2. the present: what is the situation today?

This is part 2 of a series of posts attempting to advance conversation about Kony and the LRA. I’d appreciate input in the form of comments and apologize in advance for errors or omissions. Questions too. I’d especially like input from folks who know lots about DRC, CAR, and S Sudan.

What is the situation today? 

A child with nodding disease (Reuters)

In northern Uganda: The LRA is no longer in Uganda and hasn’t been there for 6 years. Gulu is very different today than it was during the years of night commuters depicted in the recent Kony2012 film. Though Northern Uganda is no longer at war, there is high unemployment, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and an unexplained  “Nodding Disease” has so far attacked about 4000 children in Kitgum, Pader, and Gulu districts (South Sudan too). A generation that has largely grown up in camps for displaced people has been encouraged and, to some extent, assisted to return to their villages. However, a 2011 UN OCHA report indicates that an estimated 78,000 Ugandans remain in camps mostly due to landmines and land disputes. There are significant land disputes with those returning from camps. Reintegration of former soldiers and abductees remains a major social concern. On the political front, as Professor Mahmood Mamdani wrote recently in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper, “The civilian population of the area – trust neither the LRA nor government forces.” (For more on this dynamic, see my previous post.)

Many inspiring local groups are working for peaceful reconstruction in northern Uganda. A handful of local efforts I have learned of include: Lacor Hospital, the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, Ker Kwaro Acholi, Art for Children Uganda, Concerned Parents Association Lira, Concerned Children & Youth Association, and Hope North (I’m posting their video here).

In DRC, CAR, and South Sudan: I claim no expertise or first-hand experience in these areas, but I have been trying to read up. The bulk of recent LRA attacks have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic with some activity along the border of South Sudan. In large part, these three countries seem unable or unwilling to control their border areas. According to Invisible Children’s own crisis tracker, there have been 151 civilian deaths and 589 abductions in the past year (as of 3/11/12). The second half of 2011 saw a decrease in killings. However, huge numbers of people are being displaced. The most recent UN numbers I could find say 20,000 in CAR and 335,000 in DRC.

Many speculate that the LRA continues to benefit from the interference of the government of Sudan whenever it is in Khartoum’s interest to destabilize the region. A fantastic op-ed piece by Mr. Angelo Izama points out that the LRA continues to benefit “even more so from the rivalry between Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, and the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. That rivalry can be traced to the late 1990s, when Uganda occupied Congo before being forced to finally withdraw in 2003 under international pressure and accusations of plunder and rape. Mr. Kabila has turned a blind eye to the L.R.A. because it serves as a counterweight against Ugandan influence in eastern Congo.”

There are many rebel groups operate in and around eastern DRC, displacing and bringing awful violence to civilian groups. I’m afraid to get into too much detail here for fear that I will not be able to adequately explain what’s happening in the region. However, it is important to note that the International Criminal Court has actually found that Uganda has acted illegally in its intervention in eastern Congo in the past. Those of you who know a lot about DRC, your help filling in a bunch of facts here would be appreciated.

The LRA:  A good source for some recent information about the state of the LRA all in one place is a report called Peace Can Be, compiled by Resolve. Much of the following information comes from there.

Analysts estimate that today’s LRA has a few hundred fighters (and as many as several hundred abductees) since 2009. This is a major reduction compared to past years. However, the LRA remains expert at escape and extremely difficult to track. Particularly when weakened, the LRA splits into small, fast groups that hide by scattering in a forested area, plundering for supplies, and abducting new recruits. There are special protection tactics for commanders, however some limited intelligence has been gathered on meetings between Kony and his inner circle, most recently in southeastern Central African Republic in June of last year.

The LRA command structure relies heavily on the Acholi language and history to turn abductees into soldiers. Since they no longer operate in Uganda, an inability to abduct new Acholi may present a point of weakness. In DRC and CAR, the LRA commonly abducts people from the Zande ethnic group.

Regional security situation: A large number of Ugandan military forces are currently deployed in Somalia, a fact that is not lost on US policy-makers who have provided a lot of generous aid. The United States has given over $40 million in aid to the Ugandan military since December 2008. Some say this mission has distracted from counter-LRA missions. However, it seems that the US deployment of 100 military advisors specifically to aid in counter-LRA operations (some say to “repay” ongoing Ugandan sacrifice in Somalia, to reward protection of American interests) may have re-energized commitment to the cause. Even with American-supplied equipment, logistics remain the Ugandan army’s major challenge in finding LRA commanders.

Another challenge is cross-border cooperation. The Ugandan army has been accused of human rights abuses and illegal exploitation of natural resources in DR Congo and Central African Republic. These incidents have created tension, and neighboring governments have requested at various times that Ugandan troops withdraw. According to interviews cited in the Resolve report, people in southeast CAR do not draw distinctions between the LRA and Ugandan military. Combined with a narrow mandate focused on pursuit of LRA commanders (instead of civilian protection), this unfortunate reputation has not created a good environment for regional cooperation. The Congolese president had Ugandan forces leave DRC in time for elections.

Other national armies in the region are generally perceived as ill equipped and/or backed with even weaker political will to take on the LRA than the Ugandan army. For example, the entire army of the Central African Republic has 5,000 personnel who are rarely paid and a very poor human rights record. The African Union is recently more focused on the AMISOM mission in Somalia, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, tensions in the new nation of South Sudan, a developing food crisis in the Sahel, etc. than the LRA conflict. UN forces in the region have proven ill equipped to take on the problem either. In 2006, eight members of a UN team of Guatemalan experts in jungle warfare sent to get the LRA were fatally shot in a botched mission to get LRA commanders.

Important note: According to Ugandan military officials, there have been a close calls with Kony himself in recently, in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This shows that the leader may be more vulnerable now than in previous years.

Questions of justice: Justice is a tricky tightrope in northern Uganda, where many people have been both victims and perpetrators of conflict. For example, Thomas Kwoyelo was abducted at the age of 15, rose to the level of LRA commander, and, when captured in 2009, faced 53 counts of crimes against humanity. Uganda’s national Amnesty Act has offered pardon to tens of thousands of rebels who voluntarily come out of the bush and renounce rebellion, including Kwoyelo. Offers of amnesty are in keeping with the approach of “peace first, justice later.” However, this is obviously a controversial approach. The ICC has not dropped charges against Kony, despite requests by the Ugandan government that it do so.

There’s more work to be done in order for communities to truly welcome back escaped LRA fighters and for abductees to overcome shame over forced violence many of them committed against their own families. One of Kony’s most powerful tools is to sever family ties through forcing children to kill their own relatives. If home communities are hostile, there’s little incentive for LRA fighters to defect.

Many in northern Uganda and elsewhere have expressed concerns that ICC intervention jeopardized peace talks, leading to the collapse of the Juba negotiations in 2008. While some have continued to call for Kony’s eventual arrest, other local leaders continue to voice a preference for alternative methods focusing on reintegrationreconciliation, and local justice. There’s a lot of thoughtful discourse on these issues available through Justice and Reconciliation Project.

Next post in this series: 3. the future: what are the best ways to lend support?

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