The Complicated Case of the White Ant
On February 4th, 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convened in The Hague, Netherlands, to deliver a verdict on the case of the notorious warlord Dominic Ongwen, known as the “White Ant.” As a leader in the infamous rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen terrorized Central Africa for decades and climbed the terrorist organization’s ranks to become second-in-command after Joseph Kony, the LRA’s founder. Out of a possible 70 charges, the ICC found Ongwen guilty of 61 counts of murder, attempted murder, torture, enslavement, forced marriage, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced pregnancy, and recruiting children as soldiers. Dressed in a grey suit and blue tie with half of his face hidden by a mask, Dominic Ongwen hardly looked like someone capable of committing countless crimes against humanity—at least that’s what many people thought while watching the televised delivery of the verdict in Coorom, the village in Northern Uganda where Ongwen spent the first half of his childhood. In many Coorom villagers’ eyes, Ongwen still resembles the playful boy they once knew who dreamed of one day becoming a priest. Instead, the child who once held noble ambitions to help his community stands today as one of its greatest terrors in recent memory.
By the time Dominic Ongwen started grade three at his local school around the age of nine, his life became anything but normal. Ongwen was abducted by Joseph Kony’s fledgling LRA regime and trained to become a ruthless killer. As a child soldier, Ongwen was subjected to a variety of forms of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of LRA leadership, who brainwashed their victims into severing all ties with the world outside of the LRA. According to LRA abduction survivor Fred Obita, one of the first assignments child soldiers are given after being kidnapped involved killing their parents to instill hatred and make the boys feel like they had “nothing to lose in this world.”
According to another LRA survivor, Moses Okello, who escaped the rebel group eight years into his time as a child soldier, “being captured at such a tender age, you can [be made to] do anything.” Unlike other child abductees in the LRA who were kidnapped later on as adolescents and eventually abandoned their posts as commanders, Ongwen demonstrated a commitment to the LRA and became infamous for leading especially daring combat missions. As many LRA commanders continued to defect in the early 2000s, Ongwen assumed greater positions of power and authority within the organization, gaining increased favor with Joseph Kony. However, Ongwen’s relationship with Kony eventually grew sour, and Kony detained Ongwen for disobeying orders and disregarding his radio correspondences. Ongwen escaped Kony’s detention camp in 2014 but was found by cattle herders who turned him into the Seleka rebel group, which later alerted US special forces and then, ultimately, the ICC.
Out of all LRA leaders for whom the ICC has issued arrest warrants, including Joseph Kony who remains at large to this day, Ongwen is the first and only LRA member to be successfully detained by the court. Even though Ongwen, in many ways, is a victim of an incredibly devastating set of circumstances that began with his abduction as a child, he unquestionably remains a war criminal whose actions demand justice and accountability. As the ICC seeks to provide its own form of justice, many Ugandans question the accountability offered by an alien institution like the ICC. According to Ambrose Oola, the prime minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi, a cultural institution in Northern Uganda, “We cannot say because [Ongwen’s case] has gone through the ICC, then it is a form of justice for us.” Oola believes that Ugandans have their own traditions of accountability that may be better suited to take Ongwen’s unique status as a victim and criminal into account and provide a more meaningful form of justice within a Ugandan context. As the people of Northern Uganda await Ongwen’s sentence to be delivered in mid-April, many fear that justice will not ultimately be served.