Arresting LRA leader Joseph Kony is more complex than you think

Many assume the US knows where LRA leader Joseph Kony is, but multinational military and diplomatic engagement will be necessary to track him down – and even that might not be enough.

By , Guest blogger

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    One of the world's most wanted rebel chiefs, Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army, (L) is seen shaking hand with southern Sudan's vice president Riek Machar (R) in this image taken from Reuters TV in Nairobi, May 24, 2006.
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“Only Mr. God knows,” is the short answer to Kony’s whereabouts, as a former LRA commander recently told Enough.

Kony might be in Sudan’s South Darfur region as a recent article claims. In reality, no one – or very few people in the world – really knows where Kony is at the moment. He may well have succumbed to a bout of malaria or worsening case of syphilis.

Throughout Uganda and the region, many believe that the American military with its advanced tracking technology must know what Kony had for dinner, or at the very least his whereabouts. This is simply not true. The vast area where Kony and his men operate combined with relatively modest US "eyes on the ground" make locating Kony very difficult. Even when the US provides satellite images of supposed LRA groups to the Ugandan army on the ground, the information often arrives too late or is difficult to analyze. “All [satellite] images look like the jungle,” a Ugandan army commander told Enough.

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Research on the ground sheds light on where Kony might have been, but rarely on where he actually is. Often, information from people living in LRA areas can be wrong, as LRA commanders use deception to confuse locals. Major Olanya, for instance, who is Kony’s half-brother, often pretends to be Kony. Former abductees in CAR were told Olanya was the “chief of the land” and were later released. LRA commander Ceasar Achellam and his group have in the past mimicked Kony’s movements. In typical Kony fashion, Achellam’s group has been known to move in two separate groups; one of the groups walks very fast with a front and back security detail, while the other group moves more slowly and consists mostly of women and children, even though Achellam, unlike Kony, has few women and children in his group.

The sheer difficulty of knowing the top LRA commander’s location has important practical implications often ignored by proposals to apprehend Kony. In order to apprehend Kony, a significant ramping up of the on-going military effort is needed. A force capable of capturing Kony must be numerous enough to comb through thousands of miles of territory and well-supplied with intelligence gathering resources, including unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as Predator planes that can effectively survey vast and hard-to-reach areas.

Serious diplomatic engagement is required to maximize the chances of apprehending Kony. If Kony is indeed in South Darfur, no military apart from the Sudanese Armed Forces can go after him unless given explicit permission from the Khartoum government – a near impossibility. The Khartoum government needs to be diplomatically pressured into pushing LRA units out of Darfur. At the very least, diplomats such as US Special Envoy Scott Gration must make clear to Sudan’s ruling party that there are seriously consequences for re-supplying the LRA.

However, it is debatable whether a beefed up military effort combined with diplomatic pressure will succeed in capturing Kony, at least in the immediate future. Any actions aimed at dismantling the LRA need to target the group as a whole and specifically engage top commanders, not just Kony. Commanders like Dominic Ongwen have operated independently of Kony for over a year now, and there is reason to believe the LRA would continue even if Kony is captured or killed. It’s even conceivable – though perhaps unlikely – that Kony could already be dead and his half-brother continues to impersonate him to keep the fighters motivated.

A strategy to dismantle the LRA should be multi-faceted and give equal importance to diplomatic and civilian as to military solutions. This includes diplomatically engaging the Sudanese government and encouraging defections of LRA fighters. It is also time the Ugandan government consider peacefully approaching some LRA commanders, especially those based in Congo and South Sudan, who operate at a distance from Kony and Odhiambo.

Most importantly, this is a golden opportunity for the international community, especially the U.S. government, to push the Ugandan government finally take seriously the rebuilding of northern Uganda, a region traditionally ignored by the central government. Legitimate grievances such as rampant poverty and lack of education that caused rebellions (one being the LRA) more than 20 years ago remain unaddressed. Rebuilding the North will not only bring the Acholi people what they have been unjustly deprived of but will also encourage LRA fighters to come out of the bush.

– Ledio Cakaj blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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