Africans join forces to fight the LRA

Southern Sudan, Uganda, and Congo launched operation Lightning Thunder this week to flush the Lord's Resistance Army out of its base in northern Congo.

Stuart Price/Getty Images/AFP/NEWSCOM/FILE
An armed fighter of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) stood guard in this November 2006 file photo. LRA chief Joseph Kony (not shown) has said he will not sign a peace deal until the International Criminal Court scraps its arrest warrant for him.

Tired of waiting for Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony – leader of the feared Lord's Resistance Army – to come out of the forest to disarm, troops from three African countries this week went into the forest to get him.

The three countries – Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Southern Sudan – are unlikely allies and have nurtured differences among themselves that have occasionally led to war. But this time, the common goal of getting rid of Mr. Kony and the LRA overcame their differences.

"The goal was so important we made a deal with the Ugandans, even if we have not always been in agreement in the past," said Lambert Mende, a representative for the Southern Sudanese government, on the second day of the joint operation. "Our three governments decided on a joint strike to eradicate this breeding ground of terrorists who take our people hostage, particularly our children."

It is still too early to know if the joint military operation – launched on Sunday in the forested border region of Congo known as Garamba – will be successful in its goal of routing troops loyal to Kony, whose ragtag militia is blamed for abducting more than 20,000 child soldiers, maiming and killing tens of thousands of civilians, and displacing more than 2 million. Many human rights activists and regional experts warn that a military operation against Kony is only likely to spark more war and retaliation by the remnants, but even critics admit that the joint operation is a positive sign for this corner of Africa where common problems are rarely addressed with common solutions.

"This is going to be extremely costly in terms of civilian lives; a containment strategy would have been much more effective," says François Grignon, head of the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "In terms of regional stability, the fact that Southern Sudan, the DRC, and Uganda are working together will be part of any regional peace in terms of dealing with LRA and other armed groups in the region. You can't have peacekeepers forever. Cooperation is a must to solve hostilities."

Attacks cross porous borders

Like the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistani border, Kony's LRA has long used the porous borderlands between Congo, Uganda, Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR) as a base area to launch attacks against the Ugandan government and villagers in all three countries.

Peace talks, started in July 2006, appeared to be making progress, but Kony refused to come out of the bush to sign the peace agreement and disarm his militia.

Kony's terms for surrender – that the International Criminal Court must first lift charges of war crimes against him, so that he could face trial in Uganda instead – were never met.

The joint operation, called Lightning Thunder, had originally been designed as a containment operation to keep Kony's forces within the Garamba forest, according to documents of the UN peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC). The armies of Southern Sudan and Uganda would block their border areas to Kony's escape, while the Congolese Army and UN peacekeepers move northward to squeeze the LRA's room for maneuver.

That plan appears to have been altered, as Ugandan helicopter gunships and MIG-23s bombed five of the LRA camps inside Congolese territory, including Kony's base camp. Ugandan troops have since crossed into Congolese territory and overrun the camps.

While the operation appears successful in its narrow goal of denying Kony a haven, few military experts believe that the operation will finish off the LRA, even if Kony and his senior command are captured or killed.

"If you look at the LRA, who they are, if they've got 200 supporters, that's a lot, and some of them have probably slipped into CAR by now," says Henri Boshoff, a security analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called.

An estimated 2,200 Congolese troops are involved in Lightning Thunder. "You only really need a special forces unit or well-trained infantry to do this job," says Mr. Boshoff. "So yes, you can destroy the LRA by military means, but not with the Congolese Army. They are not up to the task."

Whither political solutions?

Mirroring the complex military task of defeating the LRA in the jungle is an equally complex political task of addressing their political demands.

The LRA has changed its ethnic makeup over the past 20 years. In the beginning, it was a militia for expressing the grievances of northern Ugandans marginalized by the central government.

Today, the bulk of its members come from Southern Sudan, expressing grievances against the ethnic domination of one ethnic group, the Dinkas, over other tribes.

Many experts suspect the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum of supporting the LRA as a proxy against the separatist government of Southern Sudan.

In Kampala, Ugandan human rights activists have condemned the operation for failing to give the peace process enough time to succeed.

"It is unfortunate," Bishop John Baptist Odama, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Gulu, Uganda, told the IRIN news agency. "The state we had reached was merely to agree and iron out the ICC [International Criminal Court] indictments. We thought that they will wait and then we find a better way forward."

But Ugandan officials say that after 20 years of brutal civil war, they have been patient long enough.

"The operations were also prompted by the LRA's failure to sign the peace deal," Ugandan Army spokesman Paddy Ankunda told IRIN. "As far as we are concerned, the peace was suspended" after Kony refused to surrender.

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