Recent reports of LRA attacks in the Central African Republic and southern Sudan suggest something significant is happening. The LRA is either in complete disarray and acting out of desperation, or the rebel group has rediscovered a sense of purpose: to destabilize southern Sudan in return for military support from Khartoum. As is often the case with the LRA, the truth is hard to ascertain.
It is however certain that this is a critical time for Joseph Kony, who needs to show his fighters that the LRA is more than just a personal survival vehicle. Outside support, most likely from Khartoum, would reinvigorate the LRA, as it has in the past.
An internal report from MINURCAT, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in northern CAR, stated that on September 5 a large LRA group attacked the village of Ouanda Djallo in CAR. According to the report, filed by U.N. Togolese soldiers who spoke to villagers from Ouanda Djallo, the LRA killed three people, abducted many, and burned and destroyed a lot of property. A recent media report put the number of those killed to 16, nine of them LRA fighters.
The location of the most recent LRA attack is important. Ouanda Djallo is much further north than the usual LRA area of operations, which for the last year has been the Zemongo forest in CAR’s Haut Kotto prefecture. Ouanda Djallo is in Vakaga prefecture, north of Zemongo and 80 miles south of the town of Birao, a former French army base.
Most importantly, Ouanda Djallo is very close to the Sudanese border, less than 50 miles west of South Darfur. Officials from the southern Sudanese army, or SPLA, claim that the LRA has moved further north into CAR to avoid the Sudanese territory controlled by the SPLA and link up with the Khartoum controlled Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF. It is commonly acknowledged now that SAF officials provided supplies to the LRA from 1994 to 2005, but ties apparently broke with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan.
The claim that the LRA is at least trying to establish contact with the SAF is further supported by a reported LRA attack on September 2 in Dafac in South Darfur. Officials from the Liberation and Justice Movement, or LJM, a Darfuri rebel force, said that an LRA group attacked and killed one LJM soldier.
It is unclear if the LRA was indeed behind the attack in Dafac. LJM officials claimed that LRA fighters came from the CAR border. If so, this would be a different LRA group from that which attacked Ouanda Djallo on September 5. According to reports from Ouanda Djallo, the LRA fighters who carried out the attack came from southwest, from a town called Bria. The attack in Dafac happened three days earlier to the east of Ouanda Djallo. There is a possibility this attack might have been carried out by an LRA group that attacked twice in August north of Western Bahr El Ghazal in Sudan.
Of course, it is also possible that the LRA was not involved in the attack reported by the LJM rebels; it has yet to be confirmed by any outside source. However, the area of Dafac is well known to LRA fighters. Former LRA official Okello ‘Mission’ said, after being captured by the Ugandan army in March 2010, that his LRA group moved from CAR through Dafac to meet with SAF officials in October 2009. Other LRA fighters who have recently defected told Enough that a top LRA commander, Brigadier Caesar Achellam has recently moved between CAR and South Darfur to secure SAF medical and military supplies.
Regardless of whether the LRA attacked LJM fighters, it is clear that LRA groups commanded by Kony, Achellam, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen – who comprise the top leadership of the LRA – have recently moved much further north they have ever been since the beginning of Lightning Thunder, the Ugandan-led offensive of late 2008 against LRA bases in Congo that sent LRA fighters fanning out throughout the region.
It is possible that the LRA commanders are moving north to escape the Ugandan army units that have been on the trail of Kony and other commanders in CAR since the summer of 2009 when they entered CAR. If that scenario is true, the recent attacks in Dafac and Ouanda Djallo were committed out of desperation in an effort to secure food, especially given the heavy losses the LRA incurred in the aftermath of the attack in Ouanda Djallo, a relatively large city with an effective self-defense force supported by a former rebel group.
A more worrisome and likelier scenario is that LRA commanders intend to link up with the Sudanese army, if they have not done so already, and showcase the LRA’s military prowess in order to secure supplies from Khartoum. While some Ugandan soldiers may be tracking Kony and other commanders in CAR, the Ugandan army is retreating. In March, a Ugandan officer at the Ugandan army’s northernmost base in CAR – which is still far south of where recent LRA attacks took place – told Enough that the Ugandan soldiers would move their bases further south to Djemah and Obo.
Located far from Uganda, and in light of political developments in northern Uganda, (two northern Ugandans announced plans to run for president in the upcoming elections), the ideology that initially inspired the LRA is no longer relevant.
The LRA has become a survival vehicle for Kony and his top commanders, who refuse to give up the struggle for fear that they will be prosecuted in Ugandan courts or by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The promise of outside support is what keeps Kony and other top commanders going.
As happened in 1994 and 2002 when support from Khartoum reinvigorated the LRA, a potential link-up now between Kony and his former handlers in the Sudanese Armed Forces will be disastrous to the effort of dismantling the LRA. It is clear Kony is trying to regain that support. If he succeeds – which he may have already – the LRA will become an even more destabilizing force in an already volatile region.