For 30 years, Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been spreading appalling terror in northern Uganda, eastern Central African Republic (CAR), western South Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
By some estimates, the LRA has killed 100 000 people, displaced about two million, and raped, mutilated or abducted countless others. This includes many children, who have been forced to become soldiers or sex slaves for LRA fighters.
Its barbaric methods include dismembering its victims and slashing off noses, lips, ears and limbs. Yet Kony – a self-styled Christian mystic – has somehow eluded death or capture.
His arch-enemy, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, threw everything at the LRA, eventually driving it out of its birthplace in northern Uganda in 2006. But the LRA spread into neighbouring countries. Its fortunes then waxed and waned, according to regional politics.
At its peak between 1987 and 2006, the LRA had about 20 000 fighters in the field.
That was when Sudan was almost certainly lending it considerable support to counter Uganda’s backing of Khartoum’s foe, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – now South Sudan’s ruling party.
Since then, Kony and the LRA have suffered several setbacks, perhaps most significantly the formal resolution of the conflict between Khartoum and Juba which ended some, but not all, of its critical support from Sudan.
In 2012, Uganda finally managed to persuade the African Union (AU) to declare the LRA a terrorist organisation – rather than the movement for the liberation of the Acholi people of northern Uganda, which it claimed to be.
That year, the AU also formed the Regional Coordination Initiative (RCI), a political instrument of the affected countries, and the Regional Task Force (RTF) – its military arm – to eliminate the LRA.
‘This 5 000-strong force, 40% of it Ugandan, and the rest contributed by CAR, DRC and South Sudan, has significantly weakened the LRA,’ Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said at a seminar there last week.
The RTF has garnered substantial international financial and material support, most notably from the United States Africa Command (US Africom), which has had about 100 troops in the field since 2011.
This combination of measures has substantially depleted the LRA. From 2010 to 2013, LRA attacks decreased from about 500 to 150-160 a year; killings from about 780 to under 40; and abductions from about 1 500 to about 500. Several key LRA commanders have been killed, captured or and scattered around the region, leaving Kony more isolated than ever.
But Ewi warned that the LRA was on the rise again, citing data from The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative. In 2015, the LRA had abducted 662 civilians and conducted 198 attacks, killing 14. Already this year it had carried out 200 attacks, abducted 679 people and killed 19.
He attributed the rise to the inadequate resources of the RTF, including insufficient training, equipment and inadequate intelligence capability.
‘Five thousand troops is not enough – given the territory it has to cover,’ Ewi said. But he also blamed a lack of common political purpose in the RCI, along with growing instability and chaos in the region, which provides cover for LRA activities.
Both US Africom and The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative have estimated that Kony now has under 200 fighters reporting to him; down from about 300 estimated by the United Nations in 2013, and a huge drop from the 20 000 believed to have been the LRA’s fighting strength between 1987 and 2006.
But Ewi warned that unless more support was thrown behind the RTF by the international community and by other AU countries, Kony and the LRA could regain their former numbers and strength. The Resolve does not quite agree that the LRA is ever likely to return to its peak strength. Nevertheless, in its latest report it warned that, ‘If given the chance, they are capable of … reconstituting their command structure and slowly training new recruits to replace lost fighters.’
In a briefing to the US Senate in March this year, Africom commander General David Rodriquez reported considerable progress in the fight against the LRA. But he also warned that while the LRA had lost at least 51 Ugandan combatants in the 20 months between November 2012 and June 2014, it had lost only nine in the 20 months between July 2014 and February 2016.
And Ewi said the recent sharp rise in abductions by the LRA suggested it was making a concerted effort to fill the gaps in its ranks by forced recruitment. He said the RTF needed greater intelligence capabilities – which he saw as the key to success – as well as more training, advanced equipment and financial support. The AU also needs to address the role of Sudan as the key political impediment to eliminating the LRA.
The Resolve has claimed that, ‘The military training, safe haven, weapons, and supplies the Sudanese government provided to the LRA from 1994–2004 were critical to the group’s growth into an increasingly deadly rebel force.’
Though Sudan’s support declined after that, with the progress of the Sudan-SPLM peace process, The Resolve says Sudan’s support has picked up again. Since 2010, the Sudan army has been giving Kony and his senior officers a safe haven in Kafia Kingi, the disputed Sudanese enclave in the corner where Sudan, South Sudan and CAR meet. This is where Kony trades poached ivory; which is one of his main sources of finance.
Khartoum also restricts access to the enclave for RTF troops. Khartoum’s recent support for the LRA is because of its arch-enemy, Kampala’s, support for South Sudan in continuing disputes with Sudan, says The Resolve.
An analyst who does not want to be named, agrees: ‘Khartoum has refused to coordinate with the Regional Task Force. In a number of incidents, they refused to give RTF access to Sudan to fish out LRA militants, who were believed to be in Sudan, including in Darfur.’
Given the difficulty of the military efforts to eliminate him, is it possible to contemplate a negotiated peace settlement with Kony?
Ewi thinks it should continue to be tried, though he cautions that two previous attempts, in 2005 and 2007, both failed because of the deep mistrust between Kony and his nemesis, Museveni. Kony basically demanded guarantees of a safe haven in a regional country, but so far none has been able to provide that guarantee. Right now, it is impossible to see Kony and Museveni living under one roof, no matter what guarantees are given, says Ewi.
And given the appalling nature of his atrocities and the fact that Kony is the first fugitive of the International Criminal Court, giving him sanctuary would be politically and legally unpalatable to many.
A heavy burden nonetheless rests on the AU to end the scourge of Kony and the LRA. Apart from beefing up the military powers of the RTF, the AU should clearly exert all of its political leverage to ensure Khartoum no longer supports them. That could just prove to be the decisive factor in ending one of Africa’s longest-running and almost-forgotten conflicts.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant