The Lord’s Resistance Army appeared on the conflict landscape of Central Africa at the dawn of perhaps one of the bleakest period of post independence African history, the 1980/90s. This was the era of Afro-pessimism, during which the proliferation of war and crisis in Africa appeared simply overwhelming. It was during this period that the continent began to feel the full weight of the AIDS crisis, which was exacerbated by economic stagnation, continent wide corruption, poor governance, the highest levels of unemployment since decolonization and apparently unsolvable conflicts in regions as diverse as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Western Sahara, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and of course that region of perennial instability, the Great Lakes region of central Africa.
Here a complex mix of colonial legacy, ethnic incompatibility, isolation and lawlessness has combined in the years since independence to create a theatre of ongoing political unrest. Indeed, it was this region that saw perhaps one of the most iconic episodes of the 1990s, the Rwandan Genocide, the ramifications of which have included two major wars fought within the Congo, deadly ethnic equalization throughout the region, knock-on wars in Uganda and Central African Republic and an ongoing see-saw balance of power in an extremely volatile region.
Another similar region of ongoing instability that factors into this subject has been the broad axis that includes South Sudan, northern Uganda, northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), southern Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). The engine of conflict in this broad region, in particular in western and southern Sudan, has been the fundamental incompatibility of the largely Islamic north and the black Christian/animist south. This apparently unbridgeable gulf has proved to be the catalyst of nearly 60-years of perpetual conflict.
The Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency straddles both of these axes, and although it is limited in scope by narrow ethnic appeal and limited political pretensions, it has nonetheless proved in the nearly three decades of its existence to be very persistent, and extremely difficult so far to eradicate.
A Brief Historic Background
The territory of Uganda was absorbed into the British Empire on terms somewhat different to many other African colonies. The concluding 15-years of the 19th century proved to be busy and defining years for all of the interested European powers. The 1884/5 Berlin Conference established the ground rules for what would become the Scramble for Africa, after which the regions of the continent began to fall like dominoes. The East Africa region, more or less from Zanzibar to the borders of the Belgian Congo, quickly fell under an ill defined merger of British and German spheres of influence. In respect of the relative positions in Europe of these two superpowers, a great deal of careful diplomacy was undertaken before a series of agreements and understandings were reached that would ultimately see the Germans claiming what is today broadly described as Tanzania, including Rwanda and Burundi, while the British would acquire Zanzibar Island itself, and all hinterland territories including modern day Kenya and Uganda.[ref]Note: The Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty, also known as the Anglo-German Agreement of 1890, was an agreement signed between Germany and Britain, on 1 July 1890, which saw the exchange of the small but strategic island of Heligoland, held by the British, but which the revived German Navy required in order to control and protect German North Sea ports, for which Germany relinquished her claim to Zanzibar and a significant portion of East Africa.[/ref]
However, landlocked and tucked away on the far side of Lake Victoria, Uganda, or the land of the Buganda, was left largely to its own devices, regarded in the short term as simply a labor pool for the more robustly developing colony of Kenya. The territory did at least have one signature advantage, however, and this was the existence in the region of a powerful, centralized and established ruling monarchy which controlled much of the region. This, incidentally, played very much in to the hands of a certain British civil servant and military adventurer who had a great many uniquely liberal ideas regarding colonial administration.
Lord Frederick Lugard, future governor of Nigeria and Hong Kong, entered the service of the Imperial East Africa Company in 1889, charged with the task of exploring and pacifying the Uganda territory, which he succeeded in doing, after which he was appointed Military Administrator to this relatively sophisticated, but also independent an somewhat unruly colonial backwater.
The presence of the robust Buganda Kingdom gave Lugard the opportunity to experiment with his signature theory of Indirect Rule. Certain territories in Africa were claimed with a view to establishing deep rooted European societies, among which, obviously South Africa was most prominent, but other African colonies, in a smaller way, also aspired to a long term future of European colonization. Kenya was one of these, and in due course the colony, along with other ‘white’ colonies, found itself being increasingly being represented by a local legislature.
Neighboring Uganda, however, climatically challenging to white settlement, and somewhat estranged from the coastal trading networks, appeared to have very little to offer an average white settle. Administration of such territories, therefore, tended to fall into the hands of early company administrators, and then imperial administrators as the European powers gradually assumed greater direct administrative control over their various African possessions.
A number of future nation states in Africa were fortunate to be touched by Lugard’s clear thinking colonial policies – Nyasaland, Nigeria and indeed Uganda perhaps being the most notable. Lugard co-opted the Buganda leadership structure and administrative network in order to devolve as much practical day to day administrative responsibility to the pre-existing traditional leadership as possible, with him, and a majority of native administration personnel remaining very much in an advisory role. The obvious advantage of this to the Company was to limit expenditure on administration, and for the indigenous governing institutions it offered the opportunity to modify according to western standards of government while at the same time retaining traditional methods and characteristics.
Prior to Lugard’s arrival in the territory, however, the Buganda Kingdom had been penetrated by a number of extremely zealous and fundamental Christian missionary organizations, spearheaded by the Catholics, who collectively sowed the seeds of a startling Christian proliferation in Uganda that would very quickly become a political factor.
It is perhaps interesting to note that Islam and Christianity arrived in the region at much the same time, although the distribution of imported faith in Modern Uganda tells a story of overwhelming Christian dominance, with the ratio of Christian to Moslem about 85 percent to 12 percent. The remainder of the population can be expected to adhere to traditional practices, although the reality is, that while a majority of indigenous Ugandans have embraced either Islam or Christianity, very few have wholly abandoned their traditional beliefs.
Although traditional African religious customs vary considerably, they do display one or two common traits. The first of these is the existence of a supreme being, bearing different names, but uniformly remote and distant from human affairs, and not directly worshipped by the general population. Instead, various systems of ancestor veneration touch much closer to home, combining with elements of animist belief, all leavened by a very widespread respect and fear of witchcraft.
Needless to say, Catholicism, with its stern and powerful deity, its blood soaked iconography, its multi-layered ritual and its hierarchy of saints all blend very easily with traditional African belief structures. An unstable synthesis of the two has therefore come very much to characterize the indigenous Christian experience. And indeed, from these roots, in particular during the liberation period, has emerged a great many radical and independent African churches that proliferate in the fertile undergrowth of more mainstream religion. Many of these independent churches have been imbued with a political flavor, strongly influenced by prophetic mediums, and perhaps even more strongly influenced by mysticism and fanaticism.
It is from these roots that the early liberation movements of Africa emerged, but in the aftermath of independence, the radicalism in independent churches continued, and from it a great many unsavory factions have emerged.
But much of this would be in the future. Lord Frederick Lugard soon moved on, assuming the governorship of Nigeria, but nonetheless leaving behind a finely crafted civil service employing almost exclusively members of the local black intelligentsia. In the meanwhile, the construction of the Uganda Railway was underway, completed in 1901, which ultimately linked the coastal port of Mombasa with the port of Kisumu on Lake Victoria. This promptly opened up the interior of Uganda to rapid economic development, transforming the territory both economically and politically almost overnight.
