The hunt for Joseph Kony may be winding down with the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and accused war criminal still at large in central Africa. The Ugandan government plans to withdraw all of its approximately 2,500 troops from the counter-LRA mission in Central African Republic and South Sudan by the end of the year, according to a statement issued on Friday, June 10th. Where this leaves the years-long international manhunt is unclear.
The latest iteration of the war against the LRA began in 2008, when peace talks between the rebel group and the Ugandan government collapsed and the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) attacked the rebel camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with logistical help from the U.S. The attack failed to capture any LRA leadership, and instead the rebels retaliated with large-scale massacres of nearby civilian communities. Since then, the UPDF has been pursuing dispersed groups of LRA fighters, and in 2011 the U.S. deployed Special Forces to advise the Ugandan force and provide logistical support across the region. For five years the cooperative mission has included the release of numerous abducted LRA fighters, including several top LRA commanders who have surrendered, but has also opened the doors for Ugandan interference in its neighbors’ backyards. Meanwhile, the rebel group’s leader, Joseph Kony, remains in the central African hinterlands, with many observers believing that he is hiding in Sudan where counter-LRA forces can’t go.
Whether the Ugandan government is serious about the troop withdrawal or not is unclear. In the statement announcing the withdrawal, spokesman of the UPDF Lt. Col. Patty Ankunda stated that “there seems to be no serious goodwill on the part of international actors or stakeholders to participate or contribute toward the ending of the LRA problem.” The statement seemed an almost explicit claim for more support from the international community in the mission. Previously, the UPDF has called for – and received – more support in its contribution to the African Union-led peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM, with similar language. For its part, the U.S. government confirmed to a local Ugandan daily that it reaffirms its support of the mission and is working “to ensure the successful completion of the mission.”
If the Ugandan withdrawal does go ahead as planned, however, it is unclear what U.S. advisers will be able to do with a mandate to assist local forces. Even before this announcement, however, the U.S. itself has gestured that it too may withdraw from the search for Kony. In April of this year, both Gen. David Rodriguez, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, and his Deputy for Military Operations, Vice Adm. Michael T. Franken, signaled that the mission was too expensive to warrant the amount of financial and personnel costs so far, especially since the LRA pose no direct threat to the U.S. and other issues have come to the fore, especially in West Africa, Libya, and Somalia. The mission is currently costing the U.S. over $100 million each year. While AFRICOM’s leaders have gestured towards changing the nature of the U.S. mission, neither of them called for an outright withdrawal. That may change if the Special Forces have no Ugandan allies to assist in the region.
As for the LRA itself, the rebel group has dwindled to a handful of bands of fighters spread across the remote corners of three countries. In his statement, UPDF spokeman Ankunda argued that “the rebels have been sufficiently degraded” as part of why the withdrawal was being planned. Compared to the height of the LRA, the rebel force is drastically smaller and its proximity – and relevance – in Uganda has waned. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a threat.
Recent months have actually seen an uptick in LRA activity. In an April report, the LRA Crisis Tracker, a joint project of U.S.-based non-profit Invisible Children and think tank Resolve, stated that the LRA had abducted 296 civilians between January and March of 2016, mostly in Central African Republic. This level of activity, which the report called “a significant surge in LRA violence,” has not been seen since 2010, when the LRA launched a wave of massacres and abductions in the Congo. The report details that the wave of abductions is a coordinated effort by LRA leadership to bolster the group’s numbers, according to interviews with former rebels who have escaped and surrendered. Further south, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 8th, the UN stated that the LRA attacked two villages in Congo’s Bas-Uele province, kidnapping nearly 100 people. It seems that the LRA may be regaining some semblance of strength after several years on the run.
If both the Ugandan and U.S. military withdraw from the region, counter-LRA activity will become the task of various UN peacekeeping forces operating in the region – MINUSCA in Central African Republic, MONUSCO in the Congo, and UNMISS in South Sudan. In Central African Republic, the peacekeepers have broadly been operating in the center and west of the country, confronting Seleka and Anti-Balaka groups involved in that country’s civil war and post-war violence. Recently, however, MINUSCA forces have begun deploying further east, which may fill in the gaps created should the UPDF and U.S. leave. Each UN peacekeeping mission has its own unique mandate, however, and it is unclear if the peacekeepers will be able to provide the level of security to protect civilians in the region, or if they will take action proactively in trying to force LRA fighters to surrender.
In a statement regarding the potential withdrawal of forces from the mission, U.S.-based non-profit Invisible Children said that “a withdrawal of Ugandan troops from CAR Will effectively create a security vacuum in southeastern Central African Republic” which may leave civilians more vulnerable to rebel violence. Invisible Children has been a strong supporter of the mission, and assists in implementing counter-LRA messaging programs that encourage LRA rebels – many of whom are abducted conscripts – to escape and surrender. These messages, which include pleas on the radio from former LRA asking their friends who are still fighting to surrender, as well as leaflets dropped out of planes above suspected LRA camps, aim to encourage rebels to give up the war and return to Uganda. Often, these returnees escape during the confusion of attacks from the UPDF. Some wonder if UN peacekeepers will be able to keep the LRA under similar levels of pressure. Most UN peacekeeping missions’ mandates do not include the ability to go on the offensive or attack armed groups.
However, a continued UPDF presence has its own drawbacks as well. The Ugandan soldiers’ presence abroad has included UPDF engagement in illegal resource looting from the region – including UPDF involvement in elephant poaching in the Congo among other valuable resources, despite the fact that they aren’t allowed in the country. Ugandan soldiers have also involved themselves in the local politics of CAR. In a recent edited volume about Central African Republic, researcher Ledio Cakaj writes about an incident in which UPDF dispersed a group of youth who had been protesting against the local prefect, killing one civilian and injuring several others. The incident led one local NGO worker to tell Cakaj, “The UPDF is our army now, they decide who stays [in power] in the south-east” (p. 275). Cakaj also outlines that the UPDF’s presence in southeastern CAR has resulted in illegal logging, the sale of imported goods from Uganda, and a rise in child prostitution. It is worth noting that he says there is anecdotal evidence that, since then, the U.S. forces’ presence has helped rein in UPDF misbehavior in some regards (p. 285).
Word is still out on how serious Uganda is about the pullout, and what that could mean for U.S. forces there too. But regardless, their presence in the region has had an impact, both positive and negative, on communities in the region. And whether these forces stay or not, it seems like news of LRA violence may continue to come.