Opinion: Sudan and the Lord’s Resistance Army

WASHINGTON — The Lord’s Resistance Army remains the deadly, desperate bane of civilians in central Africa.

Led by self-anointed messiah and wanted war criminal Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has a long and notorious reputation as one of the most brutal militia groups in operation. As much as we might hope that the LRA’s reign of terror has come to an end, the
gruesome group persists even as it comes under increasing military pressure from Ugandan forces chasing the LRA into eastern Congo and the Central African Republic. The Obama administration may yet play a key role in determining whether this lethal game of cat and mouse comes to an end.

The depravity of the LRA in action is difficult to describe. In just three days in December, an LRA attack — a massacre, really — in northeastern Congo killed more than 320 civilians, as the group kidnapped more than 250 other people, including 80 children. The LRA has long relied on children as conscripts and sexual slaves for the group’s leadership. Most of those killed were in this particular attack were bound and savagely beaten or hacked to death. A number of
women had their lips cut off in the attack.

This makes it all the more concerning that the LRA has again been active in both South Sudan and the Darfur region of west Sudan in recent months. With the recent national election behind it, President Bashir may again feel empowered to more broadly use proxy forces to sew mayhem in both Darfur and the South. Bashir will likely use the national elections, which were neither free nor fair, to claim greater "legitimacy." With that box checked, Bashir and his party colleagues will likely return to business as usual.

The LRA has long enjoyed the patronage of the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir (who is also a wanted war criminal). Although this support was far more direct and substantial during the earlier North-South war in Sudan, where the North found the LRA as a highly useful proxy force, it is entirely possible that President Bashir is again eager to play his LRA card against his enemies. It is clear that the LRA would not enter into Darfur without out some advance coordination and planning with the Sudanese government, and Kony’s troops know full well that the Ugandan army could not follow them into Darfur without sparking a much wider conflict.

When the Enough Project broke the news that a contingent of LRA had moved into Darfur several weeks ago, the reaction from some quarters was predictable. President Museveni of Uganda indicated that his troops had told him directly that some of the LRA were moving in and out of Darfur. The Sudanese government dismissed the reports — just as they have downplayed virtually every report of their wrongdoing in Darfur. The New York Times, based on its own independent field reporting, confirmed that the LRA was transiting in and out of Darfur.

The U.S. government initially offered a somewhat bland “we can neither confirm nor deny” when pressed for a response on the LRA in Darfur question by journalists. The U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, had previously been firm in denying any
ongoing links between the Sudanese government and the LRA. At a recent Congressional hearing, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) pushed the senior U.S. diplomat in charge of African affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, as to whether this was still the administration’s belief.

Carson went out of his way to note that the LRA has become increasingly dispersed as it has faced mounting military pressure, and argued that Kony has been as elusive to the Ugandan military as Osama bin Laden has been to the U.S. military. Carson maintained that he had
not seen credible reports indicating a revived linkage between the LRA and the Sudanese government, instead saying that “what we have heard and seen are things that are very, very fragmentary and circumstantial.” The answer felt like a hedge. Congressman Royce got
the situation exactly right in his follow-up when he noted, that if “a contingent of the LRA that has taken refuge there in an area controlled by the regime, let’s make sure that Sudan doesn’t give this organization room to breath, because in the past it has.”

The U.S. has offered key support for the Ugandan military as it has tried to hunt down Kony and his troops. The LRA reprisals that have taken place during this military campaign have taken a terrible toll on civilians, but further and more effective U.S. support could continue to run down the LRA.

The U.S. is also facing a Sudan that will likely split in two with an independence referendum for South Sudan in January 2011. So the administration faces a watershed moment with regard to both the LRA and Sudan. Will the administration be honest with itself, with Congress and the world if it indeed has evidence that Kony and Bashir are again acting in concert? The jury is still out.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Enough Project.