The Ugandan army’s attempt in December 2008 to crush the LRA, originally an insurgency in northern Uganda but now a deadly, multinational criminal and terror band, by destroying its camps in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went badly wrong. Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, escaped and quickly organised reprisals that left hundreds of civilians dead in the following months. The U.S.-backed Operation Lightning Thunder became a campaign of attrition, as the Ugandan army began hunting small, scattered and highly mobile groups of fighters in thick forest. It followed them into South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) and scored some early successes, but the operation lost steam in mid-2010, allowing the LRA to go on plundering villages and seizing hundreds of captives and new recruits in the tri-border area. As the UN Security Council agreed on 14 November 2011, this must stop.
The reasons for military failure are at root political. Museveni scaled down the operation to pursue other ventures he felt would win him greater political capital at home and abroad. Since the LRA has not been able to operate within Uganda for years and no longer endangers its security, few opposition politicians or community leaders there demand its defeat. Efforts to pursue it in the DRC are dogged by the host’s refusal to cooperate and grant access to LRA-affected areas. Uganda invaded in the late 1990s, plundered DRC resources and earned President Kabila’s lasting mistrust. As Congolese elections, still scheduled for late 2011, draw near, the army has demanded the Ugandans pull out and, while waiting for the official decision, forbidden them to leave camp. Most LRA senior commanders and fighters are now in the CAR but could return to the DRC at any time and, with the Ugandans restrained, find safe haven. CAR President Bozizé distrusts Uganda’s army, envies its U.S. support, has ordered it to withdraw from diamond areas and could hamper operations further unless satisfied his own army is benefiting.
There is no prospect of a negotiated end to the LRA problem, given the collapse of the multi-year Juba process and the lack of any apparent interest on the part of either Museveni or, especially, Kony to go that route again after three more years of fighting. Instead, the AU, under pressure from some member states and the U.S., announced in late 2010 that it would authorise a forceful mission against the LRA and coordinate regional efforts. A year and counting, however, planning has foundered over its inability to reconcile differences with and between key member states and donors. Uganda and the three directly affected countries hoped the AU initiative would open the door to more Western funding for their armies but are little interested in political guidance or civilian programs. The U.S. wanted the European Union (EU), the AU’s main donor, to share some of its burdens. However, the EU prefers the AU to act politically and is reluctant to finance the armies. Uganda resists ceding any of its military and policy freedom to the African regional body.
Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of Operation Lightning Thunder, the U.S. announced on 14 October that it would deploy about 100 troops to assist the Ugandan army – a majority to stay in Kampala, the rest to advise in the field. The move is part of a broader ramping up of its political and military engagement against the LRA. It has also offered to train more Congolese soldiers and has given equipment to the CAR army in order to win the operation political space. The few score field advisers should be able to improve the Ugandans’ performance. However, the Obama administration, a year from its own elections, is cautious about testing U.S. tolerance of another overseas military commitment. The deployment, it has made clear, will be short term.
The Ugandan army, even with U.S. advisers, is a flawed and uncertain instrument for defeating the LRA. Due to its record of abuses and failures to protect civilians, the governments and populations of the LRA-affected countries distrust it. That Kony no longer presents a direct threat to its interests leaves room for scepticism about Kampala’s political will to see the military job through to the end. But the Ugandan army is also essential, because no one else is prepared to send competent combat troops to do the job. U.S. support, both military and political, is important but may be short-lived. AU money and civilian programs are helpful but cannot stop LRA violence.
Uganda, with U.S. advice and support, should, therefore, lose no time in launching a reinvigorated attack on the LRA, if possible while most of the group’s senior commanders and fighters are still in the CAR and before they can return to the DRC’s more restrictive operational environment. A key part of the advice the U.S. should press on the Ugandan army is the need to prioritise protecting civilians, provide access to humanitarian agencies and accept stricter accountability for its actions.
At the same time, if this new activism is to succeed, the AU must break its political deadlock and put its initiative in play. Adding the AU to the equation is vital to rally the political commitment of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan by giving the undertaking clear continent-wide legitimacy. The central elements of the initiative should be appointment of a special envoy to smooth relations between Kinshasa and Kampala and authorisation of a multinational and multi-dimensional mission – what AU planners call the Regional Intervention Force (RIF). This will likely involve only those troop contributors presently engaged against the LRA, primarily the Ugandans, but should introduce a new, common operational and legal framework for the Ugandan and host armies and create new military structures to improve coordination between them. Once the RIF exists, their anti-LRA efforts should be placed under its umbrella.
