Enough recently wrote about the upsurge in violence committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, against civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had raised the concern of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and severalNGOs. In early March, UNHCR expressed alarm about the 52 LRA raids that had occurred this year in Orientale Province in northeastern Congo and resulted in 35 deaths, 104 abductions, and the displacement of 17,000 people.
Recent statements of the Congolese government and the U.N. stabilization mission in Congo, or MONUSCO, however, raise serious concerns about current and future efforts to protect civilians and apprehend LRA leader Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders.
During his March 18 trip to Dungu and Faradje in the Haut-Uélé district of Orientale province, Congolese Defense Minister Charles Mwando Nsimba declared that no more than 10 LRA fighters remain.
The defense minister’s remarks greatly underestimate the size and threat of the LRA and are disputed by the reality on the ground. Civilians continue to be at enormous risk in northeastern Congo, and the LRA remains a grave threat. However, for various political reasons including allegations that the Ugandan army is looting natural resources while fighting the LRA in Congo, the Congolese government is trying to downplay the LRA’s size and strength. It’s also not the first time the government has made such claims.
In response, the bishop of the Dungu-Doruma diocese, Richard Domba Mady, wrote a letter asserting that the Congolese government is continuing to minimize the severity of the security situation in Haut- and Bas-Uélé districts. He disputed the government’s estimate, asking: Could only ten LRA fighters be committing atrocities in Faradje, Aba, Dungu, Bangadi, Doruma, and Banda? And would Congolese, Ugandan, and MONUSCO troops be deployed in the region for just 10 fighters? The civil society leader in Faradje, Abbé Guillaume Abiandroa, also challenged the estimate.
During the defense minister’s visits to Dungu and Faradje, local officials and civil society expressed concern about repeated attacks by suspected LRA elements. In the Dungu area, in the month of March alone, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church reported 15 attacks in which 11 civilians were killed, 24 injured, and 13 abducted.
A recent statement of the Ugandan army contradicted the government’s assessment. The Ugandan People’s Defense Forces spokesperson Felix Kulayigye said on March 28 that the majority of LRA fighters – around 200 – are back in Congo, as is Kony. Enough estimated three weeks ago that as many as 250 to 300 fighters are currently in Congo.
On March 30, MONUSCO military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Mamadou Gaye stated during a weekly press conference that the LRA is losing its operational capabilities. Gaye said that MONUSCO had observed a decline in LRA violence compared to the previous year and their indicators point to a weakening of the organization’s operational capabilities. Besides referencing MONUSCO’s new operation, Bamangana 2, with bases in Bangadi, Banda, and Bamangana, he did not explain how MONUSCO’s assessment would affect their efforts in the immediate and long term.
Just three weeks ago, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos visited Orientale Province and emphasized the vital role of the Congolese army and MONUSCO in protecting civilians and ending the threat posed by the LRA. Speaking in Dungu, she specifically cited their inadequate presence and resourcing. Amos said that we “need to redouble our efforts to find a lasting solution, a regional solution to this crisis.” Civil society has pleaded for the reinforcement of troops in the area.
Also of concern is that Kony is back in Congo, with as many as 250 to 300 fighters. It is possible that the LRA is attempting to regroup and reorganize there. This would be a very worrying development that could lead to the strengthening of the LRA.
Moreover, the force leading military efforts related to the LRA – the Ugandan army – has significantly reduced its presence in Congo. The UPDF has decreased the size of its deployment in LRA-affected areas, moving troops home in advance of the February 2011 elections and to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, including sending 2,000 additional troops to Somalia just last week. As a result, the army has been less effective, according to Matthew Brubacher, a U.N. official working to demobilize and reintegrate LRA fighters. No top LRA commanders have been captured or killed since December 2009.
Kulayigye says that the UPDF is supporting new efforts by the Congolese army and MONUSCO to deal with the LRA. But, how confident should we be that the Congolese army and MONUSCO will be committed to the task and resourced, deployed, and prepared sufficiently – especially in light of past performance? (For more information, see this Enough report and Enough Said blog post.)
Congo’s defense minister said that the situation with respect to the LRA has clearly improved but that we must not let down our guard. Later, responding to the bishop’s letter, he argued that the Congolese army is sufficiently equipped to handle any possible LRA attack. Additionally, MONUSCO’s new operation, Bamangana 2, highlights the inadequate presence problem referenced by Amos and the Congolese population. With MONUSCO operational bases currently in only Bangadi, Banda, and Bamangana, it will be critical for the U.N., Ugandan, and Congolese troops to deploy throughout Orientale Province, particularly in areas close to where the LRA has recently attacked and been sited.
And one of the things we know from the previous massacres carried out by the LRA is that even small numbers of the LRA are a great threat to civilians. A frightening example is the 2009 massacre in the Makombo area of Congo, in which at least 320 civilians were killed and more than 250 were abducted by just a few dozen LRA fighters.
There have also been some recent diplomatic efforts to tackle the LRA, including the meeting of the Ugandan and Congolese defense ministers and the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Congo, Roger Meece, in Kasese district, Uganda on March 17 and 18.
The bottom line is that now is not the time for the Ugandan and Congolese armies or MONUSCO to underestimate the strength of the LRA and decrease efforts to protect civilians and apprehend Kony and top commanders. Instead, with Kony and a large contingent of the LRA in Congo, it is time both to ensure that they are not able to reorganize and to permanently eliminate the threat posed by the LRA. Regional governments and the international community must indeed redouble their efforts.