By Ned Dalby
Infrequent observers of central Africa are startled and appalled to learn that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group that emerged in the late 1980s, is still killing. Forced into the border zones of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, its brutality can no longer be framed as political protest but rather survival by its own awful, time-tested method.
However, military and civilian efforts to stop the LRA are gaining momentum and there is now a precious opportunity to end the nightmare of thousands. To make the most of it, African leaders and foreign partners should commit to an immediate military push and measures to help traumatised communities recover in the long-term.
In late 2008 Joseph Kony, the group’s leader, refused to sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government. Talks collapsed and the Ugandan army botched a US-backed assault on the LRA’s camps in north-eastern DRC. Since then it has been trying to catch Kony and scattered, highly mobile groups of fighters in dense forest.
The political agendas of the region’s leaders have made a difficult job even harder. Since the LRA no longer presents an immediate threat to Ugandans, there is understandably little domestic pressure on Museveni to invest the men and money needed to complete the mission. He has prioritised other more politically rewarding goals, including his re-election in February 2011 and beefing up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In mid-2010 he pulled out about half the troops assigned to the operation. The campaign of attrition became markedly more passive and for months was little more than a cordon preventing the LRA’s return to Uganda. Local armies meanwhile have neither the will nor the strength to protect their people, let alone hunt down Kony’s fighters.
The DRC’s tolerance of a Ugandan military presence on its soil has been exhausted. During the second Congo war (1998-2003) Uganda occupied part of Congo’s territory, plundered its natural resources and earned President Joseph Kabila’s lasting mistrust. A deeply engrained animosity has seen the Congolese army deny the Ugandans access to LRA areas and in October 2011 forbid them to leave camp, reportedly on pain of death. Most of the LRA is in the CAR but could cross back into Congo at any time and find safe haven.
The LRA is inevitably a low priority for the governments of Uganda, the DRC, CAR and South Sudan sitting hundreds of kilometres away in country capitals. But an outcry from local civil society and pressure from human rights groups, particularly in the U.S, has made it difficult for western partners to stand idle.
Under direction from Congress, the US. government has committed to using political, economic, military and intelligence means to eliminate the LRA threat. The deployment in late 2011 of about 100 troops to Uganda, a minority of which have now advanced to south east CAR to advise and assist the Ugandans, is the clearest expression of US commitment to the fight.
The African Union (AU) is also in the process of launching its “regional cooperation initiative” to end the LRA. The three countries affected by Kony’s violence pushed the AU to the fore hoping it would bring in more funding. Looking to promote African ownership, the US also encouraged it. The AU’s limited capacity and difficulty reconciling the demands of affected member states and those of its main backer, the EU, have delayed the launch. But in November 2011 the AU appointed a special envoy to muster political will on the LRA issue and plans to reframe the operation as a “regional intervention force” thereby investing it with greater legitimacy.
US support, the AU initiative and other international interventions have now advanced far enough to present a genuine collective opportunity to end the LRA in the near future and enable afflicted communities to rebuild their lives in the long-term.
The U.S. military advisers in the field have the chance to embolden and strengthen Ugandan operations, in particular by improving communications and coordination among the troops and with host armies. But they will not be there long; just a matter of months according to US officials. While their expertise is on hand, while most LRA fighters are in the CAR and while the dry season allows for easier movement, the Ugandans should launch a concerted military push against the LRA, at all times prioritising civilian safety and accepting strict accountability for their actions.
As an essential complement to military pressure, the UN mission in Congo uses leaflets and radio messages to persuade LRA fighters and captives to leave the bush. Defectors say it works. The UN should take advantage of a healthy appetite among donors for such non-military measures and expand and intensify them as quickly as possible.
The UN, present in DRC, CAR and South Sudan, should also agree with government, military and humanitarian actors on procedures by which escapees are debriefed, taken home and helped to restart their lives. It should iron out unnecessary delays and funding gaps to be ready for greater numbers in the future. Assisting returnees should dovetail with long-term government and donor plans for stimulating social and economic recovery in hard-hit, border-zone communities.
For these collective efforts to come off, regional leaders, Museveni and Kabila in particular, will need to show their commitment to military and civilian efforts and cooperate. In particular, Kabila will need to allow Ugandan operations on Congolese soil and Museveni ensure his forces behave with total professionalism. It falls to Francisco Madeira, the AU special envoy, western partners and the UN to work with both on these issues.
Hoping for the best but planning for the worst, the AU should recognise the need to maintain political support among African leaders and international donors for comprehensive military and civilian efforts in the long-term, especially if domestic pressure sees the US reduce its role. This political commitment is critical to beating the LRA and enabling thousands of vulnerable families to live without fear.
Ned Dalby is Central Africa Analyst for the International Crisis Group.
- This article also appeared in AllAfrica.com