NAIROBI, Kenya — “I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge,” said Hillary Clinton in February, dismayed and perplexed at why the Lord’s Resistance Army is still spilling blood on the soil of central Africa. The question troubles many a sympathetic soul.
It is more than 20 years since Joseph Kony first inspired some ethnic Acholis to take up arms against the Ugandan government. Now, a multi-national band of guerrillas, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is killing, mutilating and abducting unprotected civilians in three central African countries. It is high time to look carefully at what makes the LRA tick and think of new ways to end this sad saga.
Talking did not work. Throughout the two-year negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, it is doubtful whether Kony or the Ugandan government were ever committed to finding a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution. The LRA was happy to play ball and in return have supplies delivered to the camp gates in Garamba Park, northeastern Congo.
All the while, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was itching to unleash his army on Kony again. The latter’s refusal to sign the final agreement was the green light Museveni had been waiting for. With the hard-won consent of his Congolese and Sudanese neighbors, Museveni, with substantial U.S. support, launched Operation Lightning Thunder in December 2008.
A surprise airstrike on Kony’s camp was supposed to be the grand finale with Museveni’s son leading a special forces clean-up. But leaked intelligence lost them the element of surprise, and the crack troops were too late to stop Kony and his top commanders melting into the forest.
The attack did little more than kick the hornet’s nest. Kony’s men massacred nearly 900 civilians in four weeks as a bloody show of strength. Then, his small, highly mobile squads spread out north and west in the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In tried-and-tested fashion they are now pillaging villages and collecting new recruits. A traumatic concoction of violence and “magic” keeps frightened children in line.
Unintentionally, the Ugandan army has found itself waging a drawn-out campaign of attrition over a vast area at immense cost. The Americans seem happy to foot the bill, but for how long? After over a year, the army’s claims that the LRA is at death’s door ring increasingly hollow.
The Ugandans and their U.S. advisers think killing Kony will decapitate the LRA — game over. The military and spiritual leader’s charisma has certainly played a part in the LRA’s endurance. But the LRA’s recent surge in violence is on cruise-control, since Americans’ audio-intercept gadgets make it dangerous for Kony to communicate with his men. He’s been running north, even allegedly as far as southern Darfur, while splinter groups have been massacring elsewhere with no need of their leader’s encouragement.
Further, Kony’s LRA grew from the ashes of the equally pestilent Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. Once Kony is gone, there is every possibility someone else will take up the torch.
The LRA’s survival is just as much a symptom of state failure. In this vast ungoverned border territory, the security forces of all three countries are simply too weak or too far away to stop the slaughter. An effective strategy must take this into account and focus on three priorities.
First, civilians must be protected. Besides the moral imperative, protecting villagers is crucial to deny the LRA new recruits and safeguard the army’s best source of intelligence. More U.N. peacekeepers and national forces should deploy to patrol villages and frequently used routes day and night. They should help improve roads and put in place human rights monitoring mechanisms.
Second, national armies, the U.N. missions in the Congo and Sudan and civilians should better coordinate their efforts within and across national boundaries. They need to combine counter-insurgency and peacekeeping tactics in innovative ways. For instance, local administrators should register members of existing civilian self-defense groups, agree in writing on their specific tasks, and plan and monitor group activities carefully.
Third, national authorities need to take ownership of the fight. Once the army has bagged Kony, Kampala will probably call off the hunt, and the U.N. will leave sooner or later. Building state institutions is the only way to ward against LRA remnants or any other rogue threats in the longterm.
Hillary Clinton has good reason to wonder at the LRA’s longevity. More than 20 years in the bush is an impressive feat. To stop the nightmare lasting even longer, we must see steps to move beyond the manhunt and tackle the underlying problem of state failure in this forgotten heart of Africa.
Thierry Vircoulon is Central Africa Project Director of the International Crisis Group, which has just released the report LRA: A Regional Strategy beyond Killing Kony.