War on LRA Rebels Loses Momentum
Efforts to defeat feared group run into trouble as regional governments fail to address threat.
By Barrett Holmes Pitner - International Justice - ICC
ACR Issue 300, 17 Aug 11
Amid concerns that efforts to flush out Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, are flagging, the international community is facing stark challenges to defeat the rebels as they continue to wreak havoc in the region.
Since the United States announced a long-awaited strategy to defeat the LRA and capture its leaders by bolstering the military effort in the region, Uganda has instead withdrawn 700 troops that were pursuing the rebels and curtailed funding for the operation.
“[The LRA] is not a threat to Uganda – not at all,” Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Uganda armed forces, told IWPR.
Starting in 1987, the LRA waged a brutal insurgent war in northern Uganda for two decades, leaving about 10,000 dead and two million people displaced, and abducting an estimated 60,000 children, many of them forced to become child soldiers.
Driven out of Uganda in 2008, the LRA relocated across the border in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where its members continue to attack and displace civilians and abduct children. The group ranges over a region the size of California, which is extremely difficult to navigate due to the lack of roads and communications.
Rebel commander, Joseph Kony, and other top leaders have been wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2005.
The US released a plan for dealing with the LRA in November 2010. Although Washington passed a bill formalising the strategy for fighting the rebels and protecting civilians, Congress has yet to agree to fund the plan.
The United Nations and the African Union have condemned recent attacks by the rebels. But no one has yet pledged any money to fund a military force capable of ending rebel attacks.
“Each of these bodies [UN, US, and African Union] is well meaning in wanting to do something. The problem is that they are not yet committing to dedicating the resources to actually put their plans into action,” Paul Ronan, co-founder of Resolve, a Washington-based advocacy group that campaigns for an end to LRA violence, told IWPR.
The region where the LRA now operates in DRC borders on the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and it is easy for the rebels to cross frontiers to conduct raids and evade capture. This is made easier by the fact that the national armies of these states and UN peacekeepers based in DRC do not have a mandate to enter other countries in hot pursuit. However, the Ugandan army is allowed to enter DRC territory to operate against the LRA.
“This triangle [DRC, CAR and South Sudan] is basically ungoverned territory,” said Thierry Vircoulon of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The rebels can stay there for a very long time.”
Vircoulon warns that the lapse in local governments’ attention on the LRA, coupled with the group’s shift to DRC, has given the force the opportunity to regroup and pose a more substantial threat to civilians.
“They’ve needed some sort of quiet time and they have been offered that quiet time,” he said.
Washington’s LRA strategy outlines measures to combat the rebels and apprehend leaders wanted by the ICC, while also protecting civilians and increasing humanitarian aid to communities affected by the violence.
US law prevents Washington from deploying troops on the ground in the region, but it intends to provide financial and tactical support to armies like those of Uganda and DRC. These local forces are crucial to the plan, particularly the Ugandan military, seen as the strongest army in the region.
The removal of Ugandan support “would be a major setback and would require a significant build-up in other regional forces which might take several years”, the US strategy states.
The US has consistently provided support to the Ugandan army’s war on the LRA – 33 million US dollars since 2008.
But the results have been mixed.
The US-backed Operation Lightning Thunder, conducted between December 2008 and March 2009, forced the LRA out of Uganda. But the group then embarked on a series of attacks in DRC and South Sudan, killing over 1,000 civilians.
In 2010, the US government committed 34 million dollars in humanitarian assistance to LRA-affected areas in DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
The US military’s Africa Command, AFRICOM, provides training for the UPDF and supplies it with equipment. It has also trained a battalion of DRC soldiers to fight the LRA, and is looking at how it can assist CAR and South Sudanese troops.
The central problem facing the US is that it has no say in whether the recipient states will use these resources to fight the LRA.
“We provide the training, enhance [armies’] professionalism and their capabilities,” a spokesperson for AFRICOM told IWPR. “We don’t direct [local governments]. It is their country. They determine how they want to apply that training and what they want to use it for.”