The Christian/Islamic Influence in Uganda
As we move towards a general discussion of the emergence and development of the Lord’s Resistance Army, it behooves the author to spare a moment to deal with the question of religion in Uganda, this primarily because the Lord’s Resistance Army, in name at least, claims some sort of an ecumenical heritage.
External religious influence in Uganda began with the arrival of Arabs during the middle of the 19th century, and the selective introduction thereafter of Islam. However, the word Arab is confusing in this context, because in fact Islam was introduced to central Africa by men who were fundamentally African, usually of Swahili origin, who penetrated the interior in search of slaves and ivory, and who for the most part owed their Arabic manners to generations of exposure to the authentic Arab trade at the coast.
However, be that as it may, The Arab/Swahili influence in the Buganda Kingdom was fairly superficial because its purveyors tended to concentrate primarily on trade, as a consequence of which only the elite of Bugandan society, those who sourced slaves and ivory for sale, were ever exposed to the religion. A far greater import of faith came with the arrival of the first British missionaries. In 1876/7, the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a British protestant evangelical society, established the first protestant missions in Uganda, acting in an infinitely more democratic manner to the Arab/Swahili, by proselytizing and educating the masses, and thereby winning a great many converts.
The effect of this on the Bugandan Kabaka, or monarch, tended to be less spiritual than political, recognizing as he did the diplomatic advantages of allying himself with the British through the embrace of their religion. The British, however, were committed to the abolition and eradication of the East African slave trade, which unnerved both the Kabaka and the Arab/Swahili traders operating throughout the region, causing them to agitate for the suppression or removal of European/Christian influence for the region.[ref]Kabaka: Bugandan monarch[/ref]
Although sympathetic to the possible loss of a rich trade in slaves, gold and ivory with the east coast, the Kabaka, was also sensible to the fact that his kingdom was under threat of occupation by Egypt, which at that point held administrative authority of the territory of Sudan, and indeed the region of southern Sudan known then as Equatoria.
Matters of religious co-existence in the Buganda Kingdom were complicated considerably in 1876 when the French Catholic White Father’s arrived, introducing a micro-version of the greater global competition between France and Britain, and setting the tone for a period of instability and conflict as the three religious disciplines sought to establish spiritual/political hegemony in the kingdom.
The simple dynamics of this struggle as it evolved was the French Catholic preference for the Germans as a protecting power over the kingdom, the British Protestant preference for a British protectorate, and the Arab/Swahili preference for neither.
It was Islam that made the first move, persuading a young and impressionable monarch that the European powers sought to depose him and dismantle his kingdom. This introduced a short period of brutal persecution of Christians, which, surprisingly, did absolutely nothing to inhibit the extraordinary success of both the Catholics and the Protestants in converting the masses. As the Egyptians began to penetrate southwards down the Nile from the Sudan, however, threatening the Kingdom, The Kabaka was forced to ponder the advantages of European protection, and the Islamics fell out of favor.
In 1888, the Arab/Swahili elements within the court of the Kabaka attempted an armed takeover of the state, prompting a three-way alliance between the Kabaka, the Catholics and the Protestants, which successfully saw off the Islamic threat, but then simply introduced years of bitter rivalry between these two denominations, specifically over the question of future protection. This question was largely answered with the Heligoland Treaty of 1890, and the arrival in the territory of Frederick Lugard as an appointee of the Imperial East Africa Company, charged with the task of settling the disturbances in the region and establishing British dominance.
Lord Frederick Lugard was an exceptional man, and while it might be beyond the scope of this narrative to dwell on his contribution to the British Empire to too great a detail, a brief word might be instructive. Lugard was by profession a soldier, active in the pacification of territories as diverse as Burma, Sudan and Afghanistan, with his first armed action in Africa being the eradication of the Arab/Swahili Slave Trade in northern Nyasaland. To these credentials, Lugard added an intellectual flair and a sense of imperial vision that, while it might not necessarily have concurred with the views of British settler communities in various parts of the globe, it certainly sat well with the Imperial Government itself.
By the turn of the century the British imperial authorities had begun to revise the role of overseas empire, seeing it increasingly as fundamentally concerned with the responsibility of ushering the subject natives of the Empire from the kindergarten of life to a full place among the civilized races. And while perhaps riven with paternalism, this view was nonetheless radically liberal in the context of the times, and it was the likes of Lugard who were charged with the practical responsibility of devising formulas on the ground to achieve this goal.
Lugard implemented his signature theory of Indirect Rule, securing for the future colony and nation state of Uganda the status of being fundamentally an African country, or a British overseas territory without a significant white expatriate settle community. It tended to be the black colonies and protectorates of the Empire that transition to independence most easily, and quite often relatively peacefully, and such certainly was the case with Uganda.
However, Uganda ultimately proved itself to not be immune to the African malaise of post-independence political insecurity, the catalyst for much of which has tended to the colonial legacy of arbitrarily delineated political boundaries. The territories of Africa were demarcated in European drawing rooms, and so took almost no account of local ethnic or tribal boundaries. This has tended to result in mutually antagonistic groups finding themselves locked together into perpetuity in inconvenient nations. No greater example of this can there be than Rwanda, but also to a considerable degree Uganda.
The first rift occurred with the British decision to support the interests of a black Protestant minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, which created an elite administrative class surrounding the Buganda, with the military tending to be dominated by the northern Acholi people, and with many other groups marginalized altogether. This volatile mix was enlivened further with the settlement of many east Indians in the territory who came very quickly to dominate the commercial and industrial sectors.[ref]Note: The Indians arrived in the territory as a consequence of the Indian indentured labor recruited for railway construction, and Indian ex-servicemen who remained in East Africa after WWI.[/ref] Broadly speaking the country was divided between Bantu populations in the south, owing cultural allegiance to the central African and Niger Delta regions, and the Nilotic peoples of the north who looked to the Sudan, and to the Horn of Africa for their ethnic heritage.
In January 1971, the government of President Milton Obote was ousted in a military coup staged by armed forces commander Colonel Idi Amin Dada, an over-promoted sergeant major who went on to implement an eight year rule of lunacy and terror that reduced Uganda to the status, in fact the almost stereotypical status, of an African failed state. An example of Amin’s rule, and the degree of local antipathy towards the Indian community, was the arbitrary expulsion in 1972 of the entire population of nearly 600,000 Asians in a drive to Africanize the Ugandan economy.
Of particular interest to Amin, however, were the Langu and Acholi ethnic groups, who occupied the regions bordering and overlapping the East Equatoria province of southern Sudan. The Northern regions of Uganda had supported Milton Obote, and had given succor to him as he fled the coup, bringing upon them the genocidal wrath of Amin. Amin, quite typically, existed within a state of perpetual paranoia. He was himself, incidentally, was a member of the Kakwa group, also a Nilotic people, occupying lands similarly bordering south Sudan, and also traditionally marginalized.
