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War settlement requires law to back it

By Vision Reporter

Added 22nd September 2008 03:00 AM

ONE of the thorniest issues in the NRM’s relationship with northern Uganda, especially Acholiland, is the issue of reparations for lost cattle during the long war. The issue is so highly inflammable it is capable of catching fire without warning. It is a virtual tinderbox.

ONE of the thorniest issues in the NRM’s relationship with northern Uganda, especially Acholiland, is the issue of reparations for lost cattle during the long war. The issue is so highly inflammable it is capable of catching fire without warning. It is a virtual tinderbox.

LETTER FROM GULU

By Nobert Mao


ONE of the thorniest issues in the NRM’s relationship with northern Uganda, especially Acholiland, is the issue of reparations for lost cattle during the long war. The issue is so highly inflammable it is capable of catching fire without warning. It is a virtual tinderbox.

This was the major issue during the campaigns for the Constituent Assembly (CA).

I recall Mzee Andrew Adimola haranguing the voters of Gulu that the first time he opens his mouth in the CA he will tell Museveni to compensate the Acholi for their lost cattle. The issue became so emotive that people did not stop to think that the CA was to debate the report and draft constitution prepared by the Odoki Commission.

Others even thought the CA would bring the delegates face to face with Museveni on a daily basis affording them the chance to relay the petitions of their constituents! The CA broke many new grounds but left the imperial presidency (to borrow a well worn American phrase) intact. To that extent virtually everything revolves around the Presidency. The challenge has therefore been to empower institutions that can perform the tasks that have been dominated by the President in person.

The reason for this is simple. When there is a dominant perception that only the President can move things then the other institutions of the state become weaker and lose confidence in their ability to perform and deliver results for citizens.

An amusing incident recently occurred when ex-UPA supremo Omax Omeda showed up at the Amnesty Commission to receive his Amnesty Certificate attesting to the fact that he had wholeheartedly renounced any intention to resist the Uganda government by force of arms.

As is the custom, he also got a small package from the Amnesty Commission to enable him restart his post-rebellion life. In reality, Omeda did not need to report to the Amnesty Commission because he had already benefited from a Presidential Pardon. But he felt that the Presidential Pardon was not enough. He wanted something that flows from a piece of legislation just in case in future someone accused him of being a rebel that dared to remain unforgiven. So now armed with an Amnesty certificate issued by the Amnesty Commission, he can sit easy knowing that he is beyond any legal challenge.

Of course everything changes if you are a successful rebel and you manage to oust the sitting government. That is why the former rebels of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in the first pieces of legislation that they enacted exonerated themselves from any liability for whatever they may have done in their bold endeavours to throw out a government by force.

The other side of the coin would have been the gallows or some kind of pardon on terms agreeable to the government. This brings me to the core argument of this article. That whatever the government does in redressing the grievances of citizens who have lost property should as far as possible be grounded in specific pieces of legislation. No legal loopholes should be allowed.

In Law School one of the interesting pieces of legislation we used to mull over is the Lalobo Pension Act. A long serving Chairman of the Uganda Land Commission, Obadiah Lalobo was at the risk of not getting a pension so the government had to table a specific bill in parliament making him eligible for a pension. The government could have stretched matters and still paid Lalobo his pension but the best course was to have a law in place.

So far reparations for war losses have depended on whether you have caught the eye of the president or the extent to which non-payment can be a political time bomb. All around the country the President has made pledges to scores of people who lost property during armed conflict. Most of these pledges have been followed up by written directives to relevant line ministries to pay up.
In many cases the pledges are yet to be fulfilled.

In the case of the Acholi cattle, the root is the agreement reached in 1988 which brought the Uganda Peoples Democratic Army (UPDA) out of the bush. In the agreement, a specific provision promised cattle compensation. There is no denying, from veterinary records, that the cattle population was high in Acholiland before the war. When the war came, the ensuing anarchy exposed the cattle population to marauding rebels, lawless NRA soldiers and armed cattle rustlers from Karamoja.
Some of the rebels even signed documents – some kind of IOU- promising full payment should the war effort bear fruit. The government attempted a programme of re-stocking the area but the poor quality of the cattle demoralised most of the beneficiaries. Political pressure only led to a ping pong game where the victims were blamed for their loss.

Then a non-partisan group – the Acholi War Debt Claimants Association – decided to compile a database of claimants and organised themselves into a powerful lobby. When the lobbying did not work they decided to drag the government to court.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, this action brought the issue of the cattle claims back on the agenda. Relying on official records and using the skills of a professor of veterinary pathology, this group was able to calculate the number of cattle they would now be having but for the war and its effects. Then there are those who had already received part payment. In other words the government had committed itself to pay.

Where matters stand now, the President has asked the Attorney General to settle the matter out of court and make payment before the end of the next financial year. Those who have received part- payment will be paid up. Even fresh claimants will have their claims verified and if found to be valid, settled.
The process is not fool-proof and because of its adhoc nature may be abused. Genuine claimants may miss out while fake ones may laugh all the way to wherever they stash their money.

The best way to prevent total abuse is to institutionalise the process. For starters, we need a War Victims Reparations Bill tabled in parliament. This bill can create a body to deal with reparations.

In addition it can create a fund to settle claims. The whole process should be as depoliticised as possible. Otherwise the ghost of war debts will continue to haunt us.

The writer is Gulu District LC 5 ChairmanM

War settlement requires law to back it

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