Is the LRA Only Sleeping?
Is the LRA Only Sleeping?
Commentary / Africa

Is the LRA Only Sleeping?

How to make sure conflict does not recur in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

“With two hundred men, we could get rid of most of the LRA in DRC,” a foreign security official told me in August when I was touring the Uele district, in the far north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lord’s Resistance Army has been abusing the population there since at least 2008. But in contrast to the foreign official’s confidence, the striking fact was that the fight against what remains of the LRA is at a standstill. It needs fresh impetus, because the LRA has demonstrated repeatedly its capacity to go underground then surge again more violent than before.

After 2008 the LRA fragmented into small groups scattered in the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Today, the LRA in the DRC is reduced to a rump of fighters located in the Garamba National Park. It survives in the bush by cultivating fields, poaching and smuggling ivory. According to local civil society and state security services, the weakening of the LRA means that, in this region, its attacks have drastically decreased and are only motivated by the search for food and basic items. In the Uele, many fighters confess to being hungry and even the core fighters, mainly from Uganda, have little desire to fight. According to hostages released by the LRA, some fighters have considered surrendering, but only to Ugandan civilian authorities.

But if the weariness of the LRA in Congo is obvious, it is not due to the military prowess of the Congolese army or the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), nor by defections of Ugandan LRA fighters. UN and NGO statistics are telling: only one Ugandan fighter defected from the LRA in DRC in 2012-2013, and none have been captured in this period. This situation is in stark contrast to the developments in the CAR, where 31 Ugandan fighters have defected over the past year and a half.

Why is the anti-LRA effort in north-eastern DRC so weak? Joint patrols by MONUSCO and Congolese soldiers do help to secure roads, but the regional task force created in 2011 and coordinated by the African Union (AU) only exists on paper. The 500 Congolese soldiers tasked to fight the LRA in the Uele are being trained in the town of Dungu but lack transportation and logistical support for their deployment.

A campaign to encourage defections, led by local and international NGOs and MONUSCO, has had little result. Leaflets are air-dropped over LRA areas, defection messages are broadcast on FM radio, and, since 31 July, U.S. soldiers, as part of a multi-year mission supporting the Ugandan army, are allowed to fly over LRA areas to broadcast defection messages through loudspeakers. But these measures are evidently not enough to neutralise or reduce a residual group of fewer than 250 combatants.

Why? First, the military pressure on the LRA in DRC is close to zero: Congolese and MONUSCO forces secure the main roads but do not exert any tactical pressure on the LRA. Second, the DRC government has lacked the will to secure its territory, while in CAR the state has now collapsed following the March 2013 coup. The defection campaign is also thwarted by fears of revenge (by villagers or Congolese soldiers) and the leap into the unknown that a return to Uganda would mean for LRA fighters. As the LRA has retreated deeper into the bush of far north-eastern DRC in the past few years, anti-LRA efforts have lost steam and Western donors, notably the U.S. and the European Union, have not made them a priority.

What can be done? In the Uele, remaining LRA fighters could be neutralised by:

  • setting up a small MONUSCO base close to the Garamba National Park in order to be able to conduct operations in the park;
  • exerting effective military pressure. Intelligence provided by U.S. military personnel based in Dungu should allow Congolese and MONUSCO forces to locate and dismantle the LRA bases, especially in the Garamba National Park; and
  • publicising widely the safe options for LRA deserters and reassuring them about their fate when they return to Uganda. In Uganda, amnesty is provided to all LRA rebels who surrender except for the three indicted by the International Criminal Court (Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen and Okot Odhiambo). The defection messages must make clear that they should surrender to MONUSCO forces and will be treated according to humanitarian law. If necessary, Ugandan civilian leaders should be brought to the area in order to facilitate contacts and talks with the LRA fighters.

In order to be effective, the fight against the LRA must include military pressure on remaining combatants, improved coordination and increased defection campaigns, and clearer explanations of how Congolese and Ugandan deserters can benefit from an amnesty and reintegration program. Because the Congolese government and MONUSCO are focusing on the fight against the M23 rebellion in North Kivu, they are satisfied with the present LRA containment strategy. But in the near future, the LRA elements operating in north-eastern DRC could potentially regroup, perhaps with additional support coming from LRA rebels located in the rudderless Central African Republic, and launch new attacks.

In 2011, the International Crisis Group report titled The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game? underlined that the main problem of the AU-led regional task force was the lack of commitment from contributing countries. Two years later, this lack of commitment remains a reality and constitutes the core reason behind the LRA’s survival in the Uele.

Report 182 / Africa

The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?

Insufficient political will has thwarted regional efforts to stop the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) but vigorous diplomacy led by the African Union (AU), an immediate military push and complementary civilian initiatives could end the misery of thousands.

Executive Summary

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) remains a deadly threat to civilians in three Central African states. After a ceasefire and negotiations for peaceful settlement of the generation-long insurgency broke down in 2008, Uganda’s army botched an initial assault. In three years since, half-hearted operations have failed to stop the small, brutally effective band from killing more than 2,400 civilians, abducting more than 3,400 and causing 440,000 to flee. In 2010 President Museveni withdrew about half the troops to pursue more politically rewarding goals. Congolese mistrust hampers current operations, and an African Union (AU) initiative has been slow to start. While there is at last a chance to defeat the LRA, both robust military action and vigorous diplomacy is required. Uganda needs to take advantage of new, perhaps brief, U.S. engagement by reinvigorating the military offensive; Washington needs to press regional leaders for cooperation; above all, the AU must act promptly to live up to its responsibilities as guarantor of continental security. When it does, Uganda and the U.S. should fold their efforts into the AU initiative.

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.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2011


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