Elements of a New Strategy to Disarm the LRA
Elements of a New Strategy to Disarm the LRA
What’s Left of Sudan After a Year At War?
What’s Left of Sudan After a Year At War?
Commentary / Africa 6 minutes

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.

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