The rule of Idi Amin ended in 1979 with the Uganda-Tanzania War, staged by anti-Amin exiles in Tanzania, and aided by Tanzanian armed forces. Obote was briefly returned to power before being ousted in a second military coup in July, 1985, conceding power to General Tito Okello, army commander and, once again, an ethnic Acholi.[ref]Note: In the complex interplay of ethnicity on Uganda, the Acholi, the dominant ethnic group of the Lord’s Resistance Army, was also perhaps the major contributor of manpower to the colonial and post colonial armed forces of Uganda.[/ref] Okello ruled for only seven months before being ousted in a successful insurgency, led by current Ugandan head of state, Yoweri Museveni, and Ankole from the south, which took power in late January 1986.
The Emergence of the Lord’s Resistance Army
The rise of the Lord’s Resistance Army can be traced more or less to this period, and the military predominance of the National Resistance Army, Predient Yoweri Museveni’s erstwhile guerrilla force.
However, within such a chaotic environment of religious and ethnic competition it is almost impossible now to trace the exact rootstock of the LRA as an independent movement, but one can easily plot the rise of charismatic religious leaders, and their evolution into regional warlords. This process is in many ways a continuum of ancient tribal ebbs and flows of influence, with the modern era being characterized by the rise and proliferation of radical, independent and sometimes millenarianist churches that have morphed into political and social reactions to the ongoing post-independence erosion of democracy, decline in economic standards and the economic and political marginalization of many fringe groups.
Obvious examples of this would be the Kenyan Mau Mau movement, in every respect a synthesis of religion and armed militancy. Even earlier examples can be traced back to the Maji-Maji rebellion in German East Africa during the early years of the 20th Century, protesting the forced production of cotton. The Nyabinghi Movement, which was led by a Ugandan woman by the name of Muhumusa, who claimed to be possessed of the spirit of a legendary Ugandan/Rwandan queen called Nyabinghi, and who inspired a rebellion during the early part of the century against the British colonial authorities.
In a more modern context, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement also made use of, although did not necessarily identify itself with, an apocalyptic version of Christianity. However, with his military victory, and his heavy handed style of government, the gates appeared to open for the emergence of a number of highly militant church groups led by charismatic, self-declared messiahs, all with strong denominational affiliations, but also with clear memories of older religious practices, including witchcraft.
Perhaps the most notorious of these was the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a breakaway catholic movement that began its disassociation with the mainstream church in the mid-1960s, and which by the 1980s had been largely excommunicated. Despite this it functioned, and grew, as an apocalyptic movement predicting the turn of the millennium as the moment of global destruction. Superficially the Movement reflected its Catholic origins, and remained largely true to Catholic iconography, although it existed very much outside of the diocese, appearing at some point to evolve into a suicide cult.[ref]Note: The 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for Ugandans for many reasons. The first major global AIDS outbreaks were recorded there, and the population suffered tremendous pressure. This, plus the effects of instability and war, generated a very pessimistic mood in the heart of Ugandan society, and doomsday scenarios were popular.[/ref]
The signature event in the life of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was its decision to stage a doomsday scenario of its own. The church leadership had predicted the end of the world at the beginning of 2000, urging followers to dispossess themselves of all property before submitting to the apocalypse. The proceeds of much of this dispossession were filtered into the church, and when those thus disadvantaged by finding themselves still living on January 2, 2000, sought restitution from the church a new date for the apocalypse was quickly predicted.
As followers gathered in a church building to greet the moment, the doors were barred shut, the windows boarded up and a firebomb detonated in the building that incinerated an astonishing 530 members of the congregation. Initial suggestions of a suicide cult, however, were diluted once it became clear that similar mass killings had taken place in a number of other locations, all associated with the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The Kanungu Massacre was ultimately ruled mass murder. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was never an armed group, however, and it appeared ultimately to be corrupt and inward looking. Far more innocent, and far more authentic, was the Holy Spirit Movement, the true progenitor of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and a continuum of female revolutionary activism in Africa that enjoyed then, as enjoys to this day, a long and pedigreed tradition.[ref]Note: Examples to consider are Mantatisi (South Africa), Mbuya Nehanda (Zimbabwe) and Alice Lenshina (Zambia)[/ref]
While Yoweri Museveni will arguably rank upon his passing as one of the great leaders of modern Africa, his success has been achieved by force, quite often excessive force, supported by a very shrewd manipulation of the ethnically sensitive political system. However, in common with most violent regimes, no sooner Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) achieved power than it immediately found itself facing multiple opponents determined to redistribute that power by force.
One of these movements was the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), supported by its military wing, the Holy Spirit Mobile Force (HSMF), both of which were led and commanded by a charismatic Acholi spirit medium by the name of Alice Auma, better known perhaps by the name of the spirit by which she was possessed, Alice Lakwena.[ref]Note: Lakwena has been described as having been either a doctor or a military officer, deceased, but he might easily have been both, or a doctor turned revolutionary. His age and period are obscure. Other accounts claim that he was an Italian World War I veteran who had died at age 95 and was buried near Murchison Falls.[/ref]
As has already been cited, the Acholi people are a language group of Nilotic origin, owing their cultural affiliations more northwards than southwards, and they tend, therefore, to be estranged from the Bantu elements in central and southern Uganda by a combination of language, traditions and geographic isolation. They do, however, claim a warrior heritage, and were as such sought after by the British during the colonial period as troops for both local and regional battalions. It was said during the early part of the 20th century that the Acholi formed what came to be regarded as a military ethnocracy within the armed forces.
With the takeover of Idi Amin, however, a great deal of suspicion was leveled against the Acholi and associated groups for their support, and willingness to provide succor for, ousted President Milton Obote, whom the manifestly unstable Amin pursued with a pathological determination. Amin brutally targeted the Acholi through both direct attrition and economic marginalization, while at the same time steadily packing the armed forces with ethnic groups more pliable and loyal to him.
The Tito Okello coup of 1985, however, was predominately an Acholi affair. Okello himself was an Acholi, as a consequence of which the Acholi felt that at last they had acquired access to state structures and a certain amount of authentic power within the country, which witnessed an immediate regeneration of Acholi influence in the armed forces. However, once the forces of the new regime, the Ugandan National Liberation Army (UNLA), had been in turn ousted by the Yoweri Museveni’s NRM just a year later, the Acholi dominated security establishment found itself once again in retreat.
The situation thus evolved that within Acholiland there existed a trained and combat season core of Acholi ex-regulars who were confronting heavy reprisals meted out against the Acholi civilian population by elements of the victorious and advancing NRA. Very quickly as a consequence the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) was formed from a core of these disaffected Acholi ex-combatants. The UPDA then launched operations against the government, and although successful within the Acholi speaking regions of Uganda, was unable to make real headway against the NRM, and by the end of 1986 the movement had began to flounder, until it was revitalized under the charismatic and indeed messianic leadership of Alice Lakwena.
Responding to instructions from God, from the spirit of Lakwena and from the beleaguered Acholi masses themselves, 28-year old Alice Lakwena began recruiting from among angry and marginalized Acholi youth and seasoned ex- UPDA combatants, quickly forming the core of a fighting force at the head of which, somewhat in the manner of Joan of Arc, she went off in search of a command. In due course she contacted the UPDA, and was able to persuade its leadership to place a detachment of 150 fighters under her command. With this she struck quickly and hard, and in two well planned and executed actions against NRA detachments, the latter were routed and comprehensively put to flight. As a consequence of these operations, large quantities of arms and ammunition were captured, which where claimed by the UPDA, but which were retained by Alice Lakwena in order to arm her own growing and independent support base.
