On Point: Tracking Uganda's Lords Resistance Army: The Regional Context

by Austin Bay
October 18, 2011

For almost two decades, Joseph Kony, senior commander of the Ugandan rebel Lords Resistance Army, has practiced a peculiarly evil brand of the sociopathic warfare that curses central Africa.

Listing the horrors committed by Kony and his thugs numbs the mind, but also substantiates the case for dispatching U.S. special operations soldiers to help Ugandan forces combat the killers. The very public deployment of such a small but technically capable U.S. force also sends a diplomatic signal. There are bad actors in central and east Africa who benefit from violent instability throughout the region -- bad actors who encourage and seed LRA-style vicious anarchy.

The LRA's documented crimes include gang rape, child abduction, sexual slavery, rampant looting and physical mutilation (with machetes the preferred instrument) of the living and the dead. LRA cadres have murdered villagers in four different African countries -- Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Africa's newest independent nation, South Sudan. In 2005, the International Criminal Court indicted Kony on 33 criminal counts. Since 2008, the LRA has been implicated in the deaths of another 2,500 to 3,000 people in central Africa.

This desperately poor territory is savaged by wars that have international political, religious, economic and tribal dimensions. Here is an indicative but incomplete sketch of the turmoil.

South Sudan formally separated from Sudan (Khartoum government, the north) in July. Despite international peacekeeping forces, Khartoum's Islamist government and South Sudan are fighting a slow war over the disputed border areas. It is a continuation of their long civil war, in which Uganda and Kenya favored the south. South Sudan is predominantly Christian or animist black African, the north predominantly Muslim and Arab or Arabized.

The LRA has roots in Uganda's civil war, which erupted as Muslim dictator Idi Amin's regime collapsed in 1979. Many Acholi tribesmen in north Uganda distrusted the new government established by Yoweri Museveni (who remains Uganda's president). An Acholi-backed guerrilla group called the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces formed in the late 1980s. In 1993, the LRA emerged, with Kony as its leader. The LRA provided the Khartoum government with a convenient proxy army to counter Uganda's support for southern Sudanese guerrillas.

In 1999, Sudan and Uganda agreed to end support for rebel organizations (ie, the LRA in Sudan's case, the southern Sudanese rebels in Uganda's case). Khartoum let Ugandan forces pursue the LRA into its territory.

Since 2003, the LRA has diminished in size, shrinking from several thousand fighters to a remnant band of some 200. Its ferocity, however, has not diminished, nor its capacity for bloodshed, nor its potential usefulness to Khartoum.

The Ugandan government has accused Khartoum of continuing to secretly provide support for Kony, though no one has publicly produced hard evidence of Sudanese complicity. Yet Kony has shown an uncanny ability to evade capture. That suggests he has high-level intelligence sources. Khartoum is a terrorist facilitator waging a genocidal war in its own Darfur region. South Sudan has repeatedly accused Sudan of inciting tribal wars with the goal of making South Sudan a failed state. The LRA's continuing existence contributes to South Sudan's instability.

Uganda may possibly have new intelligence regarding Kony's precise whereabouts. This would make an American-supported effort to end Kony's career quite timely. Removing the LRA scourge will improve security conditions in Congo's northeastern provinces and South Sudan. It will also remind Khartoum's leaders that fomenting chaos has consequences. Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, faces International Criminal Court war crimes charges for atrocities committed in Darfur. Kony's arrest might provide Bashir with a sudden dose of sobriety. 

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