Question time: Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda
Northern Uganda has just emerged from a twenty year war. We spoke to Archbishop John Baptist of Gulu about how the Church helped bring peace and what challenges remain.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu talking about his meeting with the LRA leader
How was the Church involved in bringing peace to Northern Uganda?
The Catholic Church was involved through the Justice and Peace Commission in promoting dialogue as a way of addressing the conflict and Caritas provided humanitarian aid throughout the region. The Church was also involved with interreligious groups (Muslims and Christians) at the local and national level.
How did this work?
Through the Acholi (the dominant ethnic group) Interfaith Group, we spoke with the people about handling the conflict in a non-violent way. We encouraged people to build inner peace. We organized meetings, prayer groups, and established peace clubs to help settle disputes. We did advocacy for peace at the local and international level.
What was your plan?
We were conscious of ending the conflict first. We supported an amnesty, then further, we supported peace talks. The people relied on the Church and interfaith groups. They felt the religious had the most important voice.
I became Archbishop in 1999 and in 2002 set up the Acholi Religious Leaders Initiative. After that rapid improvements happened. Things moved positively. I wanted to meet Joseph Kony (the LRA leader and indicted war criminal), and it took four years before I could. When I met him, I realized this is a fellow human being.
How did you build trust between the warring parties?
We maintained strong links with the people and with the governments and the Lord’s Resistance Army L(RA) rebels. We became a link between the two. We did it for three years. We built up trust between the LRA and the government – through talking and our actions. We stuck to the principle of talking and non-violence.
How did you maintain impartiality?
We condemned both sides if they’d been responsible for human rights abuses. They realized we were fair. We came under considerable pressure. We asked the government and the LRA to write their messages down to ensure nobody accused us of speaking on behalf of one side or another.
Caritas delivered food to the LRA’s. That was controversial at the time.
The UN, international monitors, the government and the LRA wanted Caritas to deliver food at the assembly areas. Some people felt Caritas was encouraging the rebel group. But we were completely transparent. We didn’t do anything in the dark. Different leaders were using the press for propaganda. We felt we were with the people, we were not there to compete with the politicians, but to stay and defend the rights of the suffering people.
Why were you successful?
The Caritas Internationalis role in the 2006 visit was vital. (Caritas invited Archbishop Odama to address the Security Council). The demand for peace talks at the Security Council and the appointment of a special envoy were turning points. To have a direct link from Juba to the UN was significant. Peace talks were important and Caritas played a key role in them. On the first day, Caritas opened the talks with a prayer.
Trust was the key factor and confidence people had in us. Plus the trust the LRA and government had in us. It was hard work, consistent work. It was not easy. It took a lot of prayers. The Bishops of Uganda asked everyday for one hour of prayer for that cause.
How did you maintain faith in humanity when confronted by the abuses that occurred in the conflict?
Prayer. Every Thursday at home in front of Holy Sacrament I prayed. For this and the success of the peace process and all the people. I received huge support from the Interfaith Group. Ours was a mission from God. We shared the Bible and the Koran to keep going.
How did you help people with the trauma?
We encouraged openness from the people who were victims. For the children who were night commuters (they commuted at night into the towns to escape abduction and slept rough), we stayed and slept with them.
They asked why does the LRA target us? Why does the Government of Uganda abandon us? Why does the international community abandon us? Why does God allow such a thing? We were always talking to them, and saying that the evil and suffering isn’t God made, but human made. We explained people had refused to accept each other and decided to kill.
When did you know peace was a possibility?
Nov 26 August 2006. It was a month after the peace talks. We got news of the cessation of hostilities. Then there was the relocating by the rebels to the assembly areas. All welcomed it when LRA were told they could come out of the bush and walk to Sudan. People who had been fighting embraced each other and accompanied each other out of the bush. Now there will be peace we knew. It was like lifting a rock on a grave. Like a resurrection.
What was your response to the ICC issuing arrest warrants for the LRA leadership?
I was stunned by ICC indictment. While we support the concept of the ICC as an institution, we’re not happy with the approach to the LRA. The population were desperate for peace talks to be successful. When the ICC came with its ruling, it was like throwing something into the wheel of a moving vehicle. The very people talking peace with the government were being indicted as criminals. How do you go from there? If talks succeed, implementation still needs leaders. It would be cursed by a leadership vacuum and it would cause a power struggle. We said please allow the process to go ahead. Handle the issue of stopping the war first. The indictment proved an obstacle. The ICC exposed its credibility on an issue that could have been handled differently.
What could you have done better?
The mission of the Church is to preach reconciliation. We should have put this more strongly. Our message should have been “We will forgive you”, but it was a bit late.
What challenges do you face?
The biggest challenge is how to bring normalcy to traumatized, oppressed people. There is very little support for the infrastructure, health, education. People were hoping the National Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRPD) would address the situation in the north. Not much has been done.
The war took a lot of money, why not use the peace dividends to invest in development. Grievances are not being met. If root causes of the disenfranchisement are to be addressed fully, then we have not made headway. The long running issues just be addressed.
What about the long-term future?
The question of trauma and addiction is important. We have counseling centre. We’re accompanying the population. We need more and more training, and training of the trainers.
The LRA are now active in Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic. Have you just exported the problem?
The first thing is that we’re disappointed war has been exported to Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan. We encourage peaceful approach in these area. We’re asking people there to unite and work together. In Uganda there is a willingness to cooperate with them.
What have you learned?
A sense of humanity. When one fails, we support them and pray for their return. There is always a second chance. People should not lose hope. We learned that truly non-violent action through dialogue is the best. It takes time, it is painful, but in the long run it is cheaper and with longer lasting results. It brings reconciliation, justice and peace more easily.