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After Operation Lightning Thunder: Protecting communities and building peace

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By Mareike Schomerus and Kennedy Tumutegyereize


Operation Lightning Thunder

The military offensive known as Operation Lightning Thunder, launched on 14 December 2008, marked the end of two years of peace negotiations between the Lord's Resistance Army's (LRA) and the Ugandan government. The Ugandan army, in partnership with the forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Southern Sudan and supported by the United States, carried out aerial bombing of the main LRA camp in Garamba Park in the DRC, followed by a three month ground offensive.

Between 2006 and 2008, a set of agreements were negotiated between the Ugandan government and the LRA, under the mediation and facilitation of the Southern Sudan government in Juba. But the Final Peace Agreement (FPA), pulling together five separately signed agreements, was never signed amid the increased insecurity and violence. LRA leader Joseph Kony failed to turn up to scheduled signing ceremonies, first in April and then in November 2008.

Billed as a strategy to force Kony to sign the FPA, Operation Lightning Thunder destroyed the LRA base camp and scattered the LRA over the DRC, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). The Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) started withdrawing from the operation in mid-March 2009, handing over to the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC). The operation was declared a success that had significantly weakened the LRA's command structure, led to the rescue of about 300 civilians and the killing of about 150 LRA. While the official objectives - to make Kony sign, or to capture or kill LRA soldiers - were only partially achieved, it remains to be seen how much the LRA's central command has been hurt. Few senior LRA figures were captured and Joseph Kony remains at large.


Security on both sides of the DRC/Sudan border worsened during the second quarter of 2008. Increased LRA activity was reported, including attacks and abductions. In June, when military chiefs from Southern Sudan, Uganda and the DRC were planning strategies for military cooperation, the LRA attacked the southern Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) stationed near the LRA assembly site in Ri-Kwangba. Civilians in the DRC suffered increased LRA attacks in the provinces closer to the border.

Since the onset of Operation Lightning Thunder security for most people living in the area has deteriorated. When the LRA camp was bombed, LRA fighters scattered in small groups in Sudan and DRC and continued to attack. On Christmas Day the LRA launched several coordinated massacres in Congolese towns. In total, it is estimated that more than 1000 civilians1 have been killed and several hundred abducted by the LRA since they increased their violent activities in 2008.


Operation Lightning Thunder commenced without clear arrangements for adequate civilian protection and civilians have borne the brunt of the operation. Tens of thousands of Congolese and Sudanese have been displaced fleeing possible attacks. In the DRC, citizens either flee to major towns or across the border to Sudan. Thousands of Sudanese have left their villages along the border and are seeking shelter and security in major towns. Yet even in towns protection is limited: it is unclear whether any army was specifically assigned protection duties. The United Nations Organization Mission in DRC (MONUC) lacks sufficient troops to provide protection to civilians on an appropriate scale.

There appears to have been no coordinated effort between the different national armies to protect civilians and a significant gap between what they officially agreed and how this played out on the ground. Although official cooperation between the three armies was announced in mid-2008, SPLA mid-level commanders claim they were sidelined in the operational planning and were thus unwilling to support it from the Sudanese side. The FARDC, having taken over fully from the UPDF in mid-March, lack capacity due to unrest in the Kivu regions. During the operation, the UPDF's focus was clearly on fighting the LRA, rather than assigning manpower to civilian protection.

Humanitarian situation

The humanitarian situation has been equally devastating. With tens of thousands displaced, often in extremely difficult territory at the start of the rainy season, delivering humanitarian aid has been challenging. Lack of food and basic services will become even more pronounced: citizens have been unable to tend their fields due to the insecurity so local authorities expect severe food shortages in the coming months.

While the goal of the military operation was to rescue as many people as possible from the LRA, few provisions have been made to cater for those that return, including young women with children from LRA soldiers. Secure shelter and reliable mechanisms for tracing family members and preparing families for reintegration are needed.

Community militarization

Most communities along the border have set up civilian defence groups as a direct consequence of the increased insecurity. Armed with anything from bows and arrows to AK-47s, these groups patrol the streets and villages, at times with support from local army bases. Communities see a need to provide their own protection since they do not expect to be protected by national or international troops. While stressing the importance of community self-defence, some local authorities and community leaders have expressed concern this will lead to renewed militarization and a change in local power structures that could have a damaging long-term effect on peacebuilding.

Prospects for a resolution to the conflict

The peace talks in Juba are over, despite the fact a finished negotiated agreement lies unsigned on the table. Yet the military operation has also failed to end the conflict and force LRA to sign the FPA. In the DRC and Southern Sudan, the LRA threat to civilians is now greater than before. It is unlikely that military force will result in any deal being signed, and any trust that was built between the negotiating parties in Juba - however fragile - has gone. This has caused local frustration with the military attempt to end the conflict, and has made reviving a political process and establishing channels of communication with the LRA more difficult. The recognition that the LRA conflict is part of the complex web of violent political conflicts and conflicts in the Uganda, Sudan and DRC border regions is an essential step towards protecting the civilian populations of these areas.

There are other obstacles. During the Juba negotiations, the LRA delegation was largely drawn from the Acholi diaspora and serious rifts developed, repeatedly undermining the process. The legacy of international involvement presents further challenges. The intense international involvement, unprecedented in previous initiatives, had contradictory effects. On one hand, it made the peace talks possible through international funding and advocacy for a political solution. On the other, it created a tremendously complex environment that was hard for the LRA to navigate. For example, the LRA was required to trust various actors, some with very conflicting views on international justice system. The obstacles created by the complex international machinery can be overcome by a smaller, civil society driven process.

A new approach to a conflict resolution is urgently necessary to avoid a prolonged low-level military campaign that causes extreme insecurity for civilians and again fails to end the LRA campaign. The recent rejuvenation of diplomatic cooperation between Kampala and Kinshasa provides new opportunities. This may be a starting point to a new regional approach to solving a conflict that now directly affects four countries and has destabilized the entire border region between Uganda, DRC, southern Sudan and the CAR.

Members of civil society in Sudan, DRC and Uganda are calling for increased regional cooperation that includes civil society in order to restart a political process and communication with LRA leaders. Community leaders stress a comprehensive approach to conflict resolution is needed since all affected areas suffer parallel violent conflicts. A consistent and inclusive political process across regional borders is necessary to bring regional peace and security.