Acholi want more prominent role for Mato Oput
Mato Oput, the traditional Acholi justice system.

Acholi want more prominent role for Mato Oput


The moral question is if all other attempts have been tried and failed, why doesn't the world listen to voices of people who say we are ready to forgive? We do not need cosmetic justice but need real peace that is long lasting, not grave yard peace where after every one is dead there is peace.

By Ultimate Media Consult
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First published: December 9, 2008


Despite the inconclusive end to the Juba peace talks, the government of Uganda and different stakeholders are going ahead to implement peace, justice and recovery programs in northern Uganda. Apart from the vital rehabilitation of infrastructure and people affected by more than 20 years of war, the sticking factor remains accountability for war crimes committed during the war and reconciliation.


Uganda government and LRA delegations in the Southern Sudan government mediated peace talks agreed to promote reconciliation and accountability under agenda three of the talks. The two sides agreed to use a special High Court Division as well as Mato Oput, the traditional Acholi justice system to try wars crimes and bring about justice and reconciliation. The Judiciary in Uganda is currently discussing modalities of the special High Court Division and how it will try war crimes committed in northern Uganda.

But cultural and religious leaders in northern Uganda are aggressively fronting Mato Oput as having the best potential to bring about accountability and reconciliation.

The KER KWARO ACHOLI The Acholi cultural institution (kingdom) recently held a massive Mato Oput cleansing ceremony at the palace in Gulu in which many former LRA fighters and collaborators admitted their crimes and asked for forgiveness. But what exactly is Mato Oput, and how will it contribute to accountability and reconciliation?

Mato Oput vs formal justice system

"Mato Oput is an elaborate system of reconciliation and mediation which was developed by the Luo community to settle disputes among their community. In the aspect of Kony and LRA war where the crime has been overwhelming and has damaged the social fabric of the community, if you are to arrest, you may end up arresting the whole community. That is why we feel that through Mato Oput, we can punish, reconcile, mediate and bring permanent peace," says Kenneth Oketta, the Prime Minister of Acholi Kingdom.

The two sides being prayed for before drinking oput
The two sides being prayed for before drinking oput.

But some people have criticized Mato Oput for emphasizing forgiveness, and thus likely to promote impunity, given the high level of war crimes (murder, rape, maiming, abductions, butchering, and displacement) committed against people in northern Uganda. Even the peace agreement does provide for trial and punishment for war crimes.

However, Acholi leaders argue that unlike the formal justice system that alienates the offender, the Mato Oput system focuses on reconciliation and compensation of the victims.

"Mato Oput is one of the best justice systems in the world because it forgives, restores the broken relationship and creates the process of healing in the hearts of those who have been wounded by violence and death. Mato Oput has a process which starts with truth telling. The public expression of remorse through truth telling is meant to do away with intent of impunity," says Macleod Ochola, retired Anglican Bishop of Kitgum.

"This is a point of departure between formal justice system and Mato Oput. A formal system is retributive or punitive so it leads to polarization, hatred, bitterness, alienation or death. Mato Oput is a pro life and holistic and transformative justice system," he adds.

The proponents of Mato Oput argue that while the traditional justice system should be implemented together with the formal justice system, the two do not compliment each other. "There are aspects of the war which can be handled under Mato Oput- like a person abducted and forced to kill and is now back. You cannot take that person to court for murder yet you cannot also just forgive him because the community from whom he killed will still point fingers at him. So you need to go through Mato Oput, which involves truth telling, asking for forgiveness and the offended community also accepting," says Oketta.

What is Mato Oput?

Sheep blood mixed with leaves and roots of oput tree
Sheep blood mixed with leaves and roots of oput tree.

So, what does Mato Oput mean and necessitate? Mato Oput literally means "drinking the bitter root of an oput tree". Oketta says it symbolizes the end to a bitter relationship between two clan communities or families of offenders and the offended.

Because of the emphasis on community, it is believed in Acholi that when a person commits a crime, his or her family or clan is also guilty of the same crime, just like all members of the victim's family or clan are taken to be aggrieved.

Whenever a homicide takes place in Acholi, the Rwot (cultural chief) intervenes in the situation to offer mediation between the offended and offending families. The process that leads up to taking of mato oput, or drinking of bitter solution from roots and leaves of an oput tree, is carefully handled for the offenders to get back to their senses so that they can admit guilt during a hearing led by chiefs and elders.

"We mix blood from lambs with a powder of roots from Oput tree and local brew. The tree is bitter and the solution is also bitter. The essence of taking the bitter solution is to signify the end of a bitter relationship. After the two families have shared the drink, they also share the meat of a sacrificial lamb. In our culture, sharing means friendship and this marks the return of peace," explains Rwot Otinga Atuka Ottoyai of Lamogi.

David Okidi Lumedo, author and consultant on Acholi culture says the processes and rites of Mato Oput are preceded by culuko-paying of blood feud. "The paying of blood feud is meant to stop any act of revenge. In addition, the side of a clan that has lost a person brings a he-goat or a she goat depending on the sex of the victim, while on the side of the offender, they bring a male sheep," Lumedo says.

