The Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, first shifted its base of operations to Garamba National Park in eastern Congo, beginning in 2005. After years of civil and regional war and given the lack of governance there, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was primed to serve as a refuge for armed groups. The LRA did not start attacking Congolese people until September 2008, instead preferring to use its base in the Congo to rebuild its strength while launching attacks and raids into the Central African Republic, or CAR, and South Sudan.
In December 2008, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan launched ‘Operation Lightning Thunder,’ a joint military offensive against the LRA in northeastern Congo. Though the offensive weakened the LRA by cutting off food stores, diminishing supplies, and destroying some of the main rebel camps, it failed in its ultimate goal of apprehending the LRA’s senior leadership. Instead, the LRA scattered across vast, treacherous terrain. In retaliation for the offensive, the LRA launched a series of ruthless attacks against civilians in northeastern Congo and southern Sudan.
According to Human Rights Watch, in December 2008 and January 2009, the LRA brutally killed more than 865 civilians and abducted at least 160 children in northeastern Congo alone. From September 2008 to December 2010, reportedly more than 1,900 people were killed by the LRA in Congo, 2,615 were abducted (including 886 children), and 347,360 were internally displaced in Congo alone.
The LRA remains a significant destabilizing presence in northeastern Congo's Orientale province and an acute threat to civilians. Despite the attempts of 'Operation Lightning Thunder,' the LRA's high command remains intact. Unless these essential leaders are captured and brought to justice, the LRA’s regional campaign of terror will not end. The more time that passes, the stronger Kony’s ranks will grow, and the harder it will be to restore peace to this impoverished and war-weary region.
Decades of turmoil and the lack of stable governance, combined with its location in the middle of central Africa, has made the Central African Republic, or CAR, an ideal refuge for the LRA.
According to The New York Times: The Central African Republic would be an excellent place to hide. Its national army is one of the region’s smallest and weakest. Its forests are exceptionally thick. And its infrastructure is undeveloped.
The territory of CAR has also provided access for the LRA into Sudan, where it has in the past received safe haven, arms, ammunition, training, and other support from the Sudanese government.
In 2006, the LRA was first spotted in eastern CAR near the border of southern Sudan (now South Sudan), but the militia’s first reported attack in CAR was not until February 2008 when it raided Obo, a town along the southeastern border near Congo.
March 2012 OCHA map displaying LRA attacks in CAR since 2010
In 2009 and 2010, increasing numbers of LRA fighters were reportedly seen in southeastern CAR near Obo, as well as northeastern CAR near the Sudan border. This influx of the LRA in CAR was in large part due to Operation Lightning Thunder, a failed Ugandan-led joint military offensive in eastern Congo in 2008 and 2009, which resulted in LRA forces separating and fleeing to areas in CAR, southern Sudan, and Congo.
LRA attacks increased just as the UN Mission in Central African Republic and Chad, or MINURCAT, began drawing down its forces in 2010, leaving even more of a security vacuum in the already insecure region.
In anticipation of MINURCAT’s withdrawal, the UN dispatched another mission to CAR in January 2010. The Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic, or BINUCA, focuses on peacebuilding, ensuring stable governance, and supporting the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of armed groups. BINUCA’s mandate was extended in December 2011 to include reporting on LRA attacks and supporting demobilization and disarmament activities for LRA combatants; however, only a handful of BINUCA personnel have been deployed to the LRA-affected areas to date.
In late 2011 and early 2012, as a result of U.S. legislation to end the LRA threat, the U.S. deployed approximately 100 military advisors and personnel to CAR, Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda to advise and assist militaries in the region in apprehending the LRA senior leadership, protecting civilians, and encouraging defections from the LRA. After reviewing the advisors’ first 150 days of deployment, on April 23, 2012, President Obama announced that the mission will remain in the area to continue supporting regional forces in tracking down the LRA. In southeastern CAR, the U.S. forces are based in Obo and Djema.
The U.S. troops have run into many difficulties. The area is almost entirely inaccessible, with no high frequency radio or mobile phone service, making it difficult for locals to report attacks, and enabling the guerilla-style LRA forces to operate with little interference.
Recently, there have been contradicting reports on Joseph Kony’s whereabouts—the Ugandan army asserts that he is in South Sudan, Sudan, or CAR, while U.S. troops think he is hiding in CAR. Additionally, there have been reports that two other LRA leaders, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes, are hiding in CAR with an estimated 100 fighters. On March 24, 2012, the African Union announced the formation of a new Ugandan-led Regional Task Force, or RTF—including troops from CAR, Congo, and South Sudan—which will be based in South Sudan and have forces in both South Sudan and CAR. This force, which is reportedly to be composed of 5,000 troops, will take up the mission of capturing Kony as part of the African Union Regional Cooperation Initiative against the LRA, or RCI-LRA. Uganda currently has approximately 2,000 troops in CAR, working with the CAR army to track Kony and his top commanders.
