In-depth: On the trail of the LRA

UGANDA: The war across three borders

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Joseph Kony has proved an elusive enemy
When Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was forced out of northern Uganda, it was safely assumed by many observers, including senior commanders in the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF), that a fast-diminishing, ill-defined insurrection would quickly burn itself out, unable to survive in alien terrain, losing access to what remained of its already disaffected Acholi support base.

After the final collapse of the Juba peace process in late 2008 and the failure of several less high-profile peace initiatives, the government of Yoweri Museveni warned repeatedly that Kony loyalists faced a stark choice: arrest or elimination, ruling out fresh attempts at dialogue, but still holding out the possibility of amnesty to would-be defectors.

LRA at large

But while the LRA has been largely inactive in northern Uganda since 2006, it has made its presence felt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), southern Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR). All three states have known their own conflicts, but the LRA has added a whole new dimension to their internal problems, waging an on-off bush war that has mercilessly targeted civilians and left a trail of destruction across large swathes of territory, forcing thousands from their homes.

Bungled operations

Congolese, southern Sudanese and CAR forces have presented an easy enemy, easily out-manoeuvred and slow in pursuit. But the real humiliation befell the UPDF. From Operation North in April 1991, through Operation Iron Fist in December 2002 to Operation Lightning Thunder in the DRC’s Garamba National Park in December 2008, the UPDF has unleashed huge resources on the LRA, often discreetly supported by successive US administrations.

But for all the UPDF’s intelligence capability and superior fire power, including the use of helicopter gunships and MiGs in Garamba, its military operations have delivered little beyond the killing or capture of several of Kony’s senior subordinates. The dead include two who were targeted with International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants in 2005 for crimes against humanity and war crimes: Vincent Otti, reportedly killed on Kony’s instructions, and Raska Lukwiya, killed by the UPDF.

Kony’s insistence that the ICC lift the warrants before the LRA signed a peace deal was one of several key stumbling-blocks in the Juba peace process.

Where is Kony?

The whereabouts of Kony himself are inevitably the subject of much conjecture. The UPDF reported him to be in Darfur in 2010. Local sources in Zemio in southeastern CAR talk confidently of an LRA encampment in the region. But there has been little media access to Kony and his combatants. Former LRA abductees give now familiar stories of forced labour, frequent shifts of camp and random atrocities, but predictably cannot provide much detail on the current LRA chain of command, the movement’s tactics and Kony’s own motivation. But there are warnings that a big military strike on a known LRA target would still risk incurring heavy civilian casualties, particularly if combatants used hostages as human shields.

The US designated the LRA a terrorist organization in late 2001. Ten years on, the deployment of 100 military advisers has generated a new wave of interest both in Uganda and its neighbours and among pressure groups and human rights activists who have sought to keep the spotlight on Kony and his loyalists and have bombarded the White House, the UN and African governments with demands for action.

Suggested measures have included: closer collaboration between national armies in the region; stronger protection for frontline communities and the development of community self-defence groups; improved liaison and information sharing between Ugandan forces and local authorities in the DRC, South Sudan and CAR; investment in roads, rendering LRA strongholds more accessible, and a more rigorous documentation of human rights violations.

Much of the pressure has been directed at the Ugandan government, with implied criticism that Museveni could have done more to end the conflict and address past mistakes by his government in northern Uganda, where years of neglect and heavy-handed military intervention helped initially to deliver a degree of sympathy for Kony.

According to one American analyst who has travelled extensively in areas affected by LRA activity, the deployment of US advisers gives the UPDF a chance to come good, particularly if it has access to better intelligence and takes on important lessons in communication and community liaison.

But he questioned Uganda’s commitment. “The UPDF have reduced their number of troops dedicated to counter LRA activities by more than half from their peak in 2009,” he told IRIN. “If it weren’t for the US encouragement to keep going, they probably wouldn’t be there at all,” noting that Museveni, now embarked on another term in office, had little domestic incentive to tackle the LRA head-on, but warning that the UPDF could not expect American allies, however sympathetic, to win the war on their behalf.

For more, visit IRIN’s in-depth: On the trail of the LRA