Almost thirty years after it started its rebellion in Northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (Lra) led by Joseph Kony, continues to pose an important regional security threat in vast areas of the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the two countries where it has been active after it left Uganda in mid-2006.
Despite the dwindling numbers of its armed combatants, calculated to be between 150 and 200 (almost all of them Ugandans), during 2014 and the first months of this year, the group known to have shown over the years an extraordinary resilience – found new ways to survive, mainly through opportunistic alliances with other armed groups present in their zones, engaging in illicit minerals and ivory trade, and using its safe havens in Sudan’s controlled KafiaKingi enclave.
The Ugandan Army, which first came to Central African Republic in 2009, continues to fight Kony’s group. Since 2012 it has been doing so as part of an African Union’s Regional Task Force – a brigade of 5,000 soldiers – which originally also had contributions from South Sudan, CAR and DR. Congo. These days the CAR contingent is non-existent, the SPLA was redeployed because of the civil war that broke out in December 2013 in South Sudan, and the Congolese soldiers are hardly 300, leaving almost the whole job in the hands of the Ugandans. There are also 100 US military advisors with a mandate to train, assist and provide intelligence to help combat the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Though the counter-LRA efforts continue to weaken the LRA’s command structure and fighting capacity, the group has committed more attacks and abductions and has expanded its role in trafficking illicit natural resources in order to survive. On 14 October 2011, Obama announced that he had ordered the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisors with a mandate to train, assist and provide intelligence to help combat the Lord’s Resistance Army, reportedly from the Army Special Forces, at a cost of approximately $4.5 million per month.
Since last year, the LRA has kept more of its fighters in the North East of DR Congo, in the districts of Haut Uelé and Bas Uelé. This is due to the fact that the Ugandan soldiers are not allowed to cross over from the Central African Republic to pursue them, and it can also be explained because Kony has ordered his men to poach elephants for ivory in Garamba National Park. The tusks are then ferried through the jungles of South East CAR to the border with Sudan, in the enclave of KafiaKingi, where they are sold to traders as exchange for ammunition.
The LRA also engages these days in gold and diamond trafficking in CAR. Kony stays in the safe haven of KafiaKingi most of the time, and this is the reason why up to now he has evaded capture or death.
The LRA continues to commit plenty of attacks against civilians, mostly in DR Congo, but also in areas of the South East of CAR, but they are not the large-scale massacres of past years.
Another important element is that the LRA continues to lose a lot of its manpower. During 2014 and the last months several combatants have defected. Not only simple combatants but also officers. In the last three years, Kony has lost at least a dozen senior officers who were either killed, captured or defected: Caesar Achellam, Binany Okumu, Otto Agweng, Okelo Okuti, Samuel Knagul and Sam Opio are some of them. Kony’s second-in-command Okot Odiambo, who was indicted by the international Criminal Court because of war crimes, was killed in battle at the end of 2013. lts most recent defection was that of Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen was himself a child soldier abducted as a 10-year-old while on his way to school. He rose rapidly through the organisation’s ranks, becoming a major at 18 and a brigadier by his late 20s.
Being the first case of an international Criminal Court’s LRA indictee, his surrender can be qualified as a milestone in the fight against Kony’s group, although his removal did not significantly affect the command structure, since for the last three years Ongwen had been sidelined by Kony, who even put him under arrest for two years and removed all powers from him. According to his own witness, he surrendered when he feared for his life.
On 6 January, he gave himself up to the Seleka’s CAR rebels near the town of Sam Ouandja, posing as a Muslim called Moussa. A few days later, the US special forces who assist the Ugandans in CAR came to pick him up and once he was with them in Obo he revealed his real identity.
Ongwen was indicted by the ICC in 2005, after the Ugandan government requested the intervention of the Hague court, but his capture came at a time when President Museveni denounced the court for only prosecuting Africans and called on African states to withdraw from the court. ln the end, after some behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Americans handed over Ongwen to the UPDF in Obo, and on 20 January 2015 he was transferred to the Hague by ICC with the cooperation of the CAR authorities and of MINUSCA, the UN peace-keeping force in CAR.
lt has been argued that his surrender may encourage other LRA elements to defect, although given the fact that he did not qualify for amnesty and that he was taken to a Dutch prison, his case may not mean an incentive for some other LRA elements willing to lay down their arms.
During the last few years LRA has been trying to keep a low profile, avoiding attacking military forces as well as large scale attacks and killings, which would draw attention to their location. Nevertheless, although the LRA is less dangerous today than it was some years ago, it must not be forgotten that it retains its capacity to commit large-scale atrocities and that the new alliances with other armed groups may re-energize the group. This is one of the more dangerous trends in LRA activity.
For the last few years, Joseph Kony has been establishing links with the Seleka, opportunistic cooperation with Janjaweed and also with groups of armed Mbororo herdsmen, and with Sudanese leaders in KafiaKingi. Given the fact that such alliances are helping the LRA to survive, they are likely to continue, further complicating the conflict map, although Kony is always very jealous of his own authority and he never accepts other groups telling him what to do.
The LRA is an example of how a security threat becomes trans-national and how insufficient cooperation between African States can weaken a response. The Ugandans operating under the African Union’s Regional Task Force cannot easily operate in the areas where Joseph Kony is hiding, in Sudan’s KafiaKingi enclave. ln addition to that, international attention for the LRA crisis is dwindling, as it is being overshadowed by some other regional crisis like Boko Haram, South Sudan, the fighting in CAR and the lingering rebels in DR Congo.
ln the meantime, there are still 160,000 persons who have fled their homes because of the LRA. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are 130,000 IDP (26,000 in CAR, 104,000 in DRC) and 4,200 Congolese refugees in Haut Mbomou in CAR, 15,000 DRC and 1,800 CAR refugees in South Sudan. It is significant that many thousands of people continue to have their lives heavily disrupted by Kony’s roaming gangs.
Another important challenge is the rehabilitation of LRA returnees. With almost no programs and very little funding available these days, most organizations have pulled out of northern Uganda and some others face an uncertain future in the LRA affected areas in CAR, Congo and South Sudan.
The governments of the LRA-affected zones do not have any programs either. Long term support to returnees is completely lacking and in many cases they are rejected by their communities of origin in CAR in DR Congo.
Finally, it must not be forgotten that the LRA operates in very backward areas with very weak state presence and almost no infrastructure, an environment that Kony did not choose by mere chance. One of the reasons why the LRA left Northern Uganda is because, even during the years of the conflict, many efforts were made to build roads, put development programmes in place, invest in education and ensure a state presence including police, military and a judicial system. Having all this put in place in remote areas within very fragile states will take much more than just deploying soldiers to track the man who so far has been Africa’s most elusive criminal during the last decades. (H.P.)