by PETER DÖRRIE
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a textbook example of the rise and fall of an armed rebellion. The LRA also represents a history of suffering typical to many civil wars where the line between perpetrators and victims isn’t always clear.
Today, the LRA consists of only a few dozen men scattered across three countries. These militants have long abandoned any effort to reach their original political goals. Instead, they now concentrate on staying alive by preying on civilians.
The Lord’s Resistance Army is all but destroyed. Most of its commanders are dead or captured and its leader — the self-styled Christian millenarian prophet Joseph Kony — is the only thing keeping the group together … and he’s on the run.
In 1986, the Ugandan National Resistance Army overthrew dictator Tito Okello. Yoweri Museveni led the rebellion and rules Uganda to this day. Okello was a member of the country’s Acholi ethnic group from the country’s north. Museveni and much of the NRA had roots in the south.
After taking power, NRA members began a campaign of revenge killings in the north. Ugandans there banded together to fight back. One of those groups was the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The LRA soon became known for extreme violence, especially against civilians. Furious at a perceived lack of support from his own ethnic group — the Acholi — Kony targeted the very people he claimed to fight for.
During the most intense fighting in Uganda in the mid 1990s, the LRA abducted hundreds of children to use as soldiers and sex slaves.
LRA fighters routinely cut off lips, ears and limbs of victims. In 2005, the U.S. State Department estimated that as many as 12,000 people lost their lives as a result of the conflict. More than 1.9 million people fled the affected areas, but about 80 percent have now returned, according to Human Rights Watch.
The LRA was so destructive — in part — because it became a part of the wider regional power struggle.
In 1994, the group established camps in what is today South Sudan with the approval of the Sudanese government. Kampala had supported rebel groups in South Sudan, and supporting Kony’s militia was a way for Khartoum to strike back.
Multiple peace initiatives failed, most notably in 1994 and 2008. Under intense military pressure and waning international support, Kony’s militia retreated to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then to the Central African Republic. Elements of the group are still present in both countries.
The last attack by the LRA on Ugandan soil was more than a decade ago. But the group still abducts — and murders — civilians and loots buildings in both the DRC and CAR. On March 21, the LRA kidnapped 15 Congolese refugees.
But almost three decades of fighting has left the LRA in bad shape. In May 2010, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama signed a law permitting the U.S. military to help a coalition of African forces track down the group’s remnants.
The operations have worked. Coalition forces have captured several of the group’s high-profile leaders, killed its fighters and accepted the surrender of many more.
The latest is former LRA fighter Dominic Ongwen, who surrendered to Séléka rebels in the Central African Republic in January 2015. The rebels then handed him over to U.S. military advisers. He currently awaits trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Ongwen has an interesting story. Like thousands of others, he didn’t join the LRA of his own free will. Kony’s militia kidnapped him when he was 10 years old as he walked to school. He grew up killing for the LRA.
As an adult commander, he was allegedly responsible for some of the group’s most horrific atrocities — including assaults on northern Uganda and enslaving women. His defense will likely emphasize the trauma and indoctrination he experienced as a child.
Together with Ongwen, the ICC indicted four other high-ranking LRA commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. From this list, only Kony remains at large.
The Ugandan military has claimed that former LRA vice-chairman and second-in-command Vincent Otti died in 2007. They said Kony’s bodyguards killed him after Otti insisted on a peace agreement with Kampala.
Ugandan forces uncovered Okot Odhiambo’s remains in March 2015. He was likely mortally wounded in October 2013 when Uganda soldiers ambushed him in the Central African Republic — with help from U.S. intelligence.
Raska Lukwiya, the LRA’s number three, died fighting Ugandan forces in 2006.
Defectors have reported that Kony has promoted non-Ugandans and his own sons to replace the LRA’s fallen leadership. That makes the present-day LRA hardly Ugandan at all.
During his debriefing, Ongwen claimed that Kony is currently in Darfur — an area controlled by the Sudanese army. The United Nations claims he’s hiding out in the Sudanese enclave of Kafia Kingi near the border with CAR.
Either way, the Sudanese regime is Kony’s oldest ally. But Khartoum turned on him once before. In 2002, it let the Ugandan army flush the LRA out of Southern Sudan.
This operation — code named “Iron Fist” by the Ugandan military — was responsible for a resurgence of LRA violence in Uganda and the group’s later flight to the DRC and CAR.
The Sudanese regime is already an international pariah and has little to lose by hosting Kony. It can use his presence as a bargaining chip with the Ugandan government, which continues to mingle heavily in South Sudanese affairs.
At this point, the LRA is no longer a military threat to any of the nations it once operated in. The group has degenerated to common banditry and continues its pitiful existence only because the countries it moves through — save Uganda — are dealing with internal conflicts and weak governments.
This doesn’t make the LRA less of a threat to the people who live in its shadow. But the group has slipped out of the international limelight and is a low political priority for most governments.
Kony himself probably hasn’t personally led a military operation in years.
Which means it’s more important to rescue the militia’s remaining hostages than to destroy the LRA militarily. If Kony isn’t expelled from Sudan and captured at some point, the LRA’s end will likely be inglorious.
The international community could also offer the remaining fighters an alternative. If not, the group could fracture and its fighters will either become bush bandits or join other armed groups.
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