The Role of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Uganda's Peacebuilding

Patrick William Otim

March, 2009

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"When the moon is shining, even the cripple becomes angry for a walk," goes the great Igbo proverb. As the war persists in northern Uganda between the Government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army rebels (LRA), many have become anxious about providing a living for their family. As a result, too many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have emerged over the last two decades. NGO signs are found on every street and they have become an important community "investment." Many of northern Uganda's NGOs are national but international NGOs and UN agencies are present as well.

These NGOs have sprung up as a result of increased donor funding for humanitarian assistance to avert the situation faced by nearly "1.5 million internally displaced people" [1] in northern Uganda. In 2003, northern Uganda's situation was referred to by the UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, as the "biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world." [2] These NGOs are involved in food and non-food item distribution, water and sanitation, emergency shelter, health, early recovery and reconstruction, camp management and resettlement, etc.

One little-known NGO, the Acholi Religious Leader Peace Initiative (ARLPI) has had a positive impact on the lives of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs). Formed in 1998, "The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), is a forum that brings together the Christian and Muslim leaders in Acholiland, northern Uganda." [3]

The first chairperson Rt. Rev. Baker Ochola -- an Anglican -- was assisted by A Catholic vice-chair-person, His Grace John Baptist Odama, and their Muslim counterpart, Shiek Musa Khalil, was Treasurer. For many people, the question has been, "Why was it formed?" The leaders of ARLPI came together because they saw a possibility of building peace through their differences. This is summarized by their motto, "Kacel pi Kuc" (Together for Peace). Their mission is "to actively engage the entire Acholi community to effectively participate in the process of healing, restoration, reconciliation, peace, and development in Acholiland." [4]

By the end of its first year, ARLPI became widely known in Uganda for its leadership capability streaming from these three religious denominations (Islam, Anglicanism and Catholicism), and strong demand put on the Government and LRA to negotiate peace. ARLPI's presence became very vital in a region where both the government and LRA seemed not to care about exploring peaceful means for ending the violence. The ARLPI became a link to both conflicting parties and were constantly trekking back and forth from the bush to meet with the LRA to find ways to bring a lasting peace to those devastated by war-torn northern Uganda.

ARLPI has played a significant role in creating a bridge between the government and the LRA. Whereas many organizations' activities are geared towards humanitarian assistance, ARLPI works and advocates for an end to the conflict in northern Uganda. The ARLPI maintains communication with the LRA. [5] Although ARLPI never played a role of as mediator specifically, it "explore[s] possible ways of making the two sides remain in contact. This connection has, on occasion, indicated the possibilities of negotiation." [6] To date, the ARLPI regards their role as a "bridge that builds the level of trust and confidence on both sides and their strategy is to put pressure on the rebels and the government to stop fighting and talk peace." [7]

As a result of being a bridge, the ARLPI has been, in a number of instances, authorized to convey one fighting faction's message to the other. "In July 2002, the Anglican bishop Baker Ochola, the Catholic archbishop John Baptist Odama and Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga were received by President Museveni, who authorized them to begin contacts with the LRA." [8] Since 2006, they have been involved in Juba Peace Talks as advisors and observers to the peace process.

This is a hole that had never been filled by any local civil society organization in Uganda. ARLPI was able to fill this gap, and also acted as watchdog to condemn violence from the warring parties. Indeed, many NGOs paid respect to the great works of these ordinary courageous religious leaders, which paved the way for ARLPI's international recognition for peacebuilding.

In addition, ARLPI has lived up to the common Acholi saying, "Religious leaders don't bend, they are always straight," referring to the impartiality and integrity of the religious leaders in the region. Indeed, they have never bent to either side of the conflicting parties but identified with the vulnerable IDPs. They opposed the LRA for their continued violence on the population and in the same manner opposed the government for their failure to respond appropriately through dialogue or otherwise to bring peace to the civilian population. One such opposition where ARLPI played a significant role involved the Amnesty Law in 2000. This law came into use on January 2002. Article three of the law states:

"An Amnesty is declared in respect of any Ugandan who has at any time since the 26th day of January, 1986 engaged in or is engaging in war or armed rebellion against the [G]overnment of the Republic of Uganda by (a) actual participation in combat; (b) collaborating with the perpetrators of the war or armed rebellion; (c) committing any other crime in the furtherance of the war or (d) armed rebellion; or assisting or aiding the conduct or prosecution of the war or armed rebellion." [9]