Alice Lakwena’s military achievements prompted a wave of recruitment from amongst the Acholi youth, allowing Alice Lakwena to ultimately build a land force reported to number upwards of 50,000 men. It is likely that this figure is much exaggerated however. There are few unofficial armed movements in Africa with a permanent strength anywhere near that.
Nonetheless, the HSM soon amounted to a significant force, with organized structures and a leadership chain of command that was both rational and effective. What was enigmatic was the strong millenarian message contained within the group’s ideology, and many at the very least eccentric tactics and methodologies. Some of these were:
- Rubbing the chests of combatants with shea-butter oil in order to immunize themselves against the bullets of their enemies.
- Never taking cover against enemy fire, but instead marching directly toward the enemy in a cross formation.
- The transformation of stones into exploding grenades by placing them in pails of water in which hot metal had also been immersed.
- Singing Christian hymns as they march into battle.
- Neither eating food nor shaking hands with non-Holy Spirit members.
- Killing no bees or snakes which were regarded as allies of the Holy Spirit Movement.
- Having no more or less than two testicles.
Thanks to such practices, it did not take long for intial battlefield successes to be undermined by unsustainable losses, culminating in 1987 with an initially encouraging, but ultimately disastrous advance on Kampala which was halted at Jinja, on the north shore of Lake Victoria, and just 50 miles from the capital.
According to her own account of the battle, at that moment of military defeat at the hands of the NRA, Alice Lakwena was abruptly abandoned by the spirit of Lakwena and left powerless to lead her army. Thereafter she disappeared from the scene, migrating ultimately eastward into northern Kenya where she lived in a refugee camp until her death in 2007. Behind her, the movement that she had founded began to disintegrate before it was reformed under the control of Joseph Kony.
As with every aspect of Joseph Kony’s life and career, the origins and timeline of his involvement in organized rebellion in the north of Uganda are both murky and indistinct. According to the most authoritative biographical sources, Kony is an Acholi, and was born in the Odek region of the Gulu District, where he grew up under largely unremarkable circumstances. His father was a catholic catchiest and his mother an Anglican. He claimed at the time to be both a cousin of Alice Lakwena and a spirit medium in his own right, both of which were probably fabricated for the purpose of enhancing his legitimacy as a spiritual and rebel leader.
Kony’s brother, however, according at least to some sources, was a witchdoctor, and Joseph Kony claimed at various times to have inherited his powers upon his death. Kony is also reported to occasionally dress in female clothing during some of his channeling experiences, and in his early years he claimed to be guided by a spirit general staff, including the spirits of a Sudanese female Chief of Operations; a Chinese Deputy Chief who commanded an imaginary jeep battalion; an American (King Bruce) who was responsible for stones which turned into hand grenades; a second American spirit (Jim Brickey) who fought alongside LRA troops as long as they obeyed Kony’s commands, but who joined the forces of the NRA when disobedient, and lastly the spirit of Juma Oris, one time the leader of the West Nile Bank Front.
Be that as it may, it appears unlikely that Kony at any time served directly under the command of Alice Lakwena, more likely being a sectoral or detachment commander under the UPDA, reaping recruits to a new organization upon the collapse of the HSM, and the subsequent neutralization of the UPDA in a peace agreement with the government.[ref]Note: The West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) was an armed rebel force in Uganda which began a violent campaign against President Yoweri Museveni in 1995. It appears to have been a West Nile offshoot of the Uganda People’s Democratic Army and recruited primarily in Koboko County, Arua and Obongi, Moyo.[/ref]
Thus Joseph Kony first emerged as an identifiable rebel leader in Acholiland during 1987, at the head of what was first named the Lords Salvation Army, later the United Christian Democratic Army, and it was not until 1992 that the movement was finalized under the name The Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA Manifesto
Politically the objectives of the organization were vague, as, indeed, they remain today.[ref]Note: The LRA claim that the poor understanding of its tactics and objectives stem from unwillingness on the part of the government for the movement to be understood and recognised.[\ref] Kony has disseminated a number of manifestos on behalf of the LRA, without in any succeeding in outlining a clear or consistent political or military objective. To establish a state governed according to the Ten Commandments was an early stated goal of the LRA, and to this day it remains the most quotable. However, in subsequent manifestos, claimed by the government to have been produced in the diaspora, the LRA makes clear many of the issues that lie at the heart of the conflict in Acholiland:
- A lack of political representation at the center.
- Repeated human rights violations at the hands of the military.
- Nationwide socioeconomic underdevelopment.
- Government corruption
Tactically the LRA has become notorious for its use of child soldiers, which in some respects is an invalid accusation bearing in mind the prolific use of child soldiers throughout the region, with the Ugandan armed forces themselves admitting to the widespread recruiting of child soldiers. Nonetheless, perhaps the most widely condemned LRA actions have been those associated child abductions. Children, it has been claimed, have been traumatized and desensitized, and have as a consequence been responsible for much of the overtly brutal behavior of the insurgency, much of which is simply the self sustaining banditry that an organization such as the LRA, within a largely lawless environment, would naturally generate.
Initially the LRA and its preceding chapters enjoyed wide popular support in Acholiland, which was then suffering the attrition of direct NRA control. Local insecurity, however, remained comparatively light, until, in 1991, the Ugandan government resolved to nip this resurgent insurgency in the bud, launching what was known as Operation North.
Operation North was a counter-insurgency operation that utilized civilian militias armed with bows and arrows, who, although unwilling for the most part to engage rebels armed with automatic weapons, were nonetheless, just in terms of numbers, a significant indication of a break in the Acholi ranks. At the same time, the armed forces clamped down on the northern region of the country, and under a blanket of official silence began a campaign of terror against the LRA. As a consequence the LRA was severely mauled, fracturing and losing much of its membership. The opportunity existed at this point for the Ugandan defense forces to strike the killing blow, but curiously the NRA allowed dispersed elements of the LRA to slip through the net and reform.
Soon enough, indeed, the LRA did reform, and under different rules of engagement. It now began directing its attacks against civilians as punishment for the perceived disloyalty of the Acholi in largely supporting or appearing to support the government offensive. In response the government moved to create a system of Protected Villages, or containment camps, a strategy that echoes many other counter-insurgency responses from Vietnam to Mozambique and Rhodesia. The simple objective of isolating the population in armed camps was fundamentally to isolate guerrillas from their base of support, with a secondary concern being the safety and security of the wider population. However, once the first heavy punch had been delivered, the NRA eased conditions on the ground, and a concentrated quest for the hearts and minds of the population followed.
The LRA, on the other hand, now isolated and reduced, but also in a vindictive frame of mind, continued its concentrated attacks against civilian targets both in northern Uganda and in the neighboring East Equatoria Province of Sudan. Arguably from that point on the LRA ceased to be an insurgency in the true sense of the word, and began to operate purely as a terrorist organization, existing under military terms, and technically at war, but without any meaningful military or political objective.
