What is the Lord's Resistance Army?

The Enough Project periodcally produces briefings on African issues. This week's is on Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, the armed rebel group President Obama has dispatched US troops to fight.  

Stuart Price/AP
In this Nov. 12, 2006 file pool photo, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony answers journalists' questions following a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan. In Africa's remotest jungle, a U.S. aid group is installing new high frequency radios to help track the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal militia that 100 U.S. special forces troops are now helping hunt.

Editor’s Note: This post is a brief history, intended to provide a contextual background for understanding the complex issues that the Enough Project works on. It is part of the series Enough 101.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA (PDF), is a violent rebel group led by a self-proclaimed messiah, Joseph Kony. Formed in 1987, the group was first called the Uganda People's Democratic Christian Army but changed the name to the Lord's Resistance Army in 1991. The fight between the Ugandan government and the LRA is one of the longest running conflicts in Africa, and the LRA is one of the most brutal forces in the world, known for targeting civilians, perhaps most notably, children it forcibly recruits to fight. Though the LRA originated in northern Uganda, it has since spread to neighboring Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

In its early years, the LRA claimed to fight against the Ugandan government to defend the rights of the Acholi, a local ethnic group in northern Uganda. However, the LRA's extreme brutality against fellow Acholi quickly contradicted those claims. The rebel group is notorious for murder, torture, mutilation, rape, widespread abductions of children and adults, and pillaging.

Since 1987 the LRA has abducted tens of thousands of children, forcing them to serve as soldiers, porters, or sex slaves.

Though they are often portrayed as a Christian fundamentalist group bent on establishing a government in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments, religion no longer practically serves as a raison d’être for the LRA; rather it is used selectively to ensure adherence to military discipline and create an environment where commanders are respected and feared.

In 1994, the LRA gained the military, financial, and logistical support of the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir, transforming the internal Ugandan conflict into a regional struggle. From its bases in South Sudan, the LRA fought the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army, or SPLM/A, at the behest of Khartoum. According to Global Security, the LRA has also targeted international humanitarian convoys and local NGO workers. When the Sudanese government and the southern rebel SPLM/A signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, Khartoum stopped supporting the LRA.

In 2002, Uganda launched Operation Iron Fist in an attempt to definitively defeat the insurgency. But the operation sparked brutal retaliatory attacks on civilians by the LRA and failed to end the war.

At the height of the conflict, nearly 2 million northern Ugandans were living in internally displaced persons, or IDP, camps.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, unsealed arrest warrants for five senior LRA leaders, including Kony. The ICC charged Kony with 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes. He has yet to face justice for his actions because he has not yet been apprehended.

Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA started in 2006, but fell apart at the end of 2008 when Kony repeatedly failed to sign the final accord. While Kony paid lip service to peace during the negotiations, he sent raiding groups to southern Sudan, Congo, and CAR and prepared for war by abducting civilians and looting food.

On Dec. 14, 2008, the Ugandan army again decided to deal with the LRA militarily, with the armies of southern Sudan and Congo and with the support of the United States. Operation Lightning Thunder destroyed the LRA bases around Garamba National Park in eastern Congo; however, all of the LRA commanders escaped unharmed.

The joint offensive weakened the LRA by cutting off food and other supplies, but it failed in its ultimate goal of apprehending the LRA’s senior leadership. The poorly planned offensive caused the LRA to scatter across the region and begin a renewed campaign of violence against civilians in northeastern Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

– Mollie Zapata blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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