This law's exclusion of key leaders was a loophole for northern Uganda. It was specifically "amended in parliament to exclude LRA leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders." [10] Secondly, it was to be renewed after every six months. In December 2003, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) quoted the Army spokesman's skepticism: "The amnesty has been renewed many times. They [LRA] don't want it. We are forcing it on them. So what is the point?" [11] ARLPI opposed the law and called for an amnesty law without any restrictions or limitations on the rebel leaders. One of their courageous remarks to the government was after the expiration of the latest six-month period: "As religious leaders we don't use guns....This is why we ask our government to extend the amnesty, because it takes time for people to trust one another and talk. The solution to the northern conflict is dialogue." [12]

ARLPI later played a big role in the amnesty law through advocacy. They "significantly influenced the content of the National Amnesty Law to[s] relevance and appropriateness to the local Acholi Situation." [13] They also went an extra mile on sensitization on amnesty provisions to the LRA on radios. By mid-2004, the implementation of the law had "caused an integration of over 6000 returnees into their society." [14]

Furthermore, ARLPI also engages in peace education to achieve its goal of a peaceful society at the grassroots. They do this through training the local communities and working with cultural leaders. Their training focuses on "facilitation in responding to conflict (negotiation, mediation and mediation services and reconciliation process.)" [15] This peace education is done through an inclusive approach, where stakeholders are involved in peace activities, such as trainings and community sensitizations, in order to reinforce peace ideas among the community. This has helped by enhancing the peace structures in the northern Uganda region and maintaining a culture of peace -- forgiveness, tolerance and reconciliation. ARLPI trained 60 Volunteer Peace Animators (VPAs) in Gulu and Kitgum by August 2000. [16] ARLPI's Volunteer Peace Animators continue to make a positive impact on the ground today in Acholiland:

"The VPAs have, in turn, formed the bedrock for sub-county peace committees, groups of people from local communities who come together frequently to: resolve specific conflicts between individuals and groups; help communities to discover root causes of conflicts and develop strategies to avoid violent conflicts; foster improved gender relations and promote collaborative action in peace building." [17]

These peace education activities have developed meaningful relationships of trust and hope within Acholi and other neighboring communities, strengthened and maximized opportunities for peace and reconciliation, and promoted "the acceptance of returnee rebels by the local community who they have, willingly or unwillingly committed crimes against them." [18]

In addition, for a long time, the conflict in northern Uganda has been disguised as a "tribal conflict." There was no international awareness of the conflict until the late 1990s, due significantly in part to a "complete media whiteout." [19] Then the ARLPI started working, publicized and raised international concern about the conflict. They did this through a number of ways, including the publication of their report, Let My People Go! The Forgotten Plight of the People in the Displaced Camps in Acholi, in July 2001. The next publication was a report entitled, Seventy Times Seven: The Implementation and Impact of the Amnesty Law in Acholi (May 2002).

These two publications unearthed the impact of the war on northern Uganda. The reports were eye-opening to the world, raising concern for the people in northern Uganda. Secondly, ARLPI also publicized the conflict of northern Uganda by bringing to light the plight of the people in northern Uganda through international press releases, international conferences, prayer gatherings, peace rallies, demonstrations and lobbying to international constituents in 2003-2004. Archbishop Odama and the paramount Chief Rwot Achana led an advocacy visit to the U.S., Canada, London and Brussels for one month [20].

In one of the most dramatic advocacy events, the leaders of ARLPI walked to Gulu town and slept next to children on the verandas. American Free Press (AFP) quoted these religious leaders to have said: "We shall just carry our blankets as the children do, so as to highlight their plight to the world." [21] Fr. Carlos Rodriguez wrote,

"Archbishop John Baptist Odama may have never performed a more unusual ritual in his life. For four consecutive days, in the evening, he quietly left his residence carrying a sack containing only a blanket, walked the five kilometers distance to Gulu town and on the way met with a good number of children, carrying their own sacks and blankets on their way to the verandas for the night. Odama greeted all of them warmly: "These are my colleagues, my fellow night commuters," he remarked with a smile, and continued on foot followed by the children some as young as five to the bus park." [22]

This act dramatized the problems in northern Uganda and raised international attention and awareness. It eventually led to the founding of many advocacy campaigns to end the war internationally, such as Guluwalk[23] (

