Why Can’t Anyone Stop the LRA?

One of the evilest rebel armies in Africa has been kidnapping children and brutally murdering civilians for 20 years despite constant international efforts to wipe it out. Why?


In its nearly 20 years of fighting in northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) killed or injured thousands of civilians, abducted scores of children to fill its ranks, and traumatized a whole generation of Ugandans. But in recent years, it was beginning to look as if Uganda’s nightmarish two-decade struggle against the LRA was at last coming to an end. The rebels had mostly been driven out of northern Uganda in 2005 by government troops, and the last LRA attacks on Ugandan soil were in 2006. The terror that once plagued the country’s north was finally fading into memory.

The LRA, however, was not. It was just moving next door — to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR), where the rebels have continued their trademark nastiness, including a DRC rampage between Dec. 14 and 17, 2009, that killed more than 300 people. The massacre, chronicled in a recent Human Rights Watch report, shows that the LRA is still an immense threat to unarmed civilians.

Why is the LRA still around? The Ugandan government has been trying to wipe out the group for ages, with some recent support from the United States. The governments of the DRC, South Sudan, and CAR have pitched in, all to no avail.

On top of it, the LRA should, in theory, be quite easy to defeat. It’s relatively small — according to a Ugandan Army spokesperson it has just 200 active fighters. The Enough Project estimates that there are another 800 or so kidnapped civilians on top of that — two-thirds of which are likely children. The LRA has little firepower — most of the DRC attacks were committed with blunt weapons like sticks and axes. It has no support from the civilians it preys on. Of course, its leader, the elusive and still at-large Joseph Kony, claims to commune with spirits and have mystical powers. But setting aside the supernatural, how is it possible that the LRA — with no support base or weaponry — is still thriving?

Put simply, the LRA’s fortuitous combination of murky international alliances, child soldiers, and bumbling enemies has proved stronger than any military offensive over the last 20 years.

For much of the 1990s, the LRA took advantage of an ugly enemy-of-my-enemy game played between Sudan and Uganda. Kampala (and quietly the United States) funded the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a mostly black-African and Christian rebel group in South Sudan, in its struggle against the Arab-dominated Sudanese national government; Khartoum supported the LRA in retaliation. So in exchange for keeping Uganda off balance and occasionally fighting the SPLA, the LRA got weapons and protection from Sudan.

Officially, Sudanese support for the LRA ended in 1999, though it is believed to have continued sporadically afterward for several years. Then, in 2002, the Sudanese government appeared to sell out the LRA completely. In what was called Operation Iron Fist, the Ugandans were allowed to attack the LRA’s permanent bases in South Sudan and, it was hoped, finally end the insurgency. But the Khartoum government demarcated a "red line" across which Ugandan forces were not supposed to attack. Conveniently, the LRA simply retreated behind the boundary — perhaps even with the material and intelligence assistance of the Sudanese military.

Finally caving to international pressure, Sudan let the Ugandans attack beyond the "red line," but the Ugandan attack narrowly missed nabbing Kony. Although there is no proof, it is commonly believed he was again tipped off by Sudan.

In the end, the offensive fractured the LRA but didn’t crush it. Some offshoots laid low in South Sudan, while others slipped back into northern Uganda where they began attacking civilians in regions that had been previously left alone. The period between 2003 and 2004 brought some of the war’s bloodiest conflicts. In 2005, the last LRA rebels were finally kicked out of South Sudan after Sudan signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end its own civil war. The LRA retreated — this time to the DRC, where it began building bases in Garamba National Park. Today, there are LRA in the DRC, CAR, and parts of Sudan. Recent reports placing Kony’s personal unit in Darfur have raised familiar questions about whether Khartoum’s support has resumed.

Apart from friendships with shady dictators, the LRA has gotten pretty good at what it does — massacring and hiding throughout the region. "They’ve developed skills that no military has on Earth," said Frank Nyakairu, who covered the LRA for 10 years for Uganda’s Daily Monitor and now works for Reuters. LRA fighters are excellent at hiding in and moving quickly across rough terrain, often at night, and few conventional militaries can keep up. The LRA has also honed its ability to forage and loot the supplies it needs, including child soldiers. Few if any similar guerrilla or insurgent groups worldwide have been capturing, brainwashing, and training children for as long as the LRA, and its leaders have refined their brutal techniques to an art form.