Kony himself then became in essence an isolated iconoclast, relying on his personality cult for survival, and to quite a large degree irrelevant to any ethnic group or political organization. But the war continued nonetheless, with much speculation at the time regarding why Ugandan forces were had been apparently reluctant to stamp out the last embers of the movement when the opportunity existed. Some have suggested that Museveni kept troops in the region not only as a strong security buffer in the north, but also as a smokescreen for covert military support to the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in south Sudan, which, of course, immediately rendered the Lords Resistance Army an attractive protégé to the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
The LRA and the War in Sudan
More or less from 1955 onwards, southern Sudan has been in a state of war. The colonial legacy of the Nile region stranded a population of black Africans within the same political entity as a mutually incompatible population of Arab/Islamic Africans, setting in motion one of the longest and most bitterly fought separatist wars in history.
The south Sudanese separatist movement, however, was not by any means united. Multiple armed groups with fluid objectives existed in the region, some with a wider political agenda and some much more locally focused. The dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) opposed the Government in Khartoum, but was itself opposed by various splinter groups, and a number of smaller militias and armed groups that allowed them to be leveraged as proxy fighting forces by the central government.
Pushed northwards out of Uganda and into the southern reaches of Sudan, the LRA quickly found itself engaged in this wider struggle. Its tactics shifted from an armed insurgency to reprisal attacks against Ugandan and Sudanese civilians, ongoing abductions and periodic engagement with the SPLA. With the Ugandan government providing covert support to the SPLA, the government of Sudan sought an alliance with the LRA, using it thereafter as an irritant to the Ugandans and a fifth column in its war with the SPLM.
In the meanwhile LRA attacks against civilian targets became more concentrated and more brutal. In a generally violent environment, armed attacks against villages and refugee camps were not by any means uncommon, and so in order to stand out, the levels of LRA violence amplified. At the same time road ambushes and attacks against vulnerable SPLA targets mounted, with the LRA eventually establishing held territory adjacent to the Ugandan border which it referred to as new-Gulu, from where attacks were also directed into Uganda. A headquarters known as Kony Village was established that served as a staging and training base for upwards of 5,000 fighters organized into individual battalions.
These formations obviously existed under an organized command and control structure which has always been frustratingly opaque. Kony himself has rarely appeared in public, and his public utterances are few. Central command is necessarily fluid, with individual battalion commanders enjoying a greater or lesser degree of autonomy, depending on proximity, and likewise varying degrees of control of the companies and sections within each battalion that they commanded. Certain LRA groups are known to have operated independent of the center, merging and separating according to multiple variables. These could be of Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) operations and deployment, occasionally drought and rainfall, but also in no small way according to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and SPLA operations in the south.
It has been reported here and there that the LRA frequently operated in conjunction with the SAF, most often in the capacity of reconnaissance and ground coverage, but also as an attack force supported by SAF air power and tanks and artillery. In the early 2000s Kony was accommodated by the SAF in Juba. There the LRA were furnished with an office, and were funded and armed through a variety of sources, but often simple delivery and airdrop. It was quite clearly in the interests of the Sudanese government to use the LRA in proxy fashion to harass the SPLA and other anti-government militias in East Equatoria.[ref]Note: The National Resistance Army was renamed the Uganda People’s Defence Force following the enactment of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda.[/ref]
The relationship between the LRA and Sudanese government began to wane after 1996, soon after the Aboke kidnappings, an episode that will be discussed shortly. The reason for this was partly due to the growing notoriety of the movement, and its unpredictability, but also in part the steady movement towards a political settlement of the Sudan civil war, and the independence of South Sudan, which began with the Nairobi Agreement of December 1999.
This was an agreement brokered between the governments of Sudan and Uganda, under the terms of which both countries agreed to respect one another’s territorial integrity, and to begin the process of disarming and cutting off support for rebel groups operating on either side of the frontier. This in essence meant an agreement for Sudan to cease supporting the LRA while Uganda would halt its support for various anti-government forces, in particular the SPLA.
The agreement also allowed the UPDF access to southern Sudan in hot pursuit operations and to strike the LRA at its rear base and staging facilities. This the Ugandans promptly did, which in the short term at least escalated fighting in the region, exacerbating a general sense of insecurity.[ref]Note: The UPDF had in fact been in Equatoria much earlier than this.[/ref]
However, momentum towards peace, or at least an end to the war in south Sudan had by then begun. Fighting continued, and the LRA remained active, but when in 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya between the government of Sudan and the representatives of a united South Sudan, the LRA in many ways ran out of time and space. A timetable was set for a referendum on the independence of South Sudan, and disengagement between the warring parties was really just now a matter of time. Clearly now the LRA was no longer relevant to the Sudanese war, and both sides now wanted it removed.
The LRA Tactics and Ugandan Counter-Insurgency
Kony was among the first to see the writing on the wall, and confronted this new dynamic in south Sudan by making overtures towards peace negotiations. This in retrospect was obviously simply a strategy to buy time, but it nonetheless set the stage for what came to be known as the Juba Peace Talks, beginning in July of 2006.
Before we discuss peace negotiations and efforts to end the war, however, let’s take a moment or two to dwell on LRA methodologies and tactics, and the strategy employed by the government of Uganda to counter it.
There are two fundamental requirements for a successful insurgency. The first is funding and support, and the second is safe havens, and Sudanese support for the LRA provided both of these, presenting the opportunity for the LRA to expand its operation against the Ugandan government to the extent that a minor localized irritant abruptly became a major regional threat.
Two tactics of the LRA stand out. These are abductions/child soldiers and wanton and at times inexplicable attacks against Acholi civilians. It the case of the latter, the motivation appears simply to have been to punish the Acholi, who Joseph Kony appears to regard as having turned against his movement and begun collaboration with the government.
In this regard the LRA has often been compared to the Khmer Rouge of Africa, as an organization armed with a vendetta against its own population, controlled by an unstable but charismatic leader who is driven by obscure ideology and who is susceptible to bouts of irrational violence. Mass killings and mutilations at the hands of the LRA became commonplace. The killing of the young and old with swords or machetes, committing salutary atrocities such as cutting off people’s ears, lips and noses served as a warning to others.
Captives were also frequently taken, often including children who were strong enough to carry weapons. These would typically be tied together and marched to camps where they would be violently indoctrinated and turned into soldiers, porters, cooks, wives or sex slaves. Captives were often forced to kill or rape family members, making it thereafter impossible for them to contemplate returning home, further cementing a dependence and ideological identification with the group. Those who resisted or tried to escape are typically tortured themselves, and very often killed.
It was estimated that, as of 2006, between 24,000 and 38,000 children had been abducted by the LRA, and some 37,000 adults. These totals vary according to individual studies, but nonetheless they point to an incredible number of individuals forcibly removed and held for periods of a year to several years. A majority of these, at least according to some estimates, are pressed into service as porters in order to carry away booty and to portage weapons and equipment, with only selected children being deployed on the battlefield.
While the emphasis on child abductions accurately captures the brutality of the war, it glosses over the fact that the LRA is a well-trained armed group answering to a very strong, centralized command. Many members of the LRA are well beyond childhood and remain with the LRA out of conviction, a sense of adventure, or a belief in the cause (Allen and Schomerus, 2006).
There can be no doubt that armed groups and rebel insurgencies offer an attractive alternative to idleness and disaffection for rural, or indeed urban youth, but a lack of volunteers as the LRA began to decline in popularity, and also in competition with other armed movements, prompted a strategy of forced recruitment that one way or another saw a great many pre-teen and teenage boys and girls appearing on the front line. Probably the most notorious mass kidnapping attributed to the LRA was the Aboke Abduction, which took place on October 10, 1996, in the northern Apac District of Uganda.
During the mid-1990s, LRA activity tended to be concentrated in what might be regarded as Acholiland, encompassing the two districts of Gulu, Pader and Kitgum, but occasionally overlapping into more southern districts, most frequently the Apac District, where a handful of school abductions had already taken place. Towards the end of 1996, word began to circulate that the LRA were considering St Mary’s College Boarding School in the town of Aboke as a target.
By then the UPDF had introduced Local Defense Unit (LDU) militias as a force multiplier. These played the role of home guard acting as civil defense in place of orthodox army units. Responding to these rumors, the school administration, comprising primarily female nuns and a number of lay teachers and administrators, contacted the local LDU commander requesting troops to guard the school, failing which the school would be closed. Assurances were given, however, and the school remained open.
At midnight, however, on the eve of the Independence Day celebration, the school was visited by a large LRA force, some accounts claiming as many as 300, who comprehensively looted the school and abducted 150 schoolgirls.
The UPDF, for one reason or another, declined to mount a pursuit operation, ostensibly, one supposes, to avoid the girls becoming caught in the crossfire of any action. An aerial follow up was mounted some time later. The decision was then made for the deputy head of the school, Italian nun Sister Rachele Fassera, accompanied by a lay teacher, to follow the fleeing rebels in order to attempt to negotiate the release of the girls.
Following a trail of candy wrappers and soft drink bottles left behind by the retreating LRA guerrillas, the two were relatively quickly able to catch up with the captives. This was both an extremely risky and extraordinarily courageous act on the part of both, although perhaps less so for Sister Rachele who, as a white expatriate, might expect to be treated with caution, combined with her status as a nun. Her companion, however, as a local Ugandan, was under extreme risk.
However, and somewhat unexpectedly, Sister Rachele was able to secure without much difficulty a commitment from the group leader to release the girls without conditions. However, the retreat became entangled in the UPDF helicopter follow-up, after which the commitment was modified to the release of all but 30 of the girls. Thereafter, 30 of the most attractive and physically robust of the girls were separated out, and the remainder returned.
A melancholy incident is recorded by Sister Rachele, to whom it was reported that one of the 30 was able to slip into the group of those selected to return. Her name was Janet, and she was, apparently, head girl of the school. Janet was approached by Sister Rachele who explained to her that her absence from the captive group would be noted, which would then place the commitment to free the remainder in jeopardy, and in due course the girl was persuaded to return to her LRA captors. All but ten of the thirty eventually managed to escape or make their way home. Two deaths were recorded by beating or other maltreatment.
The Aboke kidnappings arguably put the LRA on the international terror map, presenting the opportunity for Ugandan Government to lobby for international support to deal with the LRA. The incident also resulted in the formation of the Concerned Parents Association (CPA), a local pressure group headed by Sister Rachele, who became a staunch advocate and negotiator. In this context she and other CPA members met Joseph Kony and other high ranking LRA leader in Juba, the southern Sudanese capital, in June 1997, appealing for the release of Aboke girls, which the LRA undertook to do if the UPDF would declare a ceasefire, which it would not.
Nonetheless, international lobbying continued, and the CPA group in due course met and liaised with various UN bodies, US first lady Hilary Clinton, the Pope, members of the European Parliament, former South African President Nelson Mandela, Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, as well as numerous diplomats of other nations.
Despite its being a significant thorn in the flesh of the Ugandan Government, the LRA remained throughout fundamentally a regionally based and very low key insurgency. Its notoriety has been drawn primarily from its tactics, and its mobility and general adaptability has tended to allow it to remain one step ahead of the Ugandan defense forces, despite, on occasions, very severe losses.
The question must then be asked, why has the UPDF failed to crush the LRA, despite being well resourced, professional by regional standards, and with a great deal of international sympathy and support behind it. It is perhaps also fair to ask how it was that Joseph Kony, who can charitably be described as mercurial, perhaps less charitably as a lunatic, could have personally eluded Uganda and the international community, remaining ambiguous and unspecific to the last, and obfuscating agreements one after the other. Claiming to be the savior of the Acholi, the population was nonetheless subjected to mindless atrocities at the whim of a leadership struck by its own divine authority, while the forces of the state were, and remain, powerless to intercede.
Much of the answer lies with the mental health of Kony and his leadership, but much also in the complex and ancient ethnic cross currents that continue to dominate life in the northern Ugandan/southern Sudanese axis, as they do throughout sub-Saharan Africa. These effects are complicated by historic international boundaries that took no account of this, and feuding national leaders representing a bewildering regional power play. Yoweri Museveni represented at the time the southern Christian Bantu, and the Government of Sudan under Omar al Bashir represented the northern Islamic Arabs. In between there existed many cultural enclaves, each with its own armed representation, some bordering on militias, one or two even termed rebel groups, but each operating independently within an ungovernable region.
The Lord’s Resistance Army claimed to be the political and armed representative of the Acholi peoples, and yet Kony himself thought on a grander scale. He believed that he was a prophet empowered to serve the Acholi by cleansing them through brutal violence and the Ten Commandments. Without a coherent and rational political position, any attempts at negotiation would quickly become a farce. No one could deal in earnest with such a vague organization. In the meanwhile Yoweri Museveni, continued to have an interest in supporting the SPLA against the government of Sudan, and so Sudanese president Al Bashir continued to have an interest in supporting the LRA. The dynamic was quite simple, and for some time the LRA existed safely within it.
Nonetheless, militarily the LRA had very little to offer. It fielded company sized detachments for the most part, haphazardly armed and trained, and generally unpopular in the countryside. The UPDF, on the other hand, fielded some 60,000 men supported by air, armor and artillery. The UPDF was in a position to, and it did, enter south Sudan at any point or time of its choosing in order to pursue a military objective. There may have followed some political bluster, but no regional war was ever declared as a result.
The UPDF, however, suffered efficiency problems. It was itself a user of child soldiers, and although no specific data exists, the anecdotal evidence of widespread deployment of young teenage boys on various frontlines is very compelling. Also, as part of a wider strategy, the UPDF tended to delegate routine security patrolling and civic protection to informal militias which were paid, sometimes armed and very occasionally trained by the army for the purpose of ground coverage. Protected villages were also put in effect, which perhaps more than anything at the time illustrated official frustration at the ‘hearts and minds’ issue. The LRA were killing Acholis, but the Acholi had nothing to say about it. The effective internment and isolation of the wider population in dealing with the insurgency was in many respect an admission of defeat.
