document the stories of the victims of these types of attacks, perhaps because they were isolated, and unlike the attacks on IDP camps, could easily be forgotten by the next headline. The result is a group of victims who were left in limbo with nowhere to turn for redress. Hajji acknowledged that the Moyo War Victims' Association was set up to serve as some form of consolation for these forgotten victims, some of whom were abducted.

Such victims need broader societal and governmental commitment to respond to their needs. For groups like the Moyo War Victims' Association, this did not come to fruition because of a limited appreciation of their experiences by many. The ICC case against Dominic Ongwen, which has strict jurisdictional limitations, does not cover victims from this geographical location. At the national level, demands for accountability and reparations were curtailed by the lack of resources for the victims to hire a lawyer who would push their demand for justice. "We want a lawyer. We want justice through legal means so that our complaint can be registered," Hajji emphasized. The transitional justice policy, which presents a window of opportunity for a government response to victims' experiences, still lies before cabinet pending final approval.

Hope for the Future

Despite the many challenges, Hajji and the many forgotten victims he advocated for still believed in the existing national and international institutions, including the ICC, and hoped that these institutions would someday bring them justice. For the past several years though, one demand in particular stood out for Hajji: he wanted updates from the ICC on the fate of victims from the West Nile Region, some of whom filled out participation forms in 2005, when charges were first announced against the top LRA commanders.

While he appreciated the existing government development programs, he criticized their failure to prioritize war victims who he emphasized required health care support as well as support to set up income generating projects. Some of the projects he highly recommended and closely supported were those undertaken by different NGO partners, such as the Refugee Law Project and the African Youth Initiative Network, which provided physical rehabilitation to victims who were still nursing wartime injuries. These insights should inform the priorities and interventions of the government and international institutions, such as the ICC Trust Fund for Victims, which is currently implementing a series of assistance projects in northern Uganda.

Hajji leaves behind a strong legacy of activism that we all can learn from in this long and sometimes tumultuous quest for justice. We owe it to him and the victims of West Nile to continue the fight against impunity.

Authors Note:

The research study that informed sections of this article was commissioned in 2018 by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD).

The authors shared a draft of this piece with officials from the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, who noted that the conflicts in the West Nile Region do not fall under the temporal jurisdiction of the ICC because they took place in the period 1980-1985 and 1986-2002, respectively. The ICC can only investigate crimes committed after the entry into force of the Rome Statute in July 2002; therefore, Hajji and victims in the West Nile cannot seek redress before the court.

This article was written as a collaborative effort of the Ugandan transitional justice community in honor of Hajji Sebbi Longa, a dedicated victims' advocate and founder of the Moyo War Victims' Association.

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