Originally Published 2012-01-10 00:00:00 Published on Jan 10, 2012
Africa's longest running militia is back in focus. Lord's Resistance Army or LRA, active since 1988, has recently become a subject of United States interest as the Obama administration deployed 100 "combat-equipped troops" to Uganda.
LRA conflict in Central Africa
Africa's longest running militia is back in focus. Lord's Resistance Army or LRA, active since 1988, has recently become a subject of United States interest as the Obama administration deployed 100 "combat-equipped troops" to Uganda on a kill-or-capture mission to take out the militia's leader, Joseph Kony, in October. Following a series of failed attempts to crush the group in the past, it can only be hoped that the latest effort will have a positive end result rather than a backlash the previous ones caused.

Although it emerged in northern Uganda, LRA has been active in parts of Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. There are a wide range of actors, both regional and international, that have played an important role in the emergence of LRA. The primary one, however, has been the existing north-south divide within the country which was exacerbated when the current President, Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986. The NRM, from southern Uganda, came to dominate the parliament while its military wing, National Resistance Army, became the national army. This brought an end to the decades of rule by dictators from northern Uganda and deepened the already existing divide between the predominantly Acholi-north and Bantu-speaking south within the country. Though it lacks any clear political objective, the group has, from time to time, demanded the liberation of the northern region from NRM control. The group built their support by playing on the fear of the northern communities against the southern dominated government. Since its founding, the LRA has combined an apocalyptic spiritualism with opportunistic politics and warlordism. Its claim to represent the grievances of the Acholi people is at odds with its methods. The group's activities such as attacking local civilians, abducting children and committing atrocities have been in direct conflict to their call to address the marginalisation of Acholi people in northern Uganda.

Surrounded by states marred with history of conflicts and weak governments, LRA has been able to move its base and operate out of Uganda over the years. After pressure intensified in Uganda, the group relocated its base and thrived on the conflict in Sudan with support from the Khartoum government. In 2005, after losing its foothold in northern Uganda and Sudan, it shifted its focus to DR Congo. The group has also been known to have abducted dozens of people from the remote regions of Central African Republic.

Methods of dealing with LRA over the years have included both peaceful resolutions and military offensives. In February 2002, President Yoweri Museveni launched a military operation against the rebels, Operation Iron Fist. The operation turned out to be a failure, especially for the Acholi people, as more civilians were massacred and abducted by the LRA in retaliation. In July 2006, peace talks between LRA and the Ugandan government took off. Although it ran into several complications, the peace talks carried on till 2008 when a Final Peace Agreement was drawn up. The peace process, however, failed at the end as Joseph Kony refused to sign the agreement. Two weeks after the negotiations broke down, the Ugandan government, along with U.S support, launched Operation Lightening Thunder. The Ugandan military attacked LRA's bases in DR Congo and Sudan but was unable to significantly affect the group. Instead, the group retaliated by attacking and killing hundreds of civilians. According to the Human Rights Watch, nearly 2,000 civilians have been killed by the LRA in north-eastern Congo since 2008 and a further 2,300 have been abducted, including many children. Hundreds of others have been killed and abducted in CAR and Southern Sudan in the same time period. Nearly 350,000 people have been displaced in the three countries, many without access to humanitarian assistance.

As the UN Security Council agreed on November 14, there is an urgent need to put an end to LRA. The success of the latest effort against the guerrilla group depends, to a large extent, in understanding why the earlier ones failed. One of the reasons why Operation Lightening Thunder lost heat after some period was because Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, shifted his focus on ventures which would lead to greater political points for him at home and abroad. Even the efforts made to protect the civilians, such as relocating hundreds to camps known as "protected villages" as early as 1996, resulted in a displacement nightmare. Following such half-hearted actions, organisations such as the Crisis Group have adopted the view that the government of Uganda lacks complete commitment to anti-LRA efforts, especially since Kony's group has not been a direct threat to its interests in the past few years.

The lack of cooperation and a feeling of mistrust among the four affected countries have also hampered efforts to prevent the group from operating. Uganda invaded DR Congo in the late 1990s and has been the subject of mistrust ever since. There has been reluctance to allow Ugandan troops inside the territory. Cooperation from CAR has also not been too forthcoming.

Unlike some of the radical Islamist terrorist groups in Africa, the LRA does not target American or Western interests. The United States has, however, been involved in dealing with LRA since 2004 when U.S. President George W. Bush placed the group on the U.S. Terrorist Exclusion List. It went on to provide diplomatic support to the 2006 operation. In 2010 President Obama signed into law the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009. The announcement made on October 14 to deploy troops to Uganda also included the offer to train more Congolese soldiers and give equipment to the CAR army. The reason for U.S involvement in fighting LRA is more strategic than the fear of being a target of its terrorism. This also might be the reason U.S has made it clear that engagement will only be short term and that the military armed soldiers will only act as advisors.

The ability of the group to terrorise, abduct and attack civilians in central Africa can be attributed to the lack of ability or resolve on the part of the concerned governments to extend their authority and fight LRA. It is not the lack of resources, rather a lack of political will and cooperation that has prevented central Africa from effectively dealing with the group. It is clear that there is only so much that U.S can do and in the end it is a joint responsibility of the four central African countries to put an end to LRA.

Priyanka Mehrotra is a Research Assistant at ORF
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