The irony perhaps is that both the Ugandan armed forces and the LRA suspected the civilian Acholi population of disloyalty, and as a consequence atrocities against them were ongoing and widely dispersed, with each side as frenetically engaged in human rights abuses as the other, and neither able to rise substantively above the status quo.
Another factor related to the longevity of the insurgency was corruption. A large scale deployment materially benefits a corrupt army, in particular the leadership element, and there can be, as a consequence, considerable incentive to avoid a conclusion. At a central command level, the more high profile an insurgency, the more international support can be garnered, and with the right propaganda handling, the LRA had the potential to be, and remain, a very high profile insurgency. And so long as this state of affairs existed, both the government and the army had an interest in the status quo.
However, perhaps the most significant failure of the UPDF in Acholiland has been to behave in a very heavy handed manner, adopting de facto terror tactics to deal with a terror insurgency, and as a consequence alienating the very people they are sworn to protect, which, practically. This sort of action destroys the one element without which counter-insurgency is impossible, and that is accurate and timely tactical intelligence, which traditionally does not flow from an alienated population.
The LRA, on the other hand, enjoyed the singular advantage of mobility and the lack of an offensive agenda. It simply had to keep ahead of a lumbering Ugandan military machine, and without heavy armor or mobile ordnance, nothing could be simpler. Ammunition usage was minimal, likewise weapon replacement, and the organization itself was essentially self sustaining through looting and banditry. There have been on occasions significant actions fought between the UPDF and the LRA, with the latter sustaining heavy losses, but these have been replaced by abductees, and indeed a significant portion of the organizations strength, in terms of both women and fighters, are abductees. Throughout Acholiland the LRA was on home territory, and it had mastered the landscape. And, of course, the LRA enjoyed safe haven in southern Sudan.
The Juba Peace Talks
Ultimately it was the end of the war in southern Sudan, and progress towards the independence of South Sudan, that began to bring about the erosion of LRA security in East Equatoria, and a general willingness to negotiate. In 2005, the South Sudanese Autonomous Region came into being as a precursor to the full independence of South Sudan, after which the LRA were given two choices: either negotiate or leave Sudan. The third option, implied, was to face armed force from South Sudan. A majority of the LRA opted for the latter, drifting into a wild region in the Orientale Province of the DRC, and there taking refuge in Garamba National Park, where ongoing operations against local civilians began.
The first meeting between Kony and South Sudanese officials was held near the Congolese border on 3 May 2006. Progress was minimal, however, thanks primarily to the fact that Kony and a number of other leadership figures in the LRA were at that point under an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant. As a consequence most of the LRA delegation comprised diaspora members whose legitimacy could not be confirmed, coupled with the fact that no practical negotiated settlement could include ICC indictees until such time as the law had run its course in accordance with the Rome Statute.
Multiple delays, false starts, agreements, disagreements and breaches of agreements followed in a negotiation process that lingered on for almost two years. Formal talks began in Juba in July 2006, with the vice-president of Southern Sudan, Riek Machar, as the chief mediator.
It is probably worth noting that Machar had only very reluctantly accepted the role of mediator. He was not universally trusted by the LRA, who he clearly regarded as being a fringe group of lunatics that had long outlived their usefulness in the country, and were now not worth the value of his time. Again, jostling over the credential of the LRA delegation resulted in the delayed appearance of Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command, followed later still by Kony’s 14-year old son.
Kony himself held meetings on the sidelines, giving his first ever press conference in August 2006, during which he denied responsibility for any atrocities and abductions, blaming instead the UPDF. After this rather predictable introduction, Kony was in every other respect erratic and unpredictable. The issues were simple enough. South Sudan wanted rid of an armed force that was now complicating negotiations towards South Sudanese. The Ugandan agenda, ostensibly, was to see an end to the war, and to promote reconciliation within the country, and in advance of this agenda, the Ugandan delegated submitted a request to the ICC for the indictment against LRA leadership to be lifted.
In the meanwhile, a unilateral LRA ceasefire was declared on August 4, 2006, although sporadic disturbances continued beyond this. This was followed on September 12 by a formal truce signed between the LRA and the Ugandan Government, after which came the question of practical implementation. The requirement was put on the LRA to assemble in two locations in Sudan upon the understanding that no Ugandan opportunist attacks would be launched and that the safety of the combatants would be guaranteed by the government of South Sudan. Only thereafter would talks on a comprehensive peace agreement would begin.
As this was taking place, the Ugandan government began breaking up and dispersing internally displaced persons camps as a tangible sign of its commitment to peace. The talks then began amid a great deal of skittishness and skepticism within the ranks of the LRA, with occasional breaches of the ceasefire punctuated by calls for the lifting of the ICC indictments and mutual accusations of bad faith.
At one point Museveni put in an appearance in Juba himself, meeting LRA delegates face to face in an effort to cut through what was really a Gordian Knot of LRA unpredictability and indecision, brought about possibly because of ambiguous leadership and disagreement behind the scenes. Kony, for example, proposed that Uganda adopted a federalist structure, which confused matters considerably, since the cease fire and peace process was not seen, and nor should it have, as a discussion on the essential structure of Uganda as a country.
A second truce was signed in November 2006, and so matters continued. Accusations and denials, counter-accusations and counter-denials. At one point facilitator Riek Machar abandoned the LRA delegation close to the Congolese border in despair at having to deal with them. Former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, was appointed UN envoy in the conflict. In January 2007, the LRA unilaterally announced that talks would be moved to Kenya, but they resumed in Juba, with the involvement now of South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya. Talks broke off, and then recommenced in April 2007, and the ceasefire was extended until June 30, 2007.
This became more or less the pattern of events, with discussions taking place amid periodic flare ups and walk outs. Most of these were underpinned by the looming reality of ICC indictments, and the fear that this instilled in the LRA leadership. A tacit understanding existed allowing Kony to leave his hideout in order to sign a peace agreement, mooted for March 12m 2008, without the risk of being arrested. It was furthermore suggested that the Ugandan government lobby the United Nations Security Council to suspend the ICC indictments for a year.
The delicate framework of agreement and understanding that eventually emerged hung in the balance as signing delays followed one after the other, again, mostly over the question of ICC action. In the end Kony did not put in an appearance at the signing ceremony. The delegates parted company, and for all intents and purposes, that was that. The Ugandan Government did, however, announce the formation of special war crimes tribunal to try the LRA in an effort to further convince the ICC to drop its indictments which, after all, lay at the heart of the impasse.
The LRA, in the meanwhile, was once again recruiting and rearming, and low level operations began again, mostly against south Sudanese targets, with this time the South Sudanese government directly intervening. When movements towards a resumption of talks began, largely through the offices of UN envoy Joaquim Chissano, the South Sudanese announced that they would no longer mediate, mostly because of attacks against it by the LRA. Ultimately the talks collapsed, the LRA refused to sign an agreement and 20-years of insurgency continued.
It is unlikely upon reflection that the LRA had any particular interest in a peaceful solution or indeed any solution at all. It recognized that it was trapped between the effects of the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the actions of the ICC, and simply undertook talks with a view to neutralizing the immediate threat as a means of reinventing itself, and to re-politicize the conflict in some way, perhaps picturing itself as a legitimate political movement.