After the negotiations, it is a celebratory proceeding during Mato oput. The sheep and goat are laid close to each other but facing in opposite directions. They are then split into two pieces and shared between the offending and offended clans (communities).

Sheep cut into two for mato oput
Sheep cut into two for mato oput.

Mato Oput at work

Acholi's application of Mato Oput to achieve justice has for long been extended to solve inter tribal crimes as a way of fostering unity and co-existence.

At Patiko village in Gulu, we stumbled upon a climax of mato oput ceremony. The case being settled involved two feuding co-wives who had fought two years ago, causing a still birth by one of the women. The pregnant woman was identified as the victim because she lost a baby after she had been beaten.

These women came from different tribes. The victim was an Alur from Jonam clan of West Nile and the offender was an Acholi from Paweli clan. Following negations between clan leaders of both women with mediation of Rwot Otinga Ottoyai, the two sides agreed a compensation of five cows devalued to just three hundred thirty thousand Uganda shillings (330,000 /=) due to resource constraint on the side of the offender.

Lumdo says under Acholi restorative justice system, there is no provision for death penalty for a homicide offender. "This is because the Acholi culture values the sanctity of life and preserves it. The offender must be rehabilitated into society," he says.

Mrs. Cissy Charity Ojok, Women's representative in Ker Kwaro, Acholi says that women play a crucial role in the Mato Oput process. "We disclose what men would not disclose. Sometimes men dodge the full truth but women do not hide because it is us who suffer most whenever there is violence. If your husband or son has killed or been killed, we suffer double trauma. Women, being close to their children are privy to the information from their children, especially related to heinous crimes so we are in a position of telling the full truth," Mrs. Ojok says.

Mato Oput and LRA war

But how would the Mato Oput be applied in relation to the war in northern Uganda?

"There are two warring parties led by Yoweri Museveni and Kony. The two have killed in both ways. However, the government is like a father and Kony is like a child of that father who has become rebellious. So anything that a child has committed is a responsibility of the father. It is the father who pays for the blood feud," Lumedo says.

This implies the government has to play a bigger and active role in the Mato Oput process. But will the government accept responsibility of paying compensation to victims of war crimes committed by LRA rebels?

"Mato Oput will be implemented as agreed in agenda three of the peace talks where we discussed accountability and reconciliation mechanisms," Internal Affairs Minister, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda who headed the government peace negotiation team told us in an interview.

Dr. Rugunda however did not specify whether the government was willing and ready to pay the compensation to the victims (culuko-paying of blood feud) in order for the whole process of Mato Oput to be carried out. The minister did not also cite any part of the agreement on agenda three that specified how Mato Oput was to be handled, especially the issue of who will pay the compensation. "That is a very important matter. I need to consult and we meet to discuss it," Dr. Rugunda said. However, the promised appointment did not materialize.

Mato Oput and war crimes

Apart from the compensation issues, Mato Oput has also brought forth several legal issues. Komakech Kilama- a lawyer based in Gulu says Article 126 of the Constitution says courts shall promote reconciliation in most cases. "The Judicature Act which also allows courts to apply customary law can entail Mato Oput. This is a starting legal basis for the Mato Oput at the moment," Komakech says.

But he says that legally, there is still a big challenge to use a justice system under the current legal framework. "Lawyers, especially those from Northern Uganda, and scholars should make research to see how the traditional justice system can be a form of addressing post conflict situations. Mato Oput might have some shortcomings just like the ICC so the debate should go on to find an amicable position," Komakech says.

Owor Lino Ogora, the Research Officer of Gulu District NGO Forum says that there is no mechanism, whether informal or formal that can comprehensively deal with crimes that have been committed. "So, the issue of accountability is complex and still stands. But Mato Oput has a very big role to play in the post conflict period. It is good at fostering reconciliation at the grassroots. Reconciliation by Mato Oput is genuine reconciliation because it is participatory and gives everyone a voice," Ogora says.

Other sections of Acholi community are also encouraging the government and LRA to embrace another Acholi ritual, gomo tong which means bending of spears. Makmot Kitara, the Deputy Chairman of Gulu district says this ritual also symbolizes the ending of hostilities between groups and is also preceded by discussion and truth-telling.

"The traditional system is beneficial to us as victims by ensuring permanent peace and to the rebels because it does not insist on punitive justice," says Mwaka Emmanuel Lutukumoi, the Acholi Kingdom minister of Youth and Information.

Lutukumoi says that people in northern Uganda are convinced that Mato Oput's focus on community participation and acknowledgement of wrongdoing deals with individual guilt in a social context, thus creating reform instead of belligerency.

Witnessing mato Oput in at Paiko village
Witnessing mato Oput in at Paiko village.

"The moral question is if all other attempts have been tried and failed, why doesn't the world listen to voices of people who say we are ready to forgive? We do not need cosmetic justice but need real peace that is long lasting, not grave yard peace where after every one is dead there is peace. That is why we are advocating for our long trusted justice system of Mato Oput," Lutukumoi emphasizes.

By Ultimate Media Consult
more from author >>
First published: December 9, 2008
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to www.ultimatemediaconsult.com.