A version of this post appeared in The Resolve. The views expressed are the author's own.
This weekend, Ugandan military officials announced that Joseph Kony had promoted his son, Salim Saleh, to be the deputy leader of the LRA.
The announcement generated a fresh wave of Lord's Resistance Army-related headlines; but there's been little analysis of what this development means for the rebel group and its command structure.
Despite the headlines, reports of Mr. Saleh's promotion isn’t necessarily “breaking news.”
The information itself comes from recent LRA defectors, who are reporting on decisions made by Mr. Kony that date weeks or even months back. In addition, Kony has been cultivating his son Salim, along with at least two other sons, for several years now.
Some reports indicate that Kony, who claims he takes his guidance from several different spirits, is trying to “move” these spirits to his sons in what could be a step towards shifting leadership of the LRA to them.
The rise of Kony’s sons dovetails with a broader trend seen in recent years, in which Kony has marginalized older officers, some of them with military experience before they joined the LRA, and replacing them with a generation of younger commanders.
Kony considers these younger commanders, a number of whom were abducted as young boys and once served as his bodyguards, to be more loyal.
His sons represent an even more extreme case or type of loyalty, as they have known little if any life outside of the LRA.
Still, these developments don’t necessarily mean that Salim Saleh is on a smooth path to one day leading the LRA.
Kony has given little indication he intends to cede his absolute decision-making power anytime soon. Furthermore Saleh's promotion to “deputy leader” of the LRA doesn’t mean he has the same level of authority that such a title might confer in other armed groups. Titles and ranks have little meaning in the LRA, primarily because Kony is constantly reshuffling the LRA’s command structure in an effort to marginalize officers he feels are a threat to his power.
Officers in the LRA with high conventional ranks may in fact have little influence or responsibility, while others with lowly ranks may wield immense power. Kony often makes – and reverses – decisions about rank responsibility with little warning. We should not assume that other senior LRA officers consider Salim as their superior, or that they would follow his orders if Kony were to be captured or killed.
Regardless, Kony’s promotion of his sons may be one of his last chances to ensure his iron grip on the LRA will continue. Despite his efforts to consolidate power, he faces an uphill battle in maintaining a cohesive command structure within the rebel group.
In 2013, he lost several of his most important commanders, including Vincent “Binany” (a highly loyal former bodyguard killed by the Ugandan military in January), Lt. Col. Otto Agweng (executed on Kony's orders in early 2013), and Okot Odhiambo (LRA deputy leader reportedly killed by the Ugandan military in December).
Other officers are increasingly disillusioned with a group that functions more like a group of bandits than a rebellion with serious political goals.
Whether Kony’s gamble on his sons’ leadership can help boost morale within the LRA and stabilize the command hierarchy, will come clear in time.
With reports that Uganda's President Museveni is reportedly grooming his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba to one day lead that nation, Salim’s promotion provides further evidence for the insight of LRA expert @lediocakaj that Kony and Mr. Museveni, such bitter enemies for so many years, use remarkably similar tactics to maintain their grip on power.