The LRA saw the Juba talks as an open ended political process, while the governments of Sudan and Uganda wanted the LRA out of Sudan and the war ended respectively. The UPDF felt that the LRA had by then largely been defeated, and if this was not so, then at the very least it had been reduced to the status of nuisance, with just the continuing survival of Joseph Kony himself as the major irritant.
The LRA in Congo
From that point on negotiations were shelved and the LRA became a military problem once again. The organization was now centered in the Garamba National Park region of DRC, where it had relocated during the early phases of the Juba talks.
This situation is quite revealing of the porous nature of international boundaries in this region, and indeed, in some cases, the irrelevance of international boundaries. As such it suited the LRA more than it did the Ugandan government, which recognized an opportunity to deal the killing blow to the LRA, but needed the cooperation not only of the probationary government of South Sudan, but also that of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Operation Lightning Thunder, also known as the Garamba Offensive, was launched in December 2008. At its launch, it was presented as a regional cooperation, involving the two concerned governments of South Sudan and Congo, but in reality it was substantively a UPDF affair, with significant support from the US AFRICOM Africa Command. The best that can perhaps be said of Operation Lightning Thunder was that it succeeded on a diplomatic level insofar as a degree of military cooperation was achieved, but the assault itself has been widely dismissed in military and political circles as being an utter disaster, and one that has implicated AFRICOM in a bitter diplomatic fallout.
In November 2008, towards the end of his term in office, President Bush personally authorized AFRICOM to provide 17 military advisors to the UPDF to assist with the planning of the operation, which the US further subsidized through the donation of satellite phones and $1 million worth of fuel. The military aspects of the operation were simple. A surprise air attack would obliterate the LRA camp in the Garamba National Park, and presumably wipe out the organizations leadership, before ground troops would be introduced to mop up any surviving elements.
However, lessons learned in more than fifty years of modern counter-insurgency appear to have been completely ignored. The great strengths of a movement such as the LRA lie in its mobility and adaptability. The initial airstrikes against its static locations were successful insofar as a number of LRA fighters were killed, but there is no evidence to suggest that the substantive leadership was disrupted, nor that that the LRA was in any meaningful way compromised. The weight of the UPDF, substantially supported by the US, and nominally supported by South Sudan and Congo, descended on the LRA, and achieved very little.
Operation Lightning Thunder, in particular the US role, suffered considerable disapprobation in its aftermath as it devolved very quickly into a hopeless manhunt for Joseph Kony through the ungovernable frontier regions of Congo, Sudan, Uganda and then Central African Republic. As it went, the LRA, somewhat typically, enacted its revenge through wanton and unfocused attacks against local civilians, exacting a fearful toll in human life and suffering with 1,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
In response to criticism for this unplanned, but in retrospect perhaps obvious ramification, the Ugandan government simply shrugged and placed the blame at the feet of the regional militaries and the United Nations for their failure to adequately protect civilians in the affected areas. There was some justification in this, since the armed forces of both South Sudan and Congo had limited their involvement in the operation to protecting civilians on their respective territories, and one might at least expect that they would do so.
However, be that as it may. Ground operations continued against a backdrop of regional and international disquiet, resulting in a partial withdrawal of Ugandan troops from Congolese territory, but with nonetheless a residual operation continuing as a determined manhunt for Kony himself continued. The difficulty experienced by the government of the DRC in ordering that Ugandan troops leave its territory was complicated by the fact that this could neither be verified nor enforced, which is symptomatic of what is fundamentally an ungoverned and ungovernable region. These, of course, are the perfect circumstances for the proliferation and survival of organizations like the LRA, and the UPDF did not leave Congolese territory where it remains to some degree today.
In the aftermath of the operation, however, Kony himself attempted to make his way back into Uganda, but was blocked by an intense UPDF quarantine of the border areas, forcing he and his leadership to shift northwards into the Central African Republic, where LRA attacks against civilians began to be recorded from early 2009 onwards.
So in essence the LRA, far from being destroyed, has simply relocated. In March 2009, the ongoing operation was formally handed over to the Congolese, but in effect it remained very much in the hands of the Ugandan security services backed up by US logistics and intelligence. Small unit UPDF detachments assumed a hunter/killer role in a more classic COIN configuration, offering amnesties while at the same time maintaining military pressure.
The result has been to render the LRA a homeless and causeless organization preoccupied with the practicalities of its own survival, but it has not in any way undermined the organization’s ability to function, and so long as Joseph Kony himself remains alive, and at large, the gravitational pull, and increasing importance, of his leadership will ensure, if not the cohesion, then certainly the continued existence of the LRA
In 2012, Kony and the LRA achieved massive international prominence through the release of a short internet documentary entitled Kony 2012 which mobilized considerable international interest and renewed international determination to bring the LRA leader to justice. The movement, while achieving enormous public awareness, also attracted considerable criticism for over simplifying the crisis, ignoring the Ugandan human rights abuses and elevating Kony to the status of a global celebrity without at the same time offering any particular education.
This may have been so, but the campaign did at least project Kony himself to the center of efforts to eradicate the movement, personalizing the problem, and perhaps correctly shifting the focus of anti-LRA activity to the question of bringing to account Kony himself as the only means of destroying his organization. In this regard the Ugandan armed forces, with the help of the US, have settled into a long-term counter insurgency strategy.
In January 2015, one of five LRA commander indicted by the ICC appeared in the Hague, having surrendered himself to UN forces in the CAR the previous year. Besides Joseph Kony himself, Dominic Ongwen is the only known indictee to be still alive.
To date Kony’s exact whereabouts remain unknown, although the likelihood is that he is in the Central African Republic, and there is every reason to suppose that he remains in command of the LRA. The LRA itself remains focused in the border regions of South Sudan, Uganda, DRC and CAR, with operations tending to be focused in northwest Uganda, DRC and South Sudan. Moreover, there appears to be no end in sight, with the organization now having morphed into a loosely allied bandit organization espousing no particular agenda and preoccupied primarily with its own survival, but as such it has the potential to continue to exist and function indefinitely.
As, however, has always been the case with effective counter-insurgency, the military option is only useful as part of a wider political and social strategy. The LRA, as is the case in many similar conflicts all over Africa, can only be neutralized by dealing with the underlying social and economic circumstances that nurture anarchic movements and organizations like the LRA.
Probably the first major adjustment of policy would be to recognize that an inability to protect civilians from attacks and abductions undermines faith and confidence in government and military. Human rights abuses perpetrated by the military certainly do not help.
Therefore a more holistic, military, social and political effort is required that in many ways is simply beyond the current capability of local governments and military organizations. The LRA is a Ugandan problem, but the movement no longer exists on Ugandan soil. The government and military of both DRC and CAR are in each case weak and unstable, with neither the will nor the resources to even begin dealing with the underlying social and economic causes of localized insurgences, while at the same time the United Nations and various other non-governmental organizations are hampered by funding and access.
In general is would seem that the only hope for an end to the insurgency would be the capture or killing of Joseph Kony himself, and until that happens, the prospects of a lasting peace in a very unstable region seem slim to say the least.