Although both the DRC and Ugandan militaries say they are keeping up their efforts to combat the rebels, observers are sceptical as to how committed they really are.
Experts say that now that the LRA is no longer inside Uganda, the government is focusing more on other domestic threats and on its military commitment to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
“For the Ugandan government, it is hard to see exactly what their interest is in maintaining a military operation against the LRA, but it is clear that their commitment has been waning over the past year and a half,” Ronan said.
Meanwhile, the authorities in DRC appear to be downplaying atrocities committed by the LRA, so that the US is likely to face a struggle persuading the government to go after the rebels.
“At the moment there are less than 100 LRA fighters in the DRC,” Colonel Célestin Ngeleka of the DRC armed forces told IWPR. “The core of their force has been neutralised.”
Colonel Ngeleka predicted that there would be no LRA fighters left in DRC by October this year.
Such claims are not supported by information from the ground. According to a July report by Oxfam, the LRA conducted 53 attacks in June alone, leading to 26 deaths and 23 kidnappings. In the first six months of 2011 approximately 45,000 civilians fled the LRA following a total of 158 attacks – 50 per cent more than in the whole of 2010.
“The governments of the areas that are being affected are downplaying the scale of the LRA violence,” said Ronan. “I think this makes it harder for the international community to do anything.”
Since 2009 UPDF forces in LRA affected areas have decreased nearly five-fold from 7,000 to only 1,500, according to estimates from Enough, an advocacy group that campaigns against genocide and crimes against humanity.
Despite the recent withdrawal of a 700-strong battalion, and with no additional funds being allocated to fight the LRA, the Ugandan army insists it is still committed to countering the rebels.
“Removing a battalion does not mean you have downgraded the priority or importance of the threat,” spokesman Kulayigye said. “We have ways of using our resources… the threat must be dealt with from the available resources.”
As regional and international efforts fail to make inroads against the LRA, experts are looking to the UN’s peacekeeping force in DRC, MONUSCO, to step up its efforts to protect civilians from attack.
The force has recently increased efforts to protect civilians in LRA-affected areas by deploying additional peacekeepers, yet analysts say more needs to be done.
MONUSCO is the UN’s second largest peacekeeping mission. But although 20 per cent of displaced people in DRC come from LRA-dominated areas, only five per cent of the force has been deployed to protect these parts of the country.
“MONUSCO has 19,000 peacekeeping troops of which less than a thousand are based in LRA affected areas,” said Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch. “They have peacekeepers in the area, but not nearly enough to adequately protect civilians, and not nearly enough to match the threat [posed] by the LRA.”
A MONUSCO source confirmed this, telling IWPR, “There is no particular focus on the LRA. We focus on all the armed groups in [DRC].”
Meanwhile other experts suggest a solution may lie in focusing on capturing top LRA commanders rather than seeking to defeat the entire rebel through a large scale military operation. Some believe a shift to using special forces to remove the rebel leadership could be a more effective way to stop the attacks.
“One can argue that removing leaders of certain rebel groups is a very appropriate action… as a measure to stop a conflict,” said David Donat Cattin, a legal expert from the international group Parliamentarians for Global Action.
“This is where the incentive should be for special troops who have the training to carry out this type of operation, because we are talking about an arrest operation, not simply talking about an attack and an elimination of the LRA.”
However, Donat Cattin questions whether either the will or the resources exist to launch such an operation.
“I really don’t believe that there is anybody who doesn’t want to arrest Kony. The issue is who’s taking the lead? Who has the ability to take the lead? Who has the skills to take the lead?”
Given this year’s increase in LRA attacks, and the group’s history of reappearing in new areas when it is forced into retreat elsewhere, analysts warn that the international community is at a crucial juncture and must deal with the rebels before they can regroup and become a potent force once again.
“At the moment the LRA are weakened. On the basis of troop numbers, they are numerically less now than they have ever been in their history,” van Woudenberg said. “Should that pressure be reduced, based on past history, this is a group that will re-grow, that will strengthen again.”
Barrett Holmes Pitner is an editorial intern in London.