Between 21 and 27 January, far away from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the small town of Gulu in the northern region of Uganda was engrossed in the confirmation of charges hearing for alleged rebel commander Dominic Ongwen. It is one of the few public criminal proceedings for crimes committed during the 20 year Lord’s Resistance Army-Ugandan government war, so when public screenings of the hearing were organized, people came in their numbers to see it for themselves.
On the first day, an ICC lawyer began the prosecution’s opening by outlining the war and, in particular, the role LRA leader Joseph Kony played in it. As he made his presentation, there were whispers among the people gathered in the screening hall. A few people were confused by the prosecutor’s anglicized pronunciation of the names of northern Ugandan people and places which made some of what he was saying difficult for them to follow. One mispronunciation that stood out was the name Kony.
Following mass international coverage of the war, Joseph Kony has become one of the most well-known Ugandans in the world – famous, in particular, for abducting young children to serve in his army and for the gruesome ways his forces mutilated and killed civilians. In 2012, an eponymous campaign by Invisible Children brought his name to even more front pages. (In fact, Invisible Children’s goal was to “Make Kony famous.”) That campaign was challenged by many for presenting a simplified message about the war. So it comes as a surprise to many people here in Northern Uganda that in spite of this many still cannot say his name and in some cases, actually advise others to pronounce it as the prosecutor initially did, “Coney, like Coney Island.” The word kony is actually the Luo word for “help.” It is only one syllable and is not that difficult to say with some effort.
Complaining about the pronunciation of a name probably seems petty but it actually speaks to a larger issue: how detached people in and outside of Uganda are to the North’s experiences. Given how ethnically, politically and economically divided Uganda is today, this is especially real. There is stigma towards people from the lesser developed North by people living in the South, with them labeled as killers, cannibals or Kony’s name as insults. Politics rarely touches on reparative mechanisms for victims of war here and when it does, it takes too long (the passing of a government policy meant to “address justice, accountability and reconciliation needs of post conflict Uganda” has lagged for years).
When I tweeted mine and others in Gulu’s reaction to the opening presentation, I was met with resistance from fellow Ugandans who felt the tweet was making a big deal over nothing. Part of me agrees – how Joseph Kony’s last name is pronounced does not seem that important when we’re dealing with the pre-trial hearing for someone that is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. On the other hand, one realizes that over the past ten years northern Uganda, and in particular Gulu, has been welcome to numerous foreign researchers intent on gaining expertise on the LRA war, international agencies eager to gain success stories from their contributions to addressing its impact, and even Ugandan politicians playing on the hopes of the war’s survivors to gain support. Now prosecutors at the ICC are working to ensure the trial of Dominic Ongwen, someone who is alleged to have carried out Kony’s orders. One would assume that the process of exploring the dynamics of this war would have involved numerous visits to the region and interaction with the people here listening to them express their views. And while doing this they would have, in theory, noticed that no one says anything remotely close to Coney, right?
Through Ongwen’s case the world has said that it wants to provide justice for survivors of the war in northern Uganda. To do this it is hugely important to demystify the simplistic and sometimes misinformed narratives that often surround the war and its effects. Demonstrating basic knowledge about a central figure in the war may not provide all the solutions, but it’s a start. Fortunately it seems that the people at the ICC agree: seven days after the hearing began, while making his closing remarks the prosecution lawyer made a conscious effort to say Kony’s name correctly, often apologizing and correcting himself when he mistakenly said coney. Perhaps the ICC isn’t so far away, after all.