Although the details remain highly murky, it appears that the Ugandan army suffered a significant loss of troops in the Central African Republic, or CAR, as those forces continue to hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Exactly how many troops were lost and under what circumstances remain a matter of controversy, and there has been significant speculation groups other than the LRA may have also been involved. While this mystery may not be resolved any time soon, the incident again underscores the fact that the current efforts to apprehend the LRA leadership remain inadequate and demand strengthened international assistance and focus.
Here is what we know. According to a variety of sources—including the Ugandan media—a number of Ugandan army troops were found dead in CAR at the end of May, 2010. The number of soldiers killed is in dispute and varies widely depending on the source. The Daily Monitor reported 18 dead, but the Chief of Staff for the Ugandan army, General Aronda, insisted that only 10 soldiers had been killed. Other sources told Enough that as many as 53 soldiers—almost an entire squad—were killed. At least five soldiers, the majority officers—including the radio operator—are reported missing in action. According to this same source, 17 bodies were returned to a morgue at the Gulu army barracks in northern Uganda, while others were returned to their respective places of origin elsewhere in Uganda. Some of the bodies were allegedly mutilated. Enough was unable to independently verify these claims.
The Ugandan military was quick to implicate forces other than the LRA as having orchestrated these killings. Ugandan officials claimed that the perpetrators were “Sudanese militias” or “Sudanese poachers.” However, given that a large loss of life to the LRA would run counter to the Ugandan military’s consistent claim that the rebels are a spent force largely on the run, there is a clear incentive for the Ugandans to implicate other forces in the incident.
According to a source in the Ugandan army, on May 26, 2010, a squad of 58 soldiers from the Ugandan Third Battalion operating northeast of Djemah in CAR lost contact with its tactical headquarters. A team of soldiers sent to investigate initially found seven bodies, and that attacks against the squad had occurred in multiple locations.
The commander of the investigating team maintained that the camp of those who attacked the squad did not bear the usual signs of the LRA. The commander noted that the camp showed signs of pack animals, likely donkeys, which would be unusual for the LRA. The commander suggested that the attackers may have been janjaweed militias from neighboring Sudan, as they frequently travel on donkeys. The Ugandan military and such militias have frequently encountered each other in CAR, but have never previously been hostile. If such a militia or group of armed traders did attack the Ugandans, it’s important to ask: why the change of behavior?
While it is certainly possible that these forces killed the Ugandans, the direct or indirect involvement of the LRA should not be discounted. LRA troops could have lured Ugandans into a trap manned by other forces, or conducted the killings directly themselves.
In fact, another Ugandan army squad operating in the areas of the attack had encountered a significant LRA contingent just days earlier. On May 22, 2010, this Ugandan unit clashed with a LRA group led by Okot Odhiambo, a senior LRA commander wanted by the International Criminal Court. Odhiambo’s contingent had joined with a second LRA group led by Major Odooki and the two groups fled to the north, toward the area where the Ugandan soldiers were found dead several days later. Odhiambo, together with Dominic Ongwen and Joseph Kony, comprise the LRA’s senior command. Apparently Odhiambo and Kony have been operating in relatively close proximity during the past year, so it is possible that Kony was not far way. The Ugandan army squad that was attacked may have had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, encountering a sizeable massing of LRA fighters who felt that they had no choice but to fight to protect their senior leadership.
This incident is the latest setback in a Ugandan offensive against the LRA that seems to have stalled this year after some important initial momentum. As described in Enough’s latest report, “On the Heels of Kony: The Untold Tragedy Unfolding in CAR,” the Ugandan army took three LRA commanders off the battlefield in September 2009, capturing Major Okot Atiak, and killing Major Okello Kalalang and Brigadier Santos Alit. However, the last time the Ugandans killed a senior commander was in December 2009, and it now appears that the 18-month-long campaign against the LRA has taken a steady toll on the Ugandan army.
The initial deployment of some 5,000 Ugandan troops across Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and CAR has recently been reduced, with two battalions—approximately 1,000 soldiers—redeployed from CAR to the volatile Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda. Additional troops are expected to return to Uganda as that country’s electoral campaign heats up in advance of the February 2011 elections. A spokesperson recently stated that the army would be deployed to put down any potential unrest around the elections, and these soldiers will almost certainly have to come from contingents currently operating in Congo or CAR.
Dwindling troop strength on the ground, difficult living conditions, and recent losses are all combining to erode the morale of rank and file Ugandan soldiers pursuing the LRA. Alleged infighting among senior Ugandan army commanders has also darkened the atmosphere for troops involved in the campaign. The Ugandan commander in CAR, Colonel Emmanuel Rwashande, was reportedly removed by the overall commander overseeing the LRA operation, Brigadier Charles Otema in a disagreement about strategy. Colonel Peter Elwelu, a former commander of the African Union force in Somalia, replaced Rwashande. It is possible that this shuffle in command may have caused a delay in the response to the attacked Ugandan soldiers.
The LRA continue to pose an escalating threat to civilians. One June 10, LRA fighters abducted 30 people in Fode, CAR. Moreover, LRA fighters appear to be returning to their former bases in the Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo. Former LRA fighters also told Enough that the LRA recently attacked areas just north of Garamba on Kony’s orders.
As the Obama Administration prepares its strategy to deal with the LRA, it is more apparent than ever that maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. Policymakers must understand the actual situation on the ground, and the compelling need for far greater levels of international commitment and resources to apprehend the LRA leadership and neutralize their threat to civilians.