The Ugandan government has much work to do to reconcile a history of human rights abuses, says social justice activist Michael Otim.
Otim recently visited KGOU’s World Views to tell his story and talk about his work with non-governmental organizations in his native country.
Otim was born in Uganda, and lived there during his earliest years. The violent regime of Adi Amin drove Otim into exile in Kenya and killed his father. After a few years, Otim returned to Uganda inspired to make a difference.
“I felt that at the time there was so much going on and people are really suffering. There’s so much injustice going on, and human rights violations are so rampant… And this was what inspired me into the work that I do,” Otim told World Views’ Suzette Grillot.
Having lived through a period of immense violence, Otim identified with those who endured similar turmoil, and felt early on that he wanted to give back to those he suffered alongside. He founded an organization called the Justice Reconciliation Project, which worked on local transitional justice issues often found in countries where widespread human rights abuses occurred.
“Of course, there's no one quick fix. There are a variety of ways, it could be holding perpetrators of human rights violation accountable through criminal prosecutions. It could be through engaging communities through a framework that unearths the truth,” Otim said.
Currently, Otim is working with an organization called the Uganda Fund, a chapter of the international Fund for War-Affected Children and Youth. In the past decade, the Uganda Fund has invested over $8 million in disenfranchised young people and victims of gender-based war crimes. This is accomplished through investing in their education and helping them find ways to generate their own income.
“Initially they had nothing, nobody would even pay attention them, but some have already told us that look, because they are now empowered they're able to take up their needs. Now people are seeing them as human beings. Initially they were just looked at as rejects. We are proud that they are reclaiming their space in society.”
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Suzette Grillot: Michael Otim, welcome to World Views.
Michael Otim: Thank you.
Grillot: It's a pleasure to have you here. You came all the way from Uganda on short notice and, so we thank you for that, to participate in an event we had here on campus. And, I just really want to start because you are engaged in a career-long level of work in justice, in the area of justice, social justice, and reconciliation. But can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and kind of how you ended up getting into justice work? And then, in particular, you've worked in the past on issues of transitional justice. Can you tell us what that is, what transitional justice is?
Otim: Thank you. I'm called Michael Otim. I was born in Uganda. I started living in Uganda a few years back, but of course, as you know, it's a country that experienced a lot of political turmoil that sometimes compelled us to go into exile. I lived in exile in Kenya for some time, and during that time I also lost my father who was killed during the Amin regime. And later, when things slightly improved we returned back to Uganda and I studied in part in the north. But when the war started, we had to move out of the north, and come down to the city. Now, given my past experiences, I've lived really in a society where there was a lot of violence, a lot of injustice, and this kind of inspired me to try and work for social justice, especially when I look back and I see some of my friends whom with I studied with, that lost their lives all because of circumstances, dropped out of school. I felt I needed to give something back into the community. That's why I ended up with the humanitarian field, and humanitarian doing development work, but also working on issues of human rights and justice. It's just because I felt that at that time so much was happening and people are really suffering. There's so much injustice ongoing, human rights violations are so rampant. And I felt I needed to identify with them. And this was the time to be with them, and work, and to ensure if possible we can change this situation. And this is kind of what inspired me into the work that I can do. And so, because of that I was able to found an organization called Justice Reconciliation Project, which started working on issues of local-level transitional justice issues, looking at ways through which you help societies that have undergone systematic gross human rights abuses come to terms with what happened in the past. And of course, there's no one quick fix. There are a variety of ways, it could be holding perpetrators of human rights violation accountable through criminal prosecutions. It could be through engaging communities through a framework that unearths the truth. Countries like South Africa establish truth commissions. It could be through organizing, putting in place mechanisms that provide redress or reparations to acknowledge those who suffered harm, and give them some form of compensation or some form of acknowledgement through apologies, for the violations they went through. It could also involve using institutional reform, for instance, by reforming institutions that were responsible for the violations. For instance if it was the military they never got to reform the military. If you had a corrupt judiciary, you need to you know, remove all the bad apples and have the good guys working to restore confidence. it's about really restoring trust of people in their own institutions that govern them and manage their affairs.
Grillot: There is such fascinating, and interesting, and important, and complicated work this must be. I mean, just listening to you outline all of the various ways that you go about engaging in this kind of work, and whether it's holding individuals accountable, or reforming institutions, either way, it's not an easy task. But I want to, before I get to some more specifics about your work. What I do want to pick up on the reconciliation part of your organization, and you talk so eloquently about truth-telling, and accountability, and reparations, and you know making sure that those who've been harmed you know have some sort of justice. I'm curious, I've read a lot about this how part of the reconciliation process has to do also with this very complicated thing we call forgiveness. And I was listening to you, kind of, you know, wanting to see where to work that in. It's so hard, right? Even if institutions are being reformed, even if individuals are being held accountable, even if you make these changes in order to address the harms of the past that there has to be. Do you think some level of being able to move forward and forgiving what has happened?
