For one week the international community lived with the illusion that twenty years of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terror had ended. Various government officials of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced the great success of their military offensive against the LRA. Those statements were immediately followed by television channels shooting and dispersing images of Ugandan children going back to school as there was no longer the danger of being abducted by the LRA. Although it’s true that there are some positive evolutions in Northern Uganda since the LRA left its home base for the remoteness of northeast Congo, it was far too early to start to celebrate giving the survival record of the LRA. As the LRA moved its action radius to southern Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and especially the northeast of Congo, the peaceful situation in Northern Uganda goes hand in hand with a worsening security situation in Congo’s Orientale Province. As such, there can be no doubt that as long the LRA is not fully eliminated, there can be no peace in the border area of the DRC, Sudan, Uganda and the CAR.
The good news show started on 14 December. Press releases covered that Ugandan, Southern Sudanese and Congolese forces had started a joint offensive –a highly sensational decision, showing the despair and the incompetence of the Congolese regime and army to handle the problem, to allow Ugandan troops on its territory, reminding that Uganda invaded and occupied vast parts of northeast Congo between 1998 and 2004- including the use of military jets, against a major LRA base in the Garamba National Park, northeast Congo. Since 2006 the Garamba National Park forms the new refuge of the notorious rebel group, leading to a change of the LRA’s action radius, leaving in peace Uganda at the expense of south Sudan, Orientale Province in Congo and southeast CAR, which villages in the border area suffered various attacks. Such a joint military operation was already discussed by Uganda, Congo and the CAR during a Tripartite Plus meeting in Tanzania in September 2007. This clearly shows Museveni’s preference for a military solution rather than a negotiated settlement given that the Juba peace talks started in July 2006 and his government and the LRA signed a Comprehensive Solutions Agreement on 2 May 2007.
According to the involved armies the objective of operation ‘Thunder Lightening’ was to set free hostages, to capture or kill the LRA leaders and to force Kony to restart the negotiation process. The president of Uganda hastily made a press release saying that the military operation was a great success and had resulted in the destruction of 70% of the LRA’s bases. On 23 December Congolese minister of foreign affairs, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, shared Museveni’s optimism, declaring that the DRC would soon be liberated from the LRA rebels, followed by a FARDC commander who affirmed that the LRA was disintegrated by the attack and on the run in groups of 40 to 80. But after Christmas rumours showed up, which portrayed a whole other image of the operation. The joint force would only have hit empty camps. Reagan Okumu, a Northern Ugandan Member of Parliament, declared that Kony had relocated his group to another area two days before the joint forces bombed their camps and that in fact three days later, when Ugandan special forces overran Kony’s command post at camp Kiswahili, they found no trace of the rebels. Local newspapers reported that following the attack some LRA rebels entered Southern Sudan in smaller separate groups, something that can be see affirmed by the decision of the Southern Sudanese government to close and to secure its borders with Congo and Uganda as well as its major supply routes leading to the DRC and Uganda. The definite affirmation of the failed attempt to stamp out the LRA came last week in the form of various news releases. David Matsanga, the chief LRA negotiator in the Juba peace process, declared that the rebels had shot down a Ugandan combat helicopter inside the DRC, followed by frightening press releases of OCHA and Caritas. According to their reports the LRA is pulling back towards the Sudanese-CAR border, killing and abducting citizens on its way. Caritas estimates that different rebel groups killed almost 500 people in the Haut-Uéle district in Orientale Province since Christmas, abducted various persons and burned 120 houses. Also in Western Equatoria (Southern Sudan) villages were attacked by the LRA. Hence, at the least we can conclude that the LRA survived another offensive by applying its success receipt, namely avoiding open confrontations by dispersing and to regroup later and meanwhile showing to its opponents (the regime of Museveni) that they still are an actor to take into account by killing, raping and abducting innocent civilians.
The consequences of the brutal Christmas raids is that 20,000 people in northeast Congo fled to the mountains, the majority youngsters, afraid to be abducted. The brutality and the randomness of the attacks ceased all social activity. Who didn’t flee to the mountains or to the bush, stays at home, too frightened to go farming or even to harvest. Understanding well the situation, UNHCR warns for lack of food and the danger of a medical and nutritional emergency, but the very precarious security situation and the remoteness of the affected area inhibit any assistance up till now.
