International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Mato Oput Used to Shield Kony?

Mato oput, translated from the Acholi language literally means, “to drink a bitter potion made from leaves of the oput tree” This action is a form of reconciliation among the Acholi people in Northern Uganda. By drinking this better herb the two conflicting parties are symbolically swallowing the bitterness between them, and promise to not taste such bitterness again. Compensation follows the ceremony and the victim is paid for the harm committed against them/their tribe.


The question remains can mato oput work for mass atrocities? Although the Northern Ugandans prefer traditional justice to the ICC, I do not think that the ICC should do away with the arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and other high-ranking LRA commanders. I do not believe self-help justice can be quelled by simply drinking an herb potion and paying someone money. Perhaps, I am skeptical because I am a Westerner who does not subscribe to the same community, thus culture as the Acholi people. This practice does not aim at establishing whether an individual is guilty. The process simply seeks to restore social harmony.


Mato oput has local legitimacy because there are spiritual elements maintained by the process. Yet, challenges remain of adapting mato oput to LRA crimes. Not everyone has a clan that is still able to uphold diplomacy because many of the clans have dispersed due to violence. Clans do not have the same leadership as they once had. The scale of the crimes is also much grander and there might not be enough compensation to go around to each person. Also, as Northern Uganda tries to modernize there is the challenge of harboring the same legitimacy to the process among youth that the elders give to mato oput.

Allen hints that the reification of local rituals in a form of semi-official traditional justice has dangers that are underappreciated. The increase use and perception of mato oput legitimacy has given way to external funding. Most Acholi have decided to promote reconciliation via this “legitimate” traditional method. Could it be that mato oput is a way for Uganda to justify impunity/ to shield well-known perpetrators such as Kony? If this is the case then this local tradition violates international law.


One response to “Mato Oput Used to Shield Kony?

  1. blondellm March 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    What is even more troubling is the fact that ICC intervention could, ideally, complement these local justice institutions. The ICC is only indicting the main perpetrators within the LRA, not the majority of rebels who are likely to seek out mato oput. Additionally, the ICC was invited to investigate the LRA by the UPDF. The main issue here is that the Acholi recognize both the LRA and the UPDF as bodies that are responsible for these atrocities (the LRA for committing them, and the UPDF for forcing the Acholi into displaced persons camps that left them more vulnerable to attack). Due to such a lack of trust in these powerful bodies, it is not surprising that the Acholi prefer to use mechanisms that would guarantee peace, such as amnesty and traditional rituals.

    In regard to the ICC, their presence contradicts traditions and amnesty that the Acholi are relying on to promote peace. I think it is important to note that local Ugandan authorities, as well as the Acholi do not consider traditional justice mechanisms as justification for impunity, for it promotes forgiveness and reconciliation through compensation (however limited it may be) and most importantly, accountability. Indeed, there are many issues of application of mato oput in this conflict, especially in regard to addressing the scale of the atrocities committed against Acholis and attempting to apply these traditions to groups of people that do not identify with its traditional significance (whether they be of different clans or generations). Furthermore, these ceremonies are regarded as a first step towards reconciliation. Should Kony come forward, which is unlikely, his participation in these ceremonies would not absolve him of his crimes due to the extent of his involvement in planning and perpetrating the crimes of the LRA. Given the nature of his crimes it is hard to believe that he would be given any sort of amnesty that was meant for recruited or abducted members of the LRA to defect back to civilian life. There would most likely be some sort of trial conducted by Ugandan (should the ICC withdraw their warrant for his arrest and recognize Ugandan authorities as capable of conducting such a trial).

    I do not see this issue as a question of local traditions violating international law. It is more of a question of how the international community can work with local populations to develop effective strategies to promote reconciliation and peace. The ICC’s presence in northern Uganda is not promoting western conceptions of justice; it is creating resentment among local populations who see ICC presence as undermining their own attempts to bring an end to the conflict. While it is the duty of the ICC to convict criminals such as Kony, they are a ‘court of last resort’. Shouldn’t that mean they should continuously reevaluate the capacities of local and domestic judiciaries to see if their continued presence is needed?

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