The AU planners should work closely with the U.S. to ensure that from the start the African organisation’s initiative prioritises the same principles as Washington needs to press bilaterally on the Ugandan army. Donors, particularly the EU, should meanwhile fund complementary civilian work, especially to entice LRA fighters to leave the bush. Only such a multi-dimensional approach is likely to bring peace to the tri-border area and begin the slow task of healing the physical and social wounds the long LRA nightmare has inflicted.
For mustering and maintaining political will
To the African Union:
1. Appoint urgently a special envoy with a robust mandate to coordinate African and other international efforts against the LRA, including by persuading:
a) President Museveni to commit more troops and equipment to the military operation while increasing efforts to protect civilians and rendering it more accountable; and
b) Presidents Kabila (DRC), Bozizé (the CAR) and Kiir (South Sudan) to grant the Ugandan army access to all areas where the LRA is active for six months, reviewable after five months, and to instruct their armies to increase civilian protection.
2. Set up the special envoy’s office with sufficient staff, equipment and resources to operate for at least one year.
To the Government of Uganda:
3. Demonstrate full commitment to anti-LRA efforts by accepting a multi-dimensional AU initiative, including a robustly-mandated AU special envoy; committing more troops and equipment to the military operation while rendering it more accountable; and increasing efforts to protect civilians.
To the Governments of the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan:
4. Demonstrate full commitment to anti-LRA efforts by accepting a multi-dimensional AU initiative, including a robustly-mandated special envoy; granting the Ugandan army access to all LRA-affected areas; and ensuring national armies increase efforts to protect civilians.
To the U.S. Government:
5. Support fully the launch of a multi-dimensional AU initiative, including a robustly-mandated special envoy.
6. Maintain pressure on Uganda, the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan to commit fully to a multi-dimensional AU initiative, including a robustly-mandated special envoy.
7. Be prepared, along with other donors, to scale down military and development assistance if the four presidents fail to demonstrate appropriate commitment.
8. Appoint a special envoy for the Great Lakes region to work with the AU special envoy in mustering political commitment for anti-LRA efforts.
To the EU:
9. Provide funds to the AU enabling it to set up an office for the special envoy with sufficient resources to lead anti-LRA efforts for at least one year and to establish a Regional Intervention Force (RIF).
For launching an urgent military push prioritising civilian protection
To the Governments of Uganda and the U.S.:
10. Intensify promptly military operations against the LRA, prioritising:
a) increased efforts to protect civilians;
b) enhanced civil-military relations, including by setting up two-way channels of communication with state authorities and other local leaders, such as church leaders and customary chiefs, and, in the CAR and South Sudan, by working closely with self-defence groups;
c) enhanced information management and coordination, including by setting up joint intelligence and operations centres with national armies in the CAR and South Sudan; and
d) strict accountability measures, including by implementing a code of conduct, rules of engagement and investigations of alleged human rights abuses and accusations of illegal exploitation of natural resources.
To the African Union:
11. Finalise the operational and legal framework for a Regional Intervention Force (RIF) that includes the priorities set out in Recommendation 10 above, as well as the standard operating procedures used by the Ugandan army stipulating the quick transfer of women and children LRA escapees to international protection agencies.
For intensifying complementary civilian efforts
To the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)
and the UN Peacebuilding Office in the CAR (BINUCA):
12. Coordinate a region-wide Disarmament, Demobilisation, Repatriation, Resettlement and Reintegration (DDRRR) program, including by:
a) expanding the communication campaign that encourages LRA fighters to surrender so it covers the whole tri-border region and continue it until LRA groups no longer pose a threat to civilians; and
b) coordinating efforts of international and national NGOs and church groups in the DRC, the CAR and South Sudan to help former LRA members return home safely and reintegrate into civilian life including through job creation programs and psycho-social care.
To the U.S. Government, the EU, the UN and other donors:
13. Support development and implementation of a region-wide DDRRR program and the repair and improvement of communications and transport infrastructure in the LRA-affected area.
For planning ahead
To the AU and its international partners:
14. Draw up a clear exit strategy that foresees the RIF in operation for one year and review after eight months whether a half-year extension is needed.
15. Plan to maintain and support the RIF and DDRRR operations after Kony and his top commanders are caught or killed, until residual LRA groups no longer pose a threat to civilians.
16. Request RIF participating countries to transfer the LRA leaders against whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants (Kony, Odhiambo and Ongwen) to the ICC if they are captured and to hand over other LRA commanders not subject to such arrest warrants to the authorities of their country for prosecution or other appropriate accountability processes.
Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2011