At the international level, ARLPI has raised attention about the plight of the war in northern Uganda to the UN Security Council. The Archbishop John Baptist Odama, on January 27, 2006, addressed the UN Security Council and provided an eye-opener on the situations in northern Uganda. In his famous address, he eloquently asked a rhetorical question which stunned the world:

"I have come here to bring to the ears of people who can do something for the crying of children, the cries of their beloved mothers and of their families... There are some who describe this war as forgotten; for many others it is the planet's least known conflict... What should I say to the people of northern Uganda when I return from New York... That the members of the Security Council will continue to remain silent while children are kidnapped and killed and men and women continue to suffer violent attacks every day?" [24]

This address had a great impact on creating awareness about the war in northern Uganda and raising the profile of the conflict. The effect was immediate: Uganda witnessed a flow of humanitarian assistance and greater involvement by the United Nations in the northern Uganda peace process like the November 2006 "appointment by the U.N. secretary general of Joachim Chissano as special envoy to the Great Lakes areas affected by the L.R.A." [25]

Finally, ARLPI works with the Acholi traditional and cultural leaders who have been influential in forging unity and acceptance among the Acholi people and reconciling the Acholi community that suffered the effects of LRA insurgency with the former rebels. They have also "extended their helping hands" in reintegrating former rebels, child soldiers and abducted persons to their communities. Primarily by "supporting payment of school fees to FAC [Formerly Abducted Children] and offer[ing] them chances of vocational training." [26] The ARLPI has also reintegrated FACs, by establishing a network of faith-based organizations in northern Uganda. One such organization is Caritas-Uganda. Caritas has a number of programs, one of which is the reintegration of former rebels and abductees. Caritas has built a reception center in Pader District where the former rebels receive counseling before returning to their families. They are also given assistance to start their own life after captivity. "Over 3000 children have passed through Caritas centers, where they have received counseling on how to deal with the trauma, anger and sadness as a result of their experiences." [27] This has been instrumental in re-integrating the former child soldiers back into their communities.

However, ARLPI also faces many challenges. It lacks the trust of the Government of Uganda and the LRA as well. This has on many occasions affected peacebuilding efforts. It has sometimes led to threats on the lives of ARLPI leaders because the LRA perceives them to be government collaborators. The LRA leader "ordered Catholic missions to be destroyed, priests and missionaries killed and nuns beaten up." [28] On the other hand, the ARLPI has been branded by the government as rebel collaborators. Father Carlos Rodriguez, a member of the ARLPI, was requested to leave northern Uganda. "Ugandan army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza says the priest should be deported." He continues that "the missionary should also leave for his own safety." [29] The reason was that "the military accuses the priest of spreading lies that a soldier set fire to the Pabbo refugee camp... and that the army opened fire on those attempting to flee." [30]

Sometimes, there have been accusations that "Kony and his commanders have occasionally used mobile phones to call certain peace activists (notably some Catholic priests), but the Uganda Government has sometimes viewed this with hostility, making accusations of collaboration with the rebels." [31] These examples of mistrust indicate the extent of the problem. This kind of hostility from both sides has greatly hindered the work of ARLPI in peacebuilding in northern Uganda.

Currently in northern Uganda, there is a great deal of debate on whether to pursue the International Criminal Court or use the Acholi traditional justice system for the LRA rebels. There has been an almost unanimous decision by the Acholi to trade justice for peace. There is a clear demand by the local people to forgive the rebels despite the atrocities they have committed for the sake of peace. This approach has also been endorsed by the LRA but with the ICC indictment looming on the LRA commanders, the LRA have stated plainly their position they will only surrender their guns with the uplifting of the ICC indictment. This has been a strong point of contention and has presented a serious challenge for peacebuilding organizations including the ARLPI. In fact, peacebuilding is at a standstill. Many people and civil society organizations working in northern Uganda believe that the ICC's work is likely to discourage the rebels. [32]

Despite these challenges, ARLPI has continued in its mission for peace at the grassroots level of community development, increasing international recognitions for their dedication to peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda. They have gained legitimization through the International Peace Awards, including the 2004 Niwano Peace Prize awarded in Japan.

