- November 21, 2013
- News & Analysis
This week numerous media outlets have reported that LRA leader Joseph Kony is in “surrender talks” with authorities in Central African Republic. These reports, which stem from misinterpretation of a briefing by the UN SRSG Abou Moussa and AU LRA envoy Francisco Madeira to the UN Security Council yesterday, are almost certainly false. Here’s more of the real story, based on interviews I conducted in Bangui in late October 2013 and insight from other LRA experts, particularly @lediocakaj.
Kony and Djotodia: Pen Pals?
In August, an LRA group acting under the command Maj. Otto Ladere delivered two letters to community members near the town of Nzako, in CAR’s
Haut Kotto Mbomou province. One was addressed to CAR’s transitional president, Michel Djotodia, and the other to local authorities in Nzako. In the letters and subsequent follow-up, the LRA group claimed that they wanted to lay down their arms and settle in CAR, and that other LRA commanders, including Kony, were interested in doing the same. However, there was – and remains – no evidence that the LRA’s letter was actually authorized by Kony or represents his desire to defect (more on that below).
Djotodia received the LRA’s letter, and promptly sent a response back to the LRA group. Though the exact contents have not been released publicly, it reportedly encouraged the LRA to defect and expressed the CAR authorities’ willingness to facilitate the process. Djotodia designated General Damane*, a close ally, to spearhead these efforts. Meanwhile, local authorities in Nzako designated an elder community leader to serve as an interlocutor with the LRA. He reportedly stays with the LRA group periodically and has visited their camp, but little is known of his background or involvement.
In September, following the delivery of Djotodia’s letter to Ladere’s group, contact between the LRA and CAR authorities intensified. CAR authorities communicated to the UN peacebuilding mission in CAR (BINUCA) that the LRA group was planning to surrender in Nzako on September 24. BINUCA and the US government sent a joint mission to Nzako that day, but no LRA members materialized. However, over the next few days a civil society delegation traveled to Banale, a small mining community east of Nzako that lies closer to the LRA camp. They brought with them rope, tarps, and food, which were likely procured by General Damane on the LRA’s request.
On October 8, Nzako authorities and Seleka troops under General Damane traveled to meet with the LRA. There they reportedly conducted a ritual ceremony with the LRA to cement their “friendship” in which two sheep were sacrificed. Another local delegation visited the LRA camp near Banale on October 15, delivering more food (mostly cassava and groundnuts) and medicine to the group.
In the following days, the LRA groups reportedly moved further west, crossing the Mbari River and settling approximately 20km east of Nzako. On October 24, CAR authorities again communicated that LRA members planned to defect in Nzako. Though none showed up that day, five LRA representatives reportedly travelled to Nzako the next day and spent several days meeting with local authorities and community leaders before returning to the bush, reportedly with plans to return with a larger group to defect.
However, November 3, another planned date for the LRA to come out, came and passed with no new defections. What will happen next remains unclear, especially as the LRA group reportedly has told local community members that unless international aid groups provided them with more supplies, they will go back into the bush. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses in Nzako report that Seleka troops have forced community members to procure food and deliver it to the LRA, effectively putting civilian lives at risk to feed a dangerous rebel group.
Moussa and Madeira, the leading UN and AU diplomats on LRA issues, were in Bangui in late October to meet with authorities in CAR, including Djotodia. One of the key issues on the agenda was discussing how to respond to the LRA group’s contact with CAR authorities, with Moussa and Madeira cautioning Djotodia against providing further material support to the LRA. It was based on these meetings that they briefed the UN Security Council and inadvertently set off a media firestorm.
A genuine defection opportunity, or a ruse?
Djotodia and CAR authorities would be well served to be more skeptical of the LRA group’s expressed desire to defect. The LRA has exploited negotiations processes for their own benefit in the past, most recently during the Juba peace talks from 2006-2008, which has many parallels in the current situation in Nzako. As they did in Juba, the LRA is greatly exaggerating the size of their group, telling CAR authorities it ranges between 1,000-2,000 (and even more) when Cakaj’s most recent estimate of the LRA’s size places it between 500- 600. This exaggeration could be a tactic to acquire additional food supplies that can be sent to other groups or used once the LRA abandons the negotiations, a ruse the LRA utilized effectively during the Juba talks.
The timing of the LRA’s outreach is also reminiscent of the Juba talks. The LRA’s agreement to start peace talks in 2006 occurred after they had fled to DR Congo as a result of increasing military pressure and a hostile political environment in their former strongholds in South Sudan. Similarly, the LRA has faced a surge of military pressure so far this year. A March raid on LRA camps in Kafia Kingi by Ugandan troops operating under the AU Regional Task Force (RTF) disrupted one of Kony’s favorite safe havens, and in recent months Uganda troops have resumed operations in CAR that had been suspended following the March coup in Bangui. In September, AU RTF troops from South Sudan and DR Congo destroyed two major LRA camps in Congolese territory that had served as rear supply bases for senior LRA commanders operating in CAR.
Research released for Resolve this summer by Cakaj highlights some of Ladere’s history and provides some additional insight into the LRA’s possible motivations. Ladere was once one of Kony’s trusted bodyguards, and later promoted to command the Independent Battalion, one of Kony’s security units. In early 2013, Ladere was reportedly given command of one of Kony’s satellite groups operating in either the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave or across the border in northeastern CAR.
Though it’s unclear exactly when Ladere’s group traveled southwest from there towards Nzako, Kony’s group left Kafia Kingi in March 2013 just before a Ugandan military raid on his camp. Ladere’s group may have fled towards Nzako immediately after that, and may have been responsible for a series of a brutal attacks on Central African communities that lie between Kafia Kingi and Nzako in May and June 2013.
Though the intentions of Ladere’s group remain unclear, what is clear is that reports of Kony surrendering, or even participating in negotiations to surrender, are dramatically exaggerated. It’s possible that Ladere is acting independently and is simply using Kony’s name to legitimize his actions. Even if he is acting on Kony’s orders, history should warn Djotodia and the CAR authorities against taking the group’s stated intention of defecting at face value.
*General Damane served with Djotodia in the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR), one of the groups that comprised the Seleka force that overthrew the CAR government in March 2013. He reportedly commands Seleka troops operating in Nzako and nearby towns such as Bria, which dot a sparsely populated landscape rich in diamonds, gold, and uranium. As a former field commander with the UFDR, Damane is likely very familiar with the LRA, which clashed with UFDR forces in 2010 and 2011.