Naked Dissent in Northern Uganda

There's more to justice than capturing Kony.
By: /
May 17, 2012

On Apr. 19, 2012, 60 rural women of Acoli descent stripped naked in protest of a government-supported business initiative to appropriate their communal land in Amuru District, Northern Uganda. Officials from the sugar company, the business in question, reportedly fled the scene.

For the last two months, I have lived in a rural village in Northern Uganda, and since 2004, I have studied and documented how communities in this region survive and respond to mass violence and injustice. While my adoptive community in Lamwo District did not participate in this remarkable naked dissent, which took place two districts away, I have some insight into its significance. I also believe it reveals a dimension to the peace versus justice debate that gets widely ignored when we only focus on peace deals and International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations.

Most of the Northern Ugandans who were subjected to the horror and misery of war for more than 20 years are of Acoli ethnicity and descent. From 1986 to 2006, this population was targeted by both the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and by the Ugandan government’s military. The LRA, which received a recent boost of “fame” from the Kony 2012 video, abducted children and youth to serve in its ranks, and regularly terrorized its own people with killings, beatings, and theft. Meanwhile, the government military targeted the population with killings, beatings, and theft, as well. In addition, the government’s military “strategy” against the LRA forced the entire rural population in Northern Uganda into internally displaced person’s camps. These camps, referred to by one authority as a form of “social torture,” resulted in perhaps the highest number of deaths from the conflict. A 2005 study cited over 1,000 excess deaths per week from the squalid living conditions in the camps.

Approximately 1.8 million people in the northern part of Uganda, mostly subsistence farmers, were forced from land that provided all their basic necessities and formed the basis for all their economic, social, and moral activities. It was only in 2008 that most people finally left the camps to return to their land, about two years after a ceasefire between the LRA and the Ugandan government, and with mounting international pressure on the government.

In Northern Uganda, at least to the majority of the rural Acoli, “peace” means the ability to farm their land unimpeded, raise and feed their families, and send their children to school. During the war, this peace was broken by both the LRA and the Ugandan government. While an exact word for legal justice did not exist in the Acoli language (Luo) before British Colonial rule, most of the Acoli I speak with do call for LRA leader Joseph Kony and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to be held accountable for their actions, demanding that they admit their wrongdoings and deliver compensation for the harms they caused to the population during the war.

Despite the fact that the people of Northern Uganda call for both of these perpetrators to be held accountable, international discourse and debate wholly centres on Joseph Kony, and on bringing him to justice more than 12,500 km away at the ICC. Perhaps it is more pressing to speak of Kony’s accountability because he is still at large, causing havoc in neighbouring countries. Or perhaps it is simply too inconvenient, and possibly dangerous, to hold President Museveni accountable for his actions. (Much of the criticism in Northern Uganda regarding the ICC’s involvement revolves around this issue.) Either way, the point is that much of the international community is perpetuating a one-sided, and therefore completely inadequate, approach to both peace and justice in Northern Uganda.

Justice – or, perhaps more appropriately, accountability – must be demanded of both Kony and the government for their actions during the war. To neglect the Ugandan government’s role – primarily remembered as massive theft of livestock, widespread intimidation, targeting killings of Acoli men, rape of Acoli women, beatings, and mass, forced displacement and confinement of the population resulting in deaths – will only exacerbate issues that helped create Kony’s rebel movement to begin with.

So, what do 20 years of horror, death, and fear have to do with 60 naked ladies? Everything. In Acoli culture, purposefully baring your naked body as insult is kir, a serious abomination even when done by an individual. It is a kind of curse that breaches social norms and disrupts life. The act demands serious attention and address. As with all kir, a significant part of the appropriate response requires rituals that work to restore the social relations that became damaged by the act. Interestingly, the Acoli Luo translation of “ritual” is cik Acoli, or Acoli law.

In Acoli cultural understanding, the primary goal after a social disturbance is to restore proper relations. What is too often forgotten is that ritual is not solely the sacrifice of sheep, or the wearing of traditional costume, or the beating of drums. The purpose of ritual – no matter what form it takes – is to create a special space for individuals and communities to deal with issues or conflicts. Ritual is clearly present in the performances of our own legal systems, as well – from the setup of the courtroom to the donning of robes to the pounding of the gavel. When those 60 Acoli women stripped off their clothes and performed kir, they rejected the court’s decision to give their land to a sugar company. They powerfully resisted what they believe is a violent and unjust decision, and they demanded a new and more legitimate process to resolve the issue.

Detractors of Acoli ritual and law dismiss them in rhetoric that is surprisingly reminiscent of colonial attitudes. It is not only disrespectful to wholly criticize tradition as barbaric, satanic, static, incapable, or as simply serving the needs of greedy or corrupt elders, but it also fundamentally undermines the ability of communities to demand the kind of justice that they seek; whether it is to be found in international courtrooms, or under mango trees, or a combination of both, or neither. And although it is widely acknowledged that the denigration of all traditional or indigenous approaches to social problems has had disastrous consequences (as seen after First Nations were forced into residential schools in Canada, after aboriginal children were removed from their families in Australia, and even after the Canadian and U.S. governments banned potlatch), these ethnocentric, dismissive, and arrogant attitudes still prevail in practice. Of course, justice and peace are not static concepts, so approaches to traditional methods of dealing with such issues cannot be either. What is most important is the respect of communities themselves, and the will to support and enable localized rebuilding of capacity and community.

Nearly six years after the guns and helicopters were silenced in Northern Uganda, the region still urgently seeks a more meaningful peace and a more comprehensive justice. Many forms of suffering continue. A terrible, fatal neurological disorder called “nodding disease” has broken out among children, most roads remain impossible to traverse, good water is not accessible to all, schooling remains substandard and expensive (despite so-called universal primary education), and access to proper medical facilities is non-existent. The government is still appropriating Acoli land, too, though it is now doing so in the name of development or conservation. These issues are all linked to government accountability, and their address requires the building of new social relations between the Ugandan government and post-conflict Acoli communities.

To speak about peace and justice, we must try to understand these terms according to the peoples or cultures in question. To assume that justice and peace are separate concepts, or that they are the same everywhere and in all contexts, is to forget what hundreds of years of colonial history should have taught us: that narrowly defined, ethnocentric concepts and policies may only worsen long-term prospects for sustainable peace. Before trying to intervene and advance peace and justice, outside actors must ask: How can we focus on the contextualized, meaningful definitions of these terms (as they apply to a given situation, and with consideration for all concerned parties), and, in the process, help mediate a fair and lasting peace? What can we learn about these questions from actions like those taken by 60 brave women after decades of social torture? And, perhaps more importantly, are we prepared to listen?

Photo courtesy of the author

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