"The Niwano Peace Foundation (Nichiko Niwano, President; Kinjiro Niwano, Chairman) has decided to award the 21st Niwano Peace Prize to the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative (ARLPI), which works to promote an end to conflict, the defense of social justice and human rights, and the peaceful coexistence of different peoples in the East African country of Uganda. Having asked for recommendations from about 1,000 well-informed people in 125 countries around the world, the Niwano Peace Prize Committee conducted its deliberations in strict fairness before coming to their decision." [33]

Secondly, ARLPI also received The Paul Carus Award from the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.

"The Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions announced today the first recipient of The Paul Carus Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Interreligious Movement...Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a multi-faith peace group in Northern Uganda, were selected from international nominees for their work to end violence in their region." [34]

These two accolades illustrate ARLPI's peacebuilding achievements in the last decade in northern Uganda.

In conclusion, ARLPI has engaged in a number of activities for peacebuilding in northern Uganda. These peacebuilding activities range from training and peace education, advocacy and sensitization and support to community-based peace programs and research documentation. These programs have forged forgiveness, welcomed FAC home [35], and raised awareness about the war. Because of its dedication and persistence, ARLPI has made large gains towards its vision for peace in northern Uganda, which many people and organizations around the world recognize as a valuable contribution to society.

[1] See Humanitarian Action Report 2008, accessed online on 23 February 2009, <>.

[2] See IRIN site, accessed online on 23 February 2009, < >.

[3] See Kacoke Madit Site, accessed online on 3 February 2009, <>.

[4] See Kacoke Madit Site, accessed online on 3 February 2009, <>.

[5] Tim Allen, War and Justice in Northern Uganda: An Assessment of the International Criminal Court's Intervention, unpublished report, 2005, see <>.

[6] Tim Allen, Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army, (London: Zed Books, 2006) p 78.

[7] See The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, accessed online on 19 November 2008, < p 1.

[8] See The School for a Culture of Peace, accessed online on 7 December 2008, <>, p 13.

[9] See United States Institute for Peace site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[10] See IRIN site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[11] See IRIN site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[12] See IRIN site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[13] See IRIN site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[14] See IRIN site, accessed on 14 February 2009, <>.

[15] See "Hope in the Storm: Experience of ARLPI in Northern Uganda Armed Conflict", accessed online 25 February 2008, <>.

[16] Gilbert M. Khadiagala, "The Greater Horn of Africa Peace Building Project: Case Study Two. The Role of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative [ARLPI] in Peace Building in Northern Uganda," March 2001, p 9. Or <>.

[17] Gilbert M. Khadiagala, "The Greater Horn of Africa Peace Building Project: Case Study Two. The Role of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative [ARLPI] in Peace Building in Northern Uganda," March 2001, p 9. Or <>.

[18] See "Hope in the Storm: Experience of ARLPI in Northern Uganda Armed Conflict", accessed online 25 February 2008, <>.

[19] See site for Center for Research and Globalization, accessed online on 21 February 2009, <>.

[20] See ARLPI Uganda situational Report 2004, accessed online on 22 Febuary 2009, <>.

[21] See Uganda Articles, accessed online on 3 December 2008, <>.

[22] See Fr. Carlos Rodriguez's Article, June 25 2003 accessed online on 3 December 2008, <>.

[23]GuluWalk is an annual even to raise money to support children in northern Uganda, and raise awareness for the war and find lasting peace in northern Uganda.

[24] See Catholic Peacebuilding Network, accessed online on 3 December 2008, <>, or See Oxfam accessed online on 3 December 2008, <>, or See Caritas Norway, <>.

[25] <>.

[26] See "Hope in the Storm: Experience of ARLPI in Northern Uganda Armed Conflict", accessed online 25 February 2008, <>.

[27] See Caritas International, accessed online on 4 December 2008, <>.

[28] See BBC, accessed online on 4 December 2008, <>.

[29] See the Voice of America, accessed online on 6 December 2008, <>.

[30] See the Voice of America, accessed online on 6 December 2008, <>.

[31] Tim Allen, Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord's Resistance Army (London: Zed Books, 2006) p 34 or <

[32] See BBC, accessed online on 4 December 2008, <>.

[33] See Niwano Peace Foundation, accessed on 25 November 2008, <>.

[34] See The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, accessed on 9 December 2008, <

[35] See "Hope in the Storm: Experience of ARLPI in Northern Uganda Armed Conflict", accessed online 25 February 2008, <>.