A version of this post appeared on The Resolve. The views expressed are the author's own
Last week news broke that US military forces in eastern CAR had taken custody of senior Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen, one of five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005. Since then, Ongwen’s fate has taken on a symbolic importance, with US and Ugandan government officials, LRA victims, and human rights advocates engaging in a furious tug-of-war that has reportedly ended with the decision that he will be tried at ICC instead of Uganda’s domestic courts.
Lost in these debates is any analysis of how Ongwen’s dramatic escape, and his ultimate fate, will affect the people he left behind in the LRA. Soon after defecting, he recorded a powerful message to his former comrades that has been played across regional radio stations, urging them to follow his example and “come back home if you don’t want to die.” Ongwen was well-respected within LRA ranks, known not only for his bravery on the battlefield but also for his audacity in questioning the authority of LRA leader Joseph Kony.
Ongwen’s reported defection and radio message could become a trigger that breaks Kony’s iron grip on the LRA and allows hundreds of abductees to come home. It would be a fitting revenge for Ongwen, who lost his childhood forever when an LRA group abducted him as a 10-year-old boy walking to school. If this finite window of opportunity is lost, however, it could serve to reinforce the web of misinformation Kony uses to rule the LRA.
Prisoners of Kony’s propaganda
Kony's brilliant use of propaganda is one of the key ingredients in the LRA’s improbable survival for nearly three decades. He keeps his fighters isolated from the outside world, where he can twist what little news that comes in from the outside world to fit his narrative that any defectors will be killed by the Ugandan army if they return home. This constant conditioning, accompanied by stories of former LRA members who were killed after defecting – mostly false but a few true – has ensured that many within the LRA are too terrified to escape even when presented with a rare opportunity to do so.
This was painfully obvious last week, when Ongwen, then in the custody of local rebels in the Central African Republic, witnessed a helicopter arriving to pick him up and allegedly said, “If they are the Ugandan soldiers they will kill me”. A few hours later the helicopter, actually operated by the US military, had taken him safely to Obo, where US and Ugandan military officials later debriefed him before ultimately turning him over to the ICC this week.
That Ongwen was wrong – neither Ugandan nor US troops have a policy to kill LRA defectors – is beside the point. Ongwen’s statement is in line with testimonies of hundreds of former LRA combatants we have interviewed in the last few years. They were terrified that the Ugandan army would kill them if they defected or were captured, and shocked when they were given medical treatment and allowed to see former comrades they had assumed had been killed after escaping.
Progress in encouraging defections
Kony’s use of propaganda and indoctrination was largely ignored in many counter-LRA strategies in the early years of the conflict, particularly those run by the Ugandan army. This began to change in the early 2000s, when Uganda passed a blanket amnesty act that helped encouraged thousands of LRA fighters to escape, including senior commanders with track records of violence that rival Ongwen’s. Civilian-run “Come Home” radio programs in northern Uganda promoted the Amnesty Act and used recordings from family members to make rebels in the bush feel homesick.
More recently, US military advisers (deployed to assist counter-LRA operations in late 2011) and NGOs such as Invisible Children have worked with local communities to build on these efforts. Using the testimonies of LRA defectors, "Come Home" messages are distributed by leaflet, speakers mounted on helicopters, and radio. Dollar for dollar, such efforts are likely the most successful of the US military’s counter-LRA tactics. Over the past three years, dozens of LRA combatants have risked Kony’s wrath by bolting from the LRA, some walking for weeks alone in the bush carrying nothing but a "Come Home" leaflet before they reach safety.
Ongwen's defection: A tipping point?
Despite this progress, many senior LRA commanders have chosen to stay within the LRA. Kony has quickly replaced the few who have escaped, been killed by the Ugandan military, or have been executed by Kony himself for disobeying orders. This young generation of Kony loyalists includes his two oldest sons, born and raised in the LRA’s alternate universe, and likely to become protagonists in the next tragic chapter of the LRA.
Ongwen’s defection could upend Kony’s carefully crafted and controlled hierarchy. Though he had fallen out of Kony’s favor in recent years, suffering several demotions, Ongwen still commands great respect within the LRA, as has been evident in our many interviews with former combatants. His decision to defect despite the outstanding ICC warrant may convince others that the threat of prosecution is worse than a life on the run with the LRA. Others may be convinced by Ongwen’s radio message, which hammers at Kony's aura of invincibility and cleverly names specific commanders who have fallen out of favor with Kony. US military advisers should capitalize on this opportunity as quickly as possible by authorizing resources for a surge of radio messages, leaflets, and helicopter speaker missions. They should also work with partners to build the capacity of local communities to help defectors escape safely while minimizing their own risk to LRA attacks.
Such an opportunity could be quickly lost, however, if defection efforts get bogged down in red tape or are underfunded. Content creators must also be precise and consistent with their messaging, carefully explaining that Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC is a unique circumstance and not the fate of all escapees. Kony will undoubtedly use any delays or inconsistencies in Come Home messaging to his advantage, skillfully spinning them into his web of misinformation.
Ledio Cakaj is an independent LRA expert and author of an upcoming book about the experiences of a young LRA fighter. Paul Ronan is the Director of The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative.