Dominic Ongwen's Domino Effect
Since founding the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda in the late 1980s, Joseph Kony’s control over the group’s command structure has been remarkably durable. Despite having no formal military training, he has motivated and ruled LRA members with a mixture of harsh discipline, incentives, and clever manipulation. When necessary, he has demoted or executed dozens of commanders that he perceived as threats to his power.
Though Kony still commands the LRA, the weakening of his grip over the group’s command structure has been exposed by a dramatic series of events involving former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen. In late 2014, a group of Ugandan LRA officers, including Ongwen, began plotting to defect from the LRA. In November 2014, Achaye Doctor, a longtime LRA officer and one of Ongwen’s co-conspirators, orchestrated the escape of nine Ugandan fighters, while Ongwen remained in an LRA group under Kony’s command. Suspecting Ongwen had played a role in Achaye’s duplicity, Kony ordered Ongwen beaten and held in detention, only to see him escape weeks later with the help of LRA members sympathetic to his plight. Soon after defecting, Ongwen was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he is currently on trial for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As Ongwen’s fate unfolded, Achaye Doctor’s group established a camp in a remote forested region of Bas Uele province in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Instead of surrendering, they began operating as a splinter LRA group, abducting Congolese boys to strengthen their fighting capacity and acquiring weaponry in an ambush of a Congolese military unit. In 2016, they shifted their operations into neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), where they abducted dozens of civilians, including 15 children. Though it is not uncommon for LRA groups to operate without direct contact from Kony’s chain of command for extended periods of time, Achaye’s group is the first to intentionally operate independently from Kony’s control and self-identify as a splinter group.
The Ongwen saga’s ripple effect highlighted and exacerbated fault lines in the LRA command structure that had been simmering for years. Kony’s harsh punishment of loyal LRA officers for infractions of the group’s code of conduct, which included his execution of at least five combatants in 2012 and 2013, had sparked disillusionment within the LRA ranks long before his punishment of Ongwen in 2014. Kony’s grip on the LRA had also been weakened by a series of military operations led by Ugandan and US troops that killed several high-profile LRA commanders in 2012 and 2013.
Internal threats to Kony’s rule continued after the defection of Ongwen and the departure of Achaye’s group. In May 2015, seven LRA bodyguards assigned to protect Kony and his inner circle defected, boldly but unsuccessfully trying to kill Kony as they did so. At least one of them had been involved in the Ongwen defection plot the previous year. In January 2016, Kony executed Jon Bosco Kibwola, an LRA commander who had killed a Sudanese trader, prompting another long-time bodyguard, Okot Odek, to defect.
Kony is a seasoned survivor, and his resilience should not be underestimated. Despite the recent threats to his authority, he has managed to prevent a majority of remaining LRA combatants from defecting. Loyal LRA commanders continue to carry out difficult missions on his command, including long treks to DRC’s Garamba National Park to poach elephants and collect ivory. Adding to violence perpetrated by Achaye’s group, Kony also ordered the forced recruitment of dozens of children during a surge of LRA attacks in eastern CAR in 2016, the group’s most violent since 2010.
The fracturing of the LRA’s command structure has important implications for the future of counter-LRA initiatives, emphasizing the need for improved civilian protection mechanisms and more effective defection messaging and reintegration programs. The decision of Achaye and his followers to remain active and continue targeting civilians despite being independent of Kony tests long-held assumptions that killing or capturing the LRA leader would lead to a swift dissolution of the rebel group. Unless defection messaging and reintegration programs targeting LRA combatants improve, Kony’s death or capture may instead lead to the creation of more LRA splinter groups that threaten civilians in eastern CAR and northern DRC.
Ugandan troops deployed in eastern CAR have led counter-LRA operations in recent years with substantial US support, including President Barack Obama’s deployment of dozens of US Special Forces advisers in 2011. Ugandan and US military offensives and defection messaging have helped reduce the number of LRA combatants from approximately 400 in 2010 to less than 150 today, but the effectiveness of military operations and the pace of LRA combatant defections has waned considerably since mid-2014.
The future of the US–Ugandan counter-LRA partnership is also in flux. The Ugandan military is the only force in the region currently capable of pursuing Kony and the LRA, but Ugandan officials have announced plans to withdraw their troops from eastern CAR in 2017. President Obama made his counter-LRA strategy a priority within his broader agenda in Africa, but it is unclear whether the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump will reauthorize the deployment of US military advisers or continue funding defection messaging initiatives. Should the Ugandan and US governments scale back their counter-LRA efforts, more pressure will be placed on national militaries and UN peacekeeping missions in CAR and DRC to protect civilians from the LRA, a responsibility they are currently ill-prepared to assume.
The splintering of the LRA, while undermining its chances of long-term survival, makes the group a more dangerous menace to civilians in the short-term. Whether the LRA is soon disbanded or is able to sustain itself—or even rebuild into the future—will likely depend on whether the international community can exploit the fault lines within the LRA’s command structure so clearly exposed by Dominic Ongwen.