The LRA’s child soldiers have also made offensive operations against the movement extremely difficult because, bluntly put, children are a tactical advantage. Nyakairu covered several ambushes, for example, in which LRA child soldiers posed innocently playing football or bathing naked. As soon as Ugandan forces passed, the children grabbed hidden guns and opened fire.

This penchant for abducting children also complicates the possibility of wiping out the LRA in one major stroke, say a tactical airstrike. Every time people in the north hear about new violence involving the LRA, they think of those they knew who were abducted, explains Reagan Okumu, a Parliament member from northern Uganda: "They know that their children are innocent."

Given all this, it’s no surprise that so much emphasis has been put on a simpler strategy: capture or assassinate Kony. Extremely charismatic, Kony has inspired fear and loyalty with his seemingly charmed ability to avoid capture and his violent demonstrations of wrath against any LRA fighters he suspects of crossing him. In fact, without fear of Kony’s wrath, the group, now composed largely of abductees from four countries, would have little reason to fight on. But removing him could involve serious collateral damage — and when that collateral damage is almost certain to be wreaked on children, it’s hard to know how to proceed.

Meanwhile, the LRA’s pursuers, corrupt and inept, have shot themselves in the foot innumerable times. An internal military investigation in 2003, for example, found that Ugandan commanders in their country’s north were inflating their troop numbers and keeping for themselves the salaries and rations for soldiers who were dead, had deserted, or never existed in the first place. Of Uganda’s 55,626 troops on paper, an estimated 20,000 did not exist. The soldiers who did exist were underequipped, underfed, and often unpaid, as the same commanders skimmed money from disbursements meant to buy food and supplies. Overall, high-ranking Ugandan military leaders profited immensely from the war — and the LRA profited from facing a weakened military.

Even in negotiations, the LRA has been inadvertently aided by its enemies. During talks between 2005 and 2008, supporters of the peace process, such as the European Union, gave the LRA a great deal of money and food as incentives to keep it involved in peace discussions. An agreement was at last reached in 2008, pending only Kony’s signature. Perhaps not surprisingly, the warlord didn’t come through with the signature — and he certainly didn’t reimburse the European Union for its donations to his cause.

The most recent, U.S.-aided offensive was also bungled. Operation Lightning Thunder was planned with significant U.S. support as well as the cooperation of U.N. peacekeepers in the DRC and Congolese forces. The Ugandans planned to launch targeted airstrikes on Kony’s Garamba base on Dec. 14, 2008, with the goal of killing Kony. U.S. intercepts of his satellite phones had provided coordinates zeroing in on the actual hut Kony was living in. Then, Ugandan and Congolese ground units would sweep in to cut off escape routes, capture rebels, free abductees, and protect civilians.

Again, however, Kony escaped. At the last minute, helicopter gunships (which can be heard five minutes away) were substituted for quiet fighter jets, officially due to bad weather (though the revelation last week that Uganda is shopping for new jets suggests faulty equipment could have been the culprit). To make matters worse, the Ugandan ground forces that were supposed to catch escaping LRA members arrived a full 72 hours late, bizarrely underestimating the time it would take them to move on foot through dense jungle. And Congolese troops that were supposed to protect nearby villages never showed up. So while some rebels were captured or killed by the helicopter force, the escaping LRA fighters went on a vengeful spree, killing more than 800 civilians as they pillaged virtually every village on their way to the Central African Republic.

Currently, some 5,000 Ugandan troops are still chasing the LRA in the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan, according to Human Rights Watch (the Ugandan military declined to confirm any numbers). The U.S. Senate just passed a bill directing the U.S. president to create a regional strategy of support to end the LRA once and for all. For these efforts to succeed, however, the elements that have allowed the LRA to survive must be removed. Sudan must be prevented from any further support of the LRA; the Ugandan military must plan better for contingencies like bad weather and difficult terrain; soldiers must actually be paid to make sure they do their part in protecting civilians and keeping the LRA on the run.

Then again, pursuit is nothing new to the LRA. And Uganda and its allies find themselves in a familiar position: searching for an enemy that is adept at terrorizing villages and then melting away. "The strategic plan has not changed: capture or kill Kony," said Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, a spokesman for the Ugandan military. But as reports of fresh attacks and abductions continue to trickle out, it is clear that the LRA’s will to survive is as powerful as the forces massed against it.

<p> Michael Wilkerson, a journalist and former Fulbright researcher in Uganda, is a graduate student in politics at Oxford University, where he is a Marshall Scholar. </p>