Dealing with one of Africa’s cancerous rebel army should involve smart military and diplomatic tactics
Hallelujah Lulie, Special to Addis Standard
In a recent speech, General Carter F. Ham, head of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group known for its brutal attacks against civilians in east and central African region, is a proof that the devil exists. The group, which over the past two decades killed, maimed, raped, abducted and displaced hundreds of thousands civilians is indeed an embodiment of evil and the fight to eradicate it has proved to be as difficult as exorcism.
The irony is that the group emerged in mid 80s from a religious armed movement that claimed to fight for the cleansing of the Acholi tribe in northern Uganda. In a 2004 interview, the late Vincent Otti, who was one of the movement’s top leadership, said that, “We are fighting in the name of God. God is the one helping us in the bush. That’s why we created this name, Lord’s Resistance Army. And people always ask us, are we fighting for the Ten Commandments of God? That is true”.
Regional rivalries manifesting through proxy war created a safe-haven for the group that became a nightmare for civilians across the region. In the 90’s Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the group, enjoyed a significant support from Khartoum as retaliation to Kampala’s support for the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA). Little is known about the current structure and internal dynamics of the most absurd rebel group in the world. However, one thing that is known for certain is that it has no cause or political objective; it is a group by a bunch of bandits who kill men, rape women, abduct children and loot just to survive.
Although a combined and series of military operations by the government in Uganda and regional forces have effectively destroyed the permanent camps and logistical capacity of the LRA, it created a number of small, dispersed groups with no central command and communication.
Such attacks against the group were also always followed by a series of massive reprisal attacks by LRA against civilians. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands were displaced following the 1991 Operation North and the 2002 Operation Iron Fist led by the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force (UPDF) against the LRA bases in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan respectively.
In December 2008 the third major military campaign, Operation Lightning Thunder, was launched by the combined forces of Uganda, DRC and South Sudan on the LRA military bases in Garamba, DRC. The case was no different; the operation saw a hike in the brutal revenge attacks by scattered LRA remnants that resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 civilians, abductions and rapes of hundreds of children and women and displacement of hundreds of thousands civilians in the DRC and South Sudan.
Too short of a task force
In 2011 the Peace and Security Council of the African Union designated the group as a terrorist organization and authorized the establishment of a Regional Task Force (RTF) comprised of 5,000 soldiers from Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central Africa Republic (CAR). The mission went operational at the beginning of 2012 and in September 2012 it received 2,860 troops from Uganda, Central African Republic and South Sudan Army (SPLA). DRC is yet to send its soldiers. The headquarters of the RTF whose mandate include protection of civilians and hunting of the rebel fighters and leadership is based in Yambio, the provincial capital of South Sudan’s Western Equatorial state. However, as any typical African led peace keeping forces in Africa, RTF suffers from luck of funds, troops and logistics. The vast and challenging terrain and poor and bad political relations between countries of the region mean less coordination and more bureaucracy affecting timely and free movement of the RTF.
Member states of the RTF have other serious security priorities too; DRC, CAR and South Sudan are suffering from ongoing clashes with their own rebel groups. There is a high possibility that the LRA could take advantage of the escalating security problem in eastern DRC in recent weeks, which resulted in a change of priority by the government in Kinshasa and redeployment of the DRC troops from the LRA affected region to the rebel M-23 controlled areas; Kinshasa also accuses Kampala of supporting the mutiny. The recent gains by Seleka rebel coalition in eastern CAR will also divert the focus of Bangui from the LRA issue; the newest state in the world, South Sudan, also has other security priorities related to its relations with Khartoum and the difficult task of disarmament and fighting the numerous rebel groups; and Kampala is less focused owing to its mission to Somalia.
So far the AUC-coordinated regional military initiative did not reduce attacks by the LRA on civilians. According to the LRA Crisis Tracker, in 2012 alone the LRA has committed more than 260 attacks on civilians and abducted over 400 people including 91 children. In one of the high profile incidents, in September 2012, the brutal terrorist group attacked the town of Bangassou in Central African Republic and abducted 49 people. In comparison, in 2011 LRA conducted around 270 attacks against civilians. According to a 2011 UN report, attacks by the group have so far displaced over 440,000 people in Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
The group which is at a de-escalation and abatement phase still continues hiding and attacking weak and isolated communities in remote ungoverned areas largely beyond the scope of state authorities and security presence. According to latest estimates the numbers of LRA fighters vary anywhere between 300 to 400 armed rebels and 500 to 700 hundred women, children and recent abductees forced to work for the group. Military experts claim that it will be difficult to eliminate the group completely as it is dispersed across a region about half the size of France. The LRA fighters are comfortable in a vast jungle environment and rely on primitive methods to survive; killing elephants in the Garamba National Park of north eastern DRC and illegal ivory trade among others.
Some intelligence reports claim that Joseph Kony is in Sudan possibly in Darfur sheltered by the Janjawed militia or some elements in the Sudanese armed forces, making him out of reach of the regional force. If the allegations are true they will further complicate regional efforts to combat the group and require immediate steps to gain the cooperation of the Sudanese government.
Regional governments and the AU should ultimately focus on addressing reconstruction and development of the region which is at the core of the crisis. For the time being more troops and coordination is needed to fight the elusive group effectively. Renewing the mandates of UN Mission in DRC, CAR, South Sudan and Darfur to meaningfully join the fight against the group could also help reduce attacks on civilians while enhancing campaigns to encourage defections of LRA fighters that will eventually weaken the group.
Working to eliminate a Devil’s Resistance Army, as it should deservedly be called, need a ‘devilish’ military and diplomatic tactics.