NAIROBI, Kenya — With a campaign of kidnapping children to make them hardened soldiers or sex slaves, tactics including amputations, torture and the murders of entire villages, the Lord's Resistance Army has been a vicious, destabilizing force in central Africa for more than 20 years.
Under the cunning leadership of Joseph Kony, the LRA has evaded all efforts to eradicate it by the Ugandan army as well as the United Nations.
Now the LRA must also battle the efforts of the United States to disarm it. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a strategy aimed at ending the scourge of the LRA , notorious for abduction, rape, murder and pillage across a swath of central Africa.
Obama said the strategy “identifies priority actions related to protecting civilians and eliminating the threat posed by the LRA.” In a letter to U.S. Congressmen last week, Obama said it was necessary to bring, “political, economic, military, and intelligence support to bear in addressing the threat.”
Obama's priorities are to protect the civilians who are the main victims of LRA attacks, to capture or kill LRA leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, encourage defections by lower-ranking officers and foot soldiers, and increase aid to affected communities.
Advocacy groups welcomed the announcement which had been expected since May when Obama signed into law the "LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act" after hard lobbying by activists.
“President Obama’s team has done an admirable job in formulating a strategy and demonstrating commitment to address the LRA scourge, but the challenge now is to turn this piece of paper into improvements on the ground,” said Paul Ronan, director of Advocacy at Resolve, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Ronan called on Obama to match the words with “a significant boost in resources.”
Defeating the LRA will be difficult, because the LRA purposely targets communities in remote and marginalized areas.
Details are scarce in Obama's strategy but it does not appear that any U.S. troops will be sent to central Africa. Implementation of the White House plan will depend on funding but some aspects should be relatively inexpensive such as building telecommunications infrastructure — mobile phone and radio capacity — so that communities being targeted have a way of getting information out to the outside world.
Obama also suggested that it will be important to improve coordination of militaries in the region. Last month, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo agreed to form a joint military force to fight the militia.
In late 2008, U.S. military intelligence helped plan and organize attacks on the LRA but there was no indication that Obama is willing to put American boots on the ground to hunt down Kony.
The LRA rebellion began in northern Uganda in 1987. For more than 20 years the LRA has terrorized northern Uganda and fought a low-level war against President Yoweri Museveni’s army. During that time close to 2 million people have been forced from their homes, and perhaps as many as 70,000 children were abducted to fight in the rebel ranks or to be sex slaves to LRA commanders.
An end seemed near in 2006 when peace talks were hosted in Sudan but when negotiations collapsed in 2008 the LRA, pushed out of Uganda, began launching attacks in southern Sudan, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and southeastern Central African Republic.
In the last two years more than 2,000 people have been killed in LRA attacks and close to 3,000 have been abducted while a further 400,000 have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations and human rights researchers. In late March reports emerged of a four-day killing spree carried out by LRA fighters in northeastern Congo, one of 240 attributed to the rebels this year alone.
The LRA claims to be fighting to establish rule by the Bible's 10 commandments. But under the leadership of Joseph Kony the group has shown few signs of Christianity as it spreads terror across central Africa.
Although most attacks are on civilians, the LRA is no rag-tag rebel army, but a battle-hardened force with decades of experience of guerrilla war in Africa’s forests. A team of Guatemalan Special Forces deployed by the U.N.’s Congo peacekeeping mission in 2006 to kill Kony were themselves ambushed and killed.
The LRA is thought to number less than 400 fighters but even though they have fragmented into small units they are adept at causing mass havoc.
Kony and two of his surviving top commanders (Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen) are wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of dozens of counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“Halting the LRA threat to civilians and catching its leaders who are wanted for war crimes is achievable with political will and the right resources,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York.
The imperative to act against the LRA is not only moral but also strategic, according to activists. The areas in which the LRA operates are on the fringes of some of the world’s weakest countries; the rebel group’s presence increases the likelihood of fragile states becoming failed ones.