Pacification of Acholiland through Mato-oput: Lessons to the People of Rwenzori Region

During the week of 10th September 2017, a team of 70 peace ambassadors from the Rwenzori region were hosted in Gulu by JRP and ACORD. The group was led by the Rwenzori Consortium for Civic Competence (RWECO), and over the course of the two day exchange, activities were undergone to better understand the roles of religious, cultural and political leaders in the pacification of Northern Uganda. The team consisted of cultural, religious and local government leaders, as well as representatives from the disabled community, people living with HIV/AIDs, local NGOs and civil society members. This visit also aimed to enable the Rwenzori region group to better understand and borrow from traditional justice mechanisms that have been applied to the post-conflict Acholiland.

On the morning of September 12th, the team from Rwenzori region met with religious leader Rt. Rev. Bishop Mark Loed Ochola II and a representative from Ker Kwaro Acholi, a local cultural institution – Elder Ongaya Acelam, at the Justice and Reconciliation Project office site. The Bishop shared the background of the northern Uganda armed conflict and how religious leaders have contributed to forging and maintaining peace in the region. What touched the group from Rwenzori the most was how the religious leaders challenged Joseph Kony – the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – for claiming to be acting in the will of God, and yet it is stated in the Bible that God does not allow men to kill one another. Another salient point raised in the meeting was how religious leaders from different denominations came together, uniting around the goal of a peaceful future for northern Uganda and initiating the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, a group which has been crucial in demanding the release of abductees and sparking peace negotiations with key LRA leaders. The visitors from Rwenzori region were so inspired by Rt. Rev. Bishop Ochola, they requested through their team leader that he visit them in Rwenzori land.

Since various approaches were used to achieve the pacification of northern Uganda, Elder Acelam Ongaya explained to the audience that traditional justice mechanisms have been used both historically and presently to consolidate peace; most

notably, this includes the role of Mato-oput in reconciliation among the Acholi community. In his presentation, he emphasized that Mato-oput is premised on five core Acholi principles of justice: never to commit offence, never to tell lies nor accused someone falsely, to ask for forgiveness and learn to forgive, to accept your wrongdoings, and to take responsibility for your actions. Mato-Oput is a voluntary ritual and it compels conflicting parties not to confront one another again.  In the afternoon, the team also got the opportunity to meet with local political leaders, including the vise chairperson of LC5 Gulu, to better understand the roles they have played in bringing peace to northern Uganda.

CORE team of Parabongo Massacre Association demonstrates Mato-oput ritual

CORE team of Parabongo Massacre Association demonstrates Mato-oput ritual

On 13th September, the team from Rwenzori region met with the Community Reconciliation (CORE) team of Parabongo Massacre Association in Amuru District, who gave a demonstration of the famous Mato-oput rituals in a play depicting community conflict. The community visit was accompanied by a question and answer session about Mato-oput.

The following are examples of questions raised during the session by the group from Rwenzori region and the responses given by CORE team members and elders:

Question: Is the Mato-oput ritual not against human rights, since the content of Oput is composed of goat’s cud and blood, local brews and bitter substances and seems unfit for human intake?

Response: Mato-oput does not violate human rights, because it is carried out voluntarily and is the final activity after one has already undergone a number of reconciliation processes. A little of the various substances is mixed, and there have been no notable side effects. However, the parties under reconciliation undergo vigorous counseling by elders for their commitment to drink the concoction. The elder then went on to ask whether there was anybody present on the team who has not in the past eaten blood or a small amount of cud from an animal at some point, to which the team simply laughed and agreed that everyone had done so in the past.

Question: Is Mato-oput against the faith of Born Again Christians? What would happen to a Born Again person who refuses to take part in the ritual?

Response: With Born Again Christianity, it depends on the individual’s faith and beliefs. There are people who believe in traditional rituals and those who believe in religious rituals, and there are cultural and religious institutions to help each person according to their respective beliefs. It is encouraged that they do what they feel would be most helpful to them in bringing reconciliation and peace. The elder then followed this up with an example: for him, he does not practice Mato-oput but instead believes that prayer and forgiveness can solve anything. It is the cultural institutions which carry out the rituals, and although he does not partake, he is not against the practices because he has seen that the rituals genuinely help reconciliation among the Acholi people.

Question: What happens to the perpetrator who accepts the offer to perform the ritual but afterwards still repeats the same crime in the community?

Response: In a case where this occurs, the perpetrator and his or her clan must pay a heavy fine. However, this has not happened because the process of Mato–oput is not easy, and no one wants to do it twice. Secondly, the oath made during Mato-oput brings a bad omen upon those who do not live by their oath. The Acholi people respect, trust and obey their traditions so much that they would not do such a thing that would be costly for their whole family.

In the afternoon of 13th September, the team from Rwenzori sub region met with a female sexual and gender-based violence victims group in Layibi Division of Gulu Municipality. Members of the groups shared their experiences during their time in LRA captivity; how abducted girls were given to bush husbands, experiences of pregnancy and giving birth in the jungle, escape, and life back home and its related challenges. The Rwenzori team where so touched by these experiences that at one point they had to stop the women from continuing with their stories. The visitors instead initiated a prayer to thank God for his mercy on the women. The interaction with the women turned into a makeshift service, where offers as high as 89,000UGX and contributions worth 100,000UGX, as well as stationary and hand bags, were given to the women by the visitors. When the women explained their challenges with economic difficulties to provide for the children they returned home with, the Rwenzori group generously bought some of the art pieces created by the women’s group. The art included beads, bangles, and bags, and are produced by the women as a mean of earning income.

A religious leader among the visitors prays for the female SGBV victims in Layibi Division, Gulu district

A religious leader among the visitors prays for the female SGBV victims in Layibi Division, Gulu district

A dinner was organized in the evening and the Rwenzori region team was asked to share the lessons they had learned about reconciliation from Acholiland. The following points were raised:

  • There is no division among the leaders in Acholi when it comes to peace building.
  • Cultural leaders and elders are highly respected, trusted and obeyed by the Acholi community.
  • The Acholi community are all united by the same language and culture, creating a solid foundation from which to launch peace and reconciliation initiatives.
  • In Acholi, when it comes to bringing peace, everyone’s opinion is respected.
  • The war that took place in Northern Uganda has key differences from conflict in the Rwenzori region; in Acholiland, victims of war are accessible and open to sharing their experiences. This is not often the case in the Rwenzori region.

From this visit, the team from Rwenzori region felt motivated to work for peace. They believed that knowledge gained regarding the pacification of Acholiland will improve on their own reconciliation and peace promotion processes.

(Atyeno Docus is a Project Assistant at JRP)