Elements of a New Strategy to Disarm the LRA
Elements of a New Strategy to Disarm the LRA
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Commentary / Africa

Elements of a New Strategy to Disarm the LRA

Last month, during the Great Lakes Contact Group meeting in Washington, the US government confirmed they had received a new shopping list of requests from the Ugandan government to help them hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). US military support to find an end to Joseph Kony’s murderous insurgency is definitely necessary. But supporting ill-conceived and poorly implemented Ugandan military operations in helpless countries of the region is not the solution.

The US should instead lead a coalition of the willing to provide the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Southern Sudan, arnd the Central African Republic (CAR), the means and ability to restore state authority along their common borders, corner the LRA in progressively circumscribed areas of operation, and help Special Envoys of the UN and the region negotiate the disarmament of its commanders and combatants, as the LRA’s means of communication and ability at coordinating operations are being slowly curtailed.

Last December, the offensive of Ugandan military forces against the LRA in the Congo’s Garamba National Park failed to deliver Kony and scattered the movement along the common border of three countries (DRC, CAR and Sudan). It also resulted in over eight hundred civilian deaths, thousands injured and some 100,000 people displaced from their homes in retaliation attacks from the brutal insurgency. Since then, continuing skirmishes between Ugandan troops and the LRA, which stepped up its reprisals attacks against civilians, have dramatically worsened the humanitarian situation in the affected areas, producing a crisis similar to the Congo’s Kivus.

In early 2008, following almost two years of UN-supported negotiations under the auspices of the Government of Southern Sudan, an opportunity to finally end the LRA insurgency had appeared to bear fruit. Despite serious misgivings, the “Juba talks” not only produced a relative cessation of hostilities between the two belligerents and a significant suspension of the LRA violence, but they also addressed some of the long-standing grievances of Northern Uganda’s people.

No deal could be sealed though. The talks were closed in April, even though the negotiations were incomplete. No genuine agreement had been found on a possible alternative to the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Kony for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and no security guarantees had been negotiated to foster the disarmament of LRA combatants, whether Ugandan or Sudanese. Kampala believed it had gone more than the extra mile to give negotiated disarmament a chance, and Kony had given little credible indications he would ever sign the Final Peace Agreement (FPA).

After Kony decided to have his deputy Vincent Otti — the only genuine senior LRA interlocutor in the talks — executed in November 2007, he hardly engaged with the process, contributing to the general impatience and suspicions that he was just using the talks to gain time to reinforce his defence capabilities, recruit and/or prepare to escape from the Garamba.

Mediators then gave Kony no less than six ultimatums to sign the agreement — unsurprisingly, to no effect. By July 2008, CARITAS food deliveries to the LRA’s assembled combatants — intended to create a conducive environment for the talks and avoid pillaging by the LRA — were suspended. In September, Congolese troops started to deploy in the vicinity of Kony’s main camp. In search of food, the LRA soon resumed its attacks on civilians and then stepped up abductions of children, fresh recruits in preparation for new military confrontations.

With Kinshasa’s approval and the US Africa Command support, the Ugandan army then decided to strike, launching operation “Lightning Thunder” on 14 December. Lasting three months, its official outcome was the killing of 150 rebel fighters, including seven rebel commanders, and the freeing of over 400 abductees. The LRA response was a rampage against civilians. Kampala announced a complete pull-out on 16 March, but six “intelligence units” (ie infantry battalions) stayed behind. Unable to hunt Kony themselves and with little concern for the casualties of LRA retaliation, Kinshasa and Bangui, agreed to let Ugandans continue their operation on their respective territories, as long as it remained discreet.

The UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) and its counterpart in Sudan (UNMIS) had been asked to chip in some of their resources, but flatly refused, already committed to other urgent theatres of operations. MONUC resisted committing anything more than a limited and static preventive deployment in Dungu, to help protect the town and its vicinity from LRA attacks. In 2006, a disastrous special forces operation already cost the mission eight Guatemalan peacekeepers, with no result.

Offensive military action can not successfully disarm the LRA. The insurgency has developed a deadly capacity to survive in the bush over the past 23 years, and successive military campaigns by the Ugandan army have only succeeded to push the insurgents out of northern Uganda into Southern Sudan, and then into the DRC and CAR. What is needed now is a multi-pronged strategy combining political pressure, military containment and negotiations to foster the disarmament of commanding officers, dismember the movement and isolate Kony.

The endorsement of “Lightning Thunder” by Joaquim Chissano, UN Special Envoy for the LRA-Affected Areas, de-facto ended his role as a potential facilitator. The responsibility could now theoretically fall to UN Special Envoy Olusegun Obasanjo and his Great Lakes counterpart Benjamin Mkapa, who have been mandated by the region in November 2008 to lead efforts for the disarmament of all foreign armed groups in Eastern Congo.

Political engagement of the former two heads of State could be articulated along two principal lines:

  • Engaging with the region (DRC, CAR, Sudan – both Juba and Khartoum) to adopt a joint containment strategy preventing the LRA from roaming freely on their respective territories. In addition, this also means pressing Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to progressively withdraw his troops from the Congo, Sudan and CAR; stop counter-productive declarations on new military offensives; keep the door open for the reintegration of disarmed LRA soldiers who should continue benefitting from amnesty; and keep his promises to foster development and reconciliation in Northern Uganda by unilaterally implementing the FPA.
  • Engaging with western leaders and donors so that they take action to prevent fund-raising for the LRA in their own countries and provide technical and financial support to implement the regional containment strategy;

Simultaneously, lines of communications should be reopened with Kony and his commanders. Only two things have succeeded to contain Kony’s murderous campaigns in the past: food and talks. New talks should not just focus on having Kony sign the FPA but should seek the disarmament of isolated LRA commanders, through direct contacts at different levels of a movement which is now scattered over three countries and has reportedly split into five to six different groups, some of them moving north as far as Bar-el-Ghazal according to the Sudan people’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Such an effort will require coordination with the Congolese, Sudanese, Central-African and Ugandan armies to give room for the disarmament negotiations while keeping LRA units under pressure and progressively circumventing their area of operations, as they lack communication and coordination capacity.

For those who will agree to assemble and release abducted children, prisoners and other dependents, CARITAS should be asked to provide food and transport to their preferred location of reintegration. Such discreet negotiations could probably be led on the ground by a regional leader such as retired Kenyan General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, whose military expertise and knowledge of Southern Sudan (he was a key negotiator of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ending the two-decade-long north-south civil war in 2005) could be put to good use.

Pundits argue that Kony will never disarm. Killing him is the only way. But 23 years of military action has not managed to do that, and even if talks will not tame Kony himself, a containment and negotiation effort could lead many of his commanders to leave him. Contained, cornered, weakened and isolated, Kony might then agree to resume talks to sign the FPA. The most compelling objective today though is less to neutralise the “wizard of the Nile” than to engage with him and his commanders and contain their movements so that they stop the killings and abductions.

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.


By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

The October 25 Coup and Its Aftermath

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.


The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.

Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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