Otim: Absolutely. Absolutely right. And especially when I look at it from the angle of, ultimately the goal you want these people to reconcile and forge a new future. But of course, reconciliation is a very complicated issue. It means a different thing, it's not a uniform interpretation, and it means different things to different people. It also doesn't mean that it's uniform in terms of, when does it start for somebody, and when do you, and then you agree that reconciliation has actually happened. For instance, for some people, once peace talk is signed, probably at the beginning of reconciliation. For others, unless somebody, the perpetrator seeks for forgiveness, and issues an apology, that's when reconciliation can begin. For others, it would mean probably you come to me, say “sorry,” I shake your hand, that's when reconciliation can begin. For others, unless you compensate me, we will not talk. So it means different things for different people. But ultimately, we want to reconcile community. It may, it may not happen. And of course also forgiveness, forgiveness is a very personal thing, very, very personal. You can compel somebody to forgive somebody who has not even sought remorse, for instance, probably others want someone to show remorse, probably that's when they can forgive. But you work in local institutions to try and facilitate that so that there's a level of harmony in the community, and the kind of work that we do in northern Uganda is that we try to support local institutions, those that are engaged in this kind of work: the religious institutions, the women's groups, the cultural institutions. The local lead us, and guide us. We try because we know so much has already happened, so many lives were lost. You can't compensate all. There are so many perpetrators, you can't try all of them. And so many things that have happened, so we are saying, well we are not saying the others are not important, but we are saying well, let's start from somewhere. Let's facilitate a process that would lead to some level of social harmony, and then we can pick up from there, and move the society forward.
Grillot: Let's talk a little bit about some of the specific work that you do. Now, your organization is involved in grant-making, and supporting grassroots organizations. I think this is very important right? You're working with victims of conflict, you're working with women, for example, that have been subjected to sexual violence during the war. In fact, much of your work has focused on women and youth, and some of the organizations that are focused on the interests of women and youth. Can you tell us a little bit about why that focus? And why it is that addressing the women that have been victimized by this war is particularly important?
Otim: Thank you. Yes, the organization that I currently work with is the Fund for War-Affected Children and Youth, called the Uganda Fund. It's an international organization. But with the local chapter just in Uganda, and our focus is working with young people. The Uganda Fund was established in 2006 with a commitment to support the recovery and the development of northern Uganda. Now one of the areas, or the niche, we felt had been affected, were the young people, including young women, young boys, children. This was a segment that was not being given any form of attention. This is the category of people who are abducted, these are the category of people who are forced into sexual slavery. These are people who are forced to commit heinous crimes. These are the people whose education was in jeopardy because they lost out in education because of the war. These are the group that are currently unemployed, who have no skills, and they're the majority. And what the Uganda Fund thought was that this was an area that we needed to invest. We need to, I mean that's just really a compelling case to prompt us to intervene, and try to offer some support for this category of people. Because we know that they are the future of this society, and if nothing is done about them, then the future of that society would be quite shaky. And so, we took it upon ourselves to support a number of initiatives that would enable the young children, or the young people to take charge of their lives, and also participate in the development of the country like any other participating citizen, and contribute to the development of their country. And we started a number of programs. There are several that we did in the area of education, in the area of income generation, and employment in the area of justice and reconciliation. Several civil programs, I can say that over the ten years, the Uganda Fund actually invested over $8 million in the actual sub-region, and other parts of the country to support various enterprising initiatives, that help change the lives of so many young people. And so, currently we are focusing largely on victims of conflict-related sexual, and gender-based violence crimes. Women who are subject to sexual slavery, in rebel captivity, they have returned. Their education was disrupted. So they are back, re-inserted in communities, they live in abject poverty. They have been rejected sometimes by their own parents, or even relatives. They are on their own. They have children to look after. And we thought, “well, we need to do something with them.” We provide them grants, they establish different income-generating activities. They are currently running a revolving loan scheme. We provide startup capital for small businesses for them. Others engage in agricultural activities like farming. Others engage in animal husbandry. They look after cattle, goats, and so on. They raise them for milk, as well as sell other items to earn income, and you know, they are participating in a variety of activities and this is making them live in dignity, reclaim their space again, and many beginning to be respected again in the community. Initially they had nothing, nobody would even pay attention them, but some have already told us that look, because they are now empowered they're able to take up their needs. Now people are seeing them as human beings, initially they were just look at as rejects. We are proud that they are reclaiming their space in society.
Grillot: Let's finish with this, kind of, the future. You know, where do you think, I mean, we know about Uganda's past, you've been telling us about what you're doing now. What do you expect for the future? In terms of being able to reach a wider audience, about being able to continue work in institutional reform, what is the what is the future hope we have in Uganda?
Otim: Of course, at the political level we still have governance challenges. There's a segment of society, and especially those from the North and other places, who feel a little marginalized, in terms of how the governance of our country is mounted. There are certain people who feel that the government is not doing enough to address their plight. And there's a little bit of resentment towards government in that direction. And I think government really needs to do a lot in terms of restoring the confidence of the citizens, especially from those in conflict-affected regions, that they actually care. And are willing to do enough to reverse the trend in this situation. But nonetheless, I think as organizations, yes, we have done our part. And of course, we also have our own limitations in terms of resources. We can't solve everything. This primarily should have been the responsibility of the government of Uganda to its citizens. Unfortunately they are not doing this job well enough, so our long-term hope is that we should be able to engage the government to recognize that there is a section of its community, that if not helped, or assisted, or brought to the main fold, are losing out. And it's important that they take over full responsibility, to ensure that they give hope to these people. And ensure that they change the trend of things, so that people can once again look at their government as one that cares, that can take care of their needs in terms of providing them services that should enable them to also become active citizens in the affairs of their country. So this is how I probably look at the situation of the vulnerable communities in my country.
Grillot: Thank you so much, Michael, for being here today and shedding some light on your situation in Uganda for us. Thank you.
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