Although analysts say that Kony has only 650 fighters, operation ‘Thunder Lightening’ showed again how difficult it is to defeat this mysterious movement. There are various reasons for this. First of all, during the twenty years of fighting, the movement is highly experienced to scatter and then to regroup every time a great offensive is launched by its opponents (the regime of Museveni and its southern Sudanese ally, the SPLA (though the relation between both has cooled down, especially after the dead of John Garang)). Another reason is the geographical context. The Garamba National Park is known as a very remote area and above all the border with Sudan and Uganda is just around the corner. But although those arguments are plausible, there are other factors which can explain the survival of the LRA.
Casting an eye on Kampala’s military strategy it wouldn’t be a surprise that operation ‘Thunder Lightening’ is executed in such a way by the Ugandan army that it preserves a low-intensive conflict by omitting to destroy once and for all the LRA. The LRA is no longer a direct threat to Uganda and at the same time a continuation of the conflict –fought out in Congo and Sudan- provides a convenient rationalisation for the marginalisation and disempowerment of Northern Uganda, as well for an oversized, non-transparent (corrupt) defence budget. It should be wise if the regime of Museveni deals in a genuine way the underlying causes of the conflict instead of fighting the symptoms. Even the elimination of the LRA as an armed movement, doesn’t ensure a peaceful Northern Uganda. Therefore the regional inequalities concerning the allocation of resources, top positions in the army and in the public administration are too big. International Crisis Group’s latest report “Northern Uganda: the road to peace, with or without Kony” portrays those disparities, writing that people from the western region, whom represent 26 % of the population, hold 44 % of all top public positions and 74 % of the army’s top command positions. Northern Ugandans are almost completely absent from top public offices and its ministers control only 4 % of the national budget, whereas Westerners receive 70 % of all the resources allocated to the public sector. And there is no tendency suggesting a profound change of the political system. On the contrary, there are signs that Uganda is evolving to a single party system, dominated by the group around Museveni, namely the elite of West and South Uganda.
Another factor that arises in the ICG’s report and offers a valuable explanation why Kony could rearm and survive in Garamba and likewise the latest offensive –apparently someone informed the LRA of the planned operation given the abandoned camps*-, is the strategic interest that Sudan’s leading political party, the National Congress Party (NCP), has in maintaining the rebel movement. For more than a decade the NCP was the LRA’s most significant ally and although Bashir’s regime reduced its support after the signing of the peace agreement with South Sudan (the CPA), the NCP may consider to use Kony’s force to destabilize South Sudan in order to disrupt or even to make impossible the 2011 secession referendum. If South Sudan prefers independence, North Sudan will lose access to its most important revenue, namely the oil fields of Southern Sudan.
Although the peace process seems to be spiritless, it’s important to resume the peace talks as there is no military solution to this conflict. Dismantling and disarming the LRA with force is quite a job, especially if the rebels go into hiding in the CAR –a true phantom state with no institutional capacity at all and where the government has lost its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence- and can count on the support of the NCP. The international community however should not only push for a negotiated settlement but also for the development and emancipation of Northern Uganda. This involves that the majority of the Western countries and the African Union must stop with their complacent support for Museveni, appropriating him the aura of the new type of African leader as they overestimate the importance of economic growth as an indicator of development and emancipation –which is a logical result of their political-economical paradigm. Conflict resolution must go hand in hand with conflict prevention through the genuine engagement on the side of Kampala to reconstruct its northern region. 2009 is announced as the year of change, let it be no privilege of the establishment class (spoken internationally as domestic).
* There is no firm proof that the NCP informed Kony and there are other actors who have an interest in the survival of the LRA, but at the other hand it wouldn’t be a surprise given the relationship between Kony and the Bashir regime and the NCP’s military doctrine of arming, supplying and using rebels and militias as proxies (Chad, Darfur, Kordofan, Southern Sudan).