The debate on how to ‘deal’ with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the past 20 years has been increasingly polarized, falling alongside two lines of action: peace talks or war. Both approaches have been tried in the past. At this point the Ugandan government clearly prefers the military option, and its army is currently pursuing LRA groups in three different countries in central Africa.
It is fair to say that after the Juba peace talks – where LRA leader Joseph Kony refused to sign the final agreement in 2008 – there is little appetite on the part of the Ugandan government, and perhaps international donors, to hurry back to the negotiating table. But currently, the strategies for combating the LRA seem to lack an understanding of how the group operates. It is overtly difficult to engage a group of fighters, whether militarily or peacefully, without knowing what they stand for.
A new Enough report based on extensive field research, establishes that outside support for the LRA, or the promise of it, is what keeps Kony going. The report explains how Kony has been trying to resume a relationship with his former backers in Khartoum since the moment that support ceased in 2005. In October 2009, LRA representatives established contact with officers from the Khartoum-controlled Sudanese Armed Forces in South Darfur. Khartoum’s support in the past transformed the LRA into a powerful force and has the potential to once again reinvigorate the rebel force.
The new Enough report seeks to update our understanding of the LRA’s composition, ranks, tactics, and use of technology, and to debunk some of the myths surrounding the group. Interviews with recently demobilized fighters indicated that the majority of people in the LRA want to defect but are afraid of doing so. They fear being killed by other fighters if caught trying to escape, being killed by the receiving populations and regional armies as well as being mistreated by the Ugandan army. Creative demobilization and reintegration practices need to be crafted to address such fears and ensure that fighters who leave the LRA are not mistreated. The current efforts by the MONUSCO demobilization and reintegration teams are laudable, but increased funding and support for these initiatives is needed.
Recent reports of Kony having moved in South Darfur are troubling but they also present a golden opportunity for encouraging defections of LRA fighters, particularly mid-level commanders left stranded mostly in remote parts of Congo without much contact with Kony and the LRA high command. Some of these commanders, identified in the new Enough report, are not under indictment by the International Criminal Court and have many reasons to leave the LRA ranks.
The American government is currently tackling the issue of peace talks versus a military option. Officials are charged with formulating a new anti-LRA strategy as stipulated in a law signed by President Obama last May, and the plan is due on the president’s desk later this month. It is safe to assume the U.S. strategy will mostly focus on continuing support for the Ugandan army engaged in the LRA front since December 2008. The chances, however, of the U.S. strategy calling for or establishing a framework for peace talks are slim to none.
Yet the new U.S. strategy should not entirely forgo the ‘peaceful’ aspect of dealing with the LRA. A successful approach to end this conflict once and for all should be designed to address fundamentally the promise of outside support and the fear LRA fighters experience when deciding to surrender. If Kony is barred from gaining any assistance and the fighters are further encouraged to leave the ranks, the LRA – at least in its current form – will soon cease to exist.
Photo: LRA leader Joseph Kony (AP)