(JoelAnthonyValdez March 13, 2012)
For nigh on three decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army, popular by its more infamous acronym LRA, has terrorised the people of northern Uganda, north eastern DRC (the Democratic Republic of Congo), south western CAR (the Central African Republic) and South Sudan. According to the BBC, the rebel group has caused the death of 100,000 people, and abducted as many, since its formation in 1987 by Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed mystic.
The brutal marks of its insurgency can be found in the homes and bodies of countless people who have been abducted, raped, mutilated, forced into sex slavery or commandeered into becoming child soldiers. Almost two million have been displaced as a result of the conflict, and now dwell in camps that afford them some of the most miserable conditions on the planet.
Early this month, the campaign group LRA Crisis Tracker reported that the group seems to be more active than in the recent past. The latest statistics on its website indicate that a string of 53 attacks, mostly in the Central African Republic, involved the death of 6 civilians and the abduction of 282 more so far this year. That’s more than double the abductions in the same period last year, and constitutes more than a third of all the abductions the group has carried out since the beginning of last year.
The spike, modest though it seems in hard numbers, is significant. It indicates that the group, which has for the past few years been in the crosshairs of a concerted international military collaboration aimed at neutralising it, is still potent and might actually be rebuilding itself. In fact, modesty of this kind is the strength of the LRA. The group, despite its historically limited numbers, estimated to be 650 at its most stable, at one time created a disproportional reign of terror in the regions in which it held sway.
In most of the recent attacks, the rebels loot basic commodities like food, water and communications equipment. The cause of concern is the increase in civilian abductions, both of children and adults. This is reason enough to fear that the group is preparing to fight back, and is building itself for just that purpose by getting more children to use as child soldiers, sex slaves and porters, replenishing its withering ranks. If this is the case, then the battle against the rebel group is far from won.
How Kony has evaded capture all these years is now the stuff of legend. Many books about the man, including “The Wizard of the Nile” and “Aboke Girls”, as well as news features, rely on the witness of his victims and escapees rather than from direct experience with the man himself. Few have really met him just for the sake of meeting.
But the real reason behind his elusiveness is more complex than just his skill in disappearing into the bush almost as soon as he comes out of it, or his claims of being a spirit medium. For one, the Ugandan government doesn’t seem sufficiently intent on peacefully ending the conflict. It has, from the very beginning, fought the LRA militarily.
Every now and then, when the group’s unspeakable brutality exceeds its own limits and the international community issues an outcry, new efforts are made at talking. Then the talks collapse for some reason or other, and the parties go back to fighting.
Several times in the past, Kony’s group has indicated willingness to make a peace deal. Most times, the price is amnesty. But the International Criminal Court has declined to withdraw its arrest warrants against the man and his collaborators. The Ugandan government referred the group to the ICC in 2003. The court’s first ever arrest warrants were issued against Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti (his deputy), Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen, both top LRA commanders, in 2005.
Of these, only David Ongwen is so far under trial, after his surrender last year. A number of influential people, including a contingent of religious leaders from the ethnic group in which the LRA has its roots, the Acholi of northern Uganda, have protested the prosecution of Ongwen, stating that he is himself a victim and ought not be punished twice. It must be noted that asking the court to withdraw the charges wouldn’t leave a judicial vacuum, since the Acholi have a method of reconciliation, called Mato Oput, which might actually hold the secret to bringing the conflict to a peaceful end.
Yet despite his increasing criticism of the ICC as anti-Africa, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni hasn’t made any move to ask the court to withdraw its charges, and has hardly protested the prosecution of Ongwen. Given reports by various bodies that his government’s military is in the hunt for Kony for reasons other than the capturing the renegade, and has acted with almost equal brutality in the effort, then his apparent silence on the matter might be more sinister than simple hypocrisy.
This casts doubts on the effectiveness and sincerity of the whole regional effort to bring the LRA issue to closure. The 5000-strong Uganda-led taskforce has soldiers from the DRC, South Sudan and the CAR. All of these are countries with histories of military-instigated human rights abuses and looting of natural resources. The assistance they get from 100 special soldiers from the US is unlikely to change that. The force’s biggest weakness is that it is military, and is motivated by a woeful misunderstanding of the rebel group it targets.
So far, it has managed to kill a number of the LRA’s top command, and defections have weakened the group, leaving it with a few hundred fighters. But Kony remains on the run. And now he is probably regrouping and rebuilding in the CAR, a country where a recent religious civil war has created an instability that is just right for the gestation of rebel groups and looting by foreign militaries.
All this time, despite the resilience of the people and indications that the war-ravaged areas are attempting to rebuild themselves, the north of Uganda remains marginalised by a government deliberately developing only its south and west, inflamed by historical ethnic biases; one of the main factors that led to the formation of the LRA in the first place. In the north, many people live in camps, and the mortality rates for both children and adults are at scandalous levels. Violence is a byword in relationships, and hopelessness is never far from the minds of the people.
If no effort is made to understand the LRA and make the region less suitable for the growth of such insurgencies, then the group is set to continue leaving a trail of pain and loss all over the lush forests of Central Africa. And if the military effort to root it out succeeds, slim though the chances seem, then the way will probably have been paved for another of many armed rebel groups to take its place.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.