Many of the most recent attacks have occurred near the CAR-Congo border where security presence is minimal and tracking troops is difficult. In March, two attacks occurred in northeastern CAR, not far from the border with Sudan.
From January through June 2012, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, reported a rise in LRA activities in CAR. Over a six-month period, there were 33 reported LRA attacks resulting in 12 civilian deaths and 44 abductions, compared with a total of 24 attacks in all of 2011. As of June 2012, 20,269 people were displaced within CAR because of the LRA, and 6,034 Congolese displaced by the LRA were living in CAR as refugees.
Even with the new international presence, eastern CAR is too large and the combined military forces are too small to adequately protect civilians. The CAR military has reportedly deployed approximately 300 soldiers to the vast eastern region – often leaving two to ten ill-equipped soldiers with limited transport and communications means to protect entire towns, while others have no soldiers at all.
One exception to the rule has been the city of Obo. Since October 2011, patrols around Obo by the CAR and Ugandan armed forces supported by the U.S. military advisors have allowed local authorities to secure a larger radius around the city, enabling residents to tend their farms.
In order to adequately protect civilians, more troops are direly needed. The advisors and the regional militaries should develop and implement a clear strategy to prevent reprisal attacks and engage in hot pursuit to free abductees.
The LRA is now suspected to have moved even further north to operate in the historically conflict-ridden Darfur region of Sudan.
Uganda, which has been pursuing the LRA for more than 20 years. Sudan and Uganda have a history as rivals, often providing support and other safe haven to each other’s rebel groups. Uganda supported the rebelling Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, in Sudan’s Second Civil War, and Sudan backed Uganda’s nemesis, the LRA.
In 1994, the LRA began receiving support—in the form of weapons, ammunition, military training, and use of military bases in what was then the southern part of Sudan, now the independent Republic of South Sudan—from the Sudanese government. Additionally, the government of Sudan in Khartoum tends to support proxy armies to fight its battles (as seen in Sudan’s support of the marauding Janjaweed in Darfur and various militias in South Sudan). In the early 2000s, the LRA fought as such a proxy on the side of the Sudanese government against the SPLA.
Though Khartoum claims it cut off all support to the LRA in 2002, it is very likely that Joseph Kony and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continued this mutually beneficial relationship until 2005, when Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the South Sudan rebels, which led to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.
After such a long history of collusion between Kony and Bashir, it is no surprise that the LRA eventually made its way north to find safe haven and seek additional support in the Darfur region of Sudan.
In July 2009, The U.N. Group of Experts reported that Joseph Kony ordered the LRA to move into eastern Central African Republic "with the intention of proceeding to Darfur." The LRA was first confirmed in Darfur, near South Sudan’s northernmost border, by the Enough Project in March 2010. At the same time the Government of Sudan intensified its own attacks in Darfur.
The evidence clearly suggests that advance LRA scouts coordinated with Sudanese armed forces well in advance of the LRA's arrival in Darfur, and it seems implausible that local Sudanese armed forces commanders would welcome the group in Darfur without seeking approval from Khartoum, including Bashir. There are also suggestions that the LRA received direct logistical support from the Sudanese army after arriving in Darfur.
This development was even more problematic because Ugandan forces did not have permission to cross into Sudan to pursue the LRA.
According to two eyewitnesses, in October 2010 a mission led by Joseph Kony’s chief body guard met with a Sudanese intelligence officer and the armed forces commander of the western region of Sudan to request assistance and asylum for Kony. As a result, the Sudanese intelligence officer provided the LRA with satellite phone numbers "to facilitate future contacts with Kony."
Between January and March 2011, the LRA staged attacks in Raga County, South Sudan, which borders Darfur, potentially signaling renewed efforts to move north and reconnect with the Government of Sudan to seek financial or material support. Fears that the LRA would become involved in a renewal of the Sudan-South Sudan conflict upon South Sudan’s secession in July 2011 did not come to fruition, and it wasn’t until more than a year later that the LRA was again allegedly spotted near Darfur.
In April 2012, a Darfuri rebel group said that Kony and the LRA were in Darfur, and a week later a Ugandan army spokesman agreed, claiming that they had intelligence locating the LRA in Sudan and linking the government of Sudan to the LRA. However, this information is not confirmed. Sudan denied all allegations of supporting the LRA, while Ugandan President Museveni threatened to defeat Sudan if the allegations proved to be true. Sudan has claimed to support efforts to end the LRA, but in the case of UNAMID in Darfur, the government of Sudanese resisted the inclusion of efforts against the LRA in its mandate.
If the allegations are true, the regional armies pursuing the LRA would likely find themselves unable to operate in Sudan, and the LRA could find safe haven there. This would be a major obstacle to success for the U.S. military advisors deployed in the region and the new African Union initiative to end the LRA.
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