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Efforts to end the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, show further signs of slowing, at a time when they are urgently needed. While LRA violence is increasing in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the group’s leader Joseph Kony and the majority of his fighters are now in Congo likely regrouping and reorganizing, efforts to apprehend the LRA senior leadership, protect civilians, and promote the defection of its fighters continue to falter. Here’s a sketch of some recent developments:
Ugandans continue to underestimate capability of LRA: The Ugandan army, which has arguably been the most engaged force fighting the LRA, has further reduced its deployment in LRA-affected areas. We wrote several weeks ago that there may have been as few as 2,000 Ugandan People’s Defense Forces, or UPDF, soldiers in affected areas. New estimates from Enough and the Small Arms Survey place the current size of the force at around 1,500. In January 2009, there were about 7,000 UPDF troops deployed—almost five times the present force. This development is concerning for a number of reasons. In particular, the U.S. government has been depending largely on the UPDF-led regional military operation to implement the apprehension objective in the Obama administration’s strategy to end the LRA crisis. With the increasing drawdown of the UPDF and no signs of success in apprehending the LRA leadership since December 2009, the prospects for the success of this operation appear more and more uncertain. In addition, Kampala announced this week that it has no money to fight the LRA.
A few weeks ago, the Ugandan Commander of Land Forces Lieutenant General Katumba Wamala dismissed the LRA’s capabilities, adding that it is no longer a threat to Uganda. As quoted in The East African, Wamala said: “[The] LRA is a spent force; they may still have the capacity to move in small groups of 10 or 20 where they are, but they can never regroup to become a significant threat to Ugandan territory.” The Malaysian National News Agency Bernama later reported that the Ugandan Minister of State for International Affairs Oryem Henry Okello said, during a trip to Malaysia, that the “strength” of the LRA “has been reduced to less than 100,” concluding that the organization is no longer a threat to the people or security of Uganda. This is a dramatic departure from the army’s estimate in March which placed the force in Congo alone at around 200 fighters. It is not the first time the Ugandan army has discounted the LRA threat. However, such statements coupled with a significant and continuing downsizing of the UPDF are concerning. The LRA is far from ended, even though it operates in small groups and sub-groups spread out over a vast area in southern Sudan, northeastern Congo, and southeastern Central African Republic. These small units are very capable of inflicting great suffering on civilian populations, as evidenced by past massacres.
LRA commanders regrouping in isolated corner of Congo: With this growing security vacuum and the return of Kony and his group of fighters to Congo in late 2010 or early 2011, the potential for the LRA to regroup and reorganize with other LRA groups in Congo is greater than it has been in more than two years, since the beginning of Operation Lightning Thunder in December 2008—and we may already be seeing this happen. A meeting of LRA leaders allegedly occurred in April in Garamba National Park, where the organization had bases before Lightning Thunder. Congo is also where the majority of LRA attacks have happened this year, according to U.N. OCHA’s most recent updates on LRA activity. In May, after a short lull in attacks in Congo, LRA incidents there were again on the rise. OCHA just reported that the LRA committed 53 attacks and killed 26 people in Congo in the month of June. This is a very alarming development. During the first five months of this year, there were 117 LRA attacks and 62 deaths in Congo. Of the 53 attacks, 50 reportedly took place in the Dungu and Faradje areas, located on the edge of Garamba National Park.
According to Enough sources, a U.S.-trained Congolese light infantry battalion deployed in the Dungu area will be in place for a few months and then return to its home station. There is no indication about whether it will be replaced or redeployed at a later date. Several months ago, Kinshasa decided to deploy the newly trained battalion to Dungu to fight the LRA and protect civilians from attacks. The 391st battalion was the first battalion trained by the United States, as part of a long-term partnership between the two countries to promote security sector reform in Congo, and is intended to serve as a model for future reforms of the army.
Despite amnesty law, Ugandan court prepares case against LRA commander: The High Court of Uganda’s International Crimes Division plans to commence the trial next Monday, July 11 of a former LRA commander, who was captured by the UPDF in February 2009 and initially charged in a local court. In contravention of the Ugandan Amnesty Act of 2000, Kwoyelo has not been granted amnesty and instead has been charged by the International Crimes Division with 12 counts of kidnapping with intent to murder. His trial sends mixed messages to LRA fighters, and commanders exploit such discrepancies to promote fear and prevent fighters from defecting. Formerly the War Crimes Division, the International Crimes Division has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other international crimes. It is intended to signal Uganda’s domestication of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, so Uganda can allegedly try its own citizens for international crimes. However, a judge in the International Crimes Division recently declared that the court lacks the necessary international procedures and is unable to provide a fair trial for Kwoyelo. The trial is expected to take one month. See this Q&A about the Kwoyelo trial, written by our friends at Human Rights Watch.
LRA source of instability as world’s newest country tries to find its footing: In South Sudan, the LRA continues to generate instability ahead of the region’s much-anticipated independence on July 9. Between January and May of this year, there have been 19 LRA attacks, 15 deaths, and 36 abductions in the nascent country, and there are more than 7,800 southerners currently displaced by LRA violence. Moreover, its attacks in Western Equatoria State, considered to have once been the country’s breadbasket, continue to disrupt food production and threaten food security in the South.
Photo: Community defense force in southern Sudan, armed to defend their village from LRA attacks (Enough/Laura Heaton)