Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir is playing a breathtakingly cynical double game: harboring a notorious Ugandan death cult while pledging to work for peace in Darfur.
- By John NorrisJohn Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.
The Lord’s Resistance Army has come to Darfur, Sudan, and that is not good news for anyone. The Lord’s Resistance Army is a vicious militia led by self-proclaimed messiah Joseph Kony, and though he does not appear to be with the contingent that has moved into Darfur, Kony is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most heinous war criminals still on the loose in the entire world.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has long operated as a hybrid between a cult and a rebel army. Kony and the LRA originally sprang up in northern Uganda and waged a brutal campaign trying to overthrow that country’s government. Millions of Ugandans fled the fighting, and the LRA engaged in virtually every depravity known in warfare. The LRA’s ranks have been swelled with kidnapped child soldiers, girls are regularly treated as sex slaves, and innocent civilians are maimed and killed in a fashion too brutal to describe.
In recent years, Kony and his forces have fallen on harder times, though their brutality has not diminished. Dislodged from northern Uganda, Kony and his troops first fled into northeastern Congo and then the Central African Republic. However, the Ugandan army — with quiet assistance from the United States — has remained in dogged pursuit of Kony and his forces. The LRA is a relatively small force these days, probably numbering less than 1,000 hard-core fighters who remain loyal to Kony, but it is still causing mayhem and suffering well disproportionate to its size. Kony and his men have killed around 2,000 civilians in the last year and driven another 450,000 from their homes. Although the Ugandan offensive against Kony has suffered some significant missteps along the way, it has put increasing pressure on the LRA.
Just this week, the Enough Project learned from multiple, credible sources in the field that elements of the LRA had crossed into Darfur. These forces appear to be seeking safe haven under the protection of the Sudanese military, and Sudan’s notorious president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been a longtime LRA patron, so this does not come as a surprise. Clearly, Kony and his deputies believe that Sudan is one of the few places left where the Ugandan army will not pursue them, and they are likely increasingly desperate.
The even larger story is what all of this says about Sudan and Bashir at a time when U.S. diplomacy has been geared to striking a new tone in the relationship. Although Bashir has been eager to portray himself as willing to repair relations with the world after last year’s International Criminal Court indictment, and the United States in particular, giving safe haven to the LRA is yet another slap at Darfuris, at Washington, and at fundamental human decency. The evidence clearly suggests that advance LRA scouts coordinated with Sudanese armed forces well in advance of the LRA’s arrival in Darfur, and it seems implausible that local Sudanese armed forces commanders would welcome the group in Darfur without seeking approval from Khartoum, including Bashir. There are also suggestions that the LRA has received direct logistical support from the Sudanese army since arriving in Darfur.
The last two weeks have offered breathtaking examples of Bashir’s duplicity. Even as he traveled to Doha to proudly declare "the war is finished" in Darfur after signing a preliminary peace deal with a rebel faction, Sudanese troops intensified military attacks in Darfur that killed hundreds and displaced thousands, according to the United Nations. During a recent campaign speech in southern Sudan, Bashir equally proudly declared that his party is working to end "insurgent attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the south." As he spoke, Bashir’s own armed forces were providing the LRA with the cover it needs to regroup in Darfur, rearm, and again terrorize innocent civilians across the region.
International diplomats are already deeply concerned that an independence referendum for South Sudan in January 2011 could result in a return to the North-South civil war that claimed 2 million lives in a conflict that ran for 20 years. The LRA’s arrival in Darfur and a recent uptick of its activities in southern Sudan suggest that Bashir and his allies remain willing to once again use proxy forces as their favorite method for sowing mayhem and maintaining their grip on power. In Darfur and South Sudan, the Sudanese government has used proxy militias, such as the LRA and the janjaweed, to carry out the most egregious attacks against its enemies while trying to maintain a thin veneer of plausible deniability.
The news of the LRA’s arrival in Darfur should be a clear wake-up call for not only U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, but the entire international community. It is precisely because Bashir has never been held accountable for his past actions that he feels fully empowered to welcome the LRA into his arms and engage in dangerous adventurism on multiple fronts. In recent months, there has been an increasing push by some elements within the Obama administration to ease sanctions against Sudan. The arrival of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Darfur will likely let the air out of that particular balloon, and congressional oversight committees might take some genuine umbrage that they were not informed of these developments in a timely or transparent manner. Both Kony and Bashir deserve to face their charges fairly at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but that will only happen if the world no longer treats accountability as an afterthought.