As the State Department announced this week a $5 million reward for the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony and two of his top lieutenants, the on-the-ground hunt for the fugitive warlord took a step back with the suspension of the search.
Infamous for mutilating their victims and abducting children to use as soldiers and sex slaves, Kony and his LRA fighters were being pursued in small groups by squads of Ugandan soldiers – backed up since 2011 by around 100 US special forces – across a vast and remote swath of CAR’s eastern jungle close to the borders with Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
While success in the unforgiving terrain has been limited and the commitment of those involved thought to be waning, military officials involved in the anti-LRA operations and NGO workers lobbying for the end to the group's atrocities claim that Kony is as weak as he has ever been since launching his rebellion around 25 years ago. His rebels are now estimated to number only several hundred fighters, and Kony – who is wanted by the International Criminal Court – is increasingly isolated.
As weak as Kony is, the country hosting his hunters proved even weaker. Late last month fighters from the Seleka rebel coalition captured the capital Bangui, toppling president Francois Bozize and opening the way for them to form a new government. The international reaction to Seleka’s seizure of power has been one of condemnation. The African Union – which oversees the anti-LRA mission – and regional leaders have refused to recognize the new rulers and Seleka has made noises about getting all foreign troops out of the country.
That means, Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulayigye said yesterday, that they have had to order their troops back from combing the jungles to their bases in the CAR, suspending operations “until further notice” but not yet withdrawing from the country altogether.
That was echoed by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who said that “in light of the security situation in CAR”, the US – which has mainly provided logistical and intelligence support to the anti-LRA operation – and Uganda had decided to “put a pause” to the hunt for Kony in the country.
The suspension has sparked fears from a coalition of US-based lobby groups, including Invisible Children, the organization behind the wildly popular Kony 2012 Internet video, over the future of the entire operation and the possibility that if he is given breathing space Kony could regain strength.
“As the international community seeks to address the upheaval in CAR, it is critical that they find ways to sustain efforts to address LRA violence. A premature withdrawal would have devastating and immediate consequences for civilians in LRA-affected areas,” Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children said in a statement Thursday.
“It gives Kony a new lease of life, enabling him to regain power by initiating new rounds of abductions in communities that will be left totally unprotected and vulnerable to LRA attacks,” Keesey said.
Some analysts said they doubted how much determination there had been to wipe out the LRA. The weakness of the Central African Republic leading up to its overthrow should have given an advantage to Kony's hunters.
"Rather than allow Kony to operate freely in CAR, the lack of government control gave Uganda and the US a free hand to do what they wanted to get him but they did not succeed," says Aaron Mukwaya, a political scientist at Kampala's Makerere University. "Getting Kony has not been a priority strategic objective for Uganda for some time."
Mr. Mukwaya says now the threat from the LRA could grow and that Kony could link up with other groups in the chaotic region.
"The danger with Kony is that he can ally with any people and rearm. The LRA is going to be in a better position and could be more dangerous." Mukwaya said.