CAR + 3 more

CENTRAL AFRICA: Region struggles to counter LRA threat

Originally published
October 20, 2010

EVENT: The African Union reported on October 16 that Central African countries were working to ensure that the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), is classified as a terrorist organisation.

SIGNIFICANCE: Displaced from northern Uganda, the LRA has for more than two years been a persistent threat to civilians in neighbouring Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

ANALYSIS: In December 2008, the Ugandan Army (UPDF) launched operation "Lightning Thunder" against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Following the collapse of protracted peace negotiations, the operation aimed at a final defeat of the group. However, the operation was beset by logistical and other problems, and most LRA fighters were able to escape the initial assault.

Throughout the first half of 2009, the UPDF deployed increasing numbers of troops to the operation, supported by the Congolese Army (FARDC), the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the UN Mission to the Congo and the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). From September 2009, these operations were increasingly concentrated in the Central African Republic (CAR), into which LRA leader Joseph Kony himself had fled in February 2009.

Military pressure. By late 2009, the UPDF and its allies had begun to score some significant successes against Kony's men. Several senior leaders were captured or killed, including Bok Abudema (third in command) and Okot Atiak (one of Kony's most senior commanders). Kony himself was nearly captured in an operation in October 2009.

The removal of these commanders from the battlefield -- all of them members of Kony's own ethnic group -- did much to weaken the organisation's command structure, not least because Kony appears not to have replaced them. Following a long-established pattern, Kony has generally refused to promote LRA rank and file -- a majority of whom are abducted child soldiers -- to command roles, preferring instead to reserve these for his most trusted ethnic associates.

Negative consequences. However, the operation also had negative repercussions:

1. Civilian casualties. While the operation put the LRA to flight, they also resulted in Kony's men carrying out predations on surrounding civilian populations (as the weakened group looked to loot supplies, and to bolster their ranks through the forced recruitment of additional child soldiers):

In one attack in December 2009, LRA fighters killed an estimated 345 civilians over four days in Haut-Uele district (in north-eastern DRC), in the largest single massacre in the group's 23-year long insurgency.

By March 2010, LRA units were carrying out raids on civilian targets every few days or so, such that by August 2010, it was estimated than in the preceding 18 months, the group had killed as many as 2,000 civilians (which would be the bloodiest 18 months in the LRA's history).

In addition, its had abducted at least 1,600 more, and displaced 300,000 -- creating a humanitarian emergency across a large region of eastern DRC, in particular.

2. Decentralised units. Military pressure did disrupt the LRA's command-and-control structures. In addition to losing key commanders, sometime in early-2009 Kony was forced to stop using his satellite phone, on the basis that it could be easily tracked by AFRICOM.

However, by mid-2010 the group had re-established some sort of organisational coherence, especially by moving to a 'zonal' mode of operation. Each remaining LRA commander was allocated a particular zone in which he could operate without requiring further authorisation from Kony:

Eastern CAR. Kony's brother David Olanya, Binasio Okumu and Acellam Smart were given areas of operation in Maboussou-Gambala, Obo and Upper Mbomou, respectively.

North-eastern DRC. General Dominic Ongwen was granted the countryside around Niangara Town in Haut-Uele.

Operating as independent units, the LRA became much more difficult to disrupt than it had been previously. By comparison, at the start of Lightning Thunder, almost the entire LRA force had been camped in one locality, in a series of camps in the Garamba National Park, DRC. In addition, the LRA was now able to conduct operations over a much wider area than would previously have been possible. By mid-2010, the LRA's attacks were being carried out across a wide range, spanning Orientale Province in DRC, Western Equatoria in Southern Sudan and eastern CAR -- with a number of attacks occurring as far north as the Chad border.

CAR complications. The UPDF force that had been posted to the CAR has run into a number of problems of its own:

Multiple militia. In May 2010, it was revealed that as many as 58 soldiers, an entire squad from the UPDF's Third Battalion, had been wiped out in an ambush north of Djemah. It was initially assumed that the LRA had carried out the ambush. However, further evidence suggested that it might have been carried out by another militia group entirely -- possibly even by a group of 'Janjaweed' fighters from Darfur. The incident highlighted that in the more remote, and lawless, regions of eastern CAR, the LRA is not the only militia with whom the UPDF must contend.

Ugandan elections. In June, Kampala announced that it would be withdrawing 1,000 of the approximately 7,000 troops initially sent to CAR, and redeploying them to Karamoja in north-eastern Uganda. This move raised the prospect of further troop reductions, as President Yoweri Museveni seeks to bolster security back home ahead of the February 2011 elections.

Infighting. In mid-2010, it emerged that the UPDF force in CAR had been hit by a wave of infighting. The force commander, Colonel Emmanuel Rwashande was eventually replaced by Colonel Peter Elwelu (who had previously commanded African Union troops in Somalia) in a disagreement of strategy. The UPDF contingent in CAR also suffered from tensions between its officers (who are mostly from south-western Uganda), and its ordinary cadres (a significant number of whom are themselves demobilised LRA fighters, and therefore mostly ethnic Acholi from northern Uganda).

LRA resurgent. By September, the LRA had become sufficiently confident in its position that it reportedly was beginning to make contact with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) -- the army that had equipped them throughout their long-running insurgency in northern Uganda. If true, these reports suggest that Kony -- who is reported to be in Darfur -- is positioning the LRA to benefit in the context of renewed tension between the regime in Khartoum the SPLA in Southern Sudan related to the referendum on southern self-determination, set for January 2011.

The LRA may also be in contact with a CAR militia, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), another long established proxy of Khartoum. One report in late September suggested that the LRA may have clashed with the UFDR in an earlier attack on the mining town of Sam-Ouandjia (in Chad). However, it now appears that the two groups are preparing for some sort of alliance. This would present a new challenge for the UPDF operation, given the wealth of fighting experience, and sophisticated weaponry, upon which the UFDR can draw.

CONCLUSION: With a less unified command-and-control structure, the LRA insurgency will continue to have dire humanitarian consequences across a wide range of Central Africa, although northern Uganda itself is less at risk. Regional efforts to coordinate military action against the LRA, even with backing from AFRICOM and the UN, will struggle to produce significant victories in the near term. The Southern Sudanese referendum in January and Ugandan elections in February will complicate the regional response.

Oxford Analytica
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