Even if Joseph Kony doesn't surrender, opportunity is knocking

Lord's Resistance Army leader Kony may not be ready to quit. But UN fact finding teams, leaflets calling for defection, and other efforts can make a difference. 

Stuart Price/AP/File
The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony answers journalists' questions following a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwangba in southern Sudan, Nov. 12, 2006. The spokesman for Uganda's military said Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 that he's pessimistic that reported contact with rebel leader and accused war criminal Joseph Kony will bear fruit.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Resolve blog site. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Yesterday I wrote about the backstory on Kony’s “surrender talks” and why claims by Central African authorities that Kony has told them he’s interested in surrendering most likely aren’t true (of course, I hope I’m wrong). But that doesn’t mean international policymakers should just shrug their shoulders and turn away. After all, it has been confirmed that CAR transitional president Michael Djotodia is in contact with an LRA group, just not Kony’s.

Getting the facts

The first step UN and AU officials should take is to independently verify exactly what’s going on near Nzako, the small mining town in eastern CAR where Otto Ladeere’s LRA group has made contact with Central African leaders. For several months they’ve been too dependent on unreliable reports from Mr. Djotodia and his LRA point person, General Demane, as well as some scattered information from local civil society leaders.

The UN mission in CAR, BINUCA, sent a team to Nzako on Sept. 24, but they were only on the ground for a few hours and never left the airstrip.

Together with AU officials, BINUCA should immediately send a fact-finding team to Nzako that can find out more about the Ladeere’s group and their intentions.

Over the long-term, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon needs to ensure BINUCA has the staff capacity to fulfill its new mandate to get out into the field and investigate activities by the LRA and other armed groups.

Engaging with Djotodia and Central African authorities

Central African authorities may have mixed motivations for engaging with the LRA group (Djotodia is desperate for credibility and Gen. Demane reportedly wants a piece of the US-offered $5 million reward for Kony), but nonetheless their willingness to engage the LRA could be constructive.

However, they’ve made some serious errors so far, most notably giving food and supplies to Ladeere’s group without getting any concrete steps towards defection in return, such as the release of women and children. They’ve even reportedly forced local civilians to supply and transport food to the LRA, at great risk to their safety.

Fortunately, UN and AU officials have developed a standard set of principles for how to encourage defections from the LRA that can help guide Central African authorities. The lead UN and AU officials on LRA issues, Abou Moussa and Amb. Francisco Madeira, briefed Djotodia on some of these principles in Bangui on Oct. 31, which was a good first step.

But BINUCA needs to be more proactive and consistent in engaging Central African authorities to get their agreement to abide by the principles, a move which would have future value even if Ladeere’s group never defects. They should also send a team to Nzako to hear the views of local leaders and ensure everybody there is also on the same page.

Making sure LRA members know they can come home

There’s been a surge of “Come Home” messages targeting LRA groups in the past two years, delivered by leaflets, by FM and shortwave radio, and even by helicopter loudspeakers. These messages have helped encourage dozens of LRA fighters and abductees to defect, weakening the group's capacity to commit atrocities in the process.

However, many LRA groups have moved into a mineral-rich, highly unstable swath of territory in CAR’s Haut Kotto and Mbomou provinces that lies outside the area where most Come Home messages are delivered.

It’s also outside the official area of operation for AU Regional Task Force (AU RTF) forces pursuing Kony, and it’s no coincidence that a vast majority of the most violent LRA attacks in the past two years have occurred there.

Improving stability and security in CAR is necessary to fully expand Come Home messages to the LRA’s new safe haven. But as soon as possible, defections experts from the US government, NGOs, and the UN should work with BINUCA and Central African authorities to expand leaflet distribution, play FM radio messages, and conduct helicopter speaker missions in this LRA safe haven.

BINUCA should also consider setting up a "safe reporting site" for LRA defectors in Nzako, based on the model developed by US military advisers in other areas of CAR. More creative ideas – such as sending a delegation of northern Ugandan civil society leaders to Nzako to try to meet with Ladeere’s group – should also be considered.

The risks of inaction

Inaction by international policymakers not only risks wasting an opportunity to encourage peaceful LRA defections, it risks putting civilians in greater danger of LRA attacks. Central African authorities have reportedly told Ladeere’s LRA group they’ll be safe as long as they are negotiating, while AU RTF forces have made clear that the group is fair game for attack until they actually move to surrender.

If the LRA was told it would be safe but then was attacked, it would most likely retaliate against civilians in the area. This possibility also highlights the importance of ensuring that the new AU peacekeeping force in CAR has a mandate to protect civilians from the LRA and cooperate closely with the AU RTF.

The people of Nzako are certainly afraid of renewed LRA violence, especially with the memory of the group’s massive raids on the town in 2010 and 2011 still fresh. The LRA abducted dozens of people during these attacks, one of whom now serves as the LRA’s interpreter with Central African authorities.

The people of Nzako have suffered enough: it would be a shame if the international community left them at the mercy